A decade after the Alberni Valley was awarded a Junior A hockey franchise, the team’s fairytale circumstances remain virtually unrivaled in the B.C. Hockey League.
With this weekend’s home opener (Saturday, Sept. 24 7 p.m. at Weyerhaeuser Arena), the Alberni Valley Bulldogs will celebrate that milestone.
The team’s circumstances were intricately woven into the controversial approval and subsequent construction of the AV Multiplex.
The pitch began with pie-in-the-sky dreams, and a series of public meetings narrowed down the cost to something affordable. Still, the proposal failed to pass during the first referendum.
“The public made it clear in the first referendum they wanted to see more input from the user groups,” said Ron Paulson, Bulldogs’ director of business operations and an original member of the arena society.
The committee went back to the drawing board, and raised $2.5 million to put towards the $5 million cost of the multiplex.
“We made a guarantee to the taxpayers (for the second referendum) that this building would not cost them more than $5 million,” he said. To replace the building in today’s economy would cost at least $18 million.
The multiplex wasn’t built specifically to house the Jr. A franchise, but the arena committee did go to the B.C. Hockey League and ask what they would require if a team were to move to Port Alberni. That resulted in an increase in seating to 1,500 and a maximum capacity of 1,824.
Wendy Ewing was president of the arena society at the time, and in a good position to see the benefits of building a dual-rink facility. A hockey and figure skating mother, she saw the challenges user groups faced, with increasing demand and decreasing ice time.
“That’s what probably gave me the drive,” she recalled. “I had definitely seen the need.”
When the new multiplex opened in June 2001, the City of Port Alberni put out a request for proposals for Junior A hockey franchises. The Burnaby Bulldogs of the BCHL answered the call—interest in the Lower Mainland community had waned and the owners were looking to get out.
The Bulldogs contracted Ewing to see what kind of support the team could attract in the community.
In quick order, she had commitments for 1,000 season tickets (Art and Wilma Tull bought the first pair) as well as corporate sponsorship packages. She went to the BCHL AGM to present her numbers.
The league turned the city down.
Undaunted, Ewing crafted a 10-page plea to every BCHL team governor, including letters of support from the Jr. B Alberni Bandits, the national women’s hockey team, which had played an exhibition game at the multiplex, and from numerous local businesses. The governors reversed the decision, but gave her just six weeks to solidify the 1,000 season tickets and raise $100,000 in sponsorship.
She and her committee of 10 beat the deadline.
“Nobody thought we could do it. But we shocked them, the ‘little town that did’,” Ewing said.
Port Alberni was awarded the Bulldogs’ franchise on March 15, 2002, and had five months to settle in. The team opened training camp in August 2002 and played its first home game in September.
Bulldogs’ ownership has changed hands three times in 10 years. After five years of operating the team remotely from Penticton, president Andy Oakes, from principal owner Okanagan Hockey School, put a local management team in place. Besides Paulson and head coach/ general manager Paul Esdale, the team also includes director of hockey operations Rick Schievink and education advisor Tom McEvay.
The team has made it to the top of their conference twice in the past 10 years.
In 2005-06, under coach Jim Hiller, they came within one point of winning the Island Division title, losing a heartbreaker on the final day of the regular season to give Nanaimo Clippers first place.
Two seasons ago the Bulldogs finally won the realigned Coastal Conference regular season title under coach Nolan Graham. Remarkably, they had finished the 2008-2009 season in the basement. They then took the Powell River Kings to seven games before losing the 2009-2010 Coastal Conference final.
The BCHL presents a fine balance between winning and player development, head coach Esdale said.
“We’ve had some ups and downs, no question. We’ve sent more than 70 players on to the next level of hockey, which is eight per year. That’s a great thing,” he said.
Indeed, the team is known throughout the league for its commitment to players’ education. McEvay coaches players through their SATs, and those who move on to university or college hockey have finished degrees or diplomas. Besides getting an education, many alumni have had the opportunity to play professionally—including two who signed National Hockey League contracts.
With those kinds of numbers, it’s hard for fans to remember that these players are still teenagers, 16 to 20 years old.
Winning “certainly plays into the equation,” Paulson said. “I understand the fans’ frustrations when you don’t consistently win from year to year. My observation is even in those years when we don’t have a great year, the product on the ice is still really good. “We have young men or teenagers and we have to keep saying that they’re young men playing with adult skills. That’s how good they are.
“Nobody ever goes on the ice to lose.”
The way the BCHL is designed is as a developmental league, and the Bulldogs take that to heart, Esdale said. The team doesn’t just grow hockey players, they grow young men.
“These kids are developing on and off the ice,” Esdale said. “The winning’s a major part of it, but the intangibles of what they give to the community, and the education and how they represent the team away from the Alberni Valley is huge.”
Community involvement is a requirement for the players, and they’re often seen at public autograph sessions, helping out at charitable events or in the public schools.
“The guys do a phenomenal job and they’re well received in the community,” Esdale added. “I’ve never been part of a team in my playing days that does what we do.”