The Alberta Junior Hockey League is one of the top junior leagues in Alberta, but the league is having a tough time attracting fans in the province’s largest city.
Calgary has two teams in the AJHL, the Calgary Canucks and the Calgary Mustangs. The Canucks have been playing since 1971 and the Mustangs joined the league in 1990.
The Canucks and Mustangs have been successful throughout the years. They have both won championships (The Canucks have won nine titles most recently in 1999, while the Mustangs won their only championship in their inaugural season in 1990) and have been consistent playoff teams throughout their existence. But lately, any success for both teams has been overshadowed by the lack of attendance at their games.
For the 2017-18 season, the Canucks and Mustangs were dead last in league attendance, averaging 207 and 151 people a game respectively. The Canucks Max Bell Arena can hold up to 3,000 people, while the Mustangs Father David Bauer Arena holds 1,750.
It is a problem that stems from having lots of competition for hockey fans within the city. The Canucks governor, Sandy Edmonstone, finds that there are many reasons for those fans to turn elsewhere, due to the large amount of high level teams in the city.
According to Edmonstone, the teams the Canucks are in competition with include “the Calgary Flames, the Calgary Hitmen, University of Calgary Dinos, Mount Royal Cougars, SAIT, and if you want to go a step below, we also have the Calgary Mustangs.”
The Mustangs often experience the same issues according to the chairman of the team’s board of directors, Mike Martin.
“Hockey is entertainment,” says Martin, “you’re competing with the Flames ultimately, the Hitmen, and of course you have the Canucks and the Mustangs. There’s a lot of organizations. We’re not the only show in town.”
David Finch, a marketing professor at Mount Royal University who has worked with the AJHL in the past, says that the historically strong AJHL franchises in smaller communities, such as the Grand Prairie Storm and the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, face less competition.
By comparison, Finch says, “In a place like Grand Prairie, the Storm are the team. The players are rock stars, they’re in the schools, they are a part of the community. What that does is cascade, and that becomes a big part of the social fabric of the community.”
Finch added that for teams in the AJHL, “you’re competing less for money, and more for time,” which is challenging for minor league teams in a large market like Calgary.
Edmonstone states that despite being in a large city with lots of amenities, Calgary has become one of the least attractive places for players because of the dwindling attendance numbers for both teams, hurting both teams efforts to put a good product to sell on the ice.
“We should naturally be a draw for players to want to come to the big city. It works in the opposite, because we don’t attract a lot of fans. Good players, both from Calgary and not from Calgary, they actually want to go to a small town and play where they get a lot of fans and are well regarded in the community.”
Mustangs forward Yuri Chernichko knows all too well that people are not attending games in Calgary.
“We joke about it, but it’s kind of disheartening to see, when you go out there and it’s all just empty stands,” says Chernichko. “Then you go to somewhere like Brooks or Fort Mac, and you see packed barns and the crowd going wild.”
When asked about how the low attendance affects his team, Canucks assistant coach Jason Hanna says, “It’s definitely discouraging when you go to some to rinks and you’re playing in front of 1,000 people and then at home you’re playing in front of 200 people.”
But both teams don’t have bad attendance for every game. Edmonstone states that Canucks playoff games have great attendance, as do games that are based around a specific event, like honoring a former player.
Hanna adds that a minor hockey team came to watch the Canucks play, increasing the attendance for that game.
Martin says that the Mustangs had a military appreciation game on Remembrance Day last season that drew in a great crowd as well.
The Canucks have also spent a lot of time trying to raise awareness for the team in the community by working in schools and with minor hockey teams.
“Really what we need is awareness because that will bring people in,” Edmonstone says.
Both teams also point out that going to an AJHL game is cheap compared to their big-league counterparts.
“Going to a Hitmen game is expensive,” explains Edmonstone. “You’ve got to pay 15 bucks just to park, let alone the cost of the tickets. Our parking is free, kids are free, a ticket for an adult is 12 bucks. You can get yourself and two kids to a game for under 25 bucks no problem.”
Edmonstone states that the Canucks have looked at many different options to improve low attendance but have found little luck doing so.
“We’ve tried to work with the city, and haven’t had much success in them trying to help manage our costs,” Edmonstone says. “The city has interestingly enough had a different policy for different groups that rent ice, so our ice rental costs are our biggest cost.”
For its own part, a spokesperson for the city said that the Canucks are charged as an adult group ($268.90 an hour) for their games, and are charged as a minor group ($200.30 an hour) for their practices.
The city believes this is a fair deal as the Canucks are selling tickets and concessions during games, whereas they don’t for practices.
However, Edmonstone adds that the Canucks also have a positive impact on the economy, when factoring in road teams coming to town and spending money, as well as the scholarships that Canuck players have received over the years.
Despite that impact, low attendance numbers are something that could bring an end to Junior A hockey in Calgary.
Finch said that “this has been a problem that goes back decades.”
He continues, “I remember when the new commissioner [Craig Cripps] came on board, when I was there in 2003-04. What he announced literally in his first press conference was, ‘we’re not going to get distracted by the health of these franchises. They’re either going to live, or they’re going to die, and if they die, then we focus on places that are going to be successful.’”
Martin explains that the Mustangs have been able to survive with their attendance staying the same but that it does create challenges for the team.
“If we’re going to the same watering hole everyday and there’s no water, that particular watering hole has dried up so it may result in the team being moved. It may [also] result in the team staying there and everyone’s satisfied with the way it’s going or any number of things.”
Though it’s his final season with the Mustangs, Chernichko hopes that both the Mustangs and Canucks will be able to fix their attendance woes.
“I think if people would come out and watch, the local talent here is something else. We’ve got a lot of good young players who come out and play junior A. It’s pretty cheap to come watch a game and its great hockey.”
- By Jackson Reed