NHL lockout will bring opportunities for lower-profile leagues
Last labour stoppage played a huge role in evolution of Vancouver Giants franchise
VANCOUVER — If NHL players are locked out Saturday night and there is no Vancouver Canucks hockey at Rogers Arena, nothing on radio and zero on television, there will be no shortage of puck-watching options around the Lower Mainland.
Like love, hockey is everywhere. It’s at the Pacific Coliseum and in Abbotsford. It’s in Langley, Chilliwack, Surrey and at UBC.
The major junior Vancouver Giants, in their 12th season playing out of the Coliseum, will be coming after you. The American League’s Abbotsford Heat may finally be able to raise their profile despite being a farm team of the enemy Calgary Flames.
The B.C. Junior League will be looking to expand its fan base around the Fraser Valley. The UBC Thunderbirds have Vancouver’s west-side from which to draw people to their CIS games. There are potential benefits for many if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman brings down the expected hammer.
Giants majority owner Ron Toigo figures the last lockout, one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season, was instrumental in boosting the fortunes of his club.
“I think it played a role in the evolution of the franchise we’ve become,” Toigo said. “People who hadn’t tried us before came out and sampled the games and liked what they saw. As a result, our attendance went up and we were able to build upon that for years.”
It was a perfect storm for the Giants. They were in their fourth season and Don Hay had just been hired as head coach. Gilbert Brule was up for the NHL draft and considered one of the top prospects in the country along with some kid from Nova Scotia named Sid Crosby. The Giants had previously obtained the rights to host the Canadian Hockey League’s Top Prospects Game and proceeded to fill the house.
“That was the first year we had a decent team,” Toigo recalled. “And it was the first profitable year of the Giants. You can never really plan for these lockouts to happen and, when they do, hopefully you can help fill the void that is going to be there. We’ll definitely step up our promotional side of things and we’ll be more than able to handle whatever comes at us.”
Heat president Ryan Walter, the former NHL star, may never have a better opportunity to showcase his team and boost attendance in Abbotsford than this fall. The Heat have struggled mightily to attract paying customers during their first three seasons as fans don’t seem terribly keen on watching Flames’ farmhands play.
Abbotsford finished 29th of 30 teams in attendance last season, the crowds averaging 3,545. The Heat open at home Oct. 12-13 against the Peoria Rivermen, a St. Louis Blues’ affiliate, and then entertain the Canucks’ farm team, the Chicago Wolves, Oct. 19-20. The Wolves and Manitoba Moose before them have always drawn the biggest crowds to the Abbotsford Entertainment Centre.
“I think, at the end of the day, none of us wishes a lockout happens but, if it does, we need to be prepared and we certainly are prepared,” Walter said. “Most of the things we have in place were put there independent of a lockout. But I think, like Ron and the Giants and the B.C. Hockey League, we’ll probably just accelerate on a few of those things.”
Walter is particularly pleased with the Heat schedule in that 10 of their first 13 games are at home, enabling them to possibly seize some box-office momentum while the NHL is out. Having the Wolves come in so early won’t hurt at all, he added.
“We really want to get the message out to people who are starving for hockey they can come and watch their future Canucks right here in Abbotsford,” Walter said. “That should be a big opportunity for us to get our product in front of people who maybe don’t realize the calibre of the American Hockey League. These players are a heartbeat away from playing in the big league. Obviously there are a few first-round picks who go straight to the NHL but everyone else puts their time in right here.”
The American League should also boast its highest talent level in years as all NHL players on entry-level contracts are eligible to play in the minors. The Wolves could have Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev in their lineup along with the almost NHL-ready Eddie Lack, Kevin Connauton and Jordan Schroeder. Veterans like Andrew Ebbett may be there, too.
At the BCHL junior A level, Coquitlam Express president Darcy Rota says his league hasn’t yet formalized a game plan to possibly gain on a lockout but expects that to change in the weeks ahead.
“At this point, there really hasn’t been a strong discussion with our league,” Rota said. “I mean, we’re hoping that the NHL gets this resolved but, if not, we’ll take appropriate action. We do have a board of governors meeting coming up Oct. 1 and I’m sure that will be part of our discussion. We’ll see where things are then.”
As a former NHL player, Rota isn’t enamoured at the thought of another work stoppage but he does concede it will create opportunity for all those beneath the NHL stage.
“There is no question the opportunity is there,” Rota continued. “From our standpoint, it’s a great opportunity to maybe get some new fans who don’t know much about the BCHL and for them to come out and watch some great junior hockey. We hope we can capitalize if the lockout does take place.”
While these leagues stand to benefit by a work stoppage, some Canucks employees won’t. As COO Victor de Bonis explained earlier this week, the office staff will be reduced to a four-day week (accompanied by a 20 per cent pay cut) while GM Mike Gillis wasn’t as forthcoming on the fate of his hockey operations people.
The amateur scouts still must prepare for the 2013 entry draft and the player development staff will still have players to work with and monitor. Only the pro scouts, with no NHL games to watch, would be affected by a lockout.
“There are some things that we’re considering as we move ahead depending on how things go but, as it sits right now, we’re going to operate our business like we normally do,” Gillis explained.
Asked if some members in the hockey ops department could also face a reduced work week and corresponding pay cut, Gillis replied: “I’m not sure yet. I mean, some of the roles will even be enhanced and become more important because of the players who will be in Chicago when they wouldn’t normally be there. And there will be players in the East Coast League who wouldn’t normally be there.
“In some jobs the responsibilities won’t change at all and in others they will. There are different considerations for different people. So we’ll do it on a completely equitable and fair basis.”
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