The COVID-19-related suspension of last season hit the Flin Flon Bombers right where it hurts most - on the ice and on the books.
The disease kept coming up during the team’s annual general meeting, held July 27, especially in relation to how the team's season and finances have been impacted.
Unaudited financial statements, current as of July 24 and covering the time period until May 31, were handed out to onlookers at the meeting. On paper, the team did fine, taking in $676,588 in revenue and paying out $593,135 in expenses, equalling a tidy profit of $44,153 for the season.
Those numbers, team treasurer Janice Slipp said, don’t tell the whole story.
First, once an audit is completed, the team’s profit will likely be knocked down into the $20,000-$30,000 range. Second, a lack of revenue and sponsorship cash during COVID-19 has pushed the Bombers’ board to take drastic measures.
“All in all, it was not a bad year, but our current situation is not as positive,” said Slipp.
The team currently has a maxed-out $50,000 revolving loan with RBC, another loan for $21,000 Slipp referred to as the “COVID loan”, $30,000 owed to the City of Flin Flon and $15,000 owed to the SJHL - in total, the team now owes over $100,000 to its creditors.
“We’re carrying in excess of $100,000 in deficit right now. In saying that, we haven’t had any revenues since March. We had our last home game in early March, the office closed March 18. We haven’t had basically any money coming in over that time,” Slipp said.
Once the SJHL playoffs were suspended due to COVID-19, the league reached out to its 12 member clubs and asked each one to create an analysis of their losses because of the season shutdown. Slipp estimated that the Bombers could have made $100,000 in revenue with a run to the SJHL finals this year. Unfortunately, the team made next to nothing after the league suspended play.
“After expenses, it was well in excess of $100,000 that we lost, if we had gone to the final,” she said.
The Bombers have taken advantage of some government programs and subsidies during COVID-19, including the 10 Per Cent Temporary Wage Subsidy for Employers (TWS), which allowed the team to cut their payroll deductions, as well as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which allowed the team to cover 75 per cent of employee wages. More wage subsidy money is slated to come in during August, along with money from fundraisers including the recent barbecue draw and a cash draw.
“That has been very significant in allowing us to keep our staff on during this period. I think without it, we would have struggled to keep [head coach and general manager] Mike [Reagan] and [office administrator] Leanna [Campbell]. We wouldn’t have had the revenues to pay them. With the subsidy, we’ve been able to keep them employed,” Slipp said.
The team also took advantage of an interest-free $40,000 loan, on which the team will only have to repay $30,000 if paid by the end of 2021.
“It was a good business decision at the time,” Slipp said.
“It’s not great, but we’re not that bad yet.”
COVID-19 has affected the team’s sponsor base, with some businesses previously involved with the team now needing to pull support. However, others have stepped up, leading Reagan to believe the club should break even.
“We’ve lost a few with COVID-19 and everyone’s situation is a little different, but we’ve also gained some new ones as well,” he said.
“I know [assistant coach and marketing coordinator] Cole [McCaig] has been out on the trail and he projects that we’re going to be on the same target for sponsorship dollars as last year.”
The season did not end the way Reagan or the team may have hoped for - instead of slugging it out for an SJHL title, the team had to go its separate ways after winning their first round series against Humboldt.
“We felt we had a team that could bring back a championship for the first time since 1992/93,” Reagan said.
“Typically, you’re looking for reasons for why you weren’t successful - you’re always looking to better the team. This year, I don’t have those answers.”
“I really believe the team was clicking on all cylinders. I loved the way we played Humboldt, I thought we dominated them in three of the four games.”
Reagan also praised the efforts of specific players who stepped up in the series, including forward Caleb Franklin, who spent chunks of what would end up being his last junior game playing defense when several of the team’s defenders were hurt, and trade deadline acquisition Zach Bannister, who scored his first-ever junior A playoff goal in Game 4.
“The guys just grinded it out and blocked shots and we did what we had to… what a great feeling to win that game and sweep,” he said.
When the playoffs were cancelled, the bonds between the team never broke, Reagan said.
