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Lower Sunshine Coast hosts two packed junior hockey league games

In the bid to create a junior hockey team for the Coast, the Sunshine Coast Junior Hockey Society hosted two league games on Oct. 21 and 22

On Oct. 21 and 22, the Gibsons and Area Community Centre opened its doors and ice to the Pacific Junior Hockey League for two board-rattling, fast-paced games. 

The North Vancouver Wolf Pack took on the Chilliwack Jets after Gibsons’s new mayor-elect, Silas White, dropped the puck.

In advance of the games, the North Vancouver Wolf Pack hyped up the competition to come on social media. “Two adversaries looking for a victory. A community in search of a team. A brief journey and we are on the Sunshine Coast,” the team wrote. 

On Saturday, a vocal crowd enthusiastically followed the action on ice. Early goals for each team were answered by loud cheers. The Wolf Pack ended the evening with a 5-2 win over the Jets, taking victory back from the Chilliwack team that defeated them 7-4 just the night before — both teams saw wins on Sunshine Coast ice. The night of Oct. 22 saw five PJHL games played in the province. 

“The crowds have come out,” said Trevor Alto, the league commissioner, in between periods of the Saturday game. Rick Hopper of the Sunshine Coast Junior Hockey Society (SCJHS), the local organizers of the weekend’s events, said there were around 530 people the first night and 580 the second — a huge turnout, especially for two out-of-town teams. 

“You put a local team on the ice there with some local kids and I think we would be the envy of the league, as far as our attendance. I’d bank the farm on it,” Hopper said. 

So what does the turnout mean for the Sunshine Coast’s potential to start their own team? Alto says, “It shows us that there's definitely some interest. We have had talks for a little over a year now. It’s not an easy process, there’s a lot of hoops that need to be jumped through.” 

After these two games, Alto said the involved parties, including the PJHL board of governors and 13 existing league teams, will do a debrief and discuss the financials and the sustainability of adding a local team. The Sunshine Coast would have to commit to hosting 24 home games of the 48-game schedule a season, plus playoffs and exhibition games. 

“It's not easy, but we're definitely going down the road of what it might look like or a partnership of some sort could look like, and we're excited about where it's going,” Alto said. 

Of the two games in Gibsons, Alto said the experience was fantastic. He reminisces on the lifelong friendships that can be made, and the excitement in the rink. 

After the weekend, Hopper said, “This was a big test for everything in regards to bringing junior hockey to the Coast. If you were to compare it to a test or an examination, I think we got straight A's.” 

As Hopper tallies the expenses, he says they may have surpassed their budget of around $24,000, but that total included some one-off costs. One of those costs was to provide online ticket sales — making the SCJHS the only Junior B entity in the province to do so, Hopper says. About 90 per cent of tickets for the games were sold through that online platform. Revenue was about a 50/50 split between sponsorship and ticket sales. 

He says the Coast’s reliance on the ferry means they’re primed for live sports events, compared to Lower Mainland communities that are “swamped” with entertainment options. 

The league has already approached Coast organizers about hosting another game in the new year. Now that the society’s bid for a local team has passed its first hurdle, as Hopper says, they’re continuing to press the league for an answer and hopefully conditional approval for a franchise. It will cost around $1.5 million just to purchase the team, and another $1.5 million to upgrade the local infrastructure. Sunshine Coast Regional District will need to agree to changes to the facility.

Next, Hopper will gather the data from the weekend’s games to present to local government. 

“It's going to be a major undertaking for the hockey landscape and the lower Coast, because not only will we be bringing a junior hockey team to town, we want to develop programming such as spring hockey, skills academies, full-time academies, where you can bring kids from around the world here to play hockey. So we're looking at a 12 month a year hockey enterprise that we want to run.”