March 5th, 2021

Jackpots aim to keep junior hockey afloat

By RYAN MCCRACKEN on February 23, 2021.

The home of the Medicine Hat Tigers - now known as Co-Op Place - sits empty prior to a game in 2017. -- NEWS FILE PHOTO

rmccracken@medicinehatnews.com@MHNMcCracken

Medicine Hat Tigers fans may not be able to attend games this season, but they can still get in on the 50/50s from the comfort of their couches.

The Western Hockey League, Alberta Junior Hockey League and Government of Alberta unveiled Jackpots for Junior Hockey on Monday morning – a new initiative that will allow junior hockey teams within the province to generate revenue without fans in the stands.

Joint 50/50 draws will be held each weekend, with proceeds shared between Alberta’s five WHL and 15 AJHL teams.

“It’s great to see the support,” said Tigers media services manager Adam Jones. “I think it’s fantastic for the Alberta community to be able to engage with the teams on a different level, and to be able to support these teams.”

Alberta Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Leela Sharon Aheer said in Monday’s live streamed announcement that the initiative was made possible thanks to changes made with Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis that now allow for 50/50s to take place outside of a venue.

“It became a lot more flexible for a lot more organizations to be able to do that,” said Aheer. “This is very, very dependent on Albertans – all of us – going out there and buying our tickets and supporting these teams that we love.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a financial toll on junior hockey programs across the country, says WHL commissioner Ron Robison, and this initiative will allow them to supplement significant losses brought on by current restrictions.

“The support provided by Jackpots for Junior Hockey is critical to ensuring our junior hockey teams in Alberta can continue to operate,” Robison said during the announcement. “When you consider that we’re a fan-dependent league with more than 90 per cent of the revenue coming from ticket sales and local sponsorships, you can understand where all the expenses now are borne by the ownership of those teams. Many are in very difficult positions to begin with, and when you add this on top of it, it’s a very difficult position to recover from.”

Robison added Alberta’s 20 junior hockey teams across the WHL and AJHL are “a critical source of local pride and inspiration during these challenging times,” and generate more than $100 million to the provincial economy each year.

“Our teams are an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of the 20 Alberta communities they represent – attracting over 1 million fans and contributing over $1.4 million in local support to minor hockey and charitable organizations each season,” he said. “The WHL and AJHL teams also employ over 1,500 full-time and part-time employees.”

The WHL is set to drop the puck for its Alberta-based Central Division on Friday, with Medicine Hat opening the campaign in Red Deer against the Rebels at 6 p.m. The East and U.S. Divisions are also progressing toward their respective start dates, March 12 and 19 – however the B.C. Division is still waiting in the balance.

“We’re in discussions ongoing with B.C. Health,” said Robison. “We appreciate the leadership in Alberta, Dr. Hinshaw and Alberta Health, with their initiative to get us back on the ice starting this Friday. We’re optimistic we’re going to have a season in B.C. We are working through and have had good discussions and hopefully we’ll have a resolution real soon to get our teams in B.C. active again.”

‘A significantly different situation’

While junior hockey is set to resume in its 20 markets across the province, minor hockey is still in Step 1 of the ‘Path Forward’ set out by the provincial government – which only allows for practices in groups of up to 10. Aheer says the disparity between junior and minor hockey comes down to the amount of work the AJHL and WHL are doing to ensure protocols are met.

“There’s a lot that goes into making sure those junior hockey teams can actually play,” Aheer told the media. “It’s a significantly different situation. The AJHL just got their return to play put forward through Alberta Health and the WHL was done on Jan. 21. It’s very significant work that they’re actually all doing in order to stay in bubbles and to stay safe. There’s a ton of work that goes into making sure those cohorts are playing together.”

Aheer added the WHL and AJHL were the driving force in organizing Jackpots for Junior Hockey with AGLC, but added the government is working with other hockey groups, such as junior B teams, for potential support of those programs in the future.

“This is a program they’ve worked out with the AGLC in order to be able to support junior hockey,” she said. “What we’re doing right now, is we’re working with Health with other organizations to find out what their return to play is, and then we’ll go forward from there.”

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