St. Albert lost its second Alberta Junior Hockey League team in less than 10 years, when on Wednesday the board of governors unanimously approved a request by the Steel to relocate to Whitecourt for the 2012/13 season.
In 2004 the St. Albert Saints moved to Spruce Grove. The AJHL returned to St. Albert in 2007 with the relocation of the Fort Saskatchewan Traders.
Mayor Nolan Crouse doubts an AJHL team will resurface in St. Albert in the near future.
“As long as you have the current group of governors and the current president, likely not, because their memories are linked to the two teams that left,” Crouse said.
The Steel filed for relocation under the same ownership March 30.
On April 6 in Nisku the AJHL’s management committee met separately with Crouse and Steel representatives Greg Parks and Kelly Smith to discuss the future of the money-losing franchise. Crouse’s presentation included details of the old contract and the new offer, the amount of money the Steel owed the city, attendance figures, financial statements and correspondence.
AJHL president Craig Cripps said he had mixed emotions about seeing the team move from St. Albert to Whitecourt.
“It’s never easy and it’s never what I would consider a good experience at any level for a franchise to leave a community, and what kind of makes this more frustrating is this is the second time. It’s somewhat perplexing,” Cripps said. “The only comfort I take in leaving a community is the relocation committee that was struck did a tremendous job of trying to gather the facts with the meeting in Nisku, with not only the ownership of the Steel but the mayor.
“There is a sense of frustration I would imagine with the St. Albert community but the bittersweet part for us, based on the unanimous decision of the board, is we’re moving to a market where we feel will thrive for the AJHL and really be a good platform for the kids that play in our league.”
Smith, the Steel’s governor, didn’t want to see the team leave St. Albert but said it had no choice.
“I’m not happy. How could I be as a long-time minor hockey volunteer,” said the director on the St. Albert Raiders Hockey Club executive.
“As I said at the governors’ meeting [Wednesday] night to all the people in the room, I wish that the Steel could thrive in St. Albert.
“I was not an advocate for the move, but at the same time you’ve got to look at the numbers and the facts and the figures and it just wasn’t working here and 15 other governors looked at the same facts and figures.”
The Steel were unhappy with the deal presented by the City of St. Albert during lengthy negotiations to extend the lease agreement at Servus Credit Union Place.
“It’s disappointing leaving St. Albert for sure. We wanted to make it work in St. Albert. We tried everything we can,” said Parks, the Steel’s head coach, general manager and part-owner.
“Expenses are going higher and higher with travel and sticks and hotels and food. You need bums in the seats and it wasn’t happening in St. Albert.
“It’s unfortunate for the season ticket-holders that we did have. They were pretty passionate. Most of them were with us since day one. The volunteers have been excellent. We’ve also had some sponsors that have been very, very supportive.
“But when the vote is absolutely unanimous that it just doesn’t work in St. Albert the way it’s structured right now, that should tell people something.”
Parks was also the assistant coach, general manager and part-owner of the Traders when they relocated to St. Albert after losing the 2007 AJHL final.
Crouse said city council presented a very good deal to the Steel, including a $100,000 cash incentive if a certain number of season tickets could be sold, along with $269,000 worth of advertising and gifts in kind.
He noted the Steel came to council asking for $125,000 per year for 10 years in advertising over and above the current value of $200,000 per year.
“We provided what council felt was a fair offer to encourage the team to stay in our city, but we couldn’t further extend ourselves financially,” said Crouse.
He also expressed 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.
The Steel’s contract with the city ends Aug. 31. The Steel will be required to pay the city $129,000 owed for outstanding costs on the dressing room repayment loan as well as a relocation fee of $100,000.
During the Steel’s tenure in St. Albert they struggled to put fans in the stands and a winning product on the ice. Season tickets fell from 454 in the Steel’s first year to around 75 in 2011/12. Average attendance for Steel home games at the 2,000-seat Performance Arena (now the Northstar Hyundai Arena) dropped from 749 in the first season to 247 last season, when they missed the playoffs for the first time in team history with only nine wins.
“Part of it is the community not embracing a club, but I didn’t see the club embracing the community whatsoever,” Crouse said.
The Steel never advanced past the best-of-five opening round in their short history and were 3-12 overall in the playoffs.
The best season in team history was 29 wins and 65 points for sixth place in 2008/09.
The Steel will be called the Wolverines and the will play out of the Scott Safety Centre in Whitecourt. The town’s main recreational facility seats 1,058 and was recently fitted with $3.7 million in renovations. The population of Whitecourt is nearing 14,000.
With the relocation of the Steel, the owners of the junior B Whitecourt Wolverines have agreed to disband the team to avoid competing with the junior A team.
Mayor Trevor Thain is thrilled to have a junior A hockey team in Whitecourt.
“It’s a real big deal for our community to be part of this league. It’s huge,” Thain said. It’s something that we’ve been pushing for the last four or five years and it’s great to finally get there.
“It’s another feather in our cap why people should live here.”
Speculation is Parks will sell the team to Whitecourt businessman Brent Stark for a rumoured $750,000, but Parks said he doesn’t plan to unload the franchise.
“No, not at all. Absolutely not,” Parks said. “Going to Whitecourt is going to be a great opportunity. It’s great for the league and most importantly it’s great for the kids to play in that environment in front of a packed house. It’s going to be real exciting for them.”
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 operates Scott Safety in Whitecourt and the Wolverines, a successful junior B franchise. He was also a director on the Saints their first year in Spruce Grove and also sponsored the AJHL all-star game before it turned into the Showcase Event, held annually in Spruce Grove.
Crouse was disappointed the Steel did not give another group the opportunity to provide local leadership to their organization, and instead asked for a transfer. The city had first rights to purchase or find local buyers to match any offer for the Steel while the team was in St. Albert.
“I thought maybe the league would come back to us say, ‘Listen, you’ve got 30 days to put together an alterative proposal.’ The league didn’t do that. The board chair [Greg Wood] did not return my phone calls,” Crouse said.
“All I wanted to do was hear whether the league would give us that opportunity to put together another group but they are locked into the current directors because those are not-for-profit societies. The league doesn’t have jurisdiction over saying you’re no longer the directors of this club. They are in a bind. They have to put up with Parks and his approach.”
Crouse said Corporate Registries has begun de-listing the Steel since the club had not provided financials or a directors’ listing for several years as required. The last financial statement on file with Corporate Registries was dated 2008 and the directors listed as of April of 2009 were Parks, Smith, John Devaney, John Goode and Kevin McKee.