Column like I see 'em - Junior "A" hockey isn't too big to fail


By Eoin Devereux

Neepawa Banner & Press

Well, hockey fans, we made it! Despite 2020’s best effort to try and make sure we can’t have nice things, we’ve somehow reached the point where we can all go down to the local arena and watch a little bit of shinny. Please don’t take that for granted, like many of you have been doing for so long.

For the longest time, the national identity of Canada has been intertwined with the game of hockey. On a more localized level, every community for generations would unite in supporting its  hometown team. For some, that’s the high school squad or “AAA” team. If your town was big enough, however, it would be a Junior “A” hockey franchise. Those bonds, however, have dwindled and I assure you, COVID-19 is not the only culprit in the deteriorating health of hockey. The downward spiral of the sport, especially on the Junior “A” level, has been going on for quite some time. COVID could simply be the final nail in the coffin.

A tough situation for Junior ‘A’

When it comes to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL), this year will not be business as usual. First off, it will feature a 40 game schedule, as opposed to the normal 60. As well, the addition of the Winnipeg Freeze, whose jersey is reminiscent of the team you rooted against in the Mighty Ducks movies and whose name sounds like an extreme new favour of sports drink, has created the need for three divisions of four teams

Finally, the league has decided that it’s implausible and potentially, in some locations, irresponsible to open up full capacity arenas. Now, social distancing shouldn’t be a problem for a club like the Winnipeg Blues, who seem to average more bodies on the team benches than in the stands. But what about teams that people actually care about, like the Steinbach Pistons and that packed sardine can they call an arena? This situation is definitely going to hit them and all the other clubs, where it hurts, in the bank balance. 

Neepawa’s unique challenges

What will all this volatility mean for the Neepawa Natives {Name redacted}? How can a small market team such as the Natives {Name redacted} hope to make a season as unusual as this a financially viable one? 

I mean, come on! Those fancy carbon fibre sticks that explode in the player’s hand if they look at em’ funny aren’t cheap. The season might be two thirds of its normal schedule, but the day-to-day bills that are accrued in operating a franchise are still in full season mode. As well, this is not the level of sports where  billionaire owners buy and operates clubs. Junior ‘A’ team owners tend to be a group of local business people eating the costs of an unsuccessful year. I should know, I attend every one of Neepawa’s AGMs each year, as I’m leaving, I ask myself the same question, “How long are these people willing to pay that bill?”

On top of all the stress created by COVID-19 and the normal day-to-day operations, Neepawa has another major financial obstacle to overcome, the team’s upcoming name change. I’m not here to reargue the point of whether or not the name should be altered. The decision has been made on that and we, collectively, need to move forward now. But with that decision comes a hefty price tag.

The change is more than just a simple change on the letterhead. Team jerseys, on average, cost around $5,000 per set. Then there is the purchase of new merchandise and signage. Then there is the alteration of the website and all social media platforms. None of that comes without a cost.

Make no doubt about it, if you supported the changing of the name, and I will admit I was one of those people, we handed the team a $10,000 to $15,000 bill. Now what are we going to do about that?

I think the support can begin by simply being willing to get off your couch and going to a game or two. If you don’t like hockey, then how about buying a 10 pack of tickets for a friend, or for an enemy, if they dislike hockey as well. When the new team merchandise arrives, buy a hat, t-shirt or hoodie. When it comes to the future Neepawa Whatevers, the first name is a lot more important than the last name.

A pandemic, mandated half-full rinks, increasing costs and declining revenues. Make no mistake,  Junior “A” hockey is in crisis mode and we need to do something about it. Because if we don’t, teams like the Blues, Pistons and Natives {Name redacted} won’t be around for you to take for granted anymore.

Disclaimer: Column like I see ‘em is a monthly opinion column for the Neepawa Banner & Press. The views expressed are the writer’s and are not to be taken as being the view of the Banner & Press.