COMMUNITY FAN BASES HELP THE B.C. HOCKEY LEAGUE THRIVE
Steve Maxnuk can count on one hand the number of Vernon Vipers home games he has missed since the 1999 season – two of them because of work and one for a friend’s wedding.
“Yes, there was no way I could get out of the wedding,” joked Maxnuk. “I started going with my dad to games when I was just five or six years old. Having a team in town was just something I got attached to. Growing up watching the players, they were like idols to me. It was almost like having an NHL team but in my own backyard.”
In his 22nd year as a season ticket holder, you can hear the excitement in his voice as he talks about the 2011-12 B.C. Hockey League season. While the years have been easy on Maxnuk – the Vipers are six-time national champions and have won 12 Fred Page Cups as BCHL champs – it's not the titles that keep him coming back.
“The BCHL is a fast, competitive league and the players have a lot of skill. It doesn't matter that they are 16 to 20-year-olds, on most nights in this league you are in for a pretty exciting hockey game,” said Maxnuk.
Vernon boasts one of the highest average attendance numbers in the league year-after-year. Couple that atmosphere with the fun of bantering with other fans in his section, Maxnuk said fans often get together during intermissions to host their own “coaches corner,” and there is always the possibility you are watching players who may move to a bigger stage one day. Duncan Keith, Brett Hull, Scott Gomez and Mark Recchi are just a few NHLers who once toiled in the league.
BCHL commissioner John Grisdale said the fact the league is celebrating its 50th anniversary is no fluke. And recent RBC Cup championships, along with being chosen by Hockey Canada as host of the World Junior A Challenge three of the past six years is proof the league can deliver.
“The 16 clubs provide a very exciting brand of hockey. Each of the teams are really the focus of their community, like the Canucks of Vancouver the fans really glom onto them. Then you add the calibre of play and interest in the B.C. Hockey League from players all over North America, it makes for quality hockey,” said Grisdale, adding last year the league set a record with 128 players receiving scholarships from U.S. or Canadian universities.
To keep the junior game healthy in the province the league has put in promotions to ensure the fans have a good time when they come to the arena. In honour of the 50th year, a special promotion is happening Nov. 25 and 26, known as Rivalry Weekend. This is a team challenge with money raised through 50/50 collections going to the B.C. Children's Hospital.
“We are really encouraging fans to support it knowing that money is going to B.C. Children's Hospital. Teams will play their rival and invite fans out to raise the most amount of money,” said Grisdale.
Charity work is just one of the ways teams stay connected to their communities. In a typical week players make appearances at special events, parades and schools to read to/with students or just to play a game of floor hockey.
“I think player accessibility is great in this league. The fans get to know the players and the players are part of the community,” said Nanaimo Clippers director of sales and marketing Jen Kennedy. “Nanaimo latches onto players no matter where they come from and I think it is truly that connection the players have with the fans that creates loyalty and support from any community that hosts a B.C. Hockey League team.”
The Clippers, who are co-owned by former NHLer and Team Canada alumnus Kelly Hrudey, have established such a strong hockey culture they see former players wanting to return. Michael Olson, who played with the Clippers from 20, now serves as an assistant coach.
“For me it was the whole culture — the host family, the community and their love for the game and the success I had here,” Olson said of why he came back. “This is a great place for me to start coaching because it is also a way for me to give back to a community and organization that did so much for me.”
Having played in the college ranks and half of a season in the ECHL, Olson said the appeal of BCHL for fans stems from the passion in the players.
“I think junior hockey fans enjoy watching because it's exciting every single night and the kids give everything they possibly have each game. There are 40 kids hitting that ice working for two points and doing everything they possibly can to win that game. The entertainment value is there because of that,” said Olson.