It used to be fans were “hanging off the rafters” at the stadium in Clarenville to see the Caribous senior hockey team face off against opponents.
But the fan base has dwindled, said team chairman Derek MacPhee, to the point the Caribous — one of three teams in the Central-West Senior Hockey League — are facing a real operational challenge and taking drastic measures in response.
“I can go back to four years ago when we sold 700 season passes. We’re back to 220 season passes this year,” he said Monday after the team issued a press release outlining measures it’s taking to deal with its financial woes.
“Things are extremely grim, and it was asked if anyone had any ideas on what could be done to cut additional operational costs,” said the statement.
General manager Ivan Hapgood, team captain Dustin Russell and MacPhee decided to explain the situation to the team and discuss possible options.
In response, players came out of the meetings agreeing to continue playing this season, without pay, the press release stated.
“The Clarenville Ford Caribous Organization are extremely thankful that the players took the initiative to continue without compensation. This was a leadership team decision,” the release stated.
When asked if the Caribous would exist after this season, MacPhee said a plan is in the works to help the team survive by cutting costs, and it involves leaving the CWSHL, which also includes the Gander Flyers and Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts.
“I know what we have to do for next season. We applied to go to one of the Eastern leagues, to eliminate that Gander/Grand Falls travel,” MacPhee said.
The team has been down this road before: the Caribous applied to play with the East Coast Senior Hockey League for this season, but were turned down.
However, they look ready to make another attempt to change leagues.
MacPhee said being able to play in that league would reduce costs considerably because many of the Clarenville Caribous live in St. John’s.
“So, with games on the Avalon, the only travel time would be to have them come to Clarenville,” he said.
That would save money on travel and accommodations, as well as player salaries, since the ECSHL does not have a system of paid players.
“We have had preliminary discussions,” said MacPhee, indicating there is a good possibility the Caribous will move east next season.
“I think it will be a more affordable model of senior hockey,” he said, adding, “We have to play within our means.”
As for the decline in the local fan base, MacPhee said there are several factors.
“A lot of the die-hard fans that were with us 10 or 11 years ago are not there anymore. A lot of the old fellows have passed away,” he said.
And he suggested high school sports — especially volleyball — are taking a lot of people out of Clarenville on weekends.
Currently, the team averages about 200 walk-ups — people who buy tickets at the gate on game day — at the EastLink Centre, said MacPhee.
If Clarenville hockey fans want to get an idea of what the ECSHL might offer, they have a chance to do so this weekend. The East league’s Southern Shore Breakers and Conception Bay Blues travel to take on the Caribous in interlocking play at 8 p.m. Saturday (Breakers) and 1:30 p.m. Sunday (Blues).