WHL franchises hoping to herd fans

WHL teams are hoping for an increase in fans due to the NHL lockout. (Codie McLachlan/QMI...

WHL teams are hoping for an increase in fans due to the NHL lockout. (Codie McLachlan/QMI Agency/Files)

SCOTT FISHER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:34 AM ET

CALGARY - The other shoe has yet to drop.

With the NHL lockout threatening at least the start of the season, other levels of hockey are waiting for the trickle-down effect.

The WHL’s Hitmen expect to pick up the majority of the slack in Calgary if the Flames don’t hit the ice.

But with crowds of 9,055 and 7,765 through their first two home games, the migration of disgruntled hockey fans hasn’t happened yet.

Hitmen director of business operations Mike Moore said it’s still too early to expect consistent five-digit crowds.

“Not when it’s not 27 degrees outside and sunny,” Moore said.

“But Calgary has great hockey fans.

“They’ll come see us during NHL seasons, and they’ll come see us as this (lockout) sorts itself out.”

The Hitmen, of course, are owned by the Flames.

So while the junior team will likely eventually see bigger gates, the organization would like to see both teams thrive.

“What we want is NHL hockey — that’s our goal, as well,” Moore said.

“But in the short term, we’ll try to get as many people to come watch junior hockey as we can.

“We think it’s a terrific product and we have a good, young team here.

“It’s our goal, whether there’s NHL hockey or not, to bring people into our building for 36 games.”

In Red Deer, the Rebels are the biggest game in town.

Owner and former Flames head coach Brent Sutter said the biggest impact on his team’s early attendance figures is farming.

“Farming is still going on and there’s still people out in the fields, but our attendance in the first two games was pretty darn good, because there’s a lot of harvesting going on,” Sutter said after the Rebels drew 5,390 and 4,810 to their first two home dates.

“So it’s hard to get a feel for it.”

While there is no NHL team to compete directly with, there are two teams within driving distance.

“We’re in a unique situation,” Sutter said.

“We have two NHL teams an hour-and-a-half on either side of us.

“There are people in this area who are season-ticket holders and go to Oilers or Flames games.

“So our hockey team could see a difference (in attendance).”

Like most markets throughout the WHL, Sutter said he expects crowds to increase the longer the lockout goes.

“I think as it goes on, hockey’s our culture so you’d think there would be a positive side for major junior hockey, no question,” he said.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison said he’s already noticed the impact of the lockout.

“I think there’s some value that we offer hockey in all of our markets right now,” Robison said.

“Certainly, we’re going to have more media attention than we normally do, and that should help.”

Robison said that while he’d like to see the pros back on the ice, the WHL hasn’t done anything extra to promote the league.

“Not really,” Robison said.

“I think we have a good product and we promote it quite well.

“If you look back at the last lockout in ’04-05, which was the entire season, it didn’t really take effect until later in the season when people realized there wasn’t going to be NHL hockey.

“Like all hockey fans, we hope NHL hockey will come back soon.

“It’s important to the game that it happens.”

But as fans start to get frustrated and search for their hockey fix, the WHL will be ready and willing to fill the gap.

“The real benefit is when fans who haven’t come to WHL games before, come and think that it’s great value,” he said. “As a result, we tend to engage those fans for a longer period of time.”

CATS ARE BACK

Despite losing in overtime to the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Prince George Cougars are off to the best start in franchise history.

The Cougars take a 3-0-1 record into this weekend’s home tilts against the Kelowna Rockets and head coach Dean Clark has been impressed.

“We had a pretty good September,” Clark told the Prince George Citizen.

“If you include the exhibition, we lost one game in regulation and put together some good games.”

On Twitter: @SUNScottFisher 


Videos

Photos