Virden Oil Capitals players (left to right) Kurt Johnas, Michael Gorrie and Ryan Leaf raise their sticks and salute the crowd at Tundra Oil and Gas Place Saturday night in the season finale. (KAREN MOSER)
Virden drew a crowd of 1,427 to Saturday night’s finale. (SUBMITTED)
In the oil capital of Manitoba, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League has managed to strike gold.
With a new team — the former Winnipeg Saints — and a new building — Tundra Oil and Gas Place — the hottest ticket in Virden was to an Oil Capitals game. Averaging about 1,050 fans per game, Virden is the success story of the year in the MJHL.
"From the business side of things we’re extremely happy," Oil Capitals president Dale Lewis said. "The fan support I think is more than we could have even hoped for. And the corporate support has been terrific. Right now, we are probably the envy of the league with the amount of corporate partnerships we’ve brought into the team ... A lot of companies stepped up for this team and I think they recognized how important the team has been to the community."
The organization sold 746 season tickets and walk-up crowds to the games alone were bigger than some other team’s entire gate. As of Feb. 20, the Oil Capitals were narrowly edging the Dauphin Kings for the highest attendance, averaging three more fans per game than the Kings (1,044 to 1,041). Lewis said a big part of the team’s success was simply filling a hockey void, and the incredible support the team received throughout the area.
"People love their hockey in this corner and it wasn’t just Virden, we saw a lot of people from the surrounding communities at the game," Lewis said.
A big part of the team’s marketing was making sure the players were front and centre in the public. Coming from the Saints last season, where they averaged the worst attendance in the league and where there was a disconnect playing in Winnipeg, the players had the ability to blend in. In contrast, in Virden players weren’t asked to be role models, they were expected to be.
"We told them when they came out here that they were going to be rock stars," Lewis said. "A lot of our kids really embraced that and we think it’s important that we get them out there."
Even before the first puck dropped, Lewis said choosing the Oil Capitals name versus the longstanding Oil Kings moniker was a decision made to create a new identity and let all of southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan know that this was their team, too. The move appears to have paid off and next year Lewis said the Virden Minor Hockey Association will adopt the Oil Capitals name moving foward. Lewis gets a huge kick out of seeing a young hockey player wearing the Oil Capitals jersey asking his favorite player for an autograph.
"It gives you a lot of pride knowing you had a hand in bringing the team to town," Lewis said.
In a league where a healthy bottom line is important not just for viability, but from a competitive standpoint, Lewis said the team will be diligent building the program the right way, but understands at some point the financial flexibility they enjoy could be used to augment the product on the ice.
"I don’t think we’re going to be a team that goes out and throws a lot of money at players, we believe that you build from within, but when the time is right we’re going to go out and find the right player to fill in the gaps to get us over the hump," Lewis said.
The finances have also been put to good use through the Virden Oil Capitals Foundation, which has worked at establishing scholarships for graduating Oil Capitals players and graduating high school players in the area and allowed the team to donate to a variety of sports programs.
"It’s a way for us to give back," Lewis said.
On the ice, the Oil Capitals’ inexperience has plagued them at times this season, but head coach and general manager Troy Leslie said he liked how his youthful roster has handled the adversity.
"With a younger team, we’ve had some ups and downs, but we’ve been happy with the level that we compete at, how hard we’re working and we’ll finish the season off that same way," Leslie said.
Through the rigours of a 62-game season, there is bound to be some ‘off-nights’ but Leslie said for 31 of those games at least, the team always had a seventh player in the form of crowd support.
"It’s been absolutely amazing," he said. "Our crowd gave us a lift every night that we played at home."
With a respectable 10-12-5 record through the first three months of the season, the organization decided against trying to scrape into the playoffs, and instead, took a longterm approach to building the franchise. In November, 20-year-old players Myles Nykoluk, Richard Olson and the team’s leading scorer Jon Gaudet were all traded for younger players with upside.
"We decided to make some moves and bring a few guys in right now and it also strengthened our (50-man protected) list moving forward," Leslie said.
While the decision to retool is never easy, Leslie believes the moves will pay dividends moving forward.
"We’ve got some prospects that will be coming in next year that we’re excited about and we’re going to have a lot of forwards in camp next fall," he said.
Up front, the team won’t lose any of its key offensive contributors, many who are eligible to come back for two more seasons. On the back end, Virden got a break-out performance from Sean Collins, who led the team with 36 points. Collins will be expected to anchor the power play for the foreseeable future, while a group of 1994-born players, including Souris’ Jordan Greig, will look to build on their rookie seasons.
In net, Kyler Beckett received the lion’s share of the work this season, while Western Hockey League prospect Ty Edmonds will push him in the crease, provided he doesn’t stick with Prince George next season.
With only two players graduating and a group of strong prospects that include Melita’s Cole Oliver and Boissevain’s Meyer Nell, Leslie expects players to be pushed at every position next year.
"We want to have a really competitive camp," Leslie said.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 5, 2013