The impending NHL lockout could result in a big boost in attendance for WHL clubs.
But Brandon Wheat Kings owner/general manager Kelly McCrimmon doesn’t want to have to count on that to balance the books this season.
With only one week to go until the season opens, the WHL club is well behind last year’s season ticket pace and getting more than a little concerned. With a total of 2,284 season tickets sold, the Wheat Kings are about 700 shy of last year’s total of 2,973, a number they hoped to surpass this year as expenses continue to rise.
“At this point, I’m concerned,” McCrimmon said. “I can’t say I’m disappointed because I don’t know yet what our final total will be. But I would say if we don’t reach 3,000 season tickets, I would be very disappointed … We’re hoping to make up ground in the next 10 days to two weeks.”
So what are the reasons for the slow sales?
While the Wheat Kings did increase season ticket prices $75 this season, they also added a new senior discount price of $375 and still offer — on average — the lowest season ticket prices in the WHL ($425 for adults). At the same time, expenses continue to rise, with the Wheat Kings also paying significantly more to the Keystone Centre after signing a new five-year lease.
“The reality in the Western Hockey League is expenses are growing at a much higher rate than our revenues, and that’s a fact,” McCrimmon said.
Those rising costs are not just affecting the long-term viability of small-market WHL clubs like the money-losing Swift Current Broncos and Prince Albert Raiders anymore. The community-owned Lethbridge Hurricanes — drawing from a city of 87,882 — reported a loss of $602,000 in 2011-12.
This season, the Wheat Kings may take a small hit from the new MJHL team just down the highway in Virden, where the Oil Capitals have already sold 682 season tickets for the 1,194-seat Tundra Oil & Gas Place.
Some Wheat King fans may also be taking a bit of a wait-and-see approach. Brandon graduated a star-studded forward class led by 40-goal scorers Mark Stone and Mike Ferland who led the club to a 39-28-1-4 record and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by the eventual WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings.
Head coach Cory Clouston was fired in the off-season and the rebuilding job was handed to longtime assistant Dwayne Gylywoychuk, who is blessed with a deep defence led by projected first-round NHL draft pick Ryan Pulock and great goaltending from Corbin Boes, but will need to fill some significant scoring holes up front. However, the Wheat Kings have a talented list of first-year forwards that may be Brandon’s best rookie crop since Brayden Schenn, Scott Glennie and Matt Calvert burst onto the scene five years ago.
“If people are waiting to see on the Wheat Kings, I would be a little bit disappointed,” McCrimmon said. “For 20 years, we’ve had entertaining hockey, so I would be very surprised if that was the case.”
While junior hockey teams often go in cycles of success, the Wheat Kings have clearly been one of the most consistent franchises in the WHL, having made the playoffs in 12 straight seasons and 19 of the past 20 years, while advancing to the league final four times. Trades for veterans like centre Nick Buonassisi and defenceman Tyler Yaworski helped fill some needs and sent the message that the Wheat Kings intend to be a playoff team once again, even in a rebuilding year.
“We have great depth and veteran experience on our blue-line and in goal and up front we’re not as deep at the 18- and 19-year-old age groups as we often are and I don’t feel that is going to hinder us, because we are that encouraged with the rookie forwards that we have in the 1995 (17-year-olds) and 1996 (16-year-olds) age groups,” McCrimmon said. “We’ll have very hard decisions to make at forward just based on how good we think some of these young players could be.”
One thing McCrimmon makes clear is, lockout or no lockout, the club’s signed NHLers won’t be back this time.
“For us, in 2004-2005, we got Tim Konsorada back signed and Lance Monych back signed, (but) I do not anticipate (Kevin) Sundher, Stone, Ferland even being in that discussion at any point in time,” he said.
“They are going to play professionally this year for 100 per cent sure.”
And while an NHL lockout could help the Wheat Kings’ bottom line, in the big picture it’s not anything McCrimmon wants to see.
“I don’t anticipate the lockout being a long one, although it may be good for us in a short term basis, I don’t think it’s good for the game,” he said.
“Just as a person that works in hockey, I’m hopeful that the lockout, if there is one, is a very short one and they get an agreement in place and get back playing, as we all hope they do.”