Wednesday July 23, 2014






Drinnan: Players did their part, now it's up to owners

April 16, 2012.

If Feb. 3, 1959, was the day the music died, then April 16, 2012, may in time be remembered as the day major junior hockey came back to life in Kamloops.

By the time the next generation looks back at what transpired on Monday night, attendance in the 5,464-seat Interior Savings Centre will have been 35,000. Or more.

You had to be among the 5,080 who really were in attendance to believe what you were experiencing, and even then it was tough for your brain to comprehend what your eyes were seeing and your ears were hearing.

It was Game 6 of a best-of-seven WHL Western Conference semifinal featuring the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks.  

The Blazers trailed 5-2 with 15 minutes left in the third period. They scored five times and won 7-6, to prolong their season.

But that was only part of the story.

There are people who say it was louder in that building on Monday than it was on May 21, 1995, when the Blazers beat the Detroit Junior Red Wings 8-2 in the Memorial Cup final.

At game's end, with the Blazers having left the ice for their dressing room, the fans stood and roared. And it got even louder when the players returned for a curtain call.

For at least a few days, it signalled a reconnection with what has been a shrinking fan base.

The Blazers, of course, would have their season end with a 2-0 loss in Portland on Wednesday night.

"That's all she wrote," tweeted defenceman Austin Madaisky. "Left it all out there."

They also left people talking about them in a positive fashion, something that hasn't happened after too many recent seasons.

The guy stocking the drink machines in Walmart was talking about the Blazers.

While my neighbour was watching NHL playoffs on Wednesday night, his wife was listening to the radio. She admits that she couldn't stay glued to it, so it was a matter of turning it on, not being able to take it, turning it off. Repeat.

It had been a long time since the phone on my desk rang and it was someone who began the conversation by talking about some Blazers-induced excitment. But that was the case on Tuesday.

The buzz was back, at least for a couple of days. It's just too bad the Blazers weren't able to take advantage of the situation by holding a meet-and-greet for players and fans on Thursday, before the players began leaving town.

Let's not forget, however, that attendance declined this season over last. While the Blazers mounted a marvellous season, winning the B.C. Division and being in contention for the WHL's best record right into the regular season's final week, they actually drew fewer fans than they did in 2010-11, when they missed the playoffs.

And let's not forget that Games 3 and 4 of the series with Portland drew the third- and fourth-smallest playoff crowds in the history of the facility, which opened for the 1992-93 season.

Riverside Coliseum - today, Interior Savings Centre - has played host to 76 playoff games. Only twice has attendance been poorer than what it was for those two games.

Monday's crowd, which was a few hundred short of capacity, was the largest since the spring of 1999, when the Blazers met the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL's championship final.

Of course, the Blazers, then coached by Marc Habscheid, lost that series in five games to a Calgary team that was coached by Dean Clark.

We all know of the turmoil the Kamloops franchise has gone through in the intervening years, how there has seemed to have been a black cloud hovering over all things Blazers for the last number of years.

Bob Brown, at the time the most successful general manager in the major junior game, was dismissed in May 1995, just days after the Blazers had won their third Memorial Cup in four years.

Habscheid's contract wasn't renewed after the Blazers lost that 1999 final.

There was a time when Kamloops was to Canada what Detroit has been to the United States - Hockeytown. There was good reason why Kamloops came to be known as Little Montreal.

Only time will tell if the latest edition of the Blazers has been able to eradicate the Curse of Brownie and/or the Curse of Habby.

On the ice, these latest Blazers enjoyed a marvellous season. In fact, it was the franchise's finest hour since 1998-99.

Since then, there had been a lot of stumbles and mis-steps, missed checks and missed cheques, if you will. This season, though, was a pleasant revelation, coming on the heels, the way it did, of a season that had been such an embarrassment, one highlighted by a horrid lack of discipline.

This, though, was the season the fun returned to the Blazers' dressing room and the smile returned to the countenance of head coach Guy Charron. Whether it was the arrival of associate coach Dave Hunchak, a man who brought seven years of WHL coaching experience to the organization, the smiling and scoring of French/Swiss swizzler Tim Bozon or the fundamentally sound and consistent goaltending provided by Cole Cheveldave, the Blazers had a different outlook on life this season.

As proof, look no further than the end of each home game. They dumped that childish video-game gimmick of last season in favour of a more mature salute to the fans and they did it after every game, win or lose.

And there were far more wins than losses as they ransacked the B.C. Division and proved they could play with the best in the Western Conference. No more did teams come to Kamloops for the shopping and a stroll through Riverside Park, knowing they would go home with two points in their hip pocket.

But while all this was going on, there were empty seats in the arena.

In 2010-11, a season that may go down as perhaps the worst in franchise history, the average announced attendance was 4,206. This season, one that featured a remarkable turnaround and some fun, entertaining hockey, that figure was 4,176.

An arena that once was full almost every night had one capacity crowd. On March 7, the Blazers beat Portland 5-1 before 5,693 fans. It was the final 'rain check night' of the season; they also gathered to watch long-time employee Greg (Spike) Wallace receive the WHL's Distinguished Service Award. The next morning, Wallace, 54, was gone, a press release claiming that after being part of the organization since 1984, he had left "by mutual agreement . . . to pursue other initiatives."

Throw in the playoffs and there were four crowds of better than 5,000; there were 15 of fewer than 4,000.

This is the 10th straight season - and the 13th time in the last 14 seasons - that attendance has declined. There is, it would seem, a disconnect between the Blazers and the community.

The onus is on the Blazers, not the fans, to close that gap. This season, the players certainly did their part. Now it's up to ownership.

The present ownership group has completed five seasons in the driver's seat. With majority owner Tom Gaglardi having spent a few shekels to purchase the NHL's Dallas Stars, it is time for the Blazers' owners to put some money into their WHL franchise.

The organization is in need of a president, someone who lives in Kamloops and is the face of the franchise. Someone who can oversee things, who can bridge the hockey and business operations. Someone who can ask why some things are done and some aren't.

The marketing department, such as it is, needs another body or two, preferably someone with experience in selling major junior hockey.

The theory has been that once the team started winning again, the fans would come back. That didn't happen. Surely, then, it's time to rethink the game presentation and marketing aspect of the operation.

The players have done their part to restore the roar; now it's up to the owners.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)





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