Ownership change can’t come soon enough for Lethbridge Hurricanes

(Photo by Ben Nelms/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ben Nelms/Getty Images)

There might be some respite in sight for long-suffering fans of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

At the team’s annual general meeting Tuesday night, the board of directors decided to put the sale of the community-run franchise up for a vote. Unfortunately, it’s a decision on the 2015 agenda, but better late than never.

This news should give investors a year to secure funding and get their proposals and presentations in order. Last year Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg, a native of Lethbridge, penned a letter in the city’s local paper about his desire to buy the flagging franchise.

“My heart is with this team, as many people in Lethbridge know,” wrote Versteeg, who played his junior hockey with the Hurricanes. “My partners and I 100 per cent guarantee that we would keep this team in Lethbridge. We want to make it a place for families and hockey fans to enjoy the game and have fun on a nightly basis.”

There hasn’t been much fun in Lethbridge of late. The team is 0-3 through the first two weeks of the Western Hockey League season. Last year they finished last in the Canadian Hockey League with a 12-55-2-3 record. They’ve missed the playoffs for five consecutive years and it doesn’t look like that will change this year either. Players have been leaving the team in droves.

On Tuesday, Hurricanes general manager Brad Robson pulled the trigger on another deal that sent top-flight talent out of town for what was seen by many as a paltry return. His trading partner – Brandon’s Kelly McCrimmon – was a familiar one, as the Wheat Kings GM has fleeced the Hurricanes twice in previous deals.

The winfall for Brandon this time was forward Reid Duke, a Minnesota Wild prospect, and defenceman Macoy Erkamps. Duke failed to show up for the Hurricanes’ training camp in an attempt to force a trade, but eventually relented. Erkamps, too, wanted out and had asked for a trade.

According to the team, the three players acquired by the Hurricanes - defenceman Kord Pankewicz and wingers Brett Kitt and Ryley Lindgren – left Brandon on Wednesday morning in an attempt to make their evening game against the Calgary Hitmen. The idea that there were three players willing to play in Lethbridge could potentially be the biggest win for the Hurricanes.

Admittedly, Robson’s hand was compromised by the fact that two of his stars very publicly wanted out. But, in talking to a number of WHL general managers after the deal, they were still a little surprised.

One WHL general manager contacted by Yahoo Sports said he was told “flat-out” Duke was not available.

“We could have offered a better deal,” he said.

Another said he had asked Robson about Duke but was told the Hurricanes were not going to do anything without Duke reporting to the team. He said he had no idea the Hurricanes had been entertaining offers for the talented forward.

“It is a mystery to me that you would not let it be known to all 21 teams that (Duke) was available and get the best possible deal,” said the GM.

A third WHL exec said he had contacted Robson about both Duke and Erkamps, but was never told what kind of return the Hurricanes were looking to get.

“(This trade) doesn’t appear to help Lethbridge as next year all their guys are 19,” said the third GM.

“This year is over for them.”

The news off the ice is just as dire. In the past five seasons the franchise has lost $1.65 million. At last night’s AGM, the team disclosed it had run a deficit of $390,331, when they had budgeted for a $74,000 profit the previous year.  Lower attendance for the Hurricanes - located in the southern Alberta city of 93,000 -  was partly to blame and that situation isn’t getting any better.

Who can blame the fans for staying away?

The situation should be one that keeps WHL commissioner Ron Robison up at night if he’s concerned about the overall health and perception of his league. Community-run franchises can work, as the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers have shown, but it takes entertaining hockey, shrewd decisions by the people in hockey operations, and business savvy. That's not happening with the Hurricanes.

Last year, Robison went to Lethbridge and met with the team to review its operations.

“Just because it’s a community owned team that’s no excuse,” Robison, told Global News. “There needs to be investment made in certain areas to get this team moving in the right direction.”

For the Hurricanes, the best investment will come in 2015, when team’s shareholders should vote to sell to local interests and finally put an end to the misery.

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
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