“I thought we had a great team. I thought we had a bunch of character guys who really cared about winning. At the end of the year, we thought there was a chance we could be playing in June or July and I told the guys that we wouldn’t be able to fly them all back - ‘Are you guys committed to coming back?’ Not one guy hesitated. They wanted an opportunity to finish what they started,” he said.
That commitment even came from players like Cole Rafuse, the team’s cerebral elder statesman who came to Flin Flon after playing four seasons of major junior and winning a Memorial Cup.
“Even a guy like Rafuse, he told me at the end of the year, ‘next year, I got four guys for you. I’d always recommend it, it was one of the best years of my life playing here,’” Reagan added.
Next year’s team will include some new challenges. All in all, 14 players have committed to join the team, including Saskatchewan U18 AAA stars Cole Duperreault and Mackenzie Carson, Quebec scoring ace Nathan Gagne, lanky, studious defenceman Noah Kuntz and a gaggle of players from across western Canada.
Compounding that is the fact that the Bombers are returning 10 2000-born players, including goalie Jacob Delorme, defencemen Ryder Richmond, Jaxon White and Adam Victorino (if the U.S./Canada border situation allows) and forwards Hayden Clayton, Matt Flodell, Chase and Easton Haygarth, Billy Klymchuk and Reid Robertson. Teams can only dress eight 20-year-old players per game. No decision on who will stay or go has yet been made. Reagan said those decisions will be made later, adding he doesn’t like dealing away 20-year-olds in the offseason.
“That’s going to be a difficult decision with the guys we have returning. Our 19-year-olds last year were such a part of our success and it’s unfortunate that you can’t keep everybody, but it’s part of the business. It’s not a fun part of the job, it’s not something I enjoy, but it comes with the territory,” Reagan said.
The team’s key staff will return for next season, with McCaig and athletic therapist and equipment manager Jason Savill both slated to return along with the team’s scouting staff.
With the group set going in, there’s one more big question - what the league will look like this season. While the SJHL has presented back-to-play plans to the Saskatchewan Health Authority, no firm commitments on when next season may start and what it may look like have been made. Some starting dates as early as Sept. 25 have been floated, but not approved. Other aspects of the plan, including opening up rinks to only 50 per cent capacity, have been made known. In Flin Flon, the Whitney Forum has a listed capacity of 1,650 people, meaning 825 fans will be able to watch the team - a number the team beat five times in 29 home games last season. Cohorting teams into a northern and southern half, which would pit the Bombers against their Sherwood division foes as well as Battlefords and Humboldt, has also been suggested. A scheduling meeting in Humboldt not long after the AGM didn’t end with a plan being released.
Reagan has watched how other leagues are opening and sees opportunity. The BCHL will go to a model that involves players paying thousands of dollars to play exhibitions and train before the season begins in December. Reagan sees that system as a last resort.
“I think it’s really going to hurt the BCHL. I know talking with some coaches out there, they’re frustrated with it. The way I look at it, there’s a potential to open the market up for us in the SJHL to maybe get back some of the players that we used to have,” Reagan said.
A pay-for-play system is not coming for the Bombers for now, something Reagan sees as a last resort.
“There are some leagues and some teams that are going pay-for-play - I’m a firm believer that we want to avoid that as long as possible,” he said.
“If we have to do it to make sure that we have a hockey team in Flin Flon, that’s what you got to do, but we’re working hard here with trying to come up with some different solutions to avoid that.”
Teams may also look at NCAA-bound talent that may not be able to go south due to Canada/U.S. border restrictions. When asked, Reagan said he may pursue players who can’t travel south.
Some changes will come for the Bombers’ board, with a few new names joining the existing crew and some known faces in new places.
Travis Rideout will continue as team president, entering the second year of a two-year term. The second-in-command will be different this year, with board member Eldred Dicks named team vice-president after defeating previous team VP Damian Dominey in a secret ballot vote. Slipp was reelected as treasurer, defeating board member Adam Ricard in another secret ballot for the second straight year.
Members elected to the Bomber board include Matt Morrison, Carissa Mason, Emily Robinson, Hollee Babcock and Angie Simpson, a long-time school board trustee and the mother of former NHLer and former Bomber Reid Simpson.