The Wisconsin Lumberjacks had no income between March 13, 2020, and August 2021.
The junior hockey team was preparing for the playoffs when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down minor league sports across the country last year. The Lumberjacks play in a Canadian league, so their next season was scrapped too as they were unable to cross the border.
"Sponsors aren't going to put money into a team that isn't operating. Fans don't want to buy gear for a team they can't go see," said Lumberjacks President Sophia Lein.
The team worked with the Spooner Area Youth Hockey Association to keep the Spooner Civic Center open for young players.
"We dug deep and outlaid a lot of money to help operate this building and help keep it afloat so that our boys would have a home to come back to for this hockey season that we're having now," she said.
Gov. Tony Evers visited the facility Tuesday to announce more than $14 million in grants for minor league sports, movie theaters and summer camps in Wisconsin.
"Unfortunately, like many businesses in our tourism industry, these folks have been hit particularly hard by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic," Evers said in a statement. "This investment will continue to help fuel our state's recovery and ensure a strong rebound for our local communities."
Almost $3 million went to 17 minor league teams across the state, including the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Janesville Jets and the Wisconsin Lumberjacks. The latter received more than $160,000 funded by the American Rescue Plan Act.
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With Canada's borders now open to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens, the Lumberjacks are back in action. And with the grant, the team has been able to recoup the investments it made when it wasn't bringing in money, Lein said.
The Lumberjacks draw fans from all over the region. The local Best Western hotel is sold out nearly every weekend there's a hockey game, she said. The team brings in tourism dollars and its players volunteer with the youth hockey league and the food pantry. They painted the Railroad Memories Museum this summer.
Minor league teams, summer camps and movie theaters are important to the state's economy, Evers said. Almost 50 theater companies received about $15,000 per screen, while three dozen summer camps received $50,000 each.
It's a huge help, said Darin Holden, executive director of Camp Anokijig in Plymouth. The camp has operated with COVID-19 safety precautions in place for the last two summers. That means fewer campers and higher costs. The camp spent a lot of its reserves, he said.
The program usually runs with about 350 kids and 100 staff per week, Holden said. But last year, that number was down to about 160 kids and 100 staff per week. Still, he said operating through the pandemic was worth it.
"It just hit your heart. The kids, both of these two summers, they needed those social experiences, they needed to be outside, they needed to be able to have some level of normalcy," he said.
Camp Anokijig deferred some maintenance during the pandemic, and the grant money will help it catch up, he said. This year, campers and staff must be vaccinated for COVID-19.
The grants are part of $140 million being distributed to organizations that promote Wisconsin tourism.