Our home, our team; 25 years proud.
That's the slogan a community-driven committee had in mind as it announced last Tuesday it is planning to hold a free game for the Neepawa Natives in the new year, Jan. 13.
Neepawa resident Kevin Harris is one of the people spearheading the free game and said the committee hopes the game will rekindle interest for the storied MJHL squad which has helped launch numerous local hockey players into college and professional competition.
Harris added the committee is also looking at the possibility of including other events as part of the free game, such as involving alumni, having displays and adding family or organization-oriented activities during intermissions, but nothing has been confirmed beyond the game.
"We're planning a few events plus the free game to get the community support back again," Harris said, noting sponsorship by several community businesses is making the free game a possibility. "And we're really hoping everyone in the community will get behind this and come out to the rink."
Home attendance to Natives games has been on the decline this year, which may be a direct result of the hazing incident making national headlines this year. Fallout from the incident moved some people to support the team and its players even more than they had in the past, while other fans seemed to stop attending games as a result.
While Harris said he understands the viewpoint of those avoiding the hockey team following the incident, but he points out the club and its young hockey players are now at a point where that local support is needed back.
"If you focus on the problem, the problem is going to stay," Harris said. "But if you focus on the solution, that's how problems are solved.
"If we show everybody (around the league and in national media) the community is behind this team again, I think that's an important thing."
At a meeting last Tuesday, Natives manager Dave McIntosh said other hockey teams are suffering declines in attendance as well, including the Neepawa Farmers senior hockey club, which could indicate the drop in fans is simply a current trend.
In either case, the Natives club and its players are hoping the community initiative will help remind residents of the quality hockey entertainment the club – whose record and attitude has improved under the guidance of new head coach Ken Brooks – can produce.
Natives general manager Dave McIntosh said the team is also struggling financially and hopes the initiative will bring fans to the arena and keep them coming beyond Feb. 13.
"We find ourselves with no money in the bank and quite a bit of accumulated debt," McIntosh said. "This is a way of making a really bold statement by making a free game...so people can come to see a game."
McIntosh also pointed out the financials aren't the primary reason for the event, as the team has a Boxing Day social and its annual cash draw which should combine to make the club around $30,000, but it's about making the Natives Neepawa's team again.
"Hopefully it's something that grabs people that says, 'we need you back'," McIntosh said.
The free game is something being supported by the league as well, as MJHL commissioner Kim Davis told The Neepawa Press he thinks the free game is a great way to reawaken the hockey fanatics typically seen filling the Yellowhead Centre.
"It's a great idea, certainly. They obviously have a desire to let the community know they need their support and help, and they want to make a more positive idea about the impact of the club in the community," Davis said.
"I hope it goes well for them and it has the effect they are hoping for."
Harris said specifics regarding the free game and possible events will be decided in coming weeks. The game will feature the Natives playing the Swan Valley Stampeders.