When the Kitimat saax Junior A hockey team was announced, it was met with positive buzz throughout the community. As the inaugural season winds down, however, the team’s role in town is being questioned.
With a delayed start, low rosters, trouble organizing and financial questions, the inaugural season has left a bitter taste for some local individuals and organizations.
The saax is part of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League. The league has existed since 2007, with teams mostly in Ontario. It established a four-team Alberta Division in 2020, and now has nine teams in the West Division including Kitimat. The league brands itself as a “Tier 2” Junior A league, and is not sanctioned by Hockey Canada.
Derek Prue is the executive director of the saax and on the executive committee for the GMHL.
A TROUBLING START
Troubles first became apparent when the season was delayed for over a month. When the Northern Sentinel initially reported the story, Derek Prue — saax executive director and a member of the GMHL executive committee — referenced the aggressive stance of BC Hockey as the leading cause of the delay.
At the time, the GMHL said BC Hockey was threatening anyone associated with the league, as well as their extended family members, could be punished and sanctioned by Hockey Canada, which was causing confusion and anxiety among prospective players.
Prue called BC Hockey’s actions “illegal” and “not ethical.”
What went unreported, however, was that there were only four players ready to play for the saax at the start of the season.
In charge of player recruitment were former coach Chris Naylor and Brent Gurski, a longtime hockey coach and member of the Kitimat minor hockey executive board.
Naylor was announced as the head coach and general manager on August 5 and was allegedly a quick replacement for another coach who had quit. On paper, Naylor was a perfect candidate with a long history of building elite hockey programs from scratch in Ontario.
When Naylor and Gurski took over, they were shocked to see the lack of progress that had been made on player recruitment. Gurski said he was blindsided by the last-minute nature of the enterprise and the unprofessionalism of Prue.
“I’m a community person here; people know my face. I became the face of that team within a couple of weeks,” Gurski said.
“If this were set up to be a player-oriented team, you would have started [player recruitment] in March or April the year before,” Gurski said. “You try recruiting quality players in the middle of August when most teams are mid-training camp, it’s impossible.”
Prue quickly pointed out that player recruitment was clearly outlined in a contract as a duty for the coach and general manager.
“I think it’s an excuse,” Prue said. “I don’t think [Naylor] understood the scope of what needed to happen to be a successful team.”
Prior to the delayed beginning of the season, Gurski quit in protest when, he said, Prue fired Naylor over the phone.
Naylor was replaced by Coach and General Manager Kevin Hopfner, who put together a full team and is clearly passionate about his work.
“There was resistance at first because we’re the new team in town,” Hopfner said. “The push back comes from people that don’t do a lot of research. They just hear gossip on the street, and then everything festers.”
Naylor declined to comment.
Before the coaching change-up, as the season drew closer, Gurski went out to get corporate sponsors to help with fundraising. One of the sponsors was Jonathan Borgens, whose company donated $3,500 to the team.
“I got four [seasons] tickets, but I had to beg for them, and I got a bunch of tickets for the first game,” Gurski said. “The stuff that I’m seeing on the professionalism side is non-existent,” said Borgens.
He got what was agreed upon, but explained that he was left with no information on his deal until the day of the first game when someone dropped off the tickets at his door.
“We won’t be continuing our sponsorship next year,” he said.
Funding is an ongoing struggle for the team, and by Prue’s own admission, margins are slim, especially considering it’s the saax’s first year.
Some of the team’s revenue comes from the tuition paid by the players. It costs between $8,000 – 10,000 for a player to play in the GMHL.
Players and families in the GMHL have previously accused the league’s “pay to play” system as exploitative, as players often don’t get a refund if they are cut, injured or too sick to play, as reported by CBC’s Go Public program in 2015.
Prue said that most teams and leagues are turning toward this system to make ends meet.
“That’s basically all junior hockey now, including the BCHL and AJHL. All those leagues are pretty much tuition-based.”
Most of the saax revenue comes from the fans, he added.
Some community groups also feel misled after their experience of fundraising with the saax.
Cynthia Medeiros is the director of the Snow Valley Skating Club in Kitimat, an organization that teaches recreational and competitive skating. She cut ties with the saax when the team told her club they needed to split the 50-50 charity proceeds 30-20 with the saax, the team keeping 30 per cent.
“We did the first 50-50, then they said there was a misunderstanding and that we needed to give them part of the money, […] after that, we just parted ways,” she said.
Under Canada’s Criminal Code and B.C.’s Gaming Control Act, a community group or organization must be licensed by the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch to operate a gaming event in B.C. This, however, only applies to non-profit organizations, while for-profit companies such as the saax are not allowed to profit from fundraising lotteries.
