How to get fans back into WHL arenas? The Insider offers up some suggestions . . .

The good news for the WHL is that there have been some great crowds of late. The Spokane Chiefs had their largest crowd (7,918) since before the pandemic on Saturday night for a visit by the Tri-City Americans. The Moose Jaw Warriors drew a season-high 4,895 that same night with the Regina Pats in town.

But there is a long way to go before things get back to where they once were.

Granted, we are in the middle of a pandemic and teams have had to deal with WHLmandates and restrictions. But this season, using figures compiled by the WHL, its 22 teams have combined to play 642 games through Sunday with an announced average attendance of 3,080 — that’s actually up 34 fans per game in nine days. Hey, baby steps . . .

In 2018-19, the last time the WHL was able to play a complete season, teams played 748 games with the announced average at 4,361.

But the warning signs were there before this season.

In 2019-20, teams got in 694 games before the pandemic brought the season to a close. The announced average for those games was 4,154, which was down 207 from the previous season. Eighteen teams  experienced a decrease in attendance from 2018-19, with only the Everett Silvertips, Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets and Prince Albert Raiders showing an increase.

Last season, a number of teams received government funding due to the pandemic, with six teams in Saskatchewan counting $600,000 apiece among their revenues. The Prince Albert Raiders, for example, received $1,081,179 in government grants and were able to announce a profit of $25,891.

Richard Doerken, the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, told Hartley Miller on his Cat Scan podcast earlier this year that none of the teams has received any government money this season.

We can only imagine how much some of the other teams bled last season and how large the puddle on the floor is this season.

Recently, I asked fans why they no longer attend WHL games, or perhaps are going to fewer games than they once did. A number of Portland fans referenced the hassle of getting into Winterhawks games. The above video, which was posted on Twitter on Sunday evening by Chad Balcom, a regular at Portland games, is an example of to what they were referring.

And it is that kind of thing that WHL teams have to deal with as they work to get fans to return to their games.

They also have to deal with the lifting of so many things pandemic-related that now some of those fans who choose to continue to wear masks are concerned about being around the unmasked and even anti-vaxxers. Back in the day one of the biggest beefs likely had to do with the in-game music. Too loud? Not loud enough?

But as things continue to inch towards some semblance of whatever normal is going to be, we wonder what WHL teams should be looking at in their attempts to get fans back into their buildings.

One person who has been on the front lines in the WHL and maintains a love for the league contacted me and offered up some suggestions. The Insider has been deep inside a team’s front office — on the business and marketing side — so has a feel for what is happening there. As well, The Insider remains in the game; he now is in the front office of a pro team.

In writing to me, the approach was: “I thought I would focus on the ‘what to do about it.’ ”

With that, The Insider approached the situation from three angles — teams needing to show patience, teams needing to take a long, hard look at the fan experience, and teams needing to look at the overall cost of attending games.

“First,” The Insider wrote, “it is going to take time for fans, particularly casual fans, to get back into their pre-pandemic habits, so understand that the further the pandemic and mandates recede into memory (let’s hope there’s not another variant around the corner) the more likely fans are to return . . . Teams should understand that it isn’t going to correct itself overnight so set some realistic timeframes for attendance growth.”

When you think about it, as we go through life a lot of what we do is dictated by habits. There is a reason why your favourite TV show is on at the same time every week. Marketers want to create a habit. Once they are able to do that, they know that should you ever break that habit you may never come back. That is what WHL teams are up against now.

“Second,” The Insider wrote, “teams need to raise their game when it comes to the fan experience, not only in-venue but also with their streaming video production . . . Give kids in particular plenty to do on the concourse, offer fun experiences like Fanboni rides and puck shoots, let them meet the players after games, etc. . . . As for the video production, bad lighting, poor camera work, lousy graphics and unstable streaming platforms aren’t going to help any team/league monetize their video content, and in-home viewing continues to grow and grow.”

One season-ticket holder who emailed me on Sunday seemed to echo The Insider, writing about his favourite team: “It’s also the same thing every season. Same promotions. Same giveaways (first 500 or 1,000 people). Same first- and second-period intermissions. They really need to jazz it up and make changes.”

