Junior hockey is big business, even in a small market.
After 19 seasons operating here, the Kelowna Rockets have become a local economic generating powerhouse, according to general manager Bruce Hamilton.
His team has made an impact both on and off the ice over the last 20 years.
Hamilton told the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce Wednesday the team generates a total annual economic impact of more than $31.5 for the local economy, with the direct impact of regular season activities alone accounting for $14.9 million of that amount.
Quoting extensively from an economic impact study completed for the team four years ago by a University of B.C. professor, Hamilton said while the hockey operations play a big part in generating those amounts, there are spinoffs too that also contribute.
For instance, a large number of former Rocket players who went on the play in the National Hockey League and are either still playing, or who have retired, either live or maintain summer homes here. That alone generates $7 million per year for the local economy. As many as 27 former Rockets now have homes here.
And the team’s social impact, through outreach programs, charitable endeavours and support of minor hockey adds another $250,000 in economic impact.
With an annual operating budget of $3.5 million, the Rocket’s GM called his team a “big business” locally. And it does it with a surprisingly small staff. The team, owned by Hamilton and several of his family members, has a full-time staff of just 11.
But over the years it has become recognized as a model franchise, both from a business and a hockey operations point of view, not only in the 22-team Western Hockey League but right across the country.
“Last year, I would say there were only four (junior hockey) teams in the WHL that made money,” Hamilton said following his chamber speech. “And we were one of them.”
But after a few seasons where attendance numbers were down despite a winning product on the ice, the team says it’s time to look at attracting new, younger fans.
Hamilton said a special push is on this year to attract college and university students and to do that, the team is increasing its internet presence to be where those potential fans are now.
Despite having the strongest season ticket fan base in junior hockey with more than 4,500 season ticket holders, Hamilton said many of those holders are older now and do not attend every game. And the empty seats last season were noticeable.
“Our aim is to try to get young people off their phones and away from their computers and out to enjoy live entertainment,” he said.
With a new head coach and a team Hamilton expects to be strong this year with many returning players, the Rockets hope to built on the success of 2013-14 when they finished first in the regular season standings but exited the playoffs when they lost to Portland in the WHL Western Conference final.
Looking back over the last 20 years here, Hamilton said the turning point for his team in Kelonwa was when it hosted, and won, the 2004 Memorial Cup.
Not only did the the cup win help but also the festival-like atmosphere of the Memorial Cup tournament itself. It changed how junior hockey’s showcase event is staged.
After going to the four-team Memorial Cup tournament in 2003 and failing to win, and then hosting and wining in 2004, the team returned for a third straight year in 2005. But Kelowna could not defend its title. The Rockets, however were back in 2009, only to lose in the final.
Those four trips to the Memorial Cup tournament in 10 years was an impressive feat, one Hamilton wondered if he would ever see eight years earlier and two years after relocating the team to Kelowna from Tacoma Washington, where it started as an expansion franchise.
Back then, the team was playing in the 50-year-old, 2,200-seat Memorial Arena downtown and losing money. In fact, according to Hamilton, he was thinking seriously of selling the team to a Vancouver group that wanted to re-establish the WHL in that city.
While the Kelowna city hall grappled with several unsuccessful bids by developers to build a new arena before RG Properties stepped in to build what would become Prospera Place, Hamilton said it was city Councillor Andre Blanleil who convinced him to hold on and wait for the new arena.
Hamilton did and the rest, as they say, was hockey history.
But, as Hamilton explained to his chamber audience, the team does not get a cut of concessions or parking at the arena so it has to make its money from ticket sales and advertising. That’s why attracting new fans is critical.
And from a business perspective, filling Prospera Place every night there’s a home game would be the business equivalent of scoring a playoff-winning goal for Hamilton.
“I believe you never rebrand, you retool,” he said. Rebranding is admitting you failed.”
And anyone who knows Bruce Hamilton knows, for him, failure is not an option.