No end in sight for Ice arena saga

The Western Hockey League has an arena problem in Winnipeg, resulting in a large fine for the local ownership group of the Ice.

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The Western Hockey League has an arena problem in Winnipeg, resulting in a large fine for the local ownership group of the Ice.

In almost four years since the franchise relocated to the Manitoba capital from Cranbrook, B.C., the promise of a new facility to house the team has remained a vague assurance.

With no construction underway, sources recently confirmed the Ice franchise was fined $500,000 by the league for its failure to have a building ready in time for 2023-24.

When the original plans to build an arena adjacent to the Rink Training Centre in southwest Winnipeg for the start of the 2021-22 season fell through amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team extended its lease to use Wayne Fleming Arena.

From the beginning, the University of Manitoba facility was always considered a short-term solution — deemed too old, too small and generally inadequate for major-junior hockey.

The fine is believed to be the most severe punishment handed out by the WHL since November, 2012 when the Portland Winterhawks were fined $200,000 and forfeited nine draft picks, including five first-rounders, for player benefit violations.

Ice owners Greg Fettes, who serves as the team’s chairman and governor, and Matt Cockell, the president and general manager, have been publicly silent about their plans for more than two years and media requests for comment have been declined.

“We don’t know what the hockey landscape’s going to look like after this,” Fettes told the Free Press early in 2020. “So are we taking a step back and making sure we understand that? Yes, absolutely.

“We’re going to do that but for all intents and purposes we’re still on the same track we were on. We’re doing our best to push forward but we are going to pay attention to see how are we going to be able to play games and how does that affect the type of building we build?”

A recent request to speak to commissioner Ron Robison on Winnipeg’s arena issue was rebuffed.

“At this time, there is no information to share regarding arena plans,” said a league representative in an email response. “Please check back with me in the new year.”

A year ago, Robison suggested the team was considering a number of arena possibilities.

“I can’t share right now what the different alternatives we’re considering but there’s a number of different options available and the university have been very good in terms of accommodating our needs in the short term,” he said at the time. “The facility doesn’t lend itself obviously to the type of facility that we need to play there long term under the current circumstances.”

On the surface, a logical spot for building a 4,000-plus-seat arena might be elsewhere on the U of M campus or even on the former Southwood Golf and Country Club on University Crescent, a 112-acre parcel of land purchased by the university in 2010.

The Southwood Lands project, led by CEO Greg Rogers of UM Properties, has been billed as the largest urban redevelopment in the city’s history.

Rogers, who has zoning approval for 11,000 residential units for the Southwood Lands, has not discussed the possibility of an arena with the Ice, saying the demands for parking would be too great. He said an arena makes more sense on the field west of IG Field and University Stadium currently occupied by garden allotments on Chancellor Matheson Road.

“Honestly, if it was my real estate — which it’s not, I’m just the Southwood guy — I would try and do something to wedge them into that district and we’ll call it a district that is the Bombers stadium, the (indoor) soccer facility and the Bison facility and try and put it in there,” says Rogers.

“It’s good for me because I’ve got a retail district I’m planning (for the Southwood Lands) and rubbing my hands together because there’s not a brew pub within walking distance of sports facilities with lots of beer-drinking people.”

In theory, a partnership might include the Ice, owned by 50 Below Sports + Entertainment, and Curling Canada, which is attempting to find a home for a national training centre in Winnipeg.

“The national curling facility is looking for space,” says Rogers. “Why can’t all of those be aggregated here at the university right now? And then we can build… I can put half a million (square) feet of bars, restaurants and retail right on Southwood and I would have a line up of developers and it would get longer if there were more spectators coming out here for events.”

The Ice, currently 25-4-0-0 and riding high atop the WHL’s Eastern Conference, would be well-suited for a bigger, better home rink.

Winnipeg closes out its pre-holiday break schedule with a game in Brandon Friday and a rematch with the Wheat Kings at Wayne Fleming on Saturday. Both games start at 7 p.m.

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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