By Craig Stein
(As seen in the December 2017 issue of Overtime Magazine)
Tradition means a lot to Melville’s Ernie Iluk.
Not only has the 79-year-old been involved with the Melville Millionaires’ hockey club for over 40 years, but he was also on his way to Bredenbury, SK, just after he took time to share some memories with us, to watch the Grey Cup game with the same group of people for a 50th consecutive year.
“Our group watched the 1968 Grey Cup and we haven’t missed one since,” said Iluk. “We started out with 16 people, 8 couples. It’s sad but we’re down to just five of us left, but it’s fun to keep the tradition going. We haven’t missed one and we even went to the game in Regina when it was here in 1995.”
Iluk spent his early professional career in the banking business, which had him and his family moving around a lot. He moved from Lafleche to Bredenbury in the early 1970’s where he was the town clerk, and was in the insurance & real estate business, before planting roots in Melville.
It didn’t take Iluk long to get involved with the historic Millionaires’ franchise. He joined the board in 1975, was the Treasurer the following year, and first became President in 1978, a role he held on three different occasions for a total of 10 years, and remains on as a Director to this day.
“One thing that amazes me is that the year I became Treasurer, our budget was $59,500,” Iluk laughed. “Today it’s in the neighbourhood of $800,000 to operate a junior hockey team in Melville. There were some dark times where I sometimes have wondered how we can keep it going, but all those years later, we’re still here playing in a beautiful facility.”
“The community keeps coming through. We started last year down $75,000 after missing the playoffs. Then we rented some land, and a lot of people donated their time and equipment to get the crop off, and some businesses donated seed and chemical, and that led to a $75,000 profit.”
The club has always had to think of innovative ways to make money, and more than 30 years ago, Iluk and a close friend and fellow executive took a big chance.
“Myself and Bob Richardson were watching the show ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’ one Sunday afternoon. They talked about a Million Dollar Bingo. And we just looked at each other and thought, hey why can’t we do something like that just on a smaller scale? We ended up with $100,000 and $150,000 jackpots and we couldn’t believe it. We had folks from Northern Manitoba driving in to play bingo. We had 1500 people in our rink, 1000 on the ice surface and we had to set up 500 more in the stands playing bingo because of our big jackpots. Then of course everyone else tried it and most of them lost money because they didn’t put the time in and eventually we lost money too because now there were so many bingos around, people wouldn’t come from as far away because now they had closer ones to go to, and we had to think up something else!”
Howard Sanftleben has been around the team about as long as Iluk, and Ernie says he deserves a lot of credit for all his time.
“Howard came on a year or two after I did, in 1975 or 1976. He was President one year, he drove the bus for many years, and people take it for granted. You get back at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and then he’d clean the bus and re-fuel and park it, it was easily another hour. We have a lot of younger faces on the board now, but a person almost feels obligated to volunteer and we just love the game. The biggest reason Howard and I are still around is we just really hope we’ll get to see that first championship.”