It is not news for most people that Saskatchewan has been hit hard by the downturn in oil prices. The unemployment rate has gone up and the province is grappling with a budget deficit of over a billion dollars. In the southeast part of the province, where the oil industry is a major employer, people have been especially hit hard.
One aspect of life that is not always talked about is sports and recreation, which are largely dependent on sponsorships from the very corporations and local businesses that are struggling.
In many communities, junior hockey teams are major staples in the community in this hockey crazy province.
Ryan Gobeil, the Director of Operations and Marketing for the Estevan Bruins said that with the downturn in the economy the team has had to make some big changes.
“We’ve put a heavier focus on fundraising, and also we’ve leaned a little harder on some of our non-oil sponsors.”
Gobeil added that other business in Estevan are hurting along with the oil industry, which has affected some of the team’s other sponsors.
“When the oil’s good there are more people here and the economy booms.”
Gobeil said the downturn has effected a variety of business from hotels and restaurants to convenience stores.
Gobeil said the team’s fundraising efforts have taken a hit, but are still quite important.
“We’ve had a comedy night and a lady’s night, and then we have ticket raffle fund raisers.”
Gobeil says there is added pressure on the team to perform well and provide a good experience.
“People have to cut down on their entertainment spending, so we have to focus our efforts on really doing a good job on the things we do.”
Gobeil said the team has been fortunate that their season ticket base has not taken a major hit, which has helped the team weather the storm.
Meanwhile eighty kilometers to the northwest in Weyburn, the Weyburn Red Wings are dealing with many of the same issues affecting the Estevan Bruins.
Brent Stephenson is in his first year serving as the Red Wings president.
Stephenson, who runs a furniture store in Weyburn, said it can be challenging for a junior hockey team to do well financially even during good times.
“It’s never ending. To be in the black at the end of the season, that’s extremely hard,” he said.
Like Estevan, Stephenson said the oil downturn hurts not only the oil business.
“If the oil companies are not buying trucks or whatever, it’s a spinoff effect and domino effect of the economy in the whole area.”
Stephenson says that for the last few year’s sponsorship from oil companies has dropped to almost zero.
“It’s pretty tough for them to give us a couple thousand bucks for a sign board when they just laid 15 people off.”
Like the Bruins, the Red Wings have become more dependent on fundraising to keep going.
“The last two years we’ve ran a progressive 50/50 with our men’s ball team, we just had our sports dinner, there’s no doubt you’re having to fundraise all the time.”
Stephenson added the team depends on fundraising for two-thirds of it’s budget with another one third coming from season tickets.
“If we could put 3,000 thousand people in the seats we wouldn’t have to do any fundraising, the season ticket holders would pay for it, but that’s just not the way it is.”
Stephenson said the attendance numbers for the team’s games have dropped because of the economic downturn, and some oil companies have stopped paying for corporate seats.
Stephenson added that it has gotten more difficult to get people into the rink over the last number of years, with other forms of entertainment becoming much more available.
“Going back 30 years, you’d have 1,200 people in the rink all the time,” he remembers. “But you didn’t have Sportsnet East, West, Central, you didn’t have all the TV channels and high definition. We’re not just competing for your hockey budget, we’re competing for your entertainment budget.”
Stephenson said that this means junior hockey teams have to do more to draw people to the arena.
“You have to create more of an event, so it’s not just the hockey game.”
Despite these challenges Stephenson has noticed that the oil industry and the economy overall are starting to pick up, and it appears that the Red Wings have weathered this financial storm.
What this means going forward for junior hockey is hard to tell, but as these two teams show organizations are willing and ready to get creative to stay on the ice.