By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – On the ice, the Timmins Rock have the fourth-best winning percentage in the NOJHL and that success has certainly translated well at the box office.
After finishing second in attendance to the Soo Eagles in last year’s campaign, the franchise’s first back in Timmins, the Rock have soared to top spot in the league this season.
The Rock are averaging 740 fans per game, up 145 from 2015-16 and 143 more than the Eagles, who rank second in attendance.
“We feel like we are gaining traction with our fans and we actually think the numbers will get better,” said Rock president Scott Marshall.
“We see this as kind of a turning point season for the Rock. Timmins is really starting to adopt the team as its own. We are really excited moving forward. We think it is just going to get better and better.”
Rock attendance certainly received a big boost when the team was able to attract 1,662 fans to the Nov. 26 contest against the NOJHL-leading Powassan Voodoos as part of the Rogers Hometown Hockey celebrations.
That, like the team’s 25-11-3-0 record, is only part of the success story, however.
“This year, we have been able to put additional energy into involvement in the community,” Marshall said.
“We have been out there more in the community and that has had a positive impact on attendance. People feel the Timmins Rock are part of the community.
“We have a great group of players this year, really good character kids, who really enjoy being part of the community and Tracy Hautanen has been doing a lot of good work getting the boys involved. It has been a win-win for everybody.”
The Rock have also done a good job this season of attracting younger fans to the game, with a number of initiatives such as the Chuck a Puck in support of KidSport, the Goldcorp Shoot to Win competition and autograph sessions with players whose likeness is featured on hockey cards after each contest.
“When you go to games, you will see fans from two to 92,” Marshall said.
“Our games have become really nice community events, with people being able to get together instead of sitting at home.”
With the franchise in its second year back in Timmins, after spending 16 years in Iroquois Falls, the Rock have a far better idea of which days of the week work best, as well.
“For whatever reason, Saturday night’s seem to be the best nights for us to have home games,” Marshall said.
“That would be followed by Friday and we had great attendance at our last Sunday game, which was in the evening.”
Saturday nights are, of course, popular right across the NOJHL.
“I wish we could get more Saturday night home games in, but it’s tough with the schedule and the geography,” Marshall said.
“Everybody wants to play at home on Saturday nights and you don’t have to be much of a mathematician to figure out that everybody can’t play 28 Saturday night home games. There are only so many Saturday nights in a season.”
As strong as the Rock’s attendance has been this season, Marshall feels the team is capable of pushing its average closer to 1,000.
“We really feel with the right on-ice product, that number is achievable,” he said.
“In some respects, it is unfair to compare ourselves to other franchises in the league given that some of them are not the No. 1 teams in their communities. They are competing against Major Junior ‘A.’ In addition, some of these communities are much smaller than Timmins. It’s OK to puff your chest and say we are averaging 740 fans per game, but in a lot of respects you are comparing apples and oranges.
“We really believe the potential in Timmins is 1,000 fans per game, but it is up to us to get the product on the ice.”
NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca likes the direction the Rock are headed in Year 2 back in Timmins.
“It is very encouraging,” he said.
“It is obvious their marketing plan, the product they are putting on the ice and what they are doing within the community is attracting more fans to their games, which is fantastic.”
The Rock are one of four NOJHL franchises that have seen an increase in attendance so far in 2016-17.
No. 2 in terms of increased attendance this season are the Espanola Express, up 87 fans per game, followed by the French River Rapids, up 45 fans per game, and the Blind River Beavers, up nine fans per game.
Mazzuca is equally encouraged by those results.
“The interesting thing about those three franchises, when you look at Espanola as an example, when they originally came back to the league last year, they knew it would take a couple of years to get people back in the arena because of the previous organization that was there,” he said.
“The same thing with French River. They seem to be doing a great job marketing and getting the fans out, which is encouraging, as well.
“Blind River is a good example of putting a better product on the ice and doing a better job of attracting fans within the community. It goes to show you if you have a winning product, and they have been very successful this year, it attracts people, which is great.”
Beavers fans had endured some pretty lean years prior to the 2016-17 campaign, but coach Kyle Brick has them in second place in the West Division standings just 10 points behind the Soo Thunderbirds.