“And third,” The Insider wrote, “teams and the league need to re-examine their pricing structure/value proposition to bring in new fans to the sport, particularly younger families . . . As gas prices and other ‘basics’ increase in price, junior hockey needs to price the game-night experience (tickets, parking, food, etc.) so that a family can attend a game at a reasonable investment. Otherwise they’ll stay at home and stream Disney+ for the evening . . . cheaper and less hassle.”

From where I sit, WHL teams have to learn to put a whole lot of attention on game operations and presentation. They need to get to a place where even if the home team gets blown out the fans go home feeling that they still received good entertainment value and that not only would they return, but that they would spread the word.

“I don’t know that enough WHL teams are thinking that way,” The Insider wrote. “And you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.”

In closing, The Insider added:

“It takes creativity. Thinking outside the box. Looking at other sports like minor league baseball and events like music festivals. The sport itself is a great product, but these days fans want more if they are going to pay the prices and fight the traffic and deal with the hassles at the doors. Otherwise you’re right . . . fans will watch from home whether it’s WHL or NHL or Schitt’s Creek or whatever.”

And if the fans are going to stay home, some teams are going to be up the creek without the proverbial paddle. If they aren’t already, that is.

Rockets dinged by positive test . . . Brandon to get hockey academy, rink . . . P.A. moves closer to three new arenas

Someone within the Kelowna Rockets organization has tested positive for RocketsCOVID-19, with one other individual identified as a close contact. The WHL announced Thursday that “the positive test result was discovered during the initial return-to-play testing phase.” . . . That means that person will self-isolate, as will the person who was found to be a close contact. . . . The Rockets hadn’t yet moved into team activities, so at this point their schedule won’t feel any impact from these positive tests. . . . The Rockets and Victoria Royals are headquartered in Kelowna as the five B.C. Division teams prepare for a return to play. The Rockets’ players are with billets, while the Royals are staying in a hotel owned by the GSL Group, which also owns the WHL team. . . . The Royals and Rockets are scheduled to meet in Kelowna on March 26 in the division’s first game of the developmental season. At this point, the Rockets’ schedule hasn’t needed to be changed. . . .

The three other B.C. teams — the Kamloops Blazers, Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants — are centred in Kamloops. The Blazers are with billets; the Cougars and Giants are in a hotel owned by Tom Gaglardi, the Blazers’ majority owner who also owns the NHL’s Dallas Stars. . . . The Blazers, Cougars and Giants have been cleared to begin skating and, in fact, were on the ice for the first time in Kamloops last night. . . .

Steve Ewen of Postmedia tweeted Thursday that Giants F Cole Shepard has an undisclosed injury and that GM Barclay Parneta has said Shepard, 19, isn’t likely to play in this 24-game set. Shepard has 11 goals and 18 assists in 2019-20 after having hip surgery in May 2019. That was his first season with Vancouver after playing with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees.


Ladder


F Seth Jarvis of the Portland Winterhawks was tied for the AHL scoring lead with 11 points in nine games when he had to leave the Chicago Wolves, who are affiliated with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.

F Connor Zary of the Kamloops Blazers had seven points in nine games with the AHL’s Stockton Heat, an affiliate of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, when he had to leave, too.

Obviously, both were doing just fine in their first tastes of pro hockey. But under the terms of the NHL-CHL agreement (aka the pro-junior agreement) Jarvis and Zary had to return to their WHL clubs. Drafted players under the age of 20 have two options — play in the NHL or return to major junior.

However, there could be interesting times ahead for that agreement, which expired after the 2019-20 season, but was extended for a year because of the pandemic.

There long has been a feeling among NHL executives and scouts that exceptional 18- and 19-year-old players should be allowed to play in the AHL once they are seen as having nothing left to prove in major junior. At the same time, major junior operators don’t want anything to do with such exceptions because they don’t want to prematurely lose their best players.

This is going to be worth watching over the next while.

Frank Seravalli has a whole lot more on this situation right here.


