STRATFORD, Ont. – It’s Friday night in September in Stratford, Ont., and there’s not a parking space to be found on Lakeside Drive. The downtown street that winds along the city’s river is full of people rushing to make sure they don’t miss anything.
The hundreds of people are not going to the Festival Theatre to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet – they’re streaming into the William Allman Memorial Arena to see the Stratford Cullitons take on the Elmira Sugar Kings.
The hometown Cullitons play in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League – a Jr. B circuit – and 1,377 people have turned out to see the Cullitons lose a 2-1 heartbreaker in overtime to the first-place Sugar Kings.
The large crowd is not an anomaly. Through their first four home games of the season, the Cullitons are averaging 1,270 fans. On that same Friday night, other teams in the league play in front of much smaller crowds – 150 in Brampton, 331 in St. Catherines, 550 in St. Thomas. Each of those cities is providing the same product at the same price and each is larger than Stratford, a city of about 30,000 people.
How does Stratford do it? How does a city mostly known for its world-famous Shakespeare festival continue to pack crowds into an 89-year-old arena every Friday night? The short answer: it’s just always been that way.
“Hockey’s been a tradition in Stratford since the 1920s when Howie Morenz played,” said Cullitons president Dan Mathieson. “Synonymous with that has always been the Friday night home game. When you look at that, combined with the fact we always put a strong, competitive team on the ice – it’s become one of those traditions between families over time.”
Mathieson should know – he’s also the city’s mayor, now in his third term.
“It’s just that thing you do on a Friday night in a community. Stratford has probably got the best attendance of any Jr. B team in the province.”
Since 1975 in its current incarnation as the Cullitons, the team has given its faithful following plenty to cheer about. There have been seven Sutherland Cup titles as Ontario champions. There have been 25 players who have come through Stratford on their way to the NHL. Notable Cullitons alumni include future Hockey Hall of Fame defencemen Rob Blake and Chris Pronger, current New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow, Stratford native Tim Taylor, and former NHL star Ed Olczyk.
But the special feeling that draws the community to The Allman every Friday night goes beyond the great players, the championships, and competitive teams every year. The Cullitons are firmly ingrained in the community.
We’ve been able to really create an atmosphere where people feel they’re part of the program and it’s almost like they take a little bit of ownership in it.— Cullitons president and Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson
As Mathieson said, spending Friday nights in the quaint, storied building is the thing to do in Stratford. Children go to the games with their parents when they’re young. They go when they’re teenagers, hoping their high-school crush will be there. They continue to go through adulthood and eventually bring their own children to watch the Cullitons, and the cycle continues. One end of the rink is full of children, not always paying attention to the action on the ice. At the opposite end usually sits a large group of seniors who have been watching the team for decades.
The fans in the crowd know the players’ names, not just because they’re passionate fans, but because the team and the players are accessible.
“At Boston Pizza, our team was out there serving for the night,” Mathieson said about the team’s community and charitable efforts. “We volunteer within the schools as book buddies and reading buddies. We have three different skates with the team. We collect food at Christmas time. The local breast-cancer campaign will kick off with our team wearing pink jerseys for warm-ups. For violence against women we’ll do purple jerseys. Remembrance Day will be camouflage. We try to make sure we really celebrate different aspects of the community as part of our team because we’re part of the history of the community.
“I think the fans appreciate how well they’re appreciated here. We provide a good team on the ice, which is important. The program draws are important; they see the reinvestment of the 50/50 back into the team and the community.
“We turn it really into a family atmosphere and for that we’re rewarded with loyalty over time.”
It's more than entertainment
Few hockey fans in Stratford are as loyal as George and Ivonne Masur. The couple, married 55 years, have been going to hockey games in town since 1967. They’ve never counted exactly how many games they’ve seen over the years, but they’ve missed so few that they remember them.
Ivonne, 78, suffered an aneurysm a few years ago – at the arena – and missed “about three months” worth of games.
“Other than that we’re always here,” said George, 82. “We used to go to the out-of-town games on the buses; she’s been to more out-of-town games than I have. We follow them on the radio as much as possible. Other than that, we’re always down here.”
The couple moved to Stratford in 1965 and started going to the games in an effort to meet people.
“We lived in an apartment, then bought a house,” George said. “Then one fall I asked Ivonne if she’d like to go to a hockey game. She said she didn’t know anyone [in town] and I said ‘How are you going to meet anyone if you’re not at the hockey game?’ And since then I can’t keep her away.”
The couple did make lots of friends, and over the years learned how important the team is to the community.
“[It means] a lot. It’s a name that’s known – people don’t know what the name is, we’ve heard so many times ‘What’s a Culliton?’ But they know the Culliton fame and everything like that because they were at the top for quite a while,” George said.
(For the record, Culliton is simply the family name of the brothers who sponsored the team in 1975. Culliton Brothers is a local construction and engineering company. The Native-Canadian logo is the traditional logo used by former Stratford teams called the Braves and Warriors.)
