One year ago, Martin Gardner may not have been an obvious choice to lead the Kamloops Venom into a new era, but his appointment to the club’s general manager and governor positions offer more proof the B.C. lacrosse scene is never short on unpredictable storylines.
“I have a really good relationship with the Venom,” Gardner said. “Not that I didn’t before, but I was on the outside looking in. No one knew who I was.
“If you can’t beat them, join them. I’m all about kids playing lacrosse at the highest possible level. That will never, ever change.”
Gardner toiled to bring the intermediate A Okanagan Wild into existence and succeeded when they joined the B.C. Intermediate Lacrosse League for the 2017 campaign.
The Wild were forced into one-and-done submission, folding in part because the Thompson Okanagan Junior Lacrosse League refused to go along with a three-tier junior B system voted in prior to the 2018 season by the B.C. Lacrosse Association.
BCLA directorate members who voted in favour of the move envisioned a system in which former intermediate A squads would become tier 1 teams, junior B teams from 2017 would become tier 2 squads and intermediate B outfits would become tier 3 teams.
TOJLL governors voted unanimously to declare tier 1 junior B league status, cold-shouldering the provincial governing body and waxing the Wild.
Gardner has come to see why the Venom were opposed to the three-tier system.
“It would have been devastating to the league [TOJLL],” Gardner said. “We’re down to three teams. If I had taken 25 to 30 players and gone tier 1 and they declared tier 2, I think the league would have folded and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.”
Gardner succeeds a pair of longtime Snakes, former governor Carol Pittman and former GM Brandon Pittman.
Liam Hagerty is head coach, replacing Doug Clark, who remains with the squad in an advisory role.
Ryland DeRose, Chris Kerssens, Matt Hans and Andy Hebden will help out behind the bench.
Jan Antons is the squad’s assistant GM and alternate governor.
Gardner has shifted focus to solidifying shaky ground occupied by the TOJLL and returning the Venom to league champion status, which it lost last year after falling 3-0 to the Vernon Tigers in the best-of-five final.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE
The Kelowna Raiders folded prior to the 2018 season and will miss a second consecutive TOJLL campaign.
This year, the Venom, Tigers and South Okanagan Flames of Penticton will compete for league supremacy, as the Armstrong Shamrocks confirmed last month they do not have enough numbers to play in 2019.
“We haven’t had an influx of players for a couple of years,” TOJLL commissioner and former Shamrocks governor Jeff Hanley told the Vernon Morning Star.
“With the graduating midgets (from North Okanagan Minor Lacrosse), the lion’s share has gone to Vernon. There was one eligible midget this year. For the last couple of years, we’ve had declining numbers and declining commitment. Players that just don’t want to show up for most of the stuff.”
There does seem to be silver lining.
South Okanagan, which was 1-8-2-1 in regular-season play last year and swept by Vernon in Round 1 of the playoffs, should be stronger in 2019, in part because of the addition of players from Kelowna.
Some former Shamrocks have joined the Venom or Tigers, or moved up to play senior lacrosse, helping to replenish rosters in a league that has its own membership problems.
Armstrong struggled in 2018, posting a record of 2-9-1 before Kamloops swept it from the post-season.
“Reflecting back in five years, it might be a good thing Armstrong isn’t in the league [this year],” Gardner said. “I think they would have had a tough time competing. It’s tough for those boys to come out and get blown out every game.”
Gardner said Kelowna was close to having a team this year.
“The Kelowna Raiders have been working diligently, maybe a little bit too late, but continuing to work and came up a little bit short, as far as putting the original Kelowna Raiders back in the league or there is another group working with minor on creating a new Kelowna team.
“I think it’s inevitable Kelowna will have a team next year.”
Armstong may be in the same boat, with about 10 projected midget-aged players from Shuswap Minor Lacrosse in Salmon Arm expected to graduate after this season and a few more coming out of North Okanagan, leaving optimism that numbers will increase in 2020, according to the Morning Star.
Each team will play 14 games, seven each against two opponents on the three-team loop.
Kamloops, which will play in an icebreaker exhibition tournament this weekend in Armstrong, will open the regular season with a pair of home games.
The Flames and Tigers will be in town for games at Memorial Arena on Saturday, April 27, and Sunday, April 28, respectively, with faceoff set for 7:30 p.m. both nights.
Last year, in part due to discord between the TOJLL and BCLA, the Tigers did not advance to compete for a B.C. title against the winner of the provincial tier 1 junior B league.
Gardner said the TOJLL is working with the BCLA to determine a provincial championship format for 2019.
The Kamloops Rattlers will have more than one team to play this season, as the Thompson Okanagan Senior Lacrosse League is regaining two teams to create a four-team circuit.
More on that in KTW on Wednesday.