Times are tough for Lethbridge (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
The Chicago Blackhawks left winger has a lot of love for his home town and the Western League franchise he once played for and both could use his help right now. The team has been losing players, firing staffers and consistently missing the playoffs. Would an NHLer as part owner be the solution?
The Western League's Lethbridge Hurricanes haven't made the playoffs since 2009, when future NHLers Zach Boychuk, Dwight King, Luca Sbisa and Carter Ashton propelled the Alberta squad to the second round. Since that cohort, only two players have even been drafted by NHL teams – and the latest one now plays for Brandon after a trade request.
But Minnesota pick Reid Duke wasn't the first to ask out of Lethbridge and the exodus away from the Hurricanes lately has been stunning. Unfortunately, hope for the franchise may still be almost a year away.
Chicago Blackhawks left winger Kris Versteeg would love to be part of a group that purchases the Hurricanes, which are a community-owned team right now. Because of that structure, approval to sell the team must come from a vote at the annual general meeting (AGM), which is approximately 10 months away.
“It’s extremely important to me," Versteeg said. "It’s my home town, I take a lot of pride in coming from there and hoping things work there. You always want it to be a good situation for kids to come in to.”
Which is not the case right now. Here's a rundown of the body blows for the last-place team in reverse chronology: Yesterday, it was announced that the board of directors had fired GM Brad Robson, who had fired second-year coach Drake Berehowsky the day before. In late September, the team traded Duke and Macoy Erkamps to Brandon after both had requested trades. During the summer, the franchise settled a grievance with former assistant coach Brad Lukowich (like Berehowsky, an ex-NHL defenseman) after he filed a lawsuit in the spring for wrongful dismissal. Robson admitted that Lukowich was not fired for cause, as had originally been claimed.
Last season, the squad was forced to trade highly-touted blueliner Ryan Pilon after he became disenfranchised with the team. Pilon will likely be taken in the top 40 of the 2015 NHL draft. That was in November, right after the team traded older forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie to Seattle because they wanted out.
That's a lot of dysfunction and locals have been voting with their feet. Through 15 home games, the Canes are averaging 2,905 fans, slightly down from the 3,089 they brought in last season - and that latter total was good for just 18th in the 22-team league at the time.
Community-owned teams can work, as the Ontario League's Kitchener Rangers have proven for years. The Rangers, who are competitive but not elite this season, just drew more than 7,200 fans to a Tuesday night game against an Erie squad that did not have Connor McDavid in the lineup, for example.
But the Lethbridge situation is not working and hasn't for years. WHL foes Prince George recently brought in a new ownership group that featured NHLers Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis and the results have been immediate. The team is doing a little better in the standings and attendance has jumped up to 2,826 fans per game, from last season's league-worst 1,693.
At this point, Versteeg wants change in Lethbridge, whether he's involved or not. But obviously he would love to be on board, should the community decide to sell the franchise in the near future.
“If the votes come through, there might be a few parties ready, you never know," he said. "I definitely hope to be in one of the parties that purchases the team.”
Not only would the optics of a former player investing in the franchise be great, but Versteeg's presence could help in everything from player recruitment (and retention) to marketing and attendance drives.
With things so dark in Alberta right now, that AGM can't happen soon enough.