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This article was published 19/10/2018 (485 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Western Hockey League’s long-rumoured return to Winnipeg could be only months away from coming to fruition.
Owners of the WHL’s Kootenay Ice are believed to be considering a plan to move their franchise to Winnipeg in time for the start of the 2019-20 season, sources have told the Free Press.
Winnipeg-based majority owner Greg Fettes and minority partner Matt Cockell, who also serves as Ice president and general manager, purchased the team in the summer of 2017 and have operated the Cranbrook, B.C.-based club since that time. The team, located in one of the league’s smallest markets, has been hemorrhaging fans and money in recent seasons.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison did not make himself available for an interview on the subject this week.
However, he was asked Thursday via the league’s senior manager of communications to respond to this question: Is the WHL’s board of governors currently considering a proposal to move the Kootenay franchise to Winnipeg where it would play at the University of Manitoba’s Wayne Fleming Arena until a suitable arena can be built?
His written response was a curious non-denial denial.
"The WHL is very pleased with the commitment Greg Fettes and his ownership group has made to Cranbrook and the Kootenay region since acquiring the Ice franchise in 2017," Robison wrote. "The WHL is looking forward to the Kootenay Ice continuing to operate this season in Cranbrook."
Robison’s office added to his statement Friday: "The WHL commissioner continues to monitor the situation in Kootenay very closely and reports to the board of governors as required on any new developments. The discussions which take place on WHL franchises are internal and will remain confidential. With respect to the Kootenay Ice franchise, there is nothing new to report at this time."
Moving the franchise would require a two-thirds approval in a vote of the league’s board of governors, or 15 of 22 member teams.
The Kootenay franchise, fifth in the Central Division with a record of 3-4-1-1 heading into Friday’s action, has been struggling to attract fans in recent seasons, and the WHL has been eyeing a return to the Winnipeg marketplace for the first time in more than 30 years, league sources say.
Cranbrook’s 4,264-seat Western Financial Place is usually only half full for Ice home games.
After drawing a franchise high of 3,635 fans per game during the 2000-01 season, the Ice’s announced attendance has dipped dramatically in recent years, including an average of 2,442 in 2017-18 (second-lowest in the WHL) and a current league worst of 2,351 per game so far in 2018-19.
The Ice franchise, which was relocated by the Chynoweth family from Edmonton in 1998, has won three WHL championships (2000, 2002 and 2011) and one Memorial Cup title (2002).
A WHL franchise in Winnipeg would create an uniquely competitive sports marketplace. The provincial capital would become the lone city in North America to host NHL, AHL and WHL teams.
Being a tenant at Bell MTS Place, which is owned and operated by a direct competitor in Truth North Sports & Entertainment, would seem unlikely, requiring the temporary use of the U of M’s aging 1,400-seat rink. In fact, True North was in negotiations to purchase the Ice franchise prior to the 2012-13 NHL lockout but opted to move its AHL franchise back to Winnipeg from St. John’s, N.L., instead.
It is believed a new 5,000-seat facility would then be built in conjunction with the Rink Hockey Academy’s new training facility currently under construction at the west end of South Landing, just off McGillivray Boulevard. The facility is scheduled to be ready for use next spring.
Fettes is the founder of 24-7 Intouch, a large international customer-service outsourcing company. He and Cockell are not the Ice’s only Winnipeg connections.
Head coach James Patrick is a native Winnipegger, and top prospect Carson Lambos — a defenceman who was the team’s No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 WHL bantam draft — plays for the Rink Academy. Lambos will be eligible to play full time for the Ice next season.
The WHL has a long history in Winnipeg, which hasn’t served as a home base for a franchise since the Winnipeg Warriors were tenants at the old Winnipeg Arena from 1980 to 1984.
A poor on-ice product (the Warriors qualified for the playoffs only once in four seasons and posted the second-worst regular season in league history with a 9-63-0 record in 1983-84) and awful attendance hastened the franchise’s departure to Moose Jaw, Sask., in 1984.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.