By Lethbridge Herald on May 5, 2015.
By Dylan Purcell
Western Hockey League commissioner did not equivocate when he addressed shareholders of the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Monday night at the Enmax Centre lounge.
It is time for the franchise to be sold into private ownership. Robison addressed a few hundred shareholders and said without any doubt or qualification that the WHL and its board of governors hoped that team shareholders would vote to put the Hurricanes, community-owned since 1986, on the market.
He reiterated time and again that the league had no intention to move the team, that they see Lethbridge as a market of untapped potential. And there’s the rub: Untapped. “We have no interest in moving this franchise. We think this franchise can be one of the best, quite frankly, in the Western Hockey League,” he said.
“It’s a great market, there’s been strong support here for this franchise despite there being some challenging seasons and we don’t think there’s any question things can get turned around, whether that’s under community ownership or private ownership, that’s a decision the shareholders make, not the league.”
Robison pointed to $1.3-million in losses in six seasons. He said the team has the worst winning percentage of any team over the past 10 years. He said it’s time for a millionaire owner — and he said he’d prefer a local one — to take over.
“We want financial stability for this franchise moving forward, that’s our primary concern and you know, there’s been some challenging times here and that’s not to say that the community organization can’t get things turned around but we think when you look at the franchise moving forward at this present time, private interests would certainly be in the best interests of the club and we wanted to provide the answer to the questions the shareholders had on that topic tonight.”
The Herald attended the meeting as a shareholding entity, as the commissioner requested that media not be in attendance. Robison pointed to the sale of the Kamloops Blazers twice as he addressed the shareholders and after the meeting, he said that situation would be an ideal one if Lethbridge goes up for grabs. In Kamloops, the board holds the sale amount — which is believed to be approximately $7.5 million — in trust. They’ve used the interest from that trust to support community organizations in the area to great acclaim. The board also holds the right to buy the team at its original sale price should current owner Bob Gagliardi decide to sell or move the franchise.
“That’s the perfect template. That has turned a sale into a major asset for that community,” said Robison. “Not only is it in stable financial position with the new ownership group, but the legacy is significant in the community where the money is used to support minor sports and organizations are benefitting annually from grants provided by that society that represents the former ownership under community structure.
“We think that’s the ideal model and we think Lethbridge would benefit greatly from that kind of arrangement.”
Robison’s only hiccup in the meeting came when he pointed out that a franchise can move on a two-third majority vote from the league board of governors. Even after that, however, he pointed out Lethbridge’s advantages. Those include a struggling team which still raises more than $900,000 in corporate support and advertising. The Canes are carrying approximately $500,000 in debt, according to board president Doug Paisley. That means it would be awhile before the team fell apart enough for the league to have the right to step in.
The team’s financial performance over the last six years have the league “concerned.” But the decision, he stressed, isn’t the league’s to make.
Robison said the league prefers local ownership, and would take steps to ensure that. He said he wouldn’t recommend a sale if there was any chance the team could move.
It is a franchise that has never been able to sustain success. Its best years have inevitably been followed by a swift and ugly decline. It has also suffered its share of off-ice drama, from local stars like Kris Versteeg wanting out to the player defections and refusals to sign which have hit the team recently.
Paisley said the team will be advertising its special meeting to allow the shareholders to “vote to vote” soon. There are still two meetings left for the club, one to vote on a resolution mishandled at last year’s Annual General Meeting. That vote will put a resolution on the table at this year’s AGM which will ultimately decide the fate of the franchise.
The league’s message was clear: Sell the Canes. Whether shareholders take that advice remains to be seen.
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