Our arena, Our Hockey, Our Town
Sat, March 15, 2008
London Free Press
By RYAN PYETTE, FREE PRESS SPORTS REPORTER
Yesterday, Free Press sports reporter Ryan Pyette explored the relationships between Southwestern Ontario junior hockey teams and their fans. Today, he delves into the business operations.
Keith Webb backs a van into a parking spot reserved for the manager of the Thamesford Trojans at the rear of the Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League club's home arena. He lives "300 yards from the rink," but heck, if you have a parking spot, you may as well use it.
The Trojans are considered the one true dynasty in the league formerly known as junior D or Junior Development. They won three straight Ontario Hockey Association titles from 1990-92 and nearly won a fourth before running into the Mitchell Hawks in the 1993 final.
The Trojans are in the hunt annually, operating on one simple philosophy: "Let's make sure the boys have a chance to win it all every season." Easy to say, not so easy to do.
Of the 144 teams under the OHA banner, only a few have the ability to avoid a rebuild or changes to the staff. It's an unending cycle of finding players, paying bills and recruiting volunteers. There are two ways of running a team -- privately, or community owned. OHA president Brent Ladds has seen both work, and both struggle.
"There's no real secret formula," Ladds said. "If you have the private money, the challenge is volunteers and making the team fit into the community. If you're community owned, there's different challenges. You need a strong executive and good hockey people to make it work."
Thamesford has always been community owned and everybody likes that. The executive has no reason to distrust or question its coaches and managers. They're not exactly new faces.
"With (coaches) Dick Howard, Bob Henderson, (assistant GM) Charlie Hough and I, you're looking at close to 100 years of hockey experience," Webb said. "We know where our players are going to come from."
There's only one skater on the current team from Zorra Township. But they have been able to get players from Fanshawe College and Western. Captain and three-year veteran Jamie Jongsma is an Ivey School of Business student at UWO.
"If you're in school, you might not want to play junior B and get home off the bus from Leamington at 2 a.m.," Webb said. "We're offering an alternative to that. It's a short drive to London, the road trips aren't far and we practise once a week on Tuesdays."
It costs $40,000-$60,000 a year to run an SOJHL team. If you want to win, it pays to be at the higher end. A junior B (Western Ontario Hockey League) team has a bill of $125,000-$175,000, with some of the more successful franchises spending way more. A junior C club costs six figures.
The Aylmer Spitfires, currently playing the well-heeled Norwich Merchants in the Niagara and District junior C West Division final, are run by a large group of enthusiastic locals -- the way the Edmonton Oilers were for years. The Spits work the fundraising fun stuff that's always been done in Aylmer -- like BX93 dances -- but it's still the on-ice product that makes the difference. The longer you play, the better for the bottom line.
"If you don't have playoffs, you're going to eat some money," said Spitfires president Brian Cosyns. "It takes money to build a good team and when you do, every playoff gate is going to help. You win your division and that could be the difference in breaking even, which is the goal. You want to put yourself in a position to operate next year."
That's what has made the St. Marys Lincolns one of junior hockey's most astonishing cases the past half-century. The club is the second-oldest continually run team (behind the Waterloo Siskins) in as small a market as there is for junior B. Not only that, they're a 15-minute drive from the granddaddy of all franchises at that level -- the Stratford Cullitons.
"Sure, you'd always like a bigger drawing area -- I've always thought that in a place as big as London, the first 15 players the Nationals want should be their property but after that, it's wide open for the rest of us," said Lincs general manager Bill Bourne. "Yes, we're competing with Stratford, and Listowel even, but we've been able to find players. We lost a lot of talent this year and everyone thought we'd be in a big rebuild, but we still managed to finish second in the league (before losing to third-place London in the semifinals)."
