Whitehorse Huskies season a no go

After rising from the ashes last season after 16 dormant years, the Whitehorse Huskies AAA men's hockey team has decided to scrub the 2010/2011 season due to financial restraints.

Curious thought: When CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada comes to Whitehorse on February 12 to celebrate Hockey Day in Canada, what will CBC executives – and Don Cherry and Ron MacLean for that matter – think on hearing the Whitehorse Huskies are cancelling the season due to a lack of local support?

After rising from the ashes last season after 16 dormant years, the Whitehorse Huskies AAA men’s hockey team has decided to scrub the 2010/2011 season due to financial restraints resulting from increasingly low attendance to games last season.

Seems a bit ironic, considering Whitehorse will be the centre of the hockey universe on Hockey Day.

“It’s too costly,” said Clayton Thomas, the team’s former owner and player who was instrumental in resurrecting the team a year ago. “It’s just too expensive.”

With Whitehorse so geographically isolated from other AAA teams, the Huskies, on top of their own expenses, had to cover the travel and accommodation expenses of visiting teams last season, costs that would go well into the thousands of dollars.

While at first it looked financially feasible, exceeding the roughly 500 necessary ticket sales to cover the visiting teams’ expenses in the opening games, by the end of the season numbers were coming up significantly short.

Approximately 770 fans attended the Huskies’ season opener on November 20, 2009, a game that saw the Huskies’ only win of the season, going 4-2 over the Powell River Regals.

However, only 514 fans in total attended the Huskies’ final three games in a best-of-five series against the Regals for a spot at the Allan Cup at the start of April. (The Regals went on to win the Allan Cup, Canada’s AAA men’s hockey championship.)

“What I did last year, I’m happy with,” said Thomas. “I thought I gave the town a chance to see some hockey.”

To be considered for the BC provincial championships, to be included in any BC league, or even just playing a few series to be eligible to compete for the Allan Cup like last season, Huskies management – which is seemingly non-existent at this time – would have had to register and fork over about $2,000 by the start of the month. That did not happen.

(Last year’s head coach, Randy Merkel, who actually played on the Huskies’ Allan Cup winning team in 1993 along with assistant coach Jay Glass, decided to step down from the position following difficulties at home. Last year’s general manager, Jim King, has also discontinued his association with the club.)

Although this season has been scrapped, don’t expect another 16-year span for a Huskies team to return to competition.

Even though Thomas has not regained ownership and does not hold any management title with the Huskies, he has organized ongoing weekly scrimmages for the team. But numbers have not been encouraging, with less than 10 coming out to the Wednesday night ice-times at the Canada Games Centre.

“I thought we could get 30 guys out – it’s not even a practice, it’s a scrimmage,” said Thomas.

Nonetheless, Thomas, who himself will be out of the territory for a few months this season for work, is not ready to toss the team jerseys into storage. If numbers pick up, the Huskies could try to schedule a road trip to a tournament in the New Year. In fact, Thomas purchased a school bus in preparation for such trips.

“We’re looking to skate this year, stay in shape and maybe go to a tournament,” he said.

Looking further ahead, Thomas feels the logical move would be for the AAA team to downgrade to AA.

“I don’t think we’d even play much; we’d go out a couple times year,” said Thomas. “There’d be more road trips and possibly bring in a team once a year. We’d probably put in for provincials every year – that would be tough because we’d have to pay a bunch of money.”

The move to AA would have some benefits. With AAA teams often housing former professionals, that level of play requires higher degrees of dedication, where AA, while requiring defined skills, would be less demanding on players.

“I played AA in Fairview, and the boys just came to games, they didn’t practice,” said Thomas. “These were guys who worked. And that’s how every town has one of these teams. It was like rec league but there was contact and fans came out.”

Furthermore, just keeping some remnants of the team on the ice once a week could lead to far-off successes. With more than a half dozen high-level athletes playing Junior A, Junior B and university level hockey outside the territory, a AA Huskies team could be a force to be reckoned with in the future when some of those skilled players return home.

“What I’m trying to do is wait for some kids to get back from school,” said Thomas. “There’s a pretty good group of kids that could put together a AA team that could win any championship they go to.”

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