(Kamloops Daily News file photo)
Swift Current, with a population of around 15,000, is the smallest city in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League.
And it has gotten some publicity over the last few days, perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
When the WHL lowered the boom on the Portland Winterhawks a week ago, taking the whip to them for what it says were violations of rules involving player benefits, there was a lot of talk about the league’s rules and regulations, and how so many of them are in place because of the need to protect a level playing field.
What the WHL was trying to say is that it is home to two distinct tiers and that a lot of these rules are in place in order to allow the small-market teams to continue not only to play but to be competitive with the big boys.
So . . . what’s the difference? All teams are trying to sell their product in their own marketplace, aren’t they?
Well, when you talk with Lamb, a former NHL player and coach, you end up conversing about Dwight Yoakam and bull riding and 50/50 gizmos. Oh, sure, there is talk about this player and that one. But without the other stuff, the players wouldn’t matter.
“For a small-market team, we need the community behind us,” says Lamb, who played in the WHL with the Bighorns Bighorns and Nanaimo Islanders — the Bighorns relocated after the 1981-82 season — but is best remembered for his time with the Medicine Hat Tigers. “All the rules and stuff that the league puts into place . . . that’s so it can work for us.”
In 2011, according to Stats Canada, the City of Swift Current and the Rural Municipality of Swift Current held a combined population of 17,535.
The Credit Union iPlex, the home of the Broncos, seats 2,879. A sellout means more than 16 per cent of the region’s population is at the hockey game.
Obviously, then, the Broncos are up against it.
Which is why talking hockey with Lamb also means talking about Yoakam and Trooper and pro bull riding.
Lamb was raised in the ranch land around Cadillac (pop. 100), which is 62 kilometres straight south of Swift Current. No, he’s not afraid of work.
But you wonder if he knew what he was getting into when he returned to where his junior hockey career began when, as a 15-year-old, he joined the Broncos, who were then a junior A club.
How tough is Mark Lamb? Well, he played hockey in the winter and did rodeo — he was a calf roper turned bull rider — in the summer. Junior hockey was a tougher racket back then, and Lamb played junior A at 15 and made the jump to major junior at 16. At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Lamb put up two 100-point seasons in the WHL before going on to a lengthy pro career that included 403 NHL games. His face bears the scars of what was a 21-year journey from Swift Current to Houston and back.
“I came back every summer,” he says, adding that when you’re from the area and you’re away “you follow the Broncos.”
So when he took on the job over the summer of 2009, he knew what was coming.
“Every year we do lots of fund-raising,” Lamb explains.
Which is like saying vampires are in lots of movies of late.
If you go to a Broncos game, chances are a Yoakam concert will break out. Or maybe Trooper will be in the house. Or how about Chad Brownlee? If that’s not to your liking, how about The Dirty Aces?
The Dirty Aces?
They’re based out of Gull Lake, Sask., the hometown of Roger Aldag, perhaps the most popular Saskatchewan Roughriders player ever. I dare you to live in southwestern Saskatchewan and not like The Dirty Aces.
The Broncos also play host to an annual alumni golf tournament. They are involved with Frontier Days, online auctions, raffles — they sell tickets on such items as a Broncos golf cart and trailer — and Vegas Nights. This season, with the latter promotion, they give away a trip to the gambling mecca at every Friday night home game.
They even held an SOS Breakfast — yes, SOS means just what you think — and brought in former Roughriders receiver Don Narcisse as the guest speaker.
Let’s not forget, too, that the Cody Snyder PBR Invitational has stopped in Swift Current each of the last two years, with the Broncos as the promoters for a show that involves some of the best pro bull riders in the world.
“The PBR,” says Lamb, as though he’s talking about a first-round draft pick, “has been really, really good.” At 48, Lamb’s riding days are behind him.
And then there is the electronic 50/50 station that travels the area in the summer and has appeared at Frontier Days, the Rusty Cages Rod Run and the Autumn Fun Fest, among others.
“You never really know what’s going to work,” Lamb says. “Especially with the farming community and the weather. Everything has to come into play to make everything work.”
The purpose of all this is two-fold. Firstly, the Broncos need to raise funds. Their hockey operation has lost in the neighbourhood of $800,000 each of the last three seasons. So it’s the off-ice fundraising that keeps the franchise afloat. Secondly, they have to keep their name out there.
“We have to have the people come and watch the games . . . that’s the biggest thing,” Lamb says. “If we keep that up, we can be successful.
“But anything really, really big . . . with a small-market team, it puts us in a little bit of trouble.”
In other words, when the big boys break the rules, this is why the hammer has to fall.
Yes, the Swift Current Broncos are far more than a hockey team. They have to be or they won’t survive.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)
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