Courtesy of Colin Budd/lloydminstersource.com
The Lloydminster Bobcats began the new year with a full house on Jan. 18, a national television audience tuning in for the ceremonial puck drop and Don Cherry and Ron MacLean broadcasting Coach’s Corner from the northeast corner of the Centennial Civic Centre. And the rest of 2014 didn’t provide much of a drop-off.
If it wasn’t the best calendar year in the organization’s history, it will take a lot of digging to find one that matches.
And it all kicked off with Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada in the city and the Bobcats’ 3-0 win over Sherwood Park, the centre piece of the biggest day on the Lloydminster sports calendar. The official attendance was listed as the fire code allowable number, but no one is certain if there were only that many people in the building. It was the hottest ticket in town.
“It’s kind of crazy to look back on it now because it was right around this time last year when everyone was getting really excited for it,” said Bobcats business manager Malcolm Radke. “Obviously, a tremendous day for us, great exposure on the national stage. Also just a treat for our fan base as well, just to see that level of entertainment and that level of atmosphere is just an energizing feeling. We were able to sell a lot of season tickets ahead of that and it really helped to generate interest, we saw our attendance go up a ton afterwards.
“It was definitely a day that none of us are going to forget too soon and an excellent way to kick off 2014.”
Goaltender Devin Green wore a custom-painted mask that was given away to charity and their third jerseys were worn by Cherry and MacLean on national television.
“It’s nice bragging rights, I guess, from a marketing perspective, when stuff like that goes right. Just overall, it was a fun day to host them and all the moving parts. Then at the end of the day, it’s Don Cherry and Ron MacLean right in front of you. That day was absolutely special for everyone involved.”
It would be tough to quantify the amount of an impact that project had on the organization. While they didn’t directly organize everything that went into SHDIC, they were certainly front and centre on a lot of it. And that didn’t go unrecognized when it was time to push the organization to a level they had never been before – hosting a national championship. Then Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson was in town for the week’s festivities and the Bobcats also had CBC vouching for them. That combined with the experience of knowing the city was capable of hosting an event of that scale was not just manageable – they could thrive.
“Hockey Day was the entire community that put that together, we looked great and I think the city of Lloydminster proved we could host events of that calibre and then when it came time to bid on the RBC Cup, Hockey Canada was at least willing to hear us out,” said Radke.
It was certainly different than when the organization had bid for the Western Canada Cup last a year earlier and the RBC Cup previously.
“When I went to Vernon for the 2014 RBC Cup, that was before they had selected who had won and …. I was actually kind of, maybe, underwhelmed. I wasn’t as shocked by the magnitude of it because we had already done Hockey Day,” said Radke. “That’s what you realize, it’s really like any other minor hockey tournament that any parent has organized growing up, a weekend-long event, except it’s a week-long event.
We were able to look at it and say we can do this, we’ve hosted a lot of teams in our rink, Hockey Day was a great promotional event because there was parties all week, RBC Cup is more of an actual hockey tournament with a little bit of that on the side – but it’s really about the hockey. “We were able to say we can handle this, we know Lloyd is a hockey town, we know it’s going to support this event, here’s proof of it. And then from there, it’s just a matter of saying, this is just a hockey tournament, here’s the people we need to get involved to handle the logistics of it, but we know the business side will be taken care of. Our biggest issue isn’t even selling out – it’s making sure the right people will have a chance at the tickets. If we had a rink twice the size, I’d think we would still sell it out.”
All that has led to popularity around town that hasn’t been seen in years. It was only just under four years ago the team seemed destined to become the Whitecourt Wolverines, after years in the red meant ownership was looking to move on. In stark contrast, at the semi-annual AJHL semi-annual meeting held recently, it was announced the club’s attendance was third in the league – ahead of traditional powerhouses like Grande Prairie and Camrose. They have sold over 900 season tickets and that figure is expected to increase next season. Radke said it’s been gratifying to see the progression of new fans, many of them families, who go to a game, have a good experience and eventually become season ticket holders.
“I think 2014 was that year, where the past two or three seasons we were learning to be that community- owned model and now we’ve really found our groove and stepping up and evolving into this organization that, I think, everyone wanted us to become and could be – and to me, that’s a flagship team in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and all across Canada at this level.”
It also doesn’t hurt when the team is having success on the ice. The ‘Cats finished third in the North Division and downed Whitecourt in the opening round of the playoffs in a five-game series then pushed Fort McMurray to the brink before bowing out in another thrilling series. This year, they headed into the Christmas break second in the North Division.
