After 15 years of successful bingos, the minor hockey league in Campbellton, N.B. had to turn to other sources for fundraising. ((William Thomas Cain/Getty Images))

After an 11-year professional hockey career, John Leblanc went home to Campbellton, N.B. — and walked right in to a mess.

The former left winger with the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers moved back to his hometown a few years ago and became involved with the Campbellton Minor Hockey Association.

But he found their financial books in the red. Bingo, which had been the small league's flagship fundraiser for 15 years, was failing.

"I think there's just too many bingos around now," Leblanc said. "In a small area like this … it seems like there's a bingo every night."

A worsening economy and plain old-fashioned bad luck added to the fundraising woes. The league found that their big-ticket items were won too quickly, and the crowds dispersed after having spent only small amounts at the halls.

"Just the luck of the draw, there's nothing you can do about it," Leblanc said. He shut the bingos down last year.

Facing a deficit

"The idea of trying to put [the organization] on a straight line financially was probably my main goal," Leblanc said. "We were financially sound with those bingos, but before they closed that year they had lost $7,000. We ran a deficit of $11,000 for minor hockey."

At that rate, the league would have been bankrupt in four years.

Skyrocketing ice fees brought new worries. In the last three years, ice time in Campbellton has doubled to more than $80 an hour, while fees in surrounding regions have remained much lower. 

Leblanc said he had to keep registration fees low in order to keep the league together: "If you keep increasing the price, you're going to lose people for sure."

After shutting down the bingos, Leblanc realized the league's fundraising structure was also creating a problem. 

The teams were out fundraising for the purposes of going to tournaments, "which is fine," Leblanc said. "But at the end of the year, they're all walking around with brand new jackets on that was paid through that fundraising.

"Then the merchants and people that donated are saying, 'I didn't donate money to buy jackets for them. I donated to help out to go to tournaments.'"

Leblanc has centralized the fundraising structure of the league rather than leaving it to individual teams, allowing the league to be upfront with sponsors about where their money is going. 

Using big contacts

Then he got down to business. With his NHL contacts, he managed to get some signed jerseys to auction. Two autographed Wayne Gretzky jerseys last year netted between $3,500 and $4,000 apiece. This year Patrick Roy and Mats Sundin jerseys go on the block.

"They [teams] do the work of selling tickets, and they reap the benefits of it. So if they get the jersey for nothing … they'll turn that into $3,000 or $4,000, depending on how long they want to sell tickets for."

But the major saviour of the league was running its own tournaments, which generate most of their funds. Tournament registration fees cover ice time and referees, and the league is able to run raffles and auctions for items such as, for example, signed jerseys.

The league also prints tournament programs and sells ads.

"We'll sell the program for a dollar or two," Leblanc said. "It might cost us say $1,500 to get the program printed. But last year I sold $4,500 in ads, so you're looking at a straight $3,000 profit right there.

"There's a lot of work to it at $30 or $40 an ad," Leblanc said, "but in the long run, this is where a main chunk of your fundraising comes."

The league also earns a small profit from sales of the programs themselves.

Getting good help

Leblanc hasn't done it alone. The league's board of directors is now hard at work for tournaments that are scheduled for February. "It takes some special people," Leblanc said, "because they put in a lot of hours."

Nevertheless, in the two years since he has become the league co-ordinator, the association's finances are back in the black.

"Costs haven't changed much in the last three years, which is what we're trying to do," Leblanc said. "We stabilized it."

He admits that his days as a former pro have helped ("I've got more contacts than a lot of other people would") but other people could follow his lead, he said.

"My belief is that if they can get autographed jerseys and sell tickets on it, then that is the easiest way to make profit. Even if you pay $300 or $400 for the jersey, it's going to pay back itself."