Not taking flight
WINCHESTER – Much like a predatory bird circling its prey, rumours have been swirling around the future of the Winchester Hawks and a general meeting held Thurs., May 24 at the Lions Hall took direct aim at dispelling any untruths about the state of the local CCHL2 franchise.
President and general manager Keith Ashton, treasurer John Adams, assistant GM Dom Menard and head coach Bob Gould chaired the meeting and answered questions from a group of sponsors and supporters looking for clarification on the direction of the team and how it can be reinvigorated.
One of the biggest issues addressed was the financial stability of the franchise and whether it would be here long-term.
“We constantly hear that the team is being sold or folding or bankrupt or whatever, and I don’t know where the hell this stuff comes from because it sure isn’t coming from us,” said Ashton.
The Hawks struggled on the ice and at the gate last season. Combined with the success of the Junior “C” North Dundas Rockets down County Road 43 and the fact that four CCHL2 teams – Brockville, Cobden, Westport and Carleton Place – are owned by Junior “A” teams, the rumours have been persistent over the last several years. Upper tier teams from the CCHL have approached the Hawks several times about a potential purchase because having a feeder team that can develop younger talent would be ideal, but Ashton has turned all the offers away.
“Part of the reason why we’re not interested is because I know that if we ever sold it to a Junior ‘A’ team, and they say, ‘yeah we’ll leave the team here,’ that’s not going to happen. It’ll happen for maybe a year, but sooner or later it’ll be gone and it will be sitting beside the Nepean Sportsplex somewhere,” he said.
The Hawks are a community owned team so any potential sale could be quite complicated according to former Hawks executive member Al Armstrong.
“You wouldn’t be able to sell it even if you wanted to. Unless you change the not-for-profit you can’t sell it. There’s no place for the money to go,” said Armstrong.
Another consistent rumour is that the league will contract to try to balance the number of teams in both Junior “A” and “B” but again the reality is that simply isn’t true according to Menard.
“They can’t contract teams. People have said they’re going to kick you out of the league. We have a constitution. They can’t just contract teams. They dissolved the Eastern Ontario Junior “B” hockey league and they created the CCHL2 and then what they did is they made each team who wanted to get into the new league put money down. Then as a group they decided who was going to come into this new league and that’s how they went from 22 to 16 [teams],” he said. “But the way the constitution is set up now they can’t just decide ‘okay we don’t want you anymore, we’re getting rid of you.’ It’s not that simple.”
Though the franchise is on solid ground financially recording a $10,000 surplus at the end of last year, the fact remains that interest in the community has waned in recent years. In response, Ashton offered this contrite admission.
“As a group, we’re to blame in some regards that we didn’t go out and do enough to promote the team. Most of that was simply we didn’t have the personnel to do it. We probably also got lazy a little bit because of the 50/50. It was so good we didn’t need to do a lot of other things because of it,” he said.
However, Armstrong and the rest of the supporters weren’t interested in placing blame.
“The fact is that there’s a lull and there’s a down point and you’re right, people don’t want to get out, but there’s a lot people that were involved that are angry for some reason. Whether it’s a real reason or a made up reason. A lot of innuendo and rumour came about with the new league. Again, I don’t care who’s fault it is. We all love the Hawks because we’re here. It doesn’t matter if we say ‘it’s all my fault.’ Okay, great. Now what do we do,” asked Armstrong. “I love living in Winchester, I raised my kids here, but if you get a rumour that has good legs, I’ve never seen a town that love to believe it more than anything. They just believe it. That’s just where it’s at right now.”
Owen Shortt, owner of Winchester Travel and Hawks supporter, believes the team can once again be a part of the community fabric.
“What happened out in Saskatchewan made me realize that a hockey team can be part of a community. It can be the backbone of a community and that’s what the Hawks used to be. When I first came to Winchester it was Friday night and you went to the Hawks game and that’s what you did,” he said.
One of the oft-mentioned deterring factors for fans these days is the pay-to-play model for junior players. The average cost for each player is approximately $3,500 and the lack of transparency in what they get for that investment has fuelled some of the backlash towards the franchise. More than $1,700 of the payment goes towards the purchse of league-mandated equipment supplied by CCM. The rest of the money goes towards charter buses, hockey tape, laces, Gatorade, a golf tournament with dinner, a dad’s bus trip to Renfrew, jackets and a mandatory baseline concussion test for each player at the beginning of the season. The Hawks are the only team in the league to do that testing the last two years and have made that part of their team policy.
“We’re charging these players a fair bit of money. Concussions are a big issue today, so we’ll include that in what we’re charging. The parents see that we care about the well-being of the kids. Throughout the season we sent out a couple kids to get tested again when they had concussion symptoms,” said Ashton.
While the cost to play has risen dramatically in the past few years and some players may pay less depending on team and personal circumstances, it is the same story across the league.
“When we had the 50/50 draw and we were bringing in $20,000 a year or whatever it was, we didn’t need to do that. We didn’t need to charge the players. Plus the league wasn’t charging as much as they are now either. But we haven’t had that for two years. The only two things we can do to make it up is charge the players the same as everybody else and increase sponsorship, which we also did,” said Ashton.
Changing regulations with OLG and the time required to run a 50/50 draw just proved to be too much for volunteers within the Hawks organization. When asked what it would take to resurrect the draw, Adams, the team treasurer replied, “a full time employee basically.”
As far as the product on the ice is concerned, there is definitely room for improvement. The Hawks finished the 2017-2018 campaign with a 15-36-1 record, good for 31 points and second last in the league.
In years past, the Hawks were affiliated with the Nepean Raiders, at an annual cost of $5,000, but when Peter Goulet left the organization so did any working relationship with the Junior “A” franchise. Couple that with the Rockets, a competitive team that charges much less to play in Junior “C,” and the Hawks find themselves in the soft middle. Menard, Ashton and head coach Gould have put in countless hours and miles trying to build relationships with upper tier teams, but that will take time.
“What we do have to do as a team in order to be competitive is we have to align ourselves with some of the Junior “A” teams and try to get them to send players to us that aren’t ready to play there,” said Ashton. “A lot of them are aligned with Casselman, Embrun or other teams already and it’s hard to get them to change, but we’ll keep doing that and keep trying to do that. We don’t need a bunch of players. We need a player from here and a player from there.”
Most people will point to the powerhouse Casselman Vikings, who have won five straight league titles, and cry foul, but Menard, a former assistant coach with the Vikings, doesn’t buy that argument.
“We should try to be like them. Why are we saying, ‘oh it’s not fair.’ Let’s try and be that way. We’ve got a bunch of good ideas on how we can increase revenue and that’s one way we can try and be like that. Hopefully we can do our job properly from the hockey end,” he said. “I’d much rather win a league with them in it than with them gone.”
The meeting ended with an overview of the new Jeff O’Neil $1,500-a-year bursary for a Hawk player pursuing higher education and an announcement from Barry Casselman on two new bursaries offered by the Hawks Alumni. The first will be for a local Hawks player that plays a full year with the organization and is registered for a post-secondary education. The second is for a North and South Dundas minor hockey player aged nine to 16 years old, male or female, who is in financial need and wishes to play another year of minor hockey.
The gathering did much to clear the air for supporters and the organization. If the franchise is to continue, it needs volunteers, some fresh ideas to make it run.
Much like the guys that wear the logo and the gear on the ice, to make the Hawks relevant and successful again, it’s going to require a team effort.