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RED DEER, Alta. Jan. 19, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Modern marketing suggests you need to label a community to validate its history and its character, particularly when it comes to hockey.
Hockeyville. Hockeytown. Hometown Hockey.
In Red Deer, the labels seem superfluous. This city likes to think it is hockey. It has been home to national champions at several levels, from major junior on down. It has hosted national and international events, including the World Junior Hockey Championships.
Its minor hockey program is robust, and its major junior Rebels were the 2001 MasterCard Memorial Cup champions and are a perennial attendance leader in the nation.
But Red Deer has never hosted a Memorial Cup tournament, which crowns the nation’s major junior champion. Nor, for that matter, has any other Alberta community in more than 40 years, since 1974 in fact, when Calgary hosted the four-team major junior tournament. But that is about to change this May.
While the world junior hockey tournament has become as Canadian a holiday tradition as Boxing Day sales, it is not nearly the longest-running junior hockey tournament. Nor, arguably, is it the most important. That distinction belongs to the MasterCard Memorial Cup, which was established in 1919 in memory of the thousands of Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War.
Each of the three partner leagues in the umbrella Canadian Hockey League (the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) hosts the tournament in a three-year rotation. It is the WHL’s turn this year and, finally, the Memorial Cup is coming back to Alberta.
Merrick Sutter, the Red Deer Rebels’ senior vice-president and co-chair of the Memorial Cup host organizing committee, says a number of factors kept the tournament out of Alberta, even though there are five WHL teams in the province (Red Deer, Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge).
“No. 1 is the facility and the space to accommodate everything,” he said in an interview recently. “In the larger centres, where NHL teams are housed, the issue involves guaranteeing the facility, when the possibility exists that the NHL team could still be playing.”
Red Deer, which has a long history of successfully hosting national events beyond hockey, from Skate Canada to curling’s championship bonspiels (the Canada Winter Games will be here in February 2019), is more than ready to host the Memorial Cup. The Rebels home rink, the Centrium, has been renovated and expanded, and when a call went out recently for volunteers the list was oversubscribed within days, with more than 500 volunteers signing up. Ticket sales have been similarly vigorous.
For the next four-plus months, Red Deer will be all about hockey and the Memorial Cup.
Months of planning go into preparing a bid. And more than a year of work is required to actually host the event, which carries with it direct expenses of about $2.5 million.
Similar work is needed in the hockey operation to ensure that the host team is competitive when the best teams from the rest of the nation come to compete from May 19 to 29.
But the payoff will be enormous for Red Deer, and Alberta.
“We used STEAM (sport tourism economic assessment model) to assess the numbers,” said Sutter. “The economic impact of the tournament is anticipated to be in the neighbourhood of $17 million, with a GDP around $9 million.”
Hotel stays are expected to reach 4,000 to 5,000 nights during the tournament’s 11-day run, with an accompanying boost in restaurant, car rental and retail traffic in and around Red Deer.
That kind of injection of cash is more than welcome in a community that has been particularly hard-hit by the downturn in the price of oil.
But beyond the dollars the Memorial Cup will bring to businesses in the community, and the spotlight it will shine on Alberta, tournament organizers expect meaningful residual impact, including a 50/50 split of the event’s profits with the community, in particular amateur sport – which could total $150,000.
“This event is important for our community,” said Sutter. “This region has been a staunch supporter of junior hockey for decades, and the Rebels for 25 years. It’s a reward for their loyalty.”
It’s our comfort zone, our identity, and no fancy label is needed to validate that identity.
Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past. John is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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