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Wheat Kings coming to Winnipeg

WHL club to host Calgary Hitmen in playoff games at the MTS Centre

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FOR the second straight season, the Brandon Wheat Kings will pack up and travel down the Trans-Canada Highway to play their 'home' quarter-final playoff games at the MTS Centre.

While being kicked out of Westman Place for the annual Royal Winter Fair is looked upon by outsiders as an inconvenience for the Western Hockey League club, coming to Winnipeg is a blessing this time around. Thanks to a late-season run (3-0-0-1) that saw the Wheat Kings bounce up from the eighth spot to the No. 6 hole in the Eastern Conference, Brandon (39-28-1-4, 83 points) managed to avoid a huge scheduling bullet.

"We're so fortunate... there are a couple different scenarios with possible opponents where we weren't even sure we'd be able to play the games here," Wheat Kings owner and general manager Kelly McCrimmon said in Winnipeg Monday, revealing his club was looking at the unpopular prospects of playing 'home' games in Red Deer or Lethbridge should they not have grabbed the third-seeded Calgary Hitmen (44-25-2-1, 91 points) in the opening round.

"That would have been really tough on our team," he added. "As much as (the MTS Centre) is not our home building, I think it's the next best thing."

Opening the best-of-seven quarter-final series in Calgary Thursday and Friday, the Wheat Kings play Game 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) in downtown Winnipeg.

Should the series extend past Game 5, the clubs finish things up back in Alberta early next month.

The extended road trip is not ideal for the Brandon hockey operations, but head coach Cory Clouston says overcoming the devilish task of playing the first series away from the Wheat City will be in the details.

"To me, it's just being organized and understanding that you're not going to have the best-case scenario with regards to your own dressing room," said Clouston. "The positive is that a lot of our guys were here last year... that's going to be a benefit."

Financially, the situation is a break-even proposition at best for the Wheat Kings, as moving out of the 5,102-seat Westman Place comes with added travel and operating expenses.

McCrimmon wouldn't reveal what the cost increases would be, but he did say he wasn't disappointed with the crowds the Wheat Kings managed to draw in 2011. In the three games, Brandon averaged just under 4,700 fans at the MTS Centre -- most of those ticket sales coming from the Winnipeg area.

"All things considered, financially we're likely better (if we) play in Brandon," McCrimmon said. "We play the cards that we're dealt and make the best of it."

Next week, the club hopes the school spring break (plus the lure of the two Jets games slotted in between the Wheat Kings dates) will entice more people from Brandon to make a multi-day hockey trip to Winnipeg.

On the ice, hosting post-season games in Winnipeg hasn't hurt Brandon's fortunes, with the club posting an impressive 10-4 record at the MTS Centre since the 2004 season.

The team holds a significant Manitoba flavour on its roster, as well, so giving up the 'home' routine for the chance to play in the biggest barn in the province at the most important time of the year seems to give the club an added boost.

"It's a little different," offered Winnipeg-born forward Mark Stone, who led the club in regular-season scoring with 123 points.

"Obviously we don't get to be in our billet homes, but I think we're excited. We know what kind of hockey fans Winnipeg has and they're going to be behind us 100 per cent."


Hitting the road

WHL Eastern Conference quarter-final

Brandon Wheat Kings (6) vs. Calgary Hitmen (3)

Game 1: Brandon at Calgary, Thursday, 8 p.m.

Game 2: Brandon at Calgary, Friday, 8 p.m.

Game 3: Calgary vs. Brandon, Sunday, 6 p.m. (at MTS Centre)

Game 4: Calgary vs. Brandon, Tuesday (March 27), 7 p.m. (at MTS Centre)

Game 5: Calgary vs. Brandon, Thursday (March 29), 7 p.m. (at MTS Centre)*

Game 6: Brandon at Calgary, Sunday (April 1), 5 p.m.*

Game 7: Brandon at Calgary, Tuesday (April 3), 8 p.m.*

*if necessary

Tickets available through Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2012 C2

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