Like most passionate fans, the Masurs aren’t afraid to be critical of their team when it’s warranted. George says he’s quick to praise the other team if it plays well and wins. But mostly they remember the success and the great teams they’ve seen.
“Back in ’85 they had a team … they only lost four games the whole year. That was a real team. They were something to watch,” George said.
“I think the best game I ever saw was when they played Chatham [in 2004],” Ivonne said. “Seventh game, it went into double overtime. The place was packed.”
What makes the Cullitons unique in Jr. B circles is that the crowd isn’t simply made up of the usual family and friends of players. The Masurs have never had a real connection to the club, and they’ve been to OHL and NHL games, but always stick with their hometown team.
“We enjoy it. It’s our thing. We like sports, but hockey is our favourite,” Ivonne said.
A blue-collar community at heart
Stratford, in many ways, is a tale of two cities.
There’s the picturesque town with tree-and-flower lined streets. It’s a two-time national winner of the Communities in Bloom award. Most know Stratford for the theatre festival and the thousands of tourists that visit each year.
But beyond the postcards is a very blue-collar city. It was built as a railway junction and was known for its furniture-building industry. In 1933, the Army had to be deployed to try to break a general strike by the furniture workers – that hasn’t happened in Canada since. The economy grew due to manufacturing and it hasn’t been immune to the economic slowdown in those industries.
If the festival is for the tourists, it could be argued the hockey team is for the blue-collar locals. It’s only Jr. B – a level at which a few players move on to major junior, university and pro hockey and for the majority is the highest level they’ll play. But the fans go because it’s the only game in town. And it’s theirs.
“If I’m anywhere, people know the city for either the theatre or the hockey team,” Mathieson said, adding that season-ticket sales have remained steady over a five-year period. “Hockey Day in Canada was here, and it was synonymous with the 25 players that have come through this program since 1975 that have gone on to the NHL.
“It’s one of those traditions that I think, when you think of sports people, they know Stratford for the athletics as much as they know about theatre.”
The success of the Cullitons wouldn’t be possible without the community taking such a large interest and personal stake in the team.
It’s one of those traditions that I think, when you think of sports people, they know Stratford for the athletics as much as they know about theatre.— Dan Mathieson
Mathieson is quick to point out that they run a not-for-profit team. The top-of-the-line facilities, equipment, and overall atmosphere are only possible because of money raised by the team.
“We’re always going to be constrained by budget,” Mathieson said. “We run an expensive program here, but we raise all the money locally. There’s only so much a market the size of Stratford can bare.
“Every dollar we make stays within the program. There’s been a couple years where we haven’t done as well in the playoffs and we’ve lost some money. We’re able to sustain ourselves because of the reinvestments we make. Our facilities are second to none, which I think helps us recruit. Those types of things, along with this building, help create a program that’s destined for positive things.”
The re-investments and community support can be found in perks like the Cullitons’ fitness centre. Once a boiler room in the arena, what was to become wasted space after a new refrigeration system was installed instead is filled with top-of-the-line fitness equipment and personalized trainers for the players.
It wouldn’t have been possible without donations from several local businesses. The Cullitons have more than 25 local businesses that are supporters. They away give free tickets in exchange for financial support.
“We’ve been able to really create an atmosphere where people feel they’re part of the program and it’s almost like they take a little bit of ownership in it,” Mathieson said. “Now, that’s a double-edged sword because I can tell you, when we don’t have competitive teams they’re just as much our toughest critics as they are our biggest fans.”
Completing the circle
Most hockey-playing children in Stratford grow up dreaming of playing for the Cullitons. When you’re seven or eight years old, you don’t realize the players are simply high school kids. It’s hard to comprehend how far Jr. B actually is from the NHL.
But the atmosphere in the Allman Arena, the crowds and the promotions, all makes it feel like the pinnacle of hockey success.
Trevor Sauder grew up in nearby Tavistock, Ont., and went to games in Stratford as a child. He too wanted to play for the Cullitons, and now he does. Sauder, 19, is in his third season with the team. The diminutive forward is a fan favourite and the team’s leading scorer so far this season.
“I came a lot,” Sauder recalled. “Just the atmosphere, it’s always a packed barn. I remember I used to always sit behind the home team’s net. I remember back in the day we used to always see them win every Friday night. The atmosphere was always bumpin’.”
Most young Cullitons fans know their favourite players and in Sauder’s case he always cheered for the other Tavistock players, and he wanted to emulate them.
“It always was a dream to play for these guys, that’s for sure,” Sauder said. “To wear the logo on the front has always been a dream. Spending Friday nights in the Allman…
“It’s an honour to play here. Just to represent the city of Stratford is a big deal.”
(Photos courtesy Ian Denomme/Yahoo Sports)