“They have a great facility (Blind River Community Centre), with good dressing rooms,” Mazzuca said.
“They worked hard in the off season recruiting and the board of directors has worked very hard off the ice and the people of the community seem to be welcoming it and they are developing some rivalries with Elliot Lake and Espanola. Some of those rivalries that started last year and continuing this year and it seems to be working out well for everybody.”
While the Eagles, the NOJHL’s only U.S.-based franchise, are down an average of 25 fans this season, the remain No. 2 in the league with 597 fans per game.
Traditionally, success on the ice is reflected in attendance, but that has not necessarily been the case in the league this season.
Strangely, the three NOJHL franchises with the best records this season — the Voodoos (35-5-1-1), the Soo Thunderbirds (30-11-1-0) and the Cochrane Crunch (28-11-4-1) — rank third (down 88 fans per game), second (down 121 fans per game) and first (down 169 fans per game) in terms of the largest attendance decrease respectively in 2016-17.
“The Soo is not that surprising and I don’t think the variance in Powassan is that much, per say,” Mazzuca said.
“It all depends how they sell season tickets and they have flex packages for different things, but the one concerning one for me, honestly and disappointingly, is Cochrane.
“Crunch coach and general manager) Ryan (Leonard) has done an outstanding job on and off the ice. There is no better recruiter in our league than Ryan Leonard. They have had success on the ice since they moved to Cochrane and they are continuing that success, so from my point of view it is very concerning.
“Their decline in attendance is significant in many ways and it is very concerning for the league. We have ongoing discussions on how to attract more fans.
“The team itself is consistent from year to year. They play a brand of hockey you would think would be appealing to fans in the community, but obviously something is not quite working.
“We have to find out what that missing link is and put it together. I know Ryan and (Crunch co-owner) Katherine (Leonard) go out of their way for their fans and they play in a beautiful facility. They have brand-new TVs everywhere. They have a beautiful lounge in there upstairs.
“It is a perfect market and a perfect facility. The team is doing well, but they just don’t seem to be … and I don’t know what it is. Is it the way our schedule works? We are looking at all kinds of things like schedule dates from this season to last season when we had games on certain weekends. Does that have an affect. Maybe we have to tweak our schedule a little bit.
In addition, the Crunch and their players are heavily involved in the community and not just during hockey season.
“Off ice is probably one of the more critical things for any franchise, not just in Cochrane,” Mazzuca said.
“All of our teams are very involved in their communities with a variety of different things, such as Pink the Rink, shovelling snow for seniors, carrying groceries. We are very committed to our communities. It is part of the whole Junior ‘A’ experience. I am sure all the kids really enjoy it.”
On the ice, the commissioner is very happy with the competitive balance in the NOJHL this season.
“I am very pleased with how on any given night, you don’t know which team is going to win,” he said.
“In my six years as commissioner, this is probably the most competitive the league has been. You have a couple of favourites, but the gap between the top, the middle and the bottom is not that much.
“The parity is great, but as commissioner I am always concerned about expenses and costs, how teams are doing in things like attendance. All of these operators, whether they are not-for-profit, or private, they are not making a lot of money.
“The expenses are things like scheduling and bus costs. One of our largest costs that each team has, on average, is our officiating costs. It is pretty high and we are trying to find ways to reduce those costs, while at the same time trying to raise the standards and the level of officiating in the league.”
(First figure represents 2016-17 season average, while figure in brackets is the 2015-16 season average and the final number represents the average increase or decrease.)
Timmins Rock: 740(595), up 145;
Espanola Express: 268(181), up 087;
French River Rapids: 253(208), up 045;
Blind River Beavers: 207 (198), up 9;
Soo Eagles: 597(622), down 25;
Rayside-Balfour Canadians: 167(219), down 52;
Kirkland Lake Gold Miners: 286(349), down 63;
Iroquois Falls Eskis: 356(436), down 80;
Elliot Lake Wildcats: 304(387), down 83;
Powassan Voodoos: 191(279), down 88;
Soo Thunderbirds: 170(291), down 121.
Cochrane Crunch: 249(418), down 169