The Northern Sentinel reached out to the Ministry of Public Safety, which confirmed the saax does not hold a gaming event licence under its name.
“If that’s what they’re looking for, that’s fine, but splitting the pot with them is against B.C. gaming rules, so we just couldn’t be part of that,” Medeiros said.
On top of her work with the skating club, Medeiros is also the executive director of the Kitimat General Hospital Foundation, another non-profit that partnered with the saax for their 50-50. The foundation registered with the B.C. government to be able to run charity gambling events.
“This time, we made sure that it was all in writing — we would do security and the 50-50, and then we would keep 50 per cent of the pot,” she said.
The Hospital Foundation received the money on the initial draw as promised.
“Since then, we’ve been told that if we want to do the 50-50, then a percentage has to go back to the Kitimat saax,” Medeiros said.
The Hospital Foundation has stopped participating in the draws.
When asked about the 50-50, Hopfner said he wasn’t aware of the rule — “we’re just starting out, and we need to make money to stay alive, […] if you look around the league you’ll find that every team does this.”
The Northern Sentinel was able to get in touch with representatives from the St. George Ravens, Niagara Predators and Bradford Bulls, who all said that they do not run 50-50s at their games.
“It’s too hard to find partners, and we just don’t want the headache of going through licensing and all that,” a representative of the Niagara Predators said.
NOT ALL NEGATIVE
Despite the split, Medeiros said she understands the team’s importance to the community and the need to make money to stay afloat.
“I think the community services with the actual players they’re doing has been really positive lately,” she said. “But it’s too many volunteer hours on our part to only get 20 per cent of the ticket.”
The saax players have undoubtedly had a presence in the community. Participating in the Bell Lets Talk Campaign, shovelling snow in the community, volunteering at the humane society and supporting local events.
BAD SOCIAL MEDIA ATTENTION
The team, however, received some negative attention in November when there was an altercation between a former saax player and then-assistant general manager Dev Mohokar, who was living with some team members.
Mohokar worked in a local restaurant and consistently needed to be up in the morning. He said the team’s partying was relentless, and one night 10 to 15 people were playing loud music until 3:30 a.m.
Mohokar called the police.
“I’d already told the team’s owner not to put me in with the players, because I know they are 20 and 21-year-olds. They like to party and have fun, and I’m absolutely not against that,” Mohokar said. “No one was leaving, the music was really, really loud, and I couldn’t sleep. I was supposed to work the next day.”
The police arrived and calmed the situation, but one of the players didn’t take kindly to Mohokar’s actions and berated him when the police left. Mohokar managed to record the outburst on video, which he posted to Facebook.
The recording was filled with the player hurling racial epithets and curse words toward Mohokar.
“Don’t [expleted] call the cops on me like some pansy you [expleted] pig,” the player said.
“You’re making more money than you ever have in India. […] grow a [expleted] pair and give your balls a tug, [expleted].”
Other players can be heard in the background, discouraging the argument and trying to calm the situation.
The player was kicked off the team.
“As soon as I heard about it, I did a thorough investigation and dealt with it. We sent the player home. What he did was wrong, and we don’t condone anything like that,” Hopfner said.
Amid the investigation, however, team owner Derek Prue contacted Mohokar via text and the former employee said he felt threatened.
“The RCMP have been notified of your illegal activity as well as your possession of stolen team property,” Prue wrote. “Also have reached out to Canada Immigration.”
Mohokar had yet to return the team laptop and assumes that was what Prue meant by stolen property.
“I think this is a false threat to keep me quiet,” Mohokar said. “When he said he’s reached out to Canada Immigration, that sounds pretty racist, to be honest.”
Prue denied the threat saying, “our lawyers deemed what he was doing was illegal activity at the time […] I was just basically giving them a heads-up that the way he was acting, in our opinion, was illegal. It was basically a cease and desist.”
IT’S THE KIDS WHO SUFFER
In response to the controversy, head coach Kevin Hopfner said the bad social media attention is detrimental to the team, and it’s ultimately the kids who suffer.
The team has tried to recruit players from remote communities all over Western Canada and has encouraged community work and personal growth.
“The whole idea behind our league is development and getting players to move on to the next level,” said Hopfner, who sees mentoring players and building a sense of community as his most important job.
“Some of these young men haven’t had a lot of community involvement in the past because they were all hockey stars,” he said.
“I just love to see the kids get an opportunity at a trial just to get out of their small communities and see the world, play some hockey and get some education.”
Even those most affected by the chaos of the first year, such as Brent Gurski, agree, the boys should be supported.
“It’s so unfortunate that these kids are dragged into this, because they’re the ones that are gonna get hurt, ultimately, and there’s nothing we can even do about it.”