By Greg Price
For a ship that has seemed adrift for years in the waters of the Western Hockey League, it looks like the Lethbridge Hurricanes are now being steered in the right direction.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes have not made the playoffs in the last six seasons, and have had players demanding trades in those recent years along with financial loses mounting at the gate.
But there has been forward progress since the disastrous 2013-2014 season that saw the Hurricanes’ winning percentage at .200, which continues today as the squad currently sits at 17-9-0-0 as of Monday for the 2015-2016 WHL season, four points out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand. Out of 15 members on the board of directors, there has been an influx in the last few years of over half the board being turned over.
“For lack of a better term, there was a changing of the guard as such, and we took a look at the operations as a whole and we took a lot of time doing disclosure. After seeing the situation we were in, we decided to do a strategic plan to turn the ship around,” said Brent McDowell who joined the Lethbridge Hurricanes board of directors last year.
“With the help of the City of Lethbridge, we helped facilitate long-term planning sessions which made for a lot of long days and we came up with a plan.”
The No. 1 priority of the plan, according to McDowell, was to make the Hurricanes a player-centric environment.
“That player-centric environment was accelerated along by General Manager Pete Anholt. When he came on board he articulated it very well, ‘it’s small things that turn into big things’,” said McDowell. “Besides the big things like changing the president, the general manager and the coach dynamics, Pete took it a step further.”
“Knowing he couldn’t be effective as both a coach and general manager, he hired Brent Kisio who has been really great at turning the team around.”
Switching from the hockey operations to the business operations, the board took a look at the forensics of current practices right from the bottom up.
“We used some of the horse power of the business sense from the board to basically cut costs, drive efficiencies and get some accountability to the business side of the operation, and transferred a good portion of that budget to the hockey operations side to bolster that player-centric environment,” said McDowell. “That was through hiring virtually a whole new scouting staff as well. That, along with the success of our on-site events, the momentum of the outward-facing portion of the team started to build.”
There is certainly more electricity in the air among the stands this season among fans who were aching to see some resemblance of improvement in the on-ice and off-ice products.
“Pete made some very key moves (last) Christmas and right before the trade deadline. During the offseason, he did very well in both the import draft and the bantam draft,” said McDowell. “He’s managed to create a team now that is not just going to be good now, but there’s lot of talent and potential in the system, so it looks like it will be that way for awhile.”
The Hurricanes Fan Bus was filled within minutes to go up to Cranbrook on Saturday, in which several more fan buses are planned as the Hurricanes concentrate on good public relations off the ice as well in its product.
“We will be having a celebrity dinner again which was a huge success last year. It was a sort of turning point with Paul Coffey coming,” said McDowell. “This year we have one on Jan. 22 with a surprise person we are going to announce. Last year we had a celebrity poker tournament, and we are going to do that again this spring and then our alumni golf tournament in August.”
Just as fans are starting to see those glimmers of hope with its Lethbridge Hurricanes, so are alumni of the WHL team.
“The alumni are starting to connect with us in a way that they wouldn’t even consider before,” said McDowell. “There is some great hockey history here in Lethbridge and area. We want to build on that and get this train rolling and moving along and build momentum so that it is sustainable.”
According to McDowell, research has shown the average age of the WHL fan is over 60 years old, and there has been a decline in overall WHL attendance by approximately 14 per cent over the last couple of years.
“It’s a changing demographic, but at the same time we have to realize we have to put more butts in the seats and it is going to have to come from more than just how great the hockey team is,” said McDowell. “It has to be a great event and entertainment product. It’s great that the team is doing better and our attendance is up on average over last year, and it’s growing, especially on weekends. We are probably looking at our best attendance year in several years. We’ve already sold more season tickets this year than we did last year.”
The Hurricanes square off against Calgary Hitmen tonight at 7 p.m. The team also hosts Prince Albert Raiders on Friday and the Red Deer Rebels on Saturday with game times of 7 p.m. at the Enmax Centre.
As of Monday, five players were averaging a point per game in forwards Brayden Burke, Tyler Wong, Egor Babenko, Giorgio Estephan and defenceman Andrew Nielsen.