Every Friday evening at the Clarenville Events Centre throughout the hockey season, 50 fans turn out to watch the hometown Caribous practice prior to their weekend Newfoundland Senior Hockey League series.
There are parents and children, hardcore fans trying to get a sneak peak at the lineup and possible line combinations, and of course, kids looking for autographs from their favourite Caribous player.
The buzz around the team doesn’t end there.
“The hotels are packed, all the restaurants are blocked, the bars are busy, there’s a great vibe around town,” says Brad Crann, a veteran Caribou winger who has been with the team since its inaugural season in the West Coast senior circuit seven years ago.
“If you go to Wal-Mart in the morning for a little walk around, or go to Tim Hortons, there’s always people who want to talk about the games or how they can’t wait for the night.”
In reality, the excitement over the Caribous never really ends — it just simmers until the next set of home games.
“It’s everywhere you go,” explains Dustin Russell, team captain, hometown-boy, and business manager at the local Ford dealership. ”People know how you did every game because they’re at every game and they follow you on the road.”
There’s even a twice-weekly segment called Caribous Corner on 710 VOCM.. Russell appears Friday with a preview of the weekend ahead, and assistant coach Todd Brett is behind the microphone on Mondays, providing a wrap on the two games.
That the team enjoys such fervency from its fan base isn’t a fluke. It’s the result of a lot of hard work on the part of players, volunteers and executive. Over the last four years, the Caribous organization has, not so quietly, become a model of success at the senior hockey level, on and off the ice.
Winners of three of the last four Herder Memorial Trophy provincial senior hockey championships, and the first team from this province to claim an Allan Cup national senior title (2010) since the 1986 Corner Brook Royals, the ‘Bous are also one of few teams on the island without the worries of keeping the ship afloat financially.
“I’m certainly pleased we are able to be one of the very few teams that start the season in the black,” says Frazer Russell, Dustin’s father, chairman of the Caribous’ executive, and unofficial moneyman.
“Our revenue comes from the gate, fundraising and the next biggest portion comes from corporate donations and sponsorship,” explains Frazer Russell, who says it equates to a total of $50,000 to $60,000 a season. “Some are larger than others by nature of their business, but we’ve been very fortunate the corporate community realizes the significance and importance of hockey to our community and they’re willing to step up.”
Kevin Avery, owner and operator of the Clarenville Home Hardware Building Centre, came on board in the team’s first season and his devotion hasn’t wavered since.
“There was no hesitation whatsoever once I knew senior hockey was going to be a big part of Clarenville again,” says Avery, who isn’t just a sponsor but a huge fan, rarely missing a game as he follows the team on the road and to every Herder. “It’s really great for our town, for our retail outfits and for our hockey fans.”
On two occasions, Avery, together with some of his product vendors like Jeld-Wen Windows, donated materials towards the construction of houses the team builds and then sells, stuffing its coffers with the profits.
And when the CEC was opened in October of 2009, Frazer Russell offered Avery the chance to donate two new shot clocks.
“I crunched a few numbers and I thought it would be a good thing, not just for the Caribous but for minor hockey as well,” says Avery.
The CEC itself, Frazer Russell insists, has been a big part of the team’s success. With over 900 season ticket holders, and the 12 regular season-games drawing an average of 1,500-plus fans at $15 a head, the take at the gate accounts for the bulk of the team’s annual revenue. The rest comes from year-round fundraising efforts on the part of a team of volunteers.
Prior to moving into the 1,250-seat arena — bright and spacious with a capacity for another 1,000 standing room patrons — the team played its first three seasons in the 800-seat Clarenville Stadium, a livestock arena constructed in the early 1950s but converted to a hockey rink in 1957.
“I’ve got some great memories of the old tin can,” Crann says. “I remember walking through the bleachers on the way to the dressing room and how fans would be line up outside the rink before we’d even get there and you’d have to walk through them.”
In a lot of ways, Frazer Russell says the team’s growth and prosperity is directly tied to that of the town and surrounding communities.
Over the last four years, Clarenville has seen over 100 new housing starts, a lot for a town of just 6,000, and their Manitoba Drive-Shoal Harbour Drive area — akin to Kenmount Road and Kelsey Drive in St. John’s — has welcomed several new businesses in recent years, including a new Booster Juice franchise operated by Dustin Russell.
And there’s money to spend, be it from Alberta or through any of the economic engines feeding the region.
“The economy is quite strong here in Clarenville,” Frazer says. “A lot of our residents work at the refinery (at Come-By-Chance) and in Long Harbour and now Bull Arm is going to bring four or five years of a nice economic boom to the town as well.”
The elder Russell is quick to point out that it’s not just Clarenville residents who support the Caribous. The team receives a lot of regional support from nearby communities, with season ticket holders in Elliston, Charlottetown, Bloomfield, Hickman’s Harbour, and Hodge’s Cove among others.
Like any successful senior hockey team with an eye to maintaining a happy fan base, they recognize winning alone is not enough. As such, the team is pro-active when it comes to community involvement.
In recent years the Caribous have taken on projects with the SPCA, partnered with the Eastern Region Committee Against Violence on their White Ribbon Campaign to end violence against women, had players volunteer time to minor hockey, and worked with under-privileged children. There’s also an annual kids Christmas breakfast with the team and regular visits to area schools by some of the local players to read books and answer questions.
“I think it goes a long way,” says Crann. “They love the Caribous. We’re basically NHL players to them, even though we’re far from that. But in a small community, they love their hockey and they really do look up to us.”
“We like to think the Clarenville Caribous organization is more than just a hockey team,” Frazer Russell adds. “We want to have an impact on our town and that’s something we’re very proud of.”
Thanks to the exposure the team garners in the media, he’s also quite proud of how the Caribous have put the town of Clarenville on the map from a promotional standpoint.
“The town would not have a budget large enough to purchase that kind of publicity. That’s been one of the real side values our team has brought to the community.”
Frazer and Dustin Russell and Crann say their executive and volunteers have played a crucial role in getting the team to where it is today.
“We wouldn’t be able to do it without the volunteers and people who work day in and day out during the week to make sure everything is going to run smoothly on Saturday and Sunday,” says Crann.
That said, Caribous general manager Derek MacPhee, responsible for player recruitment and hockey operations, has been vital to the organization.
“Next to his family, this is probably his greatest passion,” Frazer Russell said. “He spends 365 days a year at it, and he’s one of the main reasons why our recruitment has been so successful.”
“It all starts with the executive. They do a really good job of putting things together. They come through with everything they say they’re going to do and they treat the players really well,” says Dustin. “Everyone contributes in different ways. With a relatively small town like Clarenville, you need all hands on deck. Everyone’s jumped on board and it’s been a wonderful ride.”
For some executive members and more than a few of the core players like Crann and young Russell who have been around since the early days, the end of the ride is near.
The Caribous are headed back to the Allan Cup in Red Deer, Alta., this April, but before that they’ll submit an ambitious bid to play host the 2015 tournament at the CEC.
“We’re optimistic that we have a good shot,” says Frazer Russell, retired for more than a decade but busier now than ever before.
No one will state on the record what their plans are in three years time, but all indications are there will be a changing of the guard in Clarenville after the tournament — both on and off the ice.
For now, however, the players and executive are taking it one game at a time and keeping to the goals they set out at the beginning of each season.
“At the end of the day, when most guys decide to hang ’em up, we’ll be able to look back and be a little more proud of the larger accomplishment,” says Dustin Russell. “But for now, last year was last year, our only focus is to win a Herder and an Allan Cup in the same year.”