By: Brenda Sawatzky – The Niverville Citizen
Hundreds of hockey fans flooded into Niverville’s CRRC on Saturday, September 17 to be part of history in the making. They were there for the inaugural home game of the newly formed Niverville Nighthawks and the official kickoff celebration of the community’s initiation into the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Excited fans filled the bleachers and standing areas to capacity, spilling over into the viewing gallery and fieldhouse next door where a large screen played the game in real time.
The event got off to an electric start as each Nighthawk team member entered the darkened rink through a haze of smoke and flashing lights. One by one, their names and positions were called out by boisterous Nighthawks announcer Kevin Dunn, quickly getting excited fans acquainted with their new team.
A stream of dignitaries followed the players onto the ice, including Nighthawks president Clarence Braun, Premier Heather Stefanson, MLA Ron Schuler, MP Ted Falk, Niverville mayor Myron Dyck, and Kevin Saurette, commissioner of the MJHL.
“I want to thank these 25 young men who have chosen to be here, who travelled from various parts of the United States and Canada to come to a community that most had never heard of to be part of the first-ever Niverville Nighthawks team,” Braun said in his opening address. “A special thank you also to the parents, many who are here for tonight’s first game. We will endeavour to provide your sons with a meaningful lifelong experience. And it is our hope that, in good ways, they will never forget their experience in Niverville.”
Braun extended more words of gratitude to the long list of organizations and people who’ve contributed to this dream-turned-reality. These come from all levels of government, providing significant funds towards the cost of the almost $20 million facility, to the MJHL governors, scout staff, coaching team, billet parents, volunteers, and fans.
Premier Stefanson had the honour of dropping the inaugural puck. Niverville local then Trevor Lux brought the fans to their feet for the singing of the national anthem.
There’s a lot of excitement in the building tonight and I’m looking forward to the game,” Braun told The Citizen as the first period jumped into action. “Whenever you’re doing something like this for the first time, giving people opportunity to get behind a team they don’t know, it’s always a challenge. It’s going to take a little while to build that sense of camaraderie with the fans, but I think that’s going to happen soon.”
Perhaps it happened sooner that Braun expected.
The Nighthawks didn’t triumph over the Steinbach Pistons in their first home game, but the fans were nevertheless emphatic in their chants and calls from the stands throughout the three periods of aggressive play.
The party atmosphere carried over into the CRRC’s fieldhouse at the completion of the game where fans enjoyed a fundraising social featuring the live music of popular 80s tribute band Big Top Radio. On tap, patrons could savour the flavour of the Nighthawks signature beer, created by Winnipeg craft beer makers Torque Brewing.
History of the MJHL
The MJHL is known as one of the most storied hockey leagues across Canada.
The league’s highly coveted trophy, the Turnbull Cup, memorializes Captain Walter James Turnbull, Canadian veteran of WWI who was killed in active duty and posthumously awarded the Military Cross for Bravery.
The first team to ever win the Turnbull Cup were the Selkirk Fisherman, who defeated the Winnipeg Young Men’s Lutheran Club in 1920. Over a century later, the Cup is still in circulation. The Portage Terriers were the one-hundredth team to boast this award in 2019.
The MJHL’s past includes the conditioning of over 200 players who rose up to play with the NHL. Eleven of them have since been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. A total of 15 national championship teams have risen out of the MJHL.
The Nighthawks form the thirteenth team of the MJHL. Eight of this season’s teams will go on to qualify for the playoffs. The winner of the Turnbull Cup will then compete with Saskatchewan’s championship team for the ANAVET Cup (formerly known as the Royal Bank Cup).
The Road to the MJHL
For one trio of Niverville champions, it’s been a long road from the birth of the idea to the realization of the dream for a Niverville MJHL team.
In 2007, former Niverville mayor Clarence Braun, along with two Niverville developers, Ray Dowse and Kerry Church, sat down to meet with Kim Davis, former commissioner of the MJHL.
“[We] introduced [him] to Niverville and some of the initiatives within our community,” Dowse says. “So that’s when we expressed our intent to someday have a team in town.”
Word quickly spread and soon other community members jumped on the wagon, attending planning meetings over the coming years.
But it was truly thanks to the rapid growth of the community that the dream could move swiftly to a tangible reality.
Thanks to the hard work of the Town of Niverville and MLA Ron Schuler in securing provincial and federal grant monies, and to the dedication of the Friends of Niverville fundraising team, the town’s aging Centennial Arena was all but replaced with a $19.5 million CRRC. One component of this massive facility is an NHL-sized ice rink with eventual capacity for 750 spectators.
One month before the facility’s official opening, Niverville was awarded an MJHL franchise.
The Nighthawks is a non-profit organization that, at its heart, is fully community-owned and operated through the investment of local shareholders.
Founder shareholders for the Nighthawks have voting rights and assume operational and financial responsibilities for the team. Board members are chosen from this group.
Legacy shareholders come in at a significantly reduced one-time investment cost. While they don’t have voting rights, they can take advantage of a variety of perks, including securing season tickets before they are sold to the public.
The Nighthawks board includes president Clarence Braun, vice president Ray Dowse, treasurer Jeremy Braun, secretary Dylan Wiens, and five directors.
Season games for the Nighthawks and all MJHL games will be broadcast live on HockeyTV.