Drivers


Jared Jacobson isn’t about to let the ice melt under his feet. The new owner of the Brandon Wheat Kings — he purchased the WHL team from Kelly McCrimmon in September — is building a new ice surface in Brandon and also will open a hockey academy in the city. . . . Jacobson is CEO and president of the Jacobson and Greiner Group of Companies. . . . Perry Bergson of the Brandon Sun reports that the new facility that will be home to the Western Canadian Hockey Academy “will include a National Hockey League-sized ice surface, three shooting bays on ice, a performance centre, middle-years classroom, six-lane 100-metre track and on-ice video training.” . . . Jacobson is hopeful that this will do something to keep younger hockey players at home longer. As he told Bergson: “For me it’s about developing players and keeping people in the centres they grew up in. Time flies by for families, and I just look at when kids are 12, 13, 14, it’s tough to leave home . . . I just wanted to look at a hybrid model to help the mid-market centres keep kids if they want to have another choice in their years of hockey to stay local and develop. I think it’s just a great fit, and it’s been well received by Hockey Brandon. I’m so happy for that because we wanted to create an opportunity, not a conflict.” . . . Players who attend WCHA will play for their minor hockey teams. The academy will ice teams — the Wolves — in the spring. . . . Bergson’s complete story is right here.


Hey, who knew that Saskatchewan was a province of such riches?

No sooner had I wondered here yesterday whether Regina or Saskatoon would be the first city with a new arena than I received a note informing me that “you forgot the third entry in the race: PA. They might even be in the lead.”

Yes, it’s true. And, yes, Prince Albert is in the lead. And it isn’t close!

Prince Albert is working towards a facility that will include three arenas — one with 4,500 seats and two others, each with an NHL-sized ice surface and perhaps 800 seats. Also included will be an aquatic centre with wave pool, water slides and a whole lot more.

That is Phase 1 of the project, and it might be ready late in 2023.

Phase 2 will include a new home for the WHL’s Raiders, with 20 corporate boxes and a banquet room. Opening date? Sometime in 2024.

The total cost is likely to run around $140 million.

Work already has started on getting the site ready for construction, which is to begin late this fall.

Now back to Saskatchewan and all that money . . .

You will recall that Regina now is home to Mosaic Stadium, a football facility that opened in 2017 and cost in the neighbourhood of $278 million. . . . And let’s not forget Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw that opened in 2011 — yes, it already has been almost 10 years — and cost $61.2 million to build.

Hey, Swift Current, are you getting in on this, too?


Toby Boulet sees the contradiction and, seriously, it’s hard not to. While the Alberta government studies a private member’s bill that would raise some speed limits to 120 km/h from 110 km/h, another private member’s bill that would promote organ and tissue donation didnn’t make the cut so won’t get to the floor this spring. . . . In fact, as Boulet said, “It’s not going to happen for a long, long time.” . . . Unfortunately. . . . Yes, one bill is certain to lead to more accidents and deaths, while the other would save lives, providing people with the opportunity to enjoy extended lives. . . . Boulet has been a leading proponent for organ donation in Western Canada since his son, Logan, died as a result of the bus crash involving the SJHL’s Humboldt Broncos on April 6, 2018. Logan had registered as an organ donor and his organs went to six people. . . . Colette Derworiz of The Canadian Press has more on this story right here.


The AJHL announced Thursday night that it has “completed a fourth round of testing in its return-to-play plan with no positive COVID-19 results across 391 players and staff.” . . . There have been 1,532 tests conducted to day and the weekly tests will continue through the end of the season.


The QMJHL’s Baie-Comeau Drakkar had two players come up positive on Thursday, so the team has had to pull out of a protected environment event — that’s what the league calls its scheduled events where three or four teams play in one city — that was to run in Sherbrooke from March 19-24. The Chicoutimi Sagueneens and Sherbrooke Phoenix now will play each other four times over that stretch. . . . Meanwhile, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies will be without general manager/head coach Mario Pouliot indefinitely after he suffered a heart attack. Brad Yetman has taken over as the interim head coach.


Justin McElroy, CBC Vancouver — 622 cases of #COVID19 announced in B.C. today, as the province is now at its highest rolling average of new cases since January 12. . . . Hospitalizations up to 286, a 32% increase in one month. . . . Eight new deaths.

——

CBC News — Alberta reports 505 new cases of COVID-19 and 1 more death. The province has identified 91 new variant of concern cases which account for 12% of all active cases.


