Nightmare season in Lethbridge hits new low

Ryan Pilon demanded a trade from the Hurricanes earlier in the season. (Marissa Baecker/Getty)
February 10, 2014, 10:03 AM

One of junior hockey’s most downtrodden franchises hit another new low last week.

The Lethbridge Hurricanes, who have produced a stream of negative headlines rivalled by few other teams in any given single season, suffered another damaging blow to their image. The team held its annual mid-season report with shareholders on Thursday, and it’s not a stretch to say this event was more anticipated than recent Hurricanes home games.

With the team sitting dead last in the league standings with just 11 wins its first 57 games, president Brian McNaughton informed shareholders the team was running a deficit of $100,000 — prompting the team to secure a line of credit to pay expenses — in addition losing $1 million in the past five years, spurning some cost-saving measures such as cutting back on its advertising budget, and astonishingly, putting three players to a room on road trips.

In light of these new developments, it’s less surprising now that multiple players walked out on the team since the beginning of the season seeking trades. What was surprising, however, an assistant coach, former NHLer Brad Lukowich, walked out on the team after its 3-2 win over Prince Albert on Jan. 29. He was subsequently fired on Saturday “with cause,” meaning the cash-strapped team will at least avoid having to pay out the remainder of his contract.

McNaughton mentioned attendance was down 12 percent from a year ago, which resulted in the “cash crunch,” as he put it. At least he mentioned the team’s on-ice struggles when citing the drop in attendance, perhaps avoiding a similarly ugly situation as what unfolded in Lewiston in recent years when ownership was perceived to have alienated and blamed its fan base for financial shortcomings.

Nevertheless, one shareholder suggested the team be sold, which was reportedly met with a round of applause.

Discussions regarding a potential sale of the franchise have been a yearly debate in the Windy City. Former player and Lethbridge native, Kris Versteeg, wrote an open letter indicating his intentions to buy the team in October. Lethbridge resident and former NHLer Rich Sutter has also reportedly made overtures in the past, but one can only imagine how he feels about the franchise after they seemingly put words in his mouth for his departure in the summer of 2010 when he was an assistant GM.
The list of junior franchises that have turned into successful and profitable entities almost immediately upon being sold in the past decade is long. Several have won championships: the London Knights won three J. Ross Robertson Cup championships and the MasterCard Memorial Cup in 2005, the Quebec Remparts won a MasterCard Memorial Cup in 2006, the Windsor Spitfires were back-to-back MasterCard Memorial Cup and J. Ross Robertson Cup champs in 2009 and 2010, the Saint John Sea Dogs won the President’s Cup in 2011 and 2012 along with the MasterCard Memorial Cup in 2011 and the Portland Winterhawks won the Ed Chynoweth Cup and were the MasterCard Memorial Cup runners-up last season.

The Hurricanes’ board of directors has largely had the same leadership for at least one decade, and in that time once reached the league championship series in 2008. Given the size of the city and the renovations done to the Enmax Centre, there’s little doubt a buyer wouldn’t keep the team in Lethbridge – an excuse the board has made in the past when asked why it won’t sell. Should an incoming owner restore and revive the franchise – which would surely leave many asking aloud why it hadn’t happened sooner – the pride of the BOD trying to succeed for the community-owned team would surely be hurt, but ultimately it’s probably in the best interest of the franchise to sell to private ownership.

It’s obvious how former players feel.

The fact is small market teams are fighting a losing battle in a landscape where the gap between rich and poor grows with each passing year. The Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls, for instance, could be faced with relocation if a renovation isn’t in the near future.

GOALIE FIGHT

Any question whether the Peterborough Petes and Oshawa Generals’ rivalry was alive and well was answered on Thursday.

Seven fights broke out in Thursday’s 4-3 Petes win, but this one stole the headlines.

The dueling goaltenders – Oshawa’s Daniel Altshuller and Peterborough’s Andrew D’Agostini – each received three game suspensions as a result of the fight at centre ice.

The hype of these meetings was noted when the Petes and Generals squared off on Friday Night Hockey two weeks ago.The Generals and Petes have just one more meeting this season on Feb. 27.

- The last game on the Friday Night Hockey schedule, a tilt between the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Gatineau Olympiques, was one of the most exciting junior games of the season. Sam Cosentino discusses this and more in his weekly notebook.

- The New York Islanders are in between a rock and a hard place when considering next year’s Connor McDavid sweepstakes, writes Gare Joyce:

- Projected top-10 pick Nick Ritchie’s career game – where he scored five times and added one assist – wasn’t enough to get his team a win in Kingston on Friday!

- Help is on the way for the Calgary Flames. Emile Poirier, one of three first-round picks last summer, had a four-goal game against Sherbrooke on Wednesday. His fourth goal was truly spectacular.

- Leon Draisaitl has been called the “German Gretzky” and the “Deutschland Dangler.” Whatever you want to call the Prince Albert Raiders forward and projected lottery pick this summer, Draisaitl surely has a flair for the dramatic, as evidenced by his empty-net tally in a three-goal game against Swift Current on Tuesday.

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