The Blizzard will start gearing up for the coming season with its two-day rookie camp, which begins on Aug. 31. The club’s main camp will then start on Sept. 2.
By Sam Laskaris
THE PAS, Man.
Members of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Blizzard are busily preparing for the coming hockey season.
Yes, that is the same Junior A franchise that for a brief time this past winter appeared it might be folding and not entering the 2017-18 campaign of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Officials with the First Nation, which was providing the majority of the funding for the franchise, announced this past December it was ceasing its sponsorship and the club would be folding at the conclusion of this past season.
But various members of the organization, as well as numerous people in the community of The Pas where the Blizzard plays its home contests, responded to a Save Our Blizz rally.
Enough support was generated to continue operating the squad this coming season. And with the number of people and businesses jumping on the Blizzard bandwagon, indications are the franchise could be around for a long time yet.
“The people of the community have done enough to make it work at least for this season,” said Blizzard head coach/general manager Doug Hedley.
But it’s not just those from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and neighbouring The Pas keeping the Blizzard afloat.
Hedley said other First Nations across the province are also helping out.
Deals have been struck so far with the Cross Lake First Nation and Nisichawayasikh Cree Nation, located in Nelson House.
Members of the Blizzard will visit those communities during the season to run skills sessions with minor hockey programs, and also conduct school visits where they will mentor youth on a variety of topics, including the importance of proper nutrition and active living.
In return, communities will provide $10,000 in financial support to the Blizzard.
Hedley said the squad is looking to sign similar deals with other First Nations in the province.
Besides support from other communities, Hedley is also pleased how things are shaping up locally.
“Our seasons ticket sales are up and our sponsorships are getting better because we have a full-time guy working on that now,” he said.
That individual is Justin Nabess, who was hired as the marketing director for the Blizzard this past May. Nabess had spent the past decade working as a car salesman in The Pas.
“I came from a background of sales so it wasn’t too much of a transition for me,” said Nabess, whose mother Connie Chartrand is a member of the Blizzard board.
In part because of Nabess’ numerous connections in the community, more than 100 businesses have signed up to offer support to the Blizzard this coming season. About 30 of these companies are new sponsors.
“The team is being very well received by local businesses,” Nabess said.
Ticket sales are also up. A year ago the club, which attracted between 400 to 500 fans to most of its regular season contests, had about 100 seasons tickets sold. As of today, about 150 seasons tickets have been purchased for the coming year.
Hedley, who has been coaching either in the junior ranks or for Midget teams for more than 20 years, realizes the importance of having an elite hockey club around.
“If you look at what they bring, most Junior A teams bring well over $1 million to the community,” he said. “Hotels and restaurants make money when other teams come in.”
Hedley said despite the club’s off-ice concerns from this past season, he didn’t have any problems with recruiting some players for the coming year. Those who were sought after by the squad did not have fears about the club’s future.
“There were seven or eight guys eligible to leave the province and we signed them all,” he said. Manitoba natives who are 16 and 17 must continue to play their junior hockey within the province. But those who are 18 or older can explore other opportunities in other leagues across the country should they choose to do so.
The Blizzard advanced to the MJHL finals last season and are hoping to have more success this season.
“Our back end is going to be tough,” Hedley said, adding the club needs to replace the four 20-year-old defencemen that were on last year’s roster.
The Blizzard though will have plenty of veteran forward depth.
“We have 13, 14 players up front so we should be strong there,” he said. “And we picked up a couple of 20-year-olds from Dauphin.”
The Blizzard will start gearing up for the coming season with its two-day rookie camp, which begins on Aug. 31.
The club’s main camp will then start on Sept. 2.