By Alex Gallacher
At the end of what would’ve been the 2020-21 season, the OJHL’s Whitby Fury weren’t drawing very well. The team was among the bottom in attendance and needed a change, enter owner Paul Wilson and his team who helped come up with a winning solution.
Being from Haliburton, Wilson and his team filed the paperwork to move the team to Minden Hills and the new S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena. The team now sees sell-out crowds almost every night, and for Wilson he couldn’t be happier.
While it might seem tough for a team to succeed in a small market like Haliburton County, a lot of things went into the decision and has helped give the team the best chance it can.
“We sold 251 season tickets,” Wilson said. “I approached everyone that I knew was a hockey fan, all the local businesses and the response was just wonderful. A lot of people didn’t know what Junior A hockey was and I hope that because these people have come out and seen how good the hockey is, I think we should have no issue doing just as good next year.”
The community really rallied around the team. Fans supporting in droves, from cottagers to locals and everyone in between. Businesses have stepped up to sponsor the team, with the Huskies having one of the most decked out jerseys in the league. Companies like NFTC, Minden Subaru, Minden Auto Care and Dollo’s Foodland are among the companies that can be seen on team uniforms during game days, but the list of partners extends a lot further.
Sitting among the top five in attendance, one of the only things limiting the Huskies is the amount of seats in the arena itself. However, the team plans to add in some indoor seating in the banquet hall come playoff time. Pending any updates to public health in Ontario, Wilson aims to pack the S.G. Nesbitt once the season is back underway.
“The county is not just a hockey county, but a place that sticks together.” Wilson continued. “They support things and I’m so impressed because I knew they would rally together to help us make this team work. I won’t lie, I never imagined it would become this successful but I do wish we had more seats in the arena!”
Wilson has ties to the Huskies that go back many, many years. Playing for the original Haliburton Huskies in the late 1960s, he was on the team that made it to the Ontario finals in Junior D. During that run, the team won the first two games but went on to drop four to end up losing the series 4-2.
Wilson didn’t play the next season to attend the University of Toronto, but that season happened to be the year the Huskies became the 1971 OHA D Championship winners. Learning about his former team defeat the Exeter Hawks was disappointing for Wilson because he could’ve been a part of that team. However, more than 40 years later and Wilson is now back with the Huskies in a new era of hockey.
“I played for the Huskies when I was a teenager,” Wilson said. “When the team first came here people questioned why I didn’t call the team the Monarchs since it was based in Minden. The reason behind that is the only way this team could be successful is if it represented the county as a whole. It couldn’t be one city or the other, so it was imperative to me that it was a county team. “
Wilson owned the team for two years prior to the relocation to Minden, and part of his reason for buying the Whitby Fury was that hockey runs in Wilson’s family. Wilson played in his youth and his son-in-law and Huskies head coach Ryan Ramsay has a long history of pro hockey, having played three seasons in the AHL (American Hockey League) and seven seasons in the German DEL (Deutsche Eishockey Liga).
The team had on-ice success in Whitby, but off-ice it was a different story.
“We had little fan interest in Whitby,” added Wilson. “We also received little to no compensation from the town of Whitby and we had to pay for full ice rates. Luckily, after the move to Minden Hills they were willing to work with us on these things. We upgraded the dressing room and we added in a whole bunch of other cosmetic features, in return they gave us things like reduced ice rates and a seven-year deal.”
The pandemic has been tough on so many people and the Huskies gave the county a chance to relax and take a breather. A chance to join together and cheer for a common shared interest. All this couldn’t have been done without the hard work for all the staff and volunteers that help make game-day experiences the best they can be, the sponsors, the fans that come out each night, and notably the billet families that have welcomed the players with open arms.
With most of the players coming from outside Haliburton County, the Huskies rely on billet families more than any other team in the league. Wilson knows it’s been a secret to the team’s success because it has helped the players get to know each other better, raise team morale and overall build a strong camaraderie.
The success of the team has not gone unnoticed by the league. Wilson has received many positive letters from the OJHL, mentioning that other small communities have caught the hockey bug after watching Minden draw so well.
“The league is thrilled,” said Wilson. “Not only have we turned around a franchise that wasn’t doing so hot, but I’m confident if we keep getting community support with season tickets and such we can run a balanced budget. I want to do more things like [continue] inviting the minor hockey players to the games. It was great to see the 60 or so parents and grandparents there. The autograph signing was amazing and I was shocked to see so many people coming out for that so I’m thrilled for the future.”
Wilson cares about this team a lot and truly believes in the community of Haliburton County. Being raised in the community as a child, Wilson relishes the chance to give back and create something that has united a county during such a tough time. Sport is something that unites the world, in the darkest of days and toughest of times and going to a hockey game with the family is second to none to help build morale.
Wilson believes so much in Haliburton County because the county believed so much in him. As the season continues, it’s only up for the Huskies in 2023 and beyond.