By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — In January, the owners of the Brookings Blizzard franchise of the North American Hockey League were told that the Larson Ice Center in the South Dakota town needed renovations after the 2018-19 season.
“We were told that the rink in Brookings had significant issues with the refrigeration system,” Blizzard co-owner and governor Chris Canavati said. “Basically, they told us if they couldn’t get it fixed, we were not going to have ice next year. They were going to do the best they could to raise the funds and make the repairs in a timely fashion to have our season next year (2019-20).
“At the same time, they couldn’t promise me that it would be done or that they could raise all the money. It’s a $3.5 million project. With no guarantees, we had to start looking for an alternate place to play.”
Cavanati and his older brother, Mitri, are co-owners of the Blizzard, a Tier II junior hockey team. The Canavatis grew up in West St. Paul, Minn., and are Henry Sibley High School graduates. After high school, both played football and graduated from St. Cloud State University in the 1980s and they live in Alexandria, Minn.
The Municipal Athletic Complex in St. Cloud, Minn., was one of three sites that the Canavatis looked at as a possible new home for the Blizzard. The other cities were Marshall, Minn., and East Grand Forks, Minn.
“We looked at Marshall because they just built a beautiful new rink and East Grand Forks was looking to bring in a junior team,” Chris Canavati said. “We looked at St. Cloud due to its proximity to Alexandria and Willmar.
“Having watched plenty of hockey games at the MAC, I’ve always thought that it would be a perfect junior rink. As we talked to venues, we started liking St. Cloud more and more. It’s got a great population, it’s close to the (Twin) Cities, it’s a hockey town. My brother and I went to St. Cloud State and we love the community.”
The proximity to the Minnesota cities of Alexandria and Willmar is important for a couple reasons. The Canavatis own LSC Financial Solutions and National Cooperative Leasing in Alexandria. They also own the Alexandria Blizzard and Willmar Warhawks, which are NA3HL Tier III junior hockey teams.
Alexandria is about 75 miles away from St. Cloud and about 70 miles away from Willmar.
Junior team owners since 2005
The Canavatis have owned the Blizzard NAHL franchise since 2005. The franchise began operations in 2003 in Alexandria as the Minnesota Blizzard in 2003.
Chris Canavati was a member of the Alexandria Area Hockey Association when the owners of the Blizzard addressed the organization.
“I served on the youth association board and the team was here for two years and the owner of the team came to the association and said that ‘this will be our last year. We’re either going to fold the team entirely or sell it,'” said Canavati, who is also a former youth hockey coach. “We recognized the value that the team had to the community and we loved what junior hockey does for the players. With one team every year, 25 kids pursue their dream and develop physically and mentally and it gives them a chance to possibly play in college.
“There was a few of us that came together to keep it here (in Alexandria).”
The team enjoyed its most success on the ice and in the stands from 2009-12 in Alexandria. The Blizzard averaged 715 fans and reached the second round of the playoffs in 2009-10. In 2010-11, Alexandria won the Central Division title and averaged a franchise-best 901 fans. The Blizzard took second in the division in 2011-12 with the league’s fifth-best record (40-15-3-2) and averaged 867 fans, which was 16th in the 28-team league.
Ownership moved the franchise to Brookings after that season.
“Brookings isn’t a big town (about 24,000), but it’s almost twice as big as Alexandria (about 13,600) and you need a substantial population to support an NA team,” Canavati said.
Hamline University men’s hockey coach Cory Laylin, a St. Cloud native, coached the Blizzard their first two seasons in Brookings.
“It was a very unique situation,” Laylin said. “It was a lot of learning. I was a new junior coach and we were learning is it went. We were introducing hockey to the community of Brookings.
The team’s attendance remained about the same as it was in Alexandria, topping out at 859 per game in 2015-16. The Blizzard made the playoffs in 2016-17 and averaged 795 fans.
Last season, the Blizzard had the worst record in the NAHL (11-44-3-2) and averaged a franchise-worst 464 fans.
“Brookings is a great town and we had great fans and it was a phenomenal building there, but it was just not enough,” said Canavati, who said that teams need to average about 1,000 per game to make a profit. “For a smaller town, there was a lot of competition. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits are like what the Green Bay Packers are to Wisconsin … that town bleeds blue and gold. And there were major concerts next to the arena.
“If you didn’t have a championship team, you didn’t have fans.”
The competition, challenges
Canavati said that he understands that there will be plenty of competition for the entertainment dollar in St. Cloud. His son, Christian, will be a junior on the St. John’s University hockey team that plays its home games across town at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
The Brooks Center is also home for the St. Cloud State men’s and women’s hockey teams and the St. Cloud Apollo/Tech boys hockey team. The Cathedral boys hockey team also calls the MAC home and the St. Cloud Icebreakers are the high school girls hockey team for the three schools in the city.
Nearby, Sartell High School and Sauk Rapids High School have boys hockey teams and the schools combine for a girls hockey team. Then there’s the Granite City Lumberjacks, the NA3HL team that is calls Sauk Rapids’ Sports Arena East its home.
“We’ll try to stay away from St. Cloud State’s home schedule and Cathedral’s … but you can’t stay away from everything,” he said of having games on the same days as other area teams. “But we agree with (SCSU men’s hockey) coach (Brett) Larson’s assessment in one of your stories that there will be a different fan base for us than go to the Huskies games.”
Ticket prices have not been set for the St. Cloud Blizzard, but Canavati said tickets will be “under $14 and we will have different pricing for students and senior citizens.” There will also be a cost break for fans who buy tickets in advance for games online (www.stcloudblizzard.com).
The team will have 5-6 full-time employees and could employ another 15-20 part-time employees.
While the team has not moved into the MAC and there is not office space set aside for the team yet, Canavati has been pleased with how the city of St. Cloud has responded to the addition of the Blizzard.
“The city of St. Cloud has been just fantastic to work with, very supportive in every step,” he said. “They’re going to accommodate us with temporary locker rooms and office space … so far, it’s been great.”
The first signs of the team that the public is likely to notice will come July 12-14 when the team has its main tryout camp. The league schedule for 2019-20 has not been released, but last season, the Blizzard opened their season with four games from Sept. 19-22 in the NAHL Showcase at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine. Their home opener last season was on Sept. 28.
Canavati sounds excited to get the season started.
“What I’m most excited about playing in St. Cloud is that we are five minutes away from St. Cloud State, St. John’s plays five miles away, we are two hours away from Mankato, an hour from the University of Minnesota, 2 1/2 hours away from Duluth, 2 1/2 hours from Bemidji State and we’re close to all the MIAC schools,” he said. “That gives our players the opportunity to play in front of scouts from some of the best colleges in (NCAA) Division I and Division III. I firmly believe that makes St. Cloud a destination of choice for players.”