Sometimes you have to come close to hitting rock bottom before you can start a renaissance.
And that is exactly the story behind the resurgence of Lloydminster’s AJHL Franchise.
The Blazers for so many years in the Border City, one so rich in hockey tradition, an ownership change in 2005 meant the team changed its’ name to Bobcats and its colour motif to orange and black.
But even that appeared to fall short of securing the franchise’s future in the loop, and last year, rumours were rife that the club was on the move. Whitecourt topped the destinations mentioned.
“I would say we were a week or two away from losing the club,” says a passionate team governor Bryan Morrison.
“It’s at those times that people have to step up and that’s what we did.”
Asking community leaders to buy $5,000-shares to keep the team afloat, the community stepped up in impressive numbers to keep their club.
“We had a guy write a cheque for $50,000; I had a guy come in and give me $5,000 in cash. That’s the community stepping up, it was unbelievable, really.”
Fast-forward 365 and the Bobcats under head coach and GM Brian Curran are among the top clubs in the AJHL.
They have clinched the 3rd seed in the AJHL North, ranked 10th in Canada, and they will face Fran Gow’s Drayton Valley Thunder when the playoffs open on the weekend, the Bobcats with home-ice advantage.
While turnarounds in hockey teams’ fortunes on-ice aren’t all that uncommon, this seems to be much more than that.
“Structure and energy,” says Morrison.
“We often had, in past, plenty of structure, and plenty of energy but maybe not co-ordinated, nor at the same time.”
“We had a lot of work to do, we just burned-out so many people. Sure, we needed a better fiscal structure to make sure we were balancing our books, but we needed to expand our volunteer base and get more of the community involved,” he says.
“Some people at the rink now, we haven’t seen them for 10 or 15 years. Now they are the ones selling 50/50 tickets, taking game tickets, selling beer. We’ve put the community back into the club.”
Curran agrees the turnaround is not just about one thing. He says many of the improvements, in terms of making players more responsible, becoming a bigger part of the community as well as making a commitment to the team and teammates was already in transition.
“I think one of the biggest things was expanding our community support network,” says Curran.
“We had a small board and myself and it was a lot. We brought in some strong people like Scott Lumbard (education director) and that’s very important, it’s helped a lot.”
“I don’t think we made any big errors but little things add up to big things.”
Curran said whole-heartedly, he and his players and he wanted to stay in Lloydminster.
“No disrespect to Whitecourt, but our veteran guys, and guys who were going to be around for a few years yet made it clear they wanted to stay in this community,” says Curran.
“But we were up front with them right off the bat, we understood it was not something we could control other than to put a winning team on the ice and hope the community would embrace that and they have.”
Morrison knew that past issues with the club were not just a money thing. It was about more than the team’s record, it was about community and “did community really want to save this team,” he says.
“We knew we had to ensure our players were more respectful of billets, and made a firm commitment to their education (high school or college) or had a job, and if they didn’t (have a job) we had Bobcats related tasks for them to do. We are serious about accountability,” says Morrison, who refers to a contract that is signed between coaches, the organization, the players and the billet families.
“Anyone who did not want to buy into the things we were doing, we found them opportunities to play hockey elsewhere.”
And this year, they became one of the few AJHL clubs to ever fly to games. A new “Cats on a Plane” initiative saw a community business step up and for cost, transport the team to a couple of contests in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray.
“Having recently moved to town, we were looking at creative ways to get involved around town and help the community,” Courtesy Air President Jackie Fowler told the AJHL.
“Given the recent buzz surrounding the team, we feel that this is a great way to help our new favorite team while also getting our name out there in the community.”
It’s that kind of attitude that resonates around the Bobcats on the border these days.
“That just speaks to how the community has stood up and said we want our hockey team, we’re proud of our hockey team,” says Morrison.
“That support has been the key, without that, you can’t succeed, but I believe we are on the right track.”
Judging by results on and off the ice this season, it would appear to be a success story indeed.