Attend a local junior hockey game and your attention will be focused on the action out on the ice, naturally. But look around and you’ll see an even larger team that makes the whole thing possible. From the ticket-takers and concession workers to the administrators and player billets, community teams such as the Elmira Sugar Kings and Wellesley Applejacks rely on a cadre of volunteers for their very existence.
Each game you can look around and spot some 20 volunteers in Wellesley making sure everything is running smoothly, while in Elmira that number might grow closer to a hundred.
Both clubs are community owned, meaning there is no one owner but rather they are run by a board of directors, each member also a volunteer. Being community owned, each depends on local support and the sponsorship that businesses and individuals donate, as well as the numerous fundraising events each club holds throughout the year. Both rely heavily on volunteers to get sponsorships, to run the events and to do the marketing, among a host of jobs.
Chris Soehner, who sits on the boards of both teams, explains the imperative role volunteers play in the success of any community owned team.
“The only way an organization can sustain itself is by three main elements: sponsorships, fans attending the games and volunteers to help out. Without all three components, it would be very hard to keep an organization running,” he said. “To make the whole thing run is the volunteers, and without that you just can’t do it. That’s a big thing.”
Countless volunteers hours go into the many facets of each organization, from board members and scouts, to local billets and the individuals manning concession tables. Add to the list statisticians and timekeepers.
All that work doesn’t go unnoticed by the players and coaches.
“It takes a small army to run the place,” said Elmira Sugar Kings head coach Trent Brown. “There are a ton of people that make this thing tick. There is not a chance that we could run without the volunteers – without people volunteering time there is just no way that it could work at all.”
Brown is a great example of what that sense of community at the organization has produced. Having played hockey here he met his wife in Elmira, returned here, and was an assistant coach for many years before taking on the role of head coach this season.
“To me this is a dream gig. It is a great age, it is a great skill level,” he said of the working with junior players. “I care about the organization. I think bringing people in around me that have played here before is really important. It is really special to be a part of the Elmira Sugar Kings because of what they have done for me in the past – I just want to translate that to everyone else who is playing here right now as well.”
That focus on the young players is shared by many of the volunteers who work with the organization.
It’s much the same for those involved with the Applejacks.
In Wellesley, club president Garry Springer sees firsthand the impact volunteers have on the team.
“You have all of these people who spend an enormous amount of time running a hockey organization that I think most people just don’t see what it actually takes to be able to run it,” said Springer. “If you’ve ever heard the saying that ‘it takes a community to raise a child,’ it takes a community to rally around anything I think in the sense of that and when people volunteer it is taking pride in your community.”
Instilling a sense of community among many residents, especially for rural Ontario hubs, can be attributed to hockey clubs like the Jacks. In Wellesley – a village of 11,600 – any game can see some 300 people attending games, all made possible by the volunteers.
“I enjoy the people that I am working with, we are trying to build something towards a common cause. That’s maintaining a successful franchise in Wellesley that the community can support and be proud of,” he said.
Having first started with the Jacks after his son’s involvement, Springer’s story is not unique – many of the volunteers start their involvement by being connected to a player.
Elmira Booster club member Anne Hanley, for instance, was one of the club’s first members – she started because her son was playing and hasn’t let up since.
“Well, it was when my sister and I, our boys were on the team at the time. The executive started feeding the boys hotdogs after their home games and then we thought, ‘oh, this is cool, let’s go a little further and give them something different, not just hotdogs’ – so we do,” she explained.
And from there the booster club was formed. Unique to the Kings, the club provides the team with meals after home games and meals on the bus for away games. However, they have transformed into what is a support system for the team, helping fill in with anything they may need.
“We supply them with shampoo. We supply them with towels for their showers. We bought washer, dryer, fridge for the dressing room, a portable skate sharpener. Things like that, anything they need,” she said.
Made possible by fundraising, the club goes above and beyond game day support to provide for the team.
For Hanley, who of course comes to every game, being a part of the booster club goes beyond simply helping out.
“It is a family. We are a family, really, everybody here,” she said. “And I think most of us started out because we had boys playing – a lot of us, but a lot of the girls don’t and never did have a boy playing, we sort of conned them in to get them to help us out. We have fun.”
Whether it be the booster club with the Kings or game-day operations with the Jacks, both teams are always looking for more volunteers – there are perks that come with helping out, including being able to cheer on the local teams, making acquaintance with some familiar faces and finding your place in a community within a community.