Friday, February 23, 2024

WHL Commissioner joins Victoria Royals for ceremonial puck drop ahead of retirement

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Long time WHL Commissioner Ron Robison is making the rounds on his farewell tour, announcing in September that this year would be the last of his 24 year tenure as Commissioner.

He’s committed to visiting every market this year on his way out, with Victoria being his 15th of 22 stops.

Robison has been the Commissioner of the WHL for all 24 years of this millennium, having taken the role in September 2000. He’s seen franchises come and go, and was the man leading the charge when it was announced that WHL hockey would be returning to Victoria back in 2011.

“We really had an ideal footprint for the WHL here and we wanted to make sure we returned a team back to Victoria,” Robison said while speaking to media. “It was an important centre for us for many years, and very important to make sure throughout the province of BC that we’re represented in the major markets – especially on the island.”

As a market, Victoria is oozing with potential, boasting the charm and beauty you’re all familiar with, while playing in a somewhat-new arena downtown. As NCAA hockey in the States slowly gains traction as an attractive development path, recruiting is becoming more important than ever when it comes to the WHL, and, from a city point of view, Victoria is an extremely appealing destination.

“A WHL franchise is really important to help grow the game in these communities and create interest in playing in the system (the WHL) … to be successful in the market has been really important for all of us,” Robison said.

While the league, the economy, and perhaps the world still hasn’t fully recovered from the impacts of the pandemic, things are progressing roughly on track for the WHL.

“I think we’ve recovered quite well out of COVID,” Robison said. “Our local sponsorship and community support has been tremendous across the league.”

“If we have one challenge, really, it’s getting the ticket sales to levels where we want to, we’re probably 10 or 15 percent away from where we need to get to in pre-COVlD levels.”

Few markets felt the combination of a declining roster and the pandemic like Victoria did. The Royals were generally above average through their first seven or eight years in the league before falling off a cliff in 2020 and posting just three wins in the brief, 20 game COVID schedule. Prior to this season, it hadn’t been a whole lot better.

From a fan perspective though, it might not have been the worst thing that you couldn’t watch the team as their play fell off of a cliff. Other franchises had championship caliber rosters that they were unable to utilize, which would have been tough for management, fans, and especially the players. Those opportunities are hard to come by.

But the dual impact of a declining team and an empty barn is still felt today. The Royals have plenty of work to do in recreating the old feel of the “Barn on Blanshard”.

Slowly but surely, however, Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre is regaining that old, familiar buzz.

It helps that 16-year-old stud Cole Reschny keeps pulling fans out of their seat with dazzling dangles and sublime skills. It also helps that he scored a hat trick Tuesday night, and, after scoring one point in his first four games, has only been held off the scoresheet once in the past 16 games, tallying 24 points over that span.

That’s part of where Royals fans can find optimism in the team today. Nothing sells tickets like victories, and the Royals are just three wins away from matching last year’s total of 17, with less than half of the season played. The Royals also tend to do it in a high scoring manner, or (perhaps unsustainably) in the form of a dramatic comeback, adding to the entertainment.

Their 14-10-0-2 record puts them 5th in the Western Conference.

The Royals have also made an effort to modernize the fan experience, recruiting an in-house DJ and creating the right-against-the-glass experience of the Fan Zone in section 106.

Opportunity knocks for current Royals management – which was retooled over the summer and completed with the hiring of James Patrick as head coach – to elevate this franchise back to its previous heights and beyond.

Long-time Royals fans know the feeling of a packed Barn on Blanshard on a Saturday night, and there’s roughly 300,000 of us ready to cheer on a good WHL team.

Early indications suggest the team is in good hands, as the Royals collected an excellent return on October’s blockbuster deal, shipping out defenseman Kalem Parker and centerman Brayden Schuurman. Victoria acquired speedster Ben Riche and a plethora of draft capital, including first round picks in 2024 and 2026.

Overaged winger Dawson Pasternak has also been a smart addition, giving Reschny a skilled winger to pair up with, leaving the Royals’ top line of Tanner Scott, Robin Sapousek, and Reggie Newman to go wreak havoc.

But even as franchises improve and produce a winning product, families and fans feel the impact of a challenging economy. A loaf of bread isn’t exactly 50 cents anymore.

“We always have to remain family affordable,” Robison said. “That’s what our league is all about. To make sure we’re attracting new fans to the game and to make it at a price point that everyone can afford to come to the games.”

“We’re really focused on making sure that we’re bringing in the next generation of fans for hockey here in Victoria.”

That next generation of fans can watch the Royals on the cheap tonight as they host the Kamloops Blazers as a part of their “Value Weekdays” promotion.

Tickets are $10, beer is $5, and hot dogs are $3.

The Royals are 2nd in the B.C. Division, with a 14-10-0-2 record, while Kamloops sits 5th in the Division, with a 6-4-13-2 record.

Jeremy Weeres
Jeremy Weeres
Victoria Royals and hockey writer at Victoria Buzz

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