“This time two years ago, we were last place and the wheels were falling off,” said Radke. “You forget how quickly it turns around. It was nice to beat Whitecourt of all teams as well, was a little cherry on top. I go back to Game 4 in Whitecourt, when we scored with 10 seconds left to tie it up and then win it in overtime and kept the series alive. That’s what it’s all about. And then come home for Game 5 and win a playoff series, I think that meant a lot for our fans. If we’re Spruce Grove, then it’s expected we win a playoff round, but our fans were just so elated to see us win a series, even though we were expected to win.”
The saying success breeds success is very true around the organization right now. Because of the direction they were heading, they were able to land the highest sought after free agent in the league in the offseason, as coach Gord Thibodeau made his return to the ‘Cats to work alongside Garry VanHereweghe, establishing even more credibility that only someone with his resumé can bring.
“There’s no better testament to our organization than the ability to land Gord Thibodeau,” said Radke. “I have to pinch myself probably once a week when I look across the office and I’m working beside Gord Thibodeau. Growing up, that was the guy I watched when he coached here and he went on to do great things around the league. When things didn’t work out for him in Fort McMurray, he had – as I’m sure you would imagine – a lot of teams after him. And a lot of teams that were offering more than we could and he said we recruited him, basically. He liked what he saw with the Bobcats.”
Thibodeau was highly sought after, but Radke said the club is able to offer some things others couldn’t, even though the competition’s offers may have been better in some regards.
The team’s passionate fan base is quickly earning a reputation as one of the best in the league, the community and the board are supportive. They hired Kyle Harris on the marketing side and he became the team’s play-by-play broadcaster after they struck a deal to have their games on Lloyd FM. They have a new trainer in from B.C.
“Gord’s obviously the headliner of all that, but there’s a lot of new energy that, like I said, we go from being just another team in the AJHL to one of those flagship teams,” said Radke. “And it really feels like it’s a serious vibe, when you go to work, you’re expecting to do this well. The team is expected to win, we’re expected to do this much in the community, we’re expected to have this much in support and season ticket holders. It’s exciting to see the progress.”
And there is that trickle down effect that comes with it. Two rookies, Troy Van Tetering and Kevin Darrar have committed to NCAA schools and the sheer quality of players that have been brought in the last couple of years is possibly unprecedented for the team.
“Garry and his head scout, Barry Sawchuk, have been involved for the last three years. Before Garry was brought in as GM, he was the director of player personnel, so he was already in a scouting role,” said Radke. “And those guys, nobody watches more hockey in the province. You have to tip your hat to those guys, they’ve got eight to 10 scouts around Western Canada that have their back and are out there with Bobcats business cards. You really see that start to come together when you have a guy like Troy Van Tetering, who has been in our system for a couple of years now – him and Zac Giroux came up together and Evan Tschumi, who was thinking about going to the Dub, Alex Pernitsky as well. And we’re able to convince them, ‘why don’t you try for the Div. 1 scholarship route?’
“Our backup goalie played midget AA last year, so you only see those guys if you’re out beating the bush and making those connections. A guy like Kevin Darrar is from New Jersey, Brett Everson, from Ontario, where do you even meet those kids? ”
(VanHereweghe and Thibodeau) have a winning mindset and the players ultimately buy into that. The types of players we’re recruiting are not the type that go out there hoping to score the tying goal and the winning goal, but expecting to.”
Becoming known as a place that launches players’ careers isn’t a reputation Lloydminster has had in the past. But it is the single best recruitment tool any junior A organization can have.
“That’s what it’s all about is getting the players to the next level. As good a sign as any that it’s all coming together,” said Radke.
“Now we’re in that conversation. It’s interesting too, just around the CJHL, the notoriety you get because you’re hosting the RBC Cup and all of a sudden teams out of B.C. and teams like Portage, Estevan got the Western Canada Cup, Fort Mac has it this year, all those teams want to talk to you because they realize you’re a legitimate organization and you’re strategically planning your team.
“It’s cool to have those conversations when five or six years ago, you’re just another team to a lot of people.”
The club will be looking to build on that, led by local captain Linden Springer – another feather in the team’s cap, as having a local face out in the community is always a good thing. “He does a good job around town of wearing that and all the pressure that comes along with it,” said Radke.
Right now, the club is hoping to build on a strong first half of the season and parlay that into an extended playoff run. Then, of course, when the puck drops on the new season in September, everything changes.
“Next year, it will have a completely different feel when you walk into the rink and all the RBC Cup signage is there,” said Radke. “It’s starting to be something that you can visualize being and I think the players are feeling it too.”
And it’s something they are ready for.
“Combining with the great playoff run we had, it’s just been a great wave to ride and we rode. Just kind of kept the momentum going.”