By Josh Brown | Record Reporter
Thu, Oct 1, 2020
WATERLOO – It’s a mantra Curtis Clairmont used during his business career as head of Heritage Hockey Sticks. Now retired, the Kitchener-Waterloo Siskins president and general manager is applying the same philosophy to his hockey team.
The Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League is two months away from its proposed return-to-play date but the 26 – team gate-driven outfit – which has local clubs in Waterloo, Cambridge, Ayr and Elmira – is still waiting to find out if fans will be allowed to attend games.
Regardless, Clairmont, and other squads in the midwestern conference, are preparing for the worst-case scenario – empty stands.
“I’ve always told the players, parents and staff that if there is a league to play in, we’re going to play”, he said. “We’re committed no matter what. At some point you have to confront the real possibility of no fans”.
As it turns out, that possibility is now.
Clairmont made his views known to the league earlier this week and told his players and their parents Thursday that the team has a plan to survive this season without paid ticket holders in attendance at the Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex.
To be clear, the defending Sutherland Cup champions still hope supporters can return, even if it’s just a small percentage.
But with the Dec. 2 start date approaching, teams are being forced to come up with alternative plans. After all, cities are asking about ice rentals, vendors need to be paid and players and team staff want to know their schedule.
“At some point in time you can’t keep speculating”, said Clairmont. “It’s not fair to the players and you’re putting your organization at some sort of risk. It’s going to be more difficult to operate this year and there are some new challenges, but we’re prepared for them”.
The Siskins averaged 261 fans in 25 home games last season, according to the GOJHL website, and expect to take on even more after the Kitchener Dutchmen were sold and moved to Ayr in the off-season.
Gate receipts and sponsorship account for about 70 per cent of Clairmont’s annual $225,000 budget. The cheapest solution would be to shut down and take a year off, but he’s committed to keeping the Siskins, which have been playing since 1937, on the ice.
“I don’t want to be the person that tells these kids they can’t play”, he said. “What we do, is for the kids. This is about providing elite hockey players the opportunity to pursue their hockey dreams”.
For some, that means moving on to careers in the Ontario Hockey League, snagging scholarships to NCAA and U Sports schools or, in rare cases, signing deals with professional hockey clubs.
“We’re on the same page as the Siskins”, said Tim Barrie, director of hockey operations for the Ayr Centennials. “We had our first skate Wednesday and after we told our players that we’re committed to provide hockey with or without fans. It’s very important to us. We’ll make it work somehow”.
So how do Jr. B clubs survive without one of their main sources of revenue? They get creative.
“From a business standpoint I like to put things in buckets of what we’d like to have and what we have to have”, said Clairmont, who is also a former director at Rogers, Blockbuster and 7-Eleven. “There are a number of things that are nice to have and most of those things have been stripped out of the budget”.
For the Siskins, that means carpooling to road games instead of riding in a team bus while players will have to ante up a bit more to play. The team already receives about a 15 per cent discount on ice rentals at the Rec Complex but plans to approach the City of Waterloo to see if it can provide additional support.
The Centennials have been holding online 50-50 draws and are looking at other ways to cover their budget. Both clubs hope local sponsors will step up to help.
“There are many challenges but if we can raise the money to purchase the Dutchies, we can raise the money to skate without fans”, said Barrie, whose club came up with the six figures needed to buy the Dutchmen in 10 days earlier this year during the pandemic.
The hope is that some fans will be allowed to trickle through the doors by December.
“I can make the argument that it’s 30 per cent capacity in church and our rinks are 30 times the size of a church”, said Clairmont. “Even if they gave us a 10 per cent cap to start that would be a huge benefit to our league. It would change the equation”.
But with COVID-19 cases rising, GOJHL owners are bracing to start without fans.
“If you’re basing your decision strictly on money, then, yes, it would make sense (to shut down)”, said Barrie. “But that’s not what we’re going to do. These young men have committed to come and play for us and we’re not going to let them down”.