Lakers eyeing player promotion and liquor sales to boost the team

By Megan Walchuk

The Fort Frances Lakers have had a few rough years, both on and off the ice, but this year’s management team has a vision to turn things around.

Lakers General Manager Luke Judson, Head Coach Tyler Miller and Communications lead Tara Allaire were in Fort Frances council chambers this week, to share that vision – but they’ll need some buy-in from council to make it a reality.

The management team has opted to forego all wages for the year to get the team back on its feet, and have been focussing their energies on building up the franchise. They’ve been networking with other organizations, to discover some keys to their success, which can be replicated at home.

“There are a lot of themes,” said Judson. The three most common were community involvement of the players, marketing rights in the home arena, and a liquor licence.

The team has already been active in community involvement – the players have been out in the public eye, at events for the splash park, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Rainy River First Nations fish fry and the Emo Speedway. They’ve been in the schools reading with kids, they’ll be on hand at the Teddy Bear Picnic this week, and have plans for golf events and a partnership with Borderland Pride, and many others.

To take that to the next level, they asked council to consider allotting ad and marketing space in the arena for promotions. Miller noted that while in Portage La Prairie last season, they saw that team’s arena decked out with banners, team colours and a team store.

“Everything is green and yellow and there’s banners of the players. All these young youths look up to those players,” he said.

“In our facility, that would be something that would be valuable to our team; to present our players in a better manner.”

Miller noted that the ad space could be used to help give back to the community, by building partnerships with local initiatives, such as the splash park.

The team is also looking to explore the possibility of a liquor licence. Of the pre-existing SIJHL teams, the Lakers is the only one not able to serve alcohol at games, noted Miller.

He added that the Town could set parameters on a license, restricting what can be sold, and during which periods. Some teams restrict sales after the second period, for instance.

Councillor Steve Maki recalled that alcohol had been served in the auditorium in the past, and speculated that there may be restrictions on serving alcohol in tiered seating.

The legalities and restrictions of a license will need to be explored, noted Judson. But the goal would be to have alcohol allowed in seats during games, he said. There would be a requirement for security, but the Lakers organization would be able to provide that, he added.

According to Allaire, the Lakers organization is open to suggestions from the Town, knowing that any changes will need to be addressed through policy and in partnership with staff. She’s been talking with other town clerks to see the range of what’s already in use, from liquor in seats, to separate roped-off sections with tables and chairs in the concourse.

“So we’re really open to whatever the recreation manager and admin would want to work with us on,” she said.

Judson noted that Junior A hockey teams are a financial benefit to their communities. A similar junior team, the Flin Flon Bombers, did an economic study on their franchise, which found a $1.1 million benefit to their population of 5,000 people. A franchise will bring in out-of-town players, which generate a small income for billet families, as well as benefits for local restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores. The town itself benefits directly; the Lakers pay full price for ice rentals, which is roughly $32,000 per year, he noted.

The delegation was met with praise from council, with Councillors Wendy Brunetta and Mike Behan and Mayor Andrew Hallikas commending them for waiving their wages to benefit the team.

Brunetta supported the idea of adding visibility in the arena.

“It just shows our pride in our community and I know so many people who really believe in the Lakers and support them,” she said.

Behan was also positive about the presentation.

“I’ve always thought the Lakers organization, their players had been exemplary in their community service over the years here, volunteering at different events and being out there. So I really congratulate you on that,” he said. “And being a former sports reporter. I certainly know the value of having a Junior A franchise in our community.”

Mayor Hallikas also praised the team, and its commitment to the community.

“I really feel strongly that the Lakers is, as an organization, a real asset to our community. I’ve crossed paths with you at many of those events that you alluded to, and I’ll be seeing at the Teddy Bear Picnic on Friday. So that’s to your credit,” he said. “I think that you are first rate ambassadors of our community and the volunteer work and the community involvement the Lakers do – that’s to be commended.”

Council voted unanimously to accept the presentation with thanks and appreciation, and directed the clerk, CAO and recreation manager to return with a recommendation to council.