While numerous factors may have contributed to the Brandon Wheat Kings’ decline in attendance last season, certainly the Western Hockey League schedule did them no favours.
A team with a reputation for putting meticulous effort into the WHL’s scheduling meetings had much of its fate taken out of its hands as the league went to a new computer-assisted process. The result was a schedule heavy on lengthy homestands — five home games in nine days at one point — putting tremendous pressure on the walk-up crowd in particular to keep up with the action.
While this year’s scheduling process remained the same, Wheat Kings owner, general manager and head coach Kelly McCrimmon is much happier with the final product.
"The schedule’s much better than a year ago," said McCrimmon, whose team averaged 3,529 fans per game last season, its lowest attendance since 2005-06. "Last year we had clusters of home games. This year it’s distributed much better."
The 2014-15 WHL schedule was released on Wednesday, and the Wheat Kings will have three four-game homestands after playing at home for two five-game stretches and two more four-gamers in 2013-14.
In some ways, the schedule looks similar to those Wheat King fans have come to expect: Heavy on Friday and Saturday games (15 Fridays and 10 Saturdays), opening with a home-and-home against the Regina Pats on Sept. 19 and 20, closing with a home-and-home set against the Moose Jaw Warriors on March 20 and 21, and featuring a seven-game West Coast road trip in October.
There are some key differences. As previously announced, the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day game has given way for the first time in more than 30 years to make room for a Canada-Russia Super Series game at Westman Place. Meanwhile, the New Year’s Alberta road trip that has been commonplace in recent seasons has been abandoned, with the Wheat Kings instead heading west in February when Brandon hosts the provincial men’s curling championship.
Another notable change is the addition of three home games on Sundays (Dec. 14, Dec. 28 and Feb. 15, with start times of 4 p.m.), a day the Wheat Kings have usually avoided.
"Some teams in our league are having good success with Sundays and that’s why we asked to have some included in our schedule," McCrimmon said. "One aspect I feel there’s some value in is if it allows different people to come to your games. …We’re the only team in Manitoba, we draw from a big area. Certainly in Westman there’s rural people from all different communities that like to get to games, I think, on occasion and this is, I think, going to be a little bit easier for those people to do that."
ONE-TIMERS: While there are fewer long homestands, there are two eight-game stretches when Brandon plays at home seven times, including one late in the season, from Feb. 25 to March 13. The Wheat Kings then play three on the road before returning to Westman Place to close the regular season, giving them eight of their last 12 at home … The curling provincials have prompted the team to move its Sportsman’s Dinner from the traditional February date to Jan. 29, the day before a home game against the Warriors … The Regina Pats’ new owners say the resignation of assistant coaches Bill McGuigan and Josh Dixon earlier this month prompted the group to look at starting fresh with its coaching staff, leading to Tuesday’s firing of bench boss Malcolm Cameron. "We felt —all things considered — we wanted to bring in our own guy who was going to lead us forward," Pats president and part-owner Todd Lumbard — a Brandon-born former Wheat King goalie — told Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post.