There have been some lean years, of course, but not so many for a team that got its name because a Lincoln Continental car was raffled off back in 1954 to help raise money for the new club in town to get rolling. The fundraising tradition continues to this day thanks to an annual elimination draw with a grand prize of $25,000. Mayor Jamie Hahn, treasurer of the 1976 OHA champion team, knows what it takes to keep the team afloat.
"I've never won it (the draw) myself but I have sold the winning ticket," Hahn said. "You think about the challenge of selling 1,000 tickets worth $100 in a community of this size (about 6,500, right there with Aylmer). It's a huge undertaking but there's always a dedicated executive and you can never have enough volunteers. The work for the following season starts in June."
A playoff game in St. Marys has a similar feel to that of Aylmer and Thamesford and many of the other smaller centres across Southwestern Ontario. There's an ad-hoc admissions table set up near the arena entrance. There's 50/50 tickets, a snack bar, and of course a licensed blue-line room.
The difference in St. Marys now is the team's old arena is attached to the new Pyramid Recreation Centre, which features a second ice pad and a new salt-water pool the town hopes will be up and running within a month. The previous council drew opposition for the planned facility, but it was a "fait accompli" when Hahn rode back into power.
Still, it's a revamped facility the Lincolns can show their recruits. The team has undergone a resurgence under coach Merlin Malinowski, a former NHLer, and the plan has always been to get players to see St. Marys once, then work on having them stay. It's very similar to the town's marketing strategy.
"We try to sell Merlin to them," said recruiting co-ordinator and assistant coach Warren Nye. "The boys don't know who Merlin was because it was before their time, but if the fathers are die-hard hockey fans they remember when he played for Team Canada or the Colorado Rockies or the Hartford Whalers. We try to get them here first and if we treat them well, then we hope they're going to keep coming back. We have scouts all over keeping an eye on things for us, but most of our players are from around this area. We have to convince them why playing here is just as good or better than anywhere else."
They're always looking to build up loyalty and bolster the group of returning players, the kind Thamesford has fostered over the years. "We never lie to a kid," Webb said. "If we tell a player in June we're going to sign him, we sign him. If you don't tell the truth, then that gets around quick and it does all kinds of damage to your program."
The Trojans play in the SOJHL and a lot of that has to do with community size, but they hold little doubt they could operate at the junior C level -- something the entire Yeck Conference discussed doing a couple of years ago. "We would play junior C teams in exhibition games and beat them with scores like 7-3," Webb said. "Now, they don't want to play us anymore."
The beauty of being in a small town is the team's shindigs are often well-attended. There's a pride in helping out your friends and neighbours, from sponsoring a sweater to a fun evening out on the town.
"We have our fundraisers like the Calithumpian dance and when we have our annual fish fry, we have something like 700 people come out," Webb said. "If you're a thief, that's a good time to rob all the houses of Thamesford because there's almost nobody home. They're all down here eating fish."
In turn, the team is able to pay for the players' equipment and offer some vouchers for the super-expensive one-piece sticks. With many of the players from London, it sometimes makes more sense to pay for gas so the guys can drive to road games, rather than rent a bus.
Julie Gagliardi, whose son Chris is starting goalie for the Trojans, lives and works in London, but she never misses a game. "It's like a family here. And even when Chris is gone, I'm sure I'll come out still. We have another son coming up and maybe he'll want to play here, too."
At every level there are a lot of options. Each year, the teams lay their foundations and hope the players take root and grow. By playoff time in places such as Aylmer, Thamesford, St. Marys and beyond, the stakes change. It becomes about survival and keeping the game alive in town.
And when it finally ends --next year begins.
ONTARIO HOCKEY ASSOCIATION
Member teams: 144
Levels: Four junior tiers -- junior A; junior B; junior C; junior development (Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League). Two senior tiers -- senior AAA; senior AA and senior A, separate leagues, but grouped in the same tier.
Cost of living: Junior B: $125,000-$175,000, plus; junior C: More than $100,000; SOJHL: $40,000-$60,000.
Unofficial Queen of the GOJHL