Grande Prairie Storm opening season with plenty of hope but also concerns

Grande Prairie Storm goaltender Joe Chambers in action against the Whitecourt Wolverines during Alberta Junior Hockey League exhibtion action at Revolution Place last month. The Bonnyville Pontiacs are in town this weekend to open the AJHL season. Gordon Anderson/Daily Herald-Tribune

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He resides above the Storm, temporarily on cloud nine.

The Grande Prairie Storm open the Alberta Junior Hockey League regular season on Friday night when the Bonnyville Pontiacs come to town for a two-game series at Revolution Place.

The squad has been working under the cover of COVID-19, trimming the vestiges from the roster, looking forward to displaying the team Head Coach Mike Vandekamp envisioned when he took the job in April.

For one, team president Murray Toews is happy with the coach’s work, thus far.

“Any time you start a new season, it is exciting. We feel we have a vastly improved hockey team (and) we’re really happy with Vandekamp and (assistant coach) Sam Waterfield. Not overnight, but in a few short months (they) really cleaned up a lot of things for us,” Toews said.

“Obviously, there is a lot of work left to be done to get up with the big boys in the top part of this north division, and this AJHL championship talk, but Vandekamp knows he’s been brought here to win and he’s won where ever he’s gone. So, we’re sure counting on that continuing.

New and improved?

Vandekamp was brought in from the British Columbia Hockey League to turn around a moribund franchise looking to make a comeback after many years of mediocrity.

There are eight players on the roster from last year’s team that finished seventh in the north with 18 wins, losing out to the Spruce Grove Saints in the first round of the AJHL playoffs in March.

“It’s a complete turnover but it’s part of (junior hockey) and it happens,” Toews said.

“Vandekamp is a season veteran and he’s got a lot of experience in the general manager role and he knows what kind of player he wants. He knows what kind of product to put on the ice, and with the games I’ve seen this far, it’s been very entertaining hockey. It’s encouraging from my chair, my point of view.”

The wet blanket

The president’s enthusiasm is tempered by the business reality of the coronavirus, and its effect on his hockey club.
At the moment, the club is allowed 100 people in the rink. The team refunded money to more than 300 season-ticket holders because there isn’t a seat to sit in.

On the ice, the entire Jr. A funding model is under duress for this season, as the players are paying to play, for the time being.

“What we’ve been doing up to this point is, and we’ll probably continue to at least until Jan. 1, the players have been paying to play,” Toews said. “With that money, they’ve been covering a lot of the ice fees and coaches expenses and stuff. So, now that we’re starting to travel and it’s tough to put that back on the parents, and obviously we can’t. But we also have a hockey team to run with 100 people (in the building) and we can’t pay for much.”

The local players are dishing out $1,200 a month while the out of town players are paying $1,650. The $450 difference comes from the cost of billeting, of which the players are also paying.

Toews also noted the team operates with a budget in the six-figure range per year, looking for ways to manage costs effectively because, despite the limited revenue projections, the costs of running the club haven’t disappeared.

“Typically, ( a million dollars), that’s what the Grande Prairie Storm does during a full schedule,” Toews said.

“With COVID, we’re down to a reduced season with 40-games. We’re going by the seat of our pants and have done next to nothing with funding. We’re in a tough spot, same as everybody else is.”

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