March Madness got rolling in Indianapolis with play-in games on Thursday, but it is without six game officials who were to have worked the tournament. One of them tested positive and contact tracing impacted the other five. . . . The NCAA had four other officials on standby, so those four now are in the regular rotation.



The AHL’s Utica Comets were to have met the visiting Rochester Americans tonight (Friday), however the game has been postponed. According to the league, the move was made due to COVID-19 protocols involving the Comets, who are affiliated with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. In this pandemic season, the Canucks also are sharing the Comets with the St. Louis Blues.




If you are interested in being a living kidney donor, more information is available here:

Living Kidney Donor Program

St. Paul’s Hospital

6A Providence Building

1081 Burrard Street

Vancouver, BC V6Z 1Y6

Tel: 604-806-9027

Toll free: 1-877-922-9822

Fax: 604-806-9873

Email: donornurse@providencehealth.bc.ca

——

Vancouver General Hospital Living Donor Program – Kidney 

Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre

Level 5, 2775 Laurel Street

Vancouver, BC V5Z 1M9

604-875-5182 or 1-855-875-5182

kidneydonornurse@vch.ca

——

Or, for more information, visit right here.


JUST NOTES: The Northern Alberta Xtreme announced Thursday that Adam Stuart has taken over as the head coach of the academy’s U15 team for 2021-22. He had been on the staff of the BCHL’s Cranbrook Bucks after working for two seasons as an assistant coach with Edge Academy’s U18 prep team. . . . Kevin Undershute, who played four WHL seasons (2004-08) with the Medicine Hat Tigers and Portland Winterhawks, has signed on as an assistant coach alongside Stuart.


Wings

A thank you from Brad Hornung . . . WHL’s five B.C. teams to hub up in Kamloops, Kelowna . . . BCHL’s 17 teams still waiting as self-imposed deadline approaches

There is a book out there that includes a chapter on Brad Hornung and it’s well worth a read — the entire book, I mean, not just the chapter on Hornung.

Written by Roy MacGregor, one of Canada’s best writers, it is titled The Home Team: Fathers, Sons & Hockey, and was published in 1995. It was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award.

The book, which definitely rates as one of the best ‘hockey’ books out there, is available in hard cover, paperback and ebook. If you haven’t read it and choose to, you won’t be disappointed.


Players and staff members from the WHL’s five B.C. Division teams will begin WHL2quarantining on Saturday, then report to their teams on March 13 as they begin preparations for a return to play on March 26 with games in two cities.

The Prince George Cougars, Vancouver Giants and the Blazers will be in Kamloops, with the Victoria Royals and the Rockets in Kelowna.

In Kamloops, the Cougars and Giants are expected to stay in a hotel owned by Tom Gaglardi, the owner of the NHL’s Dallas Stars who is the Blazers’ majority owner. The hotel is kitty-corner from the Sandman Centre in Kamloops. The Blazers players will stay with their billets.

In Kelowna, Victoria is expected to stay in a hotel owned by the GSL Group that was founded by Graham Lee, who owns the Royals. The Rockets will be with billets.

A schedule that has yet to be released will have each of the five teams play 24 games without fans, likely in about seven weeks. Games will be played only in Kamloops and Kelowna, although teams will travel between cities for games. There won’t be any over-night stays and there won’t be any stops while in transit.

Players and staff will undergo testing when they report to their teams in Kamloops and Kelowna, and then will go into quarantine again. Each participant will have to pass another test before being allowed to begin team activities.

Players and staff will be tested on a weekly basis, with a positive test resulting in a team having to shut down for at least 14 days.

From a WHL news release:

“Enhanced screening for all WHL players, team staff and officials will also take place on a daily basis, including regular temperature screenings as well as symptom monitoring through the WHL Athlete RMS Mobile Application. Masks must be worn by all WHL players at all times with the exception of when participating on ice for games and practices. WHL coaches will be required to wear masks at all times, including while conducting practices and while behind the benches during games.”

The B.C. teams will be the last of the WHL’s 22 clubs to begin play in what is strictly a developmental season. The five Alberta teams began play on Feb. 26. Seven teams — five from Saskatchewan and two from Manitoba — have gathered in Regina and are to open play on March 12. The five U.S. Division teams will open on March 19.

