Gillette Wild

Zack Bender heads out onto the ice as the Gillette Wild prepare to begin practice at the Campbell County Ice Arena earlier this season.

The Gillette Wild junior hockey team reports averaging 394 fans in 22 home games last season, a total attendance of 8,667, according to the team’s website. The season before that, the Wild averaged 443 fans a game for a total attendance of 9,746.

Through eight games so far this pandemic-restricted season, the Wild are averaging just over 200. But the sharp decline has nothing to do with the product on the ice; the reduced attendance and sharp loss of revenue has come from a state mandate of limiting indoor events to 100 fans or 25% capacity, whichever is less.

While managing partner Dwayne Dillinger declined to give exact numbers about how much the club has lost financially so far as the team plays through the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the impact isn’t insignificant.

“There’s certainly been a financial impact,” Dillinger said. “The limited attendance at games and there’s also been some additional costs. Going from almost 600 a game to 100, that’s a substantial drop.”

Some of those costs include installing plexiglass around Spirit Hall Ice Arena at Cam-plex to protect the few fans allowed in the building. Another cost is switching to only two players in a hotel room on the road instead of three to limit the chances of exposure to the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be as unpredictable as it was when it began 10 months ago. But Dillinger said he and his staff went into this season prepared to take a financial hit as long as it meant giving his young players an opportunity to play.

“We’re just doing everything we can to get through this season and get on to next year,” Dillinger said. “The kids have done everything they’ve been asked to do.”

On the ice

The atmosphere at Spirit Hall for a Friday or Saturday night home game are what true hockey fans appreciate in a town like Gillette. Unfortunately for most, attendance has been limited to mostly season ticket holders with a few general admission tickets sold online for each game.

The hockey atmosphere with only 100 fans is much like one would expect: a lot less noise and not much of a rowdy atmosphere. But the Wild have played through the adversity and sit in third place in the Frontier Division.

“The atmosphere is certainty different,” Dillinger said. “The kids don’t have the ability to feed off the crowd like you normally do playing in front of a home crowd. The kids have been forced to rally around each other and figure out different ways to motivate them.”

With a 12-6-1-1 record going into the New Year, the North American Tier 3 Hockey League team is two points behind the Sheridan Hawks and the Great Falls (Montana) Americans, which each share a slice of first place with 28 points on the season. Sheridan seems to be the team to beat so far in division play as the Hawks are riding a 13-game win streak.

Dillinger remains hopeful the strict fan restrictions may soon be relaxed as the Wild key in on a playoff run in the second half of the regular season.

“We’re hoping we’ll be allowed to get back to the numbers we were at in October,” Dillinger said. “A hundred people in that facility is not very many. If we could be allowed to get back to the 25% occupancy and the original plan we had in place to allow 500 people, we’ve done a lot of work and spent a lot of money to get a few more fans in there.”

The Wild have played well enough on the ice to earn playing in front of fans at home and on the road, Dillinger said. Gillette hockey fans are missing out on watching a special group of kids on the ice this year.

“This is a really young team, so the future is bright for these kids moving forward,” Dillinger said.

Despite the constant obstacles being thrown his team’s way, Dillinger said the main focus is to keep the season going for those kids who want to go on and play at the next level, whether that be college or a higher tier of youth hockey.

“It is what it is,” Dillinger said. “It’s not just with sports, it’s with everything you do right now. It doesn’t do any good to get frustrated. You just have to continue to do what you have to do to keep moving forward.

“The kids realize it is what it is and whatever is put in front of them, they’re going to tackle it.”

The Wild will start the second half of the season with a two-game road series at Sheridan on Friday and Saturday. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. both nights.

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