Cost of Buying a Winning Team

Updated: January 7, 2014
Newfoundland Senior Hockey Finances | Newfoundland Hockey Talk

What’s the cost of operating a team in the Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League? That’s been one of the questions that’s been tossed around in hockey circles for some time. It’s also one of the questions that no one involved with the senior teams wants asked and definitely one that goes unanswered.

Some have speculated it costs in the tens of thousands to operate a team. The harsh reality is that in order to put a winning team on the ice it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Senior hockey is big business. The cost of travel to and from venues, flights for players and imports, salaries and general operations, the dollars quickly add up.

Several years back Art Barry stepped as the president of the then West Coast Senior Hockey League. He was vocal about what he saw happening in the league with respect to finances. He expressed concerns about utilizing paid players and that local hockey players weren’t getting a game. In an interview with The Western Star, Barry questioned the effectiveness of salary caps and trying to buy the Herder Memorial. He felt the league as it stands wasn’t feasible.

The revival of the West Coast Senior Hockey League after the hay day of the big time senior hockey teams saw three teams competing – the Corner Brook Royals, Deer Lake Red Wings and Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts. The teams utilized local talent, kept expenses down and managed to function with a combination of fundraising and revenue from the gate. Enter the Clarenville Caribous to the league and the whole picture changed.

Clarenville became the model organization. Its fans were hungry for a game of hockey. They utilized for the most part young local talent. The executive were hungry for a championship and it showed. They stuck to a game plan and quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the league. They were fast on the ice, efficient off the ice and had the team resources to basically buy a championship.

It showed as they dominated the newly named Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, winning three Herder Championships in 5 years and runner-up in one of those years, losing in 2013 to the Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars. Throughout their dominance they also won the Allan Cup, Canada’s senior hockey championship in 2011.

The success of the Caribous did not go unnoticed by other teams in the league or by the fans. Other teams tried to spend for talent and attract some big name players by paying big salaries. Rumors were running wild as to what it was costing to run a team and heads were shaking as the salary amounts were hinted at by the media. Things came to a head when the Canada Revenue Agency stepped in and audited operations resulting in large bills for several teams for payroll taxes.

Newfoundland Hockey was now in the big leagues.

The Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts started rebuilding from the ground up. They gutted their team, they stayed focused on building a community based and community supported organization that would strike a balance between utilizing local talent and paid imports. Fans screams at the initial weeks when the Cataracts were losing game after game but the organization stuck to its guns and kept their eye on the ultimate picture – a viable, financially stable organization that could compete in the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League.

The Deer Lake Red Wings were unable to compete in the new financial reality. They were the first to fold under the enormous financial pressures being experienced. They were unable to compete with the fundraising machine of the Caribous and the executive members felt the efforts required to compete in the new age of senior hockey was unsustainable.

The Corner Brook Royals struggled to put people in the seats even though they were spending big bucks on some big name players. Their on-ice performance of the players did not match the salaries they commanded. The fans were disappointed and attendance showed. After the Red Wings folded, the two teams combined in hopes of pulling fan support from Deer Lake and Corner Brook. It never translated into fan support and definitely never translated in the standings.

Struggling financially and citing poor fan support and higher operating expenses, the Corner Brook Royals made a dramatic announcement – they were moving their home from Corner Brook to Deer Lake and renaming the team to the Western Royals. It was hoped the move would reduce operating costs and allow the organization to fill the seats of the Hodder. The verdict is still out on this one.

The 2012-13 season saw the Mount Pearl Blade withdraw from the league. There were problems in the back office and with team finances that meant it would be unable to ice a competitive team. The organization made the decision to step aside for the season in hopes of returning in 2013-14. The 2012-13 season also saw the entry of the Gander Flyers to the league. Modeling themselves after the successful organizations (Cataracts & Caribous), the Flyers have struck a balance of fundraising, community support and team sponsors. They have signed local talent to cards and have made efforts to build a competitive team by turning to young Newfoundland talent (for the most part).

In the meantime, the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts game plan came together. The organization became making waves on the ice and with great community support, they found themselves in a sound financial position. In speaking with several executive members of the organization, it was made clear they would not sacrifice the viability of the team by living beyond their financial means. This paid off as game after game the arena was packed and the team drove towards its first Herder Memorial Championship in 2011, defeating the CeeBees four straight. They made a return appearance back to the Herder in 2012 losing to the Caribous. They currently sit in first place in the 2013-14 season but if the rumors are true, they too are starting to experience a bit of a financial pinch but nothing like what the other teams are experiencing.

The dire situation of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League came to light when the 2013 Herder Champions, the Conception Bay North CeeBees were struggling to sell season tickets. They were falling short to meet their goal and it looked initially like they may pull from the league. Fortunately for fans, the CeeBees did put a team on the ice but the rumors are circulating that the team is on very shaky financial ground. “Insiders” have sent emails to Newfoundland Hockey Talk indicating that there is a possibility that the team may fold before the end of the season. However, we don’t see this happening given that the CeeBees are playing well and are currently sitting in the middle of the pack. They are always competitive in the playoffs as their record shows (4 Herder Championship wins and 4 Herder runner-up in 10 years).

What should be alarming to many people is the Clarenville Caribous are now struggling financially. The team executive are being forced to take measures to reduce operating costs and while this may not initially impact the on-ice performance, it shows the true reality of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League. The Caribous have made decisions to not print game time programs, have given up on producing marketing material and posters and in its latest move have indefinitely canceled Friday night practices to reduce associated travel costs. All these measures were made because of the increasing financial pressures the team is experiencing. Some insiders have indicated the strain of competing for the Allan Cup has left the team vulnerable financially. A team insider who spoke to Newfoundland Hockey Talk after a guarantee of anonymity indicated he is seeing the organization losing sight of the local league in an effort to build a name on the national scene with the Allan Cup championship.

In fact, several volunteers and executive members are rumored to be done after the Caribous host the Allan Cup. They have echoed that the Caribous organization is not the same one that entered the league several years back. They see the organization losing focus on the game and the demands being placed on individuals far outweigh the rewards of being part of a winning team. This is showing up around the executive table, in the dressing room and in the stands. Several close to the team are frustrated at the cost-cutting measures being implemented saying the money saved doing this is insignificant. Costs of operating the team have apparently ballooned into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the team has run major deficits the last several seasons. Fundraising efforts in the off-season is struggling to keep up.

The cost of buying a winning team in the Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League goes beyond finances. It is trying for the individuals behind the scene, it’s trying for the players and coaches and trying for the fans.

While the teams may consistently skirt the issue of finances and salaries, there is no denying that having a team in the Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League is a gigantic commitment both financially and personally. Until things change and the league recognizes this harsh reality and embraces a different approach, this league is likely to fail. It may not be this season but you can mark it down, there will be casualties in the months to come.

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