The WHL news release is right here.


While the WHL’s five B.C.-based teams have gotten the OK for games, the BCHLBCHL’s 17 teams keep on playing the waiting game.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, said Tuesday that her staff continues to work with the BCHL on its proposed return-to-play protocol.

Keep in mind that the WHL’s B.C. Division teams are going to play in two cities — Kamloops and Kelowna — in the same health authority, while the BCHL’s proposal apparently calls for cohorts set up in five separate communities involving multiple health authorities.

“Right now, they are continuing to work with the BCHL and with our regional teams because the (BCHL’s) plan is dispersed around the province in a way that is slightly different than the Western Hockey League, for example,” Dr. Henry said. “(It) is still in the consultation process and there have been a number of concerns identified — I’ll be blunt about that — that need to be addressed before that can happen safely.”

In a letter to government and health officials on Friday, Chris Hebb, the BCHL commissioner, wrote that if a decision allowing a return to play wasn’t received by Wednesday, which would be today, the league’s owners would be voting Thursday on a motion to cancel the season.

Tick . . . tick . . . tick!

Brian Wiebe of BCHLNetwork has more right here.

——

What Garry Valk is doing in trying to influence a decision by government and health officials regarding a return to play for the BCHL’s 17 teams is admirable. It really is. He started a petition that has accrued something around 3,000 signatures, and he has kept the fires burning on social media.

But tweets like the one above don’t do anything to help the cause. “All the other Junior A teams in Canada” aren’t playing games, he writes.

Well, the 12-team Manitoba Junior Hockey League cancelled its season on Feb. 12. The 12-team Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League has been paused since Nov. 21. The seven-team Superior International Junior Hockey League cancelled its season on Monday. The Ontario Junior Hockey League, with 21 teams in Ontario and one in Buffalo that opted out of this season, isn’t playing, in part because it has to deal with 10 regional health units. I could go on, but you get the point.

If you are going to be the face of a cause like this, you have to protect your credibility with the people you are trying to influence, which means you also have to do the research.



CBC News: Texas to drop requirement for people to wear masks. The state is averaging about 7,700 new COVID-19 cases a day; 6 weeks ago it was over 20,000. Texas has a population of 29M, about twice the size of Ontario, which is averaging roughly 1,100 cases a day.


The New York Times — Mississippi joined Texas on Tuesday in lifting state mask mandates, despite federal health officials warning governors not to ease restrictions yet, because national progress in reducing coronavirus cases appears to have stalled in the last week.


Mob


The Toronto Raptors and visiting Detroit Pistons are scheduled to play an NBA game in Tampa, Fla., tonight. The game was postponed from Tuesday because the Raptors have run into virus-related issues. If tonight’s game goes ahead, Toronto will be without three starters — OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet — along with Patrick McCaw and Malachi Flynn, who come off the bench. Head coach Nick Nurse and a number of his staff also are expected to be missing tonight. . . . Donta Hall and Jalen Harris have joined the Raptors from their G League affiliate. . . . The NBA now has postponed 31 games this season because at least one of the teams didn’t have at least eight healthy players.



If you’re a country music fan, you should know that the CMA Fest has been cancelled for a second straight year. It’s now scheduled to run in 2022, from June 9-12, in Nashville.


New York Post — New Yorkers would have to flash COVID-19 passport to enter venues under new program. . . .  Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday the rolling out of a new pilot program where New Yorkers would have to flash a sort of COVID-19 passport in order to enter sports arenas, theaters and other businesses as the state continues reopening efforts. . . . The pass was tested at Tuesday night’s New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden.


Worst



If you are interested in being a living kidney donor, more information is available here:

Living Kidney Donor Program

St. Paul’s Hospital

6A Providence Building

1081 Burrard Street

Vancouver, BC V6Z 1Y6

Tel: 604-806-9027

Toll free: 1-877-922-9822

Fax: 604-806-9873

Email: donornurse@providencehealth.bc.ca

——

Vancouver General Hospital Living Donor Program – Kidney 

Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre

Level 5, 2775 Laurel Street

Vancouver, BC V5Z 1M9

604-875-5182 or 1-855-875-5182

kidneydonornurse@vch.ca

——

Or, for more information, visit right here.


Boss

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