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Debt threatens Canmore Eagles future in valley

The Canmore Eagles franchise is on life support. Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt, with more red ink on the horizon, the AJHL’s Canmore Eagles haven’t turned a profit since 2006.

The Canmore Eagles franchise is on life support.

Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt, with more red ink on the horizon, the AJHL’s Canmore Eagles haven’t turned a profit since 2006. During their worst season in history, the team lost $50,000 while the season ticket base dwindled to one-third of peak levels.

With such a grim financial picture, the question begs – is this the last flight of the Canmore Eagles?

“We obviously can’t continue to operate with these kinds of losses year after year. Simply put, our expenses are greater than our revenue and we can’t cut expenses any more than we have,” said team president Daryl Lockwood.

Most AJHL teams have swaths of employees to support their club, supported by sponsorship dollars and ticket sales in larger arenas. Cities such as Fort McMurray draw nearly 2,000 fans for games to finance their operation, while the Eagles only had two sellouts last year. Too often, the arena was less than a quarter full.

The Eagles currently have three full-time staff members: head coach and general manager Andrew Milne, assistant coach and general manager Jeremy Reich and marketing manager John Ross.

“It costs a lot of money to operate a junior A hockey club – ice rental fees, equipment, busing, gasoline, hotels, food, league fees and a couple of salaries all add up pretty quickly,” Lockwood said.

They’ve solicited the community for sponsorships and the Town of Canmore agreed to postpone bills for ice time for the next two years.

“From an expenditure perspective, we are as ‘financially frugal’ as possible. We have three paid employees, by far the lowest in the league and rely on a terrific group of volunteers to get us through on game days,” Lockwood said. “We are a bare-bones organization. We try to supplement our revenue by doing as many fundraising activities as we can such as casinos, poker tournaments, Christmas tree sales, car washes and hockey drafts.”

While Canmore is by no means a poor community, the Eagles haven’t been able to secure major corporate sponsorship deals. Many northern teams draw from oil and gas and agricultural operations, while the Eagles haven’t been able to tap into the riches of the Bow Valley.

“Our biggest problem is the lack of major corporate sponsorship. We simply don’t have access to the funds that big ‘oil and gas’ and ‘agricultural’ companies bestow on some of our competitors in Fort McMurray, Lloydminster, Grande Prairie, Bonnyville, Whitecourt, Drayton Valley, Brooks or Camrose,” said Lockwood.

“Like any sporting business, we also need bums in the seats to support us. We have the smallest rink in the league with 675 seats, so it’s imperative that we try to fill the stands. Some teams make more money on their 50-50 draws than we do on our game ticket revenue.

“But, as we enter the 2012/2013 season, we are encouraged that our fan base is coming back. We averaged 500 fans for our last 10 games last season, and had two sellouts. If we could do that for a full season, we would be OK.”

The team has had suitors and Lockwood thinks the franchise is worth about $500,000. If things don’t turn around, owners could have little choice but to sell the franchise.

“We’re going to try our best to turn this operation around, but if we lose money again this season, we will probably have no other option but to sell the club to another Alberta town looking for a junior A franchise. If we sell the club, we could pay off our debts, provide some severance to our employees, and pretty much call it a day,” Lockwood said.

Losing the club would hurt the local hockey program, he believes. The team helps promote Canmore across the province, Lockwood says, and keeps high level local players in the community.

“We provide a place for Bow Valley hockey players to experience junior A hockey without having to leave their home. Instead of travelling to other parts of the province to advance their hockey skills, local boys can still live at home and finish their schooling. We are proud to have five Bow Valley boys playing on the club this year.

We have also fostered a very positive relationship with Canmore Minor Hockey and try to assist them in their hockey development whenever possible,” he said.

For that to happen, the team needs to find more corporate sponsorship. If they can break even, the team, which is run as a not for profit, can survive in the Bow Valley.

“We will beat every bush for both community and corporate support. But you know, at the end of the day, if the support is just not there you have to be realistic and face the cold hard fact that the team can’t survive here anymore,” said Lockwood.

“But at least in my heart, I know that I will have done everything in my power to keep the team here. It will be a very sad day for a lot of hockey fans in this town if we lose the Eagles. Unfortunately, once the club leaves, it will probably never come back.”

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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