Blizzard hockey: Canavati sees 3HL thriving in Alexandria
Brad Willner has a good idea of the level of play in both Tier II and Tier III junior hockey.
The former Alexandria head coach and general manager spent four seasons with the Blizzard from 2005-2009 before moving on to coach in Tier III with Granite City. He wrapped up his third season with the Lumberjacks this past winter with his team winning the NA3HL championship.
Willner says he knows the kind of players that each league attracts and says Alexandria fans will still enjoy the product the Blizzard put on the ice at the Runestone Community Center next winter.
"With the market up there and what [Owner] Chris [Canavati] and [head coach] Doc [DelCastillo] have done with the attendance and everything in the community, they're going to love the program. There isn't a big difference between the two levels."
Blizzard owners Chris and Mitri Canavati took over a franchise that was on the brink of folding or being relocated in 2005 because they wanted to see a junior hockey team thrive in Alexandria.
They believe that will happen with the decision to move the Tier II Blizzard team to Brookings and bring in a Tier III team to compete in the 3HL West Division. The team announced the plans last week after a lot of thought was put into it after Brookings approached them about the move.
"The Alexandria area better supports a team in the NA3 than it does in the NAHL," Chris Canavati said. "What we want to do is bring junior hockey to Alexandria and keep it here."
The expenses of running a Tier II team in a city the size of Alexandria made that impossible to do. Canavati said Alexandria is by far the smallest market of any team in the North American Hockey League (NAHL). With a population of around 12,500, it proved to be too small to support a team at the Tier II level.
"With a Tier II team in Alexandria, it was going to come to a point that it couldn't sustain itself any longer," Chris said. "Was it a hard decision? Absolutely. It was a hard decision that we faced every year."
Canavati said making money was never the objective for him or his brother when they took over. All they wanted to do was break even, but even that proved impossible to do over their seven years of ownership.
A lot of expenses go into operating a Tier II team, including ice cost, coaching, travel and equipment for the players. Players pay their own way at the Tier III level as they work to get noticed by colleges or move their way up the ladder at the junior level.
Head coach Doc DelCastillo called it the next step for this organization, but that doesn't make it easy. He accepted the head job with the Tier II team in Brookings after spending the last three years in Alexandria.
DelCastillo has a wife and six daughters ages 3 to 15. The news of the move is never easy on a family, but it comes with the territory for a lot of coaches at this level.
"Each time you move, you realize that your daughters are leaving best friends behind," DelCastillo said. "This is such a good community to raise a family in. Our girls play hockey here, run track, our family is a part of the community as far as St. Mary's Church. It's not an easy thing to do, but we also feel that it's a great opportunity for our organization."
The two teams will provide twice as many athletes with the opportunity to chase their dreams of playing hockey at the college level. That's what excites the organization most about this move.
"We look at it and say, now we're giving 50 kids the opportunity to play junior hockey and continue their careers instead of 25," Canavati said. "And we're doing it in a way where we feel both markets will survive indefinitely."
That is the message he hopes fans will ultimately understand. The Blizzard drew 25,995 people through the 40 regular-season games on its way to winning a franchise record 40 games this season. Those attendance numbers ranked 16th out of the 28 teams in the league but last among teams in the Central Division.
"I know there's a lot of disappointment," Canavati said. "It was a very difficult decision for us to make. We're extremely proud of our community in Alexandria for supporting the team as well as they did."
His hope is those fans will continue to support a new group of players next winter. Willner said he believes Alexandria will have no problem stepping in and competing at a high level in its first season. The new Tier III team will join Granite City, the North Iowa Bulls, the Twin City Steel and the Minnesota Flying Aces in making up the West Division.
The Blizzard name won't change on the front of the Alexandria jersey, and Canavati feels the product on the ice won't either.
"It's still going to be good hockey," he said. "We're still going to put on the same show. Our standards and expectations don't change just because we're going to Tier III. I don't want fans to expect a different experience when they come to the arena. It's a good level of hockey."