IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos are staying in Iroquois Falls, at least for the 2014-15 Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League season.
Eskimos president Scott Marshall made that announcement to a packed-to-beyond-capacity crowd at the Iroquois Falls Curling Club during a community meeting Thursday night.
The decision was made based upon the overwhelming response of those in attendance at the meeting to gauge the level of support in the community for keeping the franchise at the Jus Jordan Arena.
Marshall and the other members of the Eskimos board of directors were impressed by the level of passion shown by Iroquois Falls residents determined to keep the team in the community.
“It was just awesome and in fact somebody was just telling me there were quite a few people who came to the door and saw how full it was and did a u-turn,” Marshall said.
“We weren’t sure what to expect tonight, but obviously there is some interest in keeping the team here.
“We have always known the support is here, but the message we are trying to get out is that we need to make our hard-core group of 400 bigger.
“I can’t imagine the response being any better. It was all positive. Everybody wants the team and I think everybody is willing to chip in and help out.”
Hopefully the enthusiasm demonstrated Thursday night will translate into the Eskimos being able to reach some financial goals the team has set.
Sustainability targets call for the Eskimos to sell 300 season tickets by May 31, an increase of roughly 80 over the number sold for the 2013-14 season.
Overall, the Eskimos are looking to boost average attendance to at least 600 fans a game from the 440 it averaged during the 2013-14 campaign.
That number was up just slightly from 2012-13 when the Eskimos averaged 438 fans per game.
It would return the club to a level close to 2011-12, when average attendance was at 610 fans per game.
“Over the years, the fan base has continued to go down,” said Greg Wickens, a member of the Eskimos board of directors.
“So, this is going to be a pivotal year for the team and ever year after that it is going to be very important that we have a way of sustaining the team here.
“We need 300 season tickets sold by May 31 of this year. That’s a pretty big commitment, but it is what the team needs to be self-sufficent and continue to operate.
“It is a harsh reality, but if we do not get this year after year the team will not succeed.”
The club is also looking to raise $100,000 in corporate partnerships, $25,000 through Honour Wall contributions and $15,000 through fundraisers.
“The purpose of the meeting was to determine what we are going to do with this hockey team,” Marshall said, at the start of Thursday’s gathering.
“We had discussions at the board level about what we need to do to sustain the franchise. We talked about relocation. We talked about different ideas, but at one point we finally said you know what really this team doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the community.
“So, before we make any decisions like that, lets reach out to the community and lets try to see what level of support is out there.
“During the regular season, it wasn’t there and when you are volunteering and putting in all these hours and you go to the rink Saturday night and there are only 400 people there week after week, game after game, after a while you start to say maybe we are beating our heads against the wall here.
“That’s why we called the meeting.”
In some ways, the Eskimos are part of the fabric of community life in Iroquois Falls.
“Once a week, or twice a week, the whole community comes together,” Marshall said.
“Four year olds, 94 year olds, everybody gets out of the house and goes as a group and it comes part of who we are. If you drive down Main Street in Iroquois Falls on a Saturday night when the Eskimos are out of town it is dead, there is nothing here, but when we are playing the whole town comes alive. We see people we haven’t seen for a week. We get caught up on the news. It is a terrific community family outing.”
Marshall noted the Eskimos are “geographically challenged” when it comes to operating as a Junior ‘A’ franchise.
“Before Kirkland Lake came into the league, our shortest road trip was Sudbury, four hours,” he said.
“Teams in the southern OJHL wouldn’t think of travelling more than an hour for a game, and that is our short trip.
“When the Soo Eagles, in Michigan, were in the league, nine, or 10 hours one way, by the time you get across the bridge.
“This has a big impact on our player recruitment. We can sign players from anywhere in North America. We can have up to, this year it was seven Americans, this coming year it is going to be six, and it will go down to five.
“We have had players from all across Canada and we have had them from California, we have had them from Florida, but my point is this you have 128 teams (CJHL franchises across Canada) and they are all competing to attract players.
“Because we are geographically challenged, it is difficult for us to get the better players to report here. They all want to go to the bigger centres.”
The Eskimos remain one of the few Junior ‘A’ franchises across Canada that does not charge players a fee to play.
“In the Ottawa league, for example, I think the cost is $3,500 to play junior hockey,” Marshall said.
“We don’t believe in that. If people are paying money to watch these kids play hockey, they shouldn’t have to pay to get on the ice. In some markets, they have no choice, but we are the only team in our league that does not charge.”
That comment drew a loud round of applause, although a few people did question whether it should be revisited given the financial state of the team.
“When we are trying to recruit players, because of where we are, we need to throw up as few stop signs as possible,” Marshall said.
“I firmly believe that if we charge any kind of fee to these players it is going to affect the on-ice product. There are going to be players who do not come here because they don’t want to play.”
One fan in attendance at the meeting suggested “quite a few guys come to games and when the Eskimos are losing all the time, they don’t come back.”
Marshall addressed that concern by pointing out: “This all comes back to recruiting and money. When we are competing for players, say we are trying to attract a first-line winger from Saskatchewan, well he is a first-line player, so there are going to be lots of teams that are interested in him. So, if you have the resources, as an example to assist him with the travel costs, or you can offer him a scholarship, this all helps. And what happens, unfortunately, is the team isn’t doing well financially and it ends up reflecting on the ice and you get on a bad cycle, the team gets worse and worse and worse and people don’t come out. The only way to break that cycle and I think we did a good job of it this year, is to spend money on the recruiting process. There are only so many good Junior ‘A’ players in Canada and the United States. You have to get the wheel going the right way, so that you can put more fans in the stands and recruit better players.”
Marshall, and other members of the Eskimos board of directors, provided an update of the team’s financial picture.
The Eskimos operate with an annual budget of nearly $250,000 per season.
“That is a lot of money for a very small community that is kind of going through some tough times now,” Marshall said.
Since the franchise was relocated to Iroquois Falls in 1999, the Eskimos have generated $2.9 million in revenue and made $3 million in expenditures.
That figure includes: $175,000 in van expenses to transport players from Timmins for practices and games; $236,000 for ice rentals; $590,000 for busing to out-of-town games (regular season, not counting playoffs); $98,000 for education (scholarships); $174,000 for meals; and $434,000 for room and board.
Revenues generated in that time frame include: $907,000 from corporate sponsors; $650,000 from regular season home games; $187,000 (net) from playoff games; $350,000 from the sale of season tickets; $347,000 from TV bingos; and $118,000 from the Honour Wall.
In an effort to help boost revenues, the Eskimos are raising ticket prices for the 2014-15 season.
“We haven’t had an adjustment in pricing for tickets for games, for gates, or season tickets since 2008,” said Rick Charlebois, a member of the Eskimos board of directors.
“I don’t know about you, but I think the price of most things have gone up in six years and unfortunately we have to deal with it. Fuel, transportation, food, everything goes up.”
Adult tickets will sell for $12, seniors and students for $10 and children $5. The family price for two adults and the family’s own children will be $30.
Season tickets will be sold for $250 for adults, $200 for senior and students, $100 for children $12 and under and $600 for families.
Comtix packages will be offered for $275.