After thrilling final, central senior hockey faces uncertain future

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Clarenville Caribous stop taking paycheques as team teeters on brink of collapse

In an overtime thriller, the Central West Senior Hockey League ended a rocky season in a dramatic way Friday night.

The Clarenville Caribous scored in overtime to put themselves into the Herder Trophy final, which starts Saturday in Harbour Grace. 

But what happens after that is far from certain. Following a season marked with financial struggle, there's no guarantee that the CWSHL will return next season to fill the arenas in Clarenville, Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor. 

"No one knows what next October's going to bring," said Ivan Hapgood, general manager for the Caribous.

His team is ending the year as CWSHL champions, but they had trouble even icing a team at the start. Season ticket sales fell well below expectations — and only the intervention of corporate sponsorships in October 2016 guaranteed that the team would hit the ice.

Gander faced similar trouble in February. To tackle a drop in revenues, Gander Flyers players had to take a paycut, and the team cancelled six games to head straight to the playoffs.

A Corner Brook team withdrew from the CWSHL in October.

League executive Bryan Blackmore said senior hockey outside of the Avalon Peninsula is "always a bit of a crapshoot." But he admitted this year was a tough one.

"It's always a difficult proposition, and at the moment there's all kinds of stresses, including the downturn in the economy and people using their recreational dollars [elsewhere]."

Blackmore pointed towards multiple factors: A three-team league which meant it was possible to go weeks without a home game, the high cost of travel throughout central Newfoundland, and player salaries.

Players in the CWSHL are paid, and teams have a cap of $4,500 per game. Two games per week means a $9,000 weekly bill.

"It's a pretty big commitment to make it survive," Blackmore said.

Blackmore and Hapgood both said nothing has been decided for the league next season.

Caroline Guy said she's heard lots of rumours, some of which make the 79-year-old superfan unhappy.

"I hope we do continue on from year to year," she said. "Just to sit out for one year, it would be devastating."

Guy said she hasn't missed a game in years, and said the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts are always the talk of the town.

Kenneth Freake, who sold 50/50 tickets Friday night, said the team brings in lots of fundraising dollars for the community's minor hockey programs — through the bingo games, ticket sales and draws.

He said a 50/50 draw in a playoff game usually brings in about $2,000 to $3,000, with half of that going back to the community.

"I don't know what they're going to do if we're not here next year. It would be a big loss," Freake said.

Attendance has been down throughout the league, something he attributed in part to the drop in fighting.

"They'd like to see a little bit of mix up, it stirs up the emotions, and that's been taken away a lot," he said.

Caribous manager Hapgood and league executive Blackmore said the teams will sit down following the conclusion of the Herder final and try to hatch out a plan to keep the league alive.

Blackmore said the league's three-team circuit should be one of the talking points, calling it a flawed premise for a league.

Despite their troubles, he said all three are committed to trying to make a go of it next year.

"We'll have to wait and see, I think," he said. "The nature of it is that we need fans, and there's been a stress on that whole business of fans, the economy has been a bit of a turn-down as we know."