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Dukes have ‘community’ to thank for their success

Randy Uens, Vice President of hockey operations for the Dukes.

Story and photo by Olivia Timm
The Wellington Dukes are making it a personal goal to give back to the community by supporting local businesses.

Randy Uens, Vice President of hockey operations for the team, was guest speaker at Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism’s annual general meeting held Thursday morning at the Picton Yacht Club.

He told the crowd of local businesses that the community should be credited for the teams’ success (Won the Buckland Cup in overtime Sunday and now heading to the Dudley Hewitt Cup Canadian Junior A games in Dryden)

“The reality is, the credit for bringing these kids to our hockey team is the community itself. We bring kids down to Wellington arena, which is an incredible facility compared to most in our league – it’s a gem. The reality is it is an unbelievable facility that the County should be very proud of.

“We brought in a third-string goalie, we have a number of APs we bring in at the end of the year and I brought this young goalie in from Waterloo and I picked him up and the first place I took him was the Drake for lunch and he goes, “Is this like every place in Picton?’ and I said, ‘Yes, they are all like this.'”

As the crowd chuckled along with Uens’ humour, he continued to explain how tough it can be on the players to leave.

“I took him to the rink and his head was spinning. Then I took him over to his billets – one of the 12 Lavenders that are involved with the team – and he couldn’t get over the beautiful place that they live and he doesn’t want to leave. You have a choice to play in Stouffville or a choice to play in Wellington, and it is a pretty easy choice for some of these kids.”

Uens was told shortly after his 16-year-old son, Zach, signed with the Dukes that the team was in financial trouble. When asked if Uens knew anyone who could potentially take over the team, he said in a couple of weeks, he could find someone. However, only two days later Marty Abrams, general manager and head coach of the team, resigned. He then approached fellow hockey lover, Ken Clement, founder of a Napanee medicinal-marijuana company, who said: “Well, if we are going to buy an NHL team one day, this is a great starting point.”

Uens laughed and suggested, “Let’s start with the Dukes,” though he was a bit concerned getting involved with his son now on the team.

“I knew that I was going to be open to some criticism by getting involved so early but it is what it is. I’ve enjoyed my time with the boys and I’ve enjoyed my time with the community and getting involved,” he said.

Though the community has helped get the team to where it is today, Uens said there is still work for the Dukes to do, especially in terms of using the arena to its full potential.

“The opportunities that lie there have not been fully explored, I think, and it’s partly because there hasn’t been enough partnership between the public and private and I think that is something that we can help as entrepreneurs,” he said. “Our job is to make it easier for these kids to find a place to play and what we want to do as an ownership group is to make us relevant. Things have changed, so when the Dukes won its last championship, it was pretty much most of the teams were a community-run team, which is what the Dukes were, or they do a 50/50 and that seemed to fund everything at least a little bit and maybe a local business would chip in $30,000 or $40,000 at the end of the year to keep them afloat,” he explained.

“The other business model is finding an ownership group that is actually is involved in the community and wants to be here and wants to give back to the hockey and wants to give back to the community and that is what Ken Clement I think is doing. He’s in it for all of the right reasons. He doesn’t have any kids who play hockey. He’s not here that often, but he loves the idea of being here.”

He says the club is looking at new ways of getting the community involved, such as hosting restaurants for a ‘dinner-and-game’ night.

“One of the ideas that we want to have this year is we want to be able to start doing pop-up restaurants at the games where we have local restaurants that would want to come and offer a dinner. So it would be dinner and a game for $50 or something like that. So, what would happen is someone would buy a ticket, they’d be able to sit in the lounge, hopefully have a dinner, and then watch the hockey game and it would promote a local business. In the past, hockey and wine and dining doesn’t fit together – maybe not the perfect world. But in my world, I think it does, so I think if we can promote local restaurants and wineries and do this in an environment where we have hopefully 700 to 1200 people in the audience every evening, I think makes sense.”

Local businesses will also continue to find value in advertising on the boards of the hockey rink and jerseys, which Uens says he is looking to link his Belleville company, Rhino Sports, to in order to increase advertising.

“We want to expand into event marketing and keep the model sustainable for the players. I have had these passionate fans come over and say, ‘Well, how are you going to recruit players and how are you going to get players?’ You have teams that are ‘have’s’ and ‘have-not’s’ and the ‘have’s’ don’t charge their kids to play. Traditionally, in the last five to six years, most of the have-not’s have had to charge kids to play and that’s become the business model for a lot of teams and it’s very difficult. So the kids will pay anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000 depending on where they are to play, so it makes it very difficult to attract players,” Uens said.

“So our business model going forward is that we are going to invest in our team in order to create more money for our team to attract these players. We want to create jobs for some of the players locally. We created a scholarship fund for some of these players, so we’ve had some businesses that are related to our business, that are going to donate some money so we will be able to put some of these kids that are 19 or 20 years old and help them go to school.”

Uens has some other events in the works for this year, such as a possible comedy event and a Fun Run. He said those will be announced shortly.

“Those are the kinds of things we are doing and those are the opportunities that we are hoping to engage with local businesses where we can create opportunities for large groups to gather and however you want to be involved, I think we have a creative bunch that can help make it interactive,” he said.

Emily Cowan, the County Chamber’s executive director explained a new program in the works.

“The County Workforce Partnership is made up of the municipality, the Community Development Department, Prince Edward Learning Centre, Career Edge, and the Loyalist Training and Knowledge Centre. We were invited to apply for a Skills Advanced Ontario funding, so the CWP, lead by our fearless friends at Career Edge, have applied for funding to run a comprehensive customer-service training program here in the County, which we all know is desperately needed,” she said.

“This includes classroom time to learn about customer service fundamentals as well as learning about what makes our County unique, the importance of the farm-to-table movement in the County, the wine, the beer, the culture. Students would also spend time at businesses around the County before coming back and getting a follow-up time in the classroom. Importantly, these students from the first day they start to well-after they be placed, would have full support through this training program.”

Cown said there isn’t official confirmation yet, “but we are very hopeful that we will have this program and that is a real ‘coo’ for Prince Edward County.”

“We talk about our issues often and they are usually shared problems, and it is really great to finally, hopefully be able to take some action on that, so watch for this phase,” Cowan said.

The Dukes’ first game is Tuesday in Dryden. All the games are to be streamed live in the Wellington and District Community Centre. Admission $5.

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