Right in the centre - Neepawa Natives change things up for new season


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

This summary of the Neepawa Natives hockey team is found on the team’s correspondence and emails.

“The Neepawa Natives have been a member franchise of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League since 1989 and play home games at the Yellowhead Centre in Neepawa, Manitoba. The team has a rich and proud history of developing players for all levels of hockey. Season tickets for the 2019-2020  Manitoba Junior Hockey League season are currently available. Additional details on purchasing tickets can be found at www.neepawanatives.com”

For this coming season, the team has continued to make changes to its operation and those changes are, in no small part, being led by recently appointed GM and Head Coach Ken Pearson. There is an optimism in the community, as Kenny is a hometown boy who made good and then returned to his roots. After playing minor hockey in Neepawa, followed by five years playing for the Neepawa Natives, Pearson was assistant coach for three years. He went on to a successful career as a head coach in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. To say he has the respect of the hockey world at home and away would be an understatement.

There are other changes being implemented as well by the community-owned club’s board. Many junior hockey clubs charge a fee to players to play, but until recently, none have done so in Manitoba. The Winnipeg Blues were the first, followed by Neepawa and Selkirk. Several other teams in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League are looking to charge a fee this year.

There are several realizations going on in the world of junior hockey. One is that it is almost impossible to run a club without a player fee of some kind. The second is that almost every team east of the Manitoba-Ontario border charges a fee. In typical Manitoba fashion, Manitoba teams seem to think that they are inferior to eastern teams, which is simply not true. MJHL teams have no grounds for feeling inferior. Neepawa has placed over 90 players into higher levels of hockey over the years. Most MJHL teams have done the same. Men who have played here look back years later on their junior hockey years as the best of their life. The third, and most obvious, point is that the fees assessed by junior teams usually don’t even come close to what it costs to have player in AAA Midget hockey. Graduating from AAA to Junior hockey makes for a considerable reduction in costs for hockey families.

The Neepawa Natives, like other MJHL teams, pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy every year. The team plays 29 regular season home games, three pre-season games and, in a good season, several play-off games. They are the single largest team customer at the Yellowhead Centre. It is interesting to note that not only is the team community owned, so is the Yellowhead Centre. I don’t actually know of any other Manitoba arena that is community owned. Most are owned by the respective town, but that is not the case at Neepawa. The Town of Neepawa doesn’t own the team or the arena, separate community-owned corporations, with elected boards, own the team and the arena.

Looking to the future, the team and Pearson signed a five year contract. Of note, Pearson has set a team and community goal, called 5-in-5. The aim is to have five local players on the team in five years. A lofty goal perhaps, but Pearson knows that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Lots of changes coming down. The only thing missing is some hard-earned wins on ice and several hundred fans at each game.

Disclaimer: The writer serves as a volunteer chair of the Manitoba Community Newspaper Association. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s personal views and are not to be taken as being  the view of the MCNA board or Banner & Press staff.