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Victoria Grizzlies look to solve woes on — and off — the ice

Henri Schreifels and the Grizzlies face the Capitals on Tuesday night.

Cleve Dheensaw / Times Colonist
NOVEMBER 25, 2019 09:55 PM

It’s not a trend any team likes to see in sports. The losses keep adding up for the Victoria Grizzlies while attendance keeps dropping.

The Grizzlies (8-21) have lost nine of their last 10 games heading into back-to-back home tilts against the Cowichan Valley Capitals tonight and Friday at The Q Centre.

The Capitals (18-9-3), meanwhile, have turned their fortunes after spending the last few seasons at or near the foot of the Island Division standings.

So have the Grizzlies’ fortunes turned, but not in a good way. Victoria is second-to-last in the B.C. Hockey League with the last-place West Kelowna Warriors one point behind with a game in hand. The third-to-last Merritt Centennials are one point ahead of Victoria with five games in hand. But the BCHL playoff race is very forgiving, with 16 of the 17 teams making it, as the Grizzlies, Centennials and Warriors battle to avoid being the odd team out.

The Grizzlies have spent more time in recent seasons hovering near the top of the Island Division. That’s what having players such as 2019 NHL first-round draft pick Alex Newhook does for you. But Colorado Avalanche-prospect Newhook and other NHL draft picks from last season’s team — Alex Campbell (Nashville Predators), Carter Berger (Florida Panthers) and Riley Hughes (New York Rangers) — have all moved on.

“We still have a good team. We’re a better team than our record shows,” said Ron Walchuk, governor and managing partner of the Grizzlies.

“Sure, adjustments have to be made. But we’re a young team and our record will start to change. [GM and head coach] Craig Didmon is working on the on-ice product.”

The attendance woes this season could be attributed to a general malaise in the business. Even the old assumption that winning solves every sports woe is being questioned this year. Six Western Hockey League teams are drawing 3,000 fans or fewer this season. Even WHL teams considered elite this season — Vancouver Giants (3,763), Lethbridge Hurricanes (3,761) and Saskatoon Blades (3,442) — are surprisingly struggling at the turnstiles. And these are the announced totals with the actuall in-game attendance being much lower many times. The Victoria Royals are eighth in the WHL at 4,482. The Royals were eighth in attendance last season, as well, but with nearly 400 more people per game at 4,818.

There has been a lot of discussion about the malaise in live attendance for sports leagues, which reaches right to the North American major leagues. It seems sports fans’ TVs, couches and their own beers are winning out.

Attendance figures in the BCHL are much more modest than the WHL. Even at that, the Grizzlies are among 11 BCHL teams averaging only in three figures this season at 969 (down from last season’s 1,070). Only six BCHL teams are cracking the 1,000-fan barrier.

“We would love to have 200 to 300 more people out each game,” said Walchuk, the largest shareholder of the seven-person group that owns the Victoria BCHL club.

“We’ve added features, such as the big video screen at The Q Centre, along with the [Western Lacrosse Association] Victoria Shamrocks. And we’ve got a lot of special events and game promotions coming up and we think attendance will pick up. We feel we have had a loyal fan base over the years that is with us through thick and thin.”

It’s thin right now. The Grizzlies are looking to get back into the thick of it, both on and off the ice.

ICE CHIPS: The Grizzlies are still minus several players due to injuries. Missing tonight’s game will be goaltender Liam Souliere, defenceman Brady MacDonald and forwards Eddie Yan and Trevor Bishop. . . . Following the two games with the Capitals, the Grizzlies will host the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon at The Q Centre.

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