The mayor of Whitecourt is ready to roll out the welcome mat for the St. Albert Steel to move to his community.
On Friday the financially ailing Alberta Junior Hockey League franchise submitted a request for relocation to Whitecourt for the 2012-13 season.
“From the fans’ standpoint our community will be elated to have them in this community,” Whitecourt Mayor Trevor Thain said on Monday. “We’ve been trying to get a junior A team for about three years. It’s something that this town has been asking for some time because we enjoy our hockey in this town.
“It’s just a matter of being able to have a team that wants to come to the community and an owner that is willing to move them here.”
As per league bylaws, the AJHL’s board of governors appointed a committee, including president Craig Cripps and chairman of the board Greg Wood, to investigate the proposed relocation and report back to the board.
A meeting is scheduled for Friday in Edmonton involving the Steel, St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse and the AJHL’s management committee.
Greg Parks, the head coach, general manager and part owner of the Steel, has not returned the Gazette’s phone calls since the AJHL announced the Steel wanted to relocate to Whitecourt.
Thain also hasn’t talked to Parks about the proposed franchise shift.
“I don’t know what his views are, but if the Steel are wanting to move here, that’s great,” he said.
The Steel would play their home games in the Scott Safety Centre after failing to fill the stands the last five seasons at Servus Credit Union Place.
“The league has taken a look at Whitecourt and has said that we definitely are able to have a junior A team. Our arena is of a good enough quality and the seating is good enough,” Thain said. “It’s actually an old facility but we rejuvenated it last year. We put a little more than $3.5 million into it. It seats about 1,500 and it’s a great facility now. It’s very modern and up to date. There will have to be a minor change to one of the change rooms if we get a junior A team but that’s about it.”
Rumours of the Steel relocating to Whitecourt surfaced after Brent Stark was unsuccessful in buying the Lloydminster Bobcats for $500,000 last year. The Bobcats were looking for a new owner after operating under heavy losses from dwindling fan support and corporate sponsors. An ownership change eventually kept the Bobcats in the Border City.
Stark also operates Scott Safety in Whitecourt and the town’s junior B team, winners of the Northwest league championship four straight years. The coach of the junior B team is Norm Lacombe, who lasted only a few months as the first bench boss in Steel history.
“We were really disappointed when the Lloydminster sale didn’t happen so when we hear things like this, you don’t want to get your hopes up and then have them squashed again, but we’re looking forward to the Steel coming if they come,” Thain said.
Steel governor Kelly Smith was reluctant to talk about the Steel’s relocation plans, but supported Parks’ decision.
“You really do have to talk to Greg because he has all the financial commitment and I don’t,” Smith said Monday. “It all comes back to finances obviously. I don’t have all the facts and figures in front of me, but it would just make good business sense to be in Whitecourt versus St. Albert given the season ticket base and lease arrangements.”
The current five-year agreement between the city and the Steel expires on Aug. 31. The big issue is revenue sharing from advertising in the newly branded Northstar Hyundai Arena.
Parks failed to show up for a March 27 meeting with the city to discuss the Steel’s intentions for the 2012-13 season.
Last week Crouse said he was concerned the Steel were asking St. Albert taxpayers to replace the lost season ticket sales and replace the lost game day sales with taxpayers’ money.
Smith will attend Friday’s meeting and is optimistic about what will transpire.
“I try and see it from all different angles,” said Smith, who is a director on the St. Albert Raiders hockey club executive. “If I was in Greg’s shoes I want to make the best financial deal. If I’m a league guy I want to make sure we have a strong as possible league with the strongest franchises.
“As a St. Albert hockey guy I would certainly like to see the junior team stay, but what I think is almost irrelevant.”
The Steel have lost money since they moved from Fort Saskatchewan to St. Albert in 2007. At the time Parks was the assistant coach, general manager and part owner of the Fort Saskatchewan Traders who played in the AJHL final.
Season ticket sales for the Steel dropped from 454 in the team’s inaugural season to about 75 this past season.
The Steel also averaged 247 fans at home in 2011-12 and missed the playoffs for the first time in team history with a league worst 9-48-3 record.
If the Steel leave St. Albert, it will be the city’s second AJHL team in less than 10 years to relocate to another community
“I’ve sat through a number of governors’ meetings the last couple of years and watched what happened in Lloydminster, so we’ll see,” said Smith. “Certainly something happened in Lloyd to make it change. Maybe something will happen here too.”
He also stick-handled around a request for the names of the Steel’s board of directors for interviews.
“All the board of directors are volunteers who have no financial interest in the team,” he said.