Dan Archambault is Assistant Coach of the Sorel-Tracy Éperviers, the current champions of the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH), a Quebec-based league comprised of six teams.
As a regional, semi-professional league, the LNAH has historically attracted crowds by encouraging on-ice fighting, a long-held hockey tradition which has significantly declined over the last decade.
“I’ve been around for fifteen years, played in the league, and now I’m coaching,” Mr Archambault says. “Back then, when I started, fighting was part of everything. The tougher you could get, the better your team would be.”
The successful teams in the league had a core of aggressive players filling the role of enforcers, throwing their weight around to make space for the technical players to shine and win matches. Teams without this core could be easily intimidated by opponents.
“It was the toughest league in the world, for sure. All the tough guys from around the world, were coming here to make money. The tougher you were, the more money you made.”
The reality was that technical players would often be too afraid to play without the backing of tough enforcers, who were in high demand. This meant that more aggressive players from the NHL were switching to the LNAH to play for bigger wages.
In the past few years, however, the league has had a dramatic change in character. The fighting that once made it so popular is becoming scarce, an outcome that Mr Archambault is in no doubt about.
“There’s no more tough guys,” he says. “From the junior majors, the fights went down, so where do we get the tough guys? Even if we wanted to stay the toughest league, there’s no young guys that are coming to our league and being tough.”
This doesn’t mean that the fighting has disappeared altogether. Mr Archambault admits that a number of the older players are keeping the tradition alive, but the fact is that the make-up of teams has had to fundamentally change.
“For the owners, if you have four tough guys, and fifteen good players, it will cost a lot more than if you only have two tough guys. The salary cap used to be much higher, so if you didn’t have many people in the stand, you couldn’t pay the guys.”
With a decline in the entertainment provided by regular fights, the league has had to work hard to stay sustainable. The LNAH has already seen the downside of this, with a number of teams setting up and then folding over the years.
“We’re only six teams around Quebec,” Mr Archambault says. “For me, it’s not normal. It’s a good level of hockey, and there should be at least 8 or 10 teams around the league. I think it’s because of the [way the league was] before.”
Without the level of entertainment that used to be on offer, crowds are dwindling. Teams are now less inclined to spend a lot of money with the expectation of coming out with no profit, meaning many aren’t able to sustain their place in the league.
One of the league’s more successful teams are the Sorel-Tracy Éperviers, a long-standing league member with regular success over the years. The team is the current league champion, and works particularly hard to be financially sustainable.
“We’re not into paying a lot of money for [players]. Our best player is not making $500 [a game]. A lot of people around the league make more than $500, but then you see at the end of the season those teams lose a lot of money.”
Having lost a number of players since the success of last season, the team is already feeling the strain on the roster. For all the teams in the league, replacing players of the same standard for the same cost can be a headache.
“Losing a couple of players in our team has made some empty spots that right now we’re not able to fill. Right now there are not many players on the team that can play, so the players that are there need to play.”
With the risk of fatigue and injuries always a concern, this lack of bodies can be make or break for a team such as Sorel-Tracy. It will need to make the most of any opportunities it gets to bring in new faces.
“Every year there is a draft, to draft players from Europe. When guys are done with junior, sometimes they go to the NHL, or they go East Coast League, they go Europe, and when they’re done they finish their hockey career here.”
The hope is that these European drafts will help fill the hole left by the enforcers of yesteryear. One thing that seems likely is that the quality of the league will only go up, with less focus on the physical side of the game and more on faster, technical players.
With the decline in tougher players joining the league, the LNAH has had to adapt. As is always the case in sports, this comes down to money. The league hopes there will be enough talent on show to keep bringing in crowds, even without the promise of a fight.
Find out more about Les Éperviers de Sorel-Tracy by visiting https://sorel.lnah.com.