The Western Hockey League's return to Winnipeg will be made official in the coming weeks with an announcement that will finalize the long-anticipated relocation of the Kootenay Ice.
However, the transfer of the Cranbrook, B.C.-based franchise is also expected to trigger an ambitious development plan with the operation of the major junior hockey team as its centrepiece.
The Free Press first reported in October the potential of the Ice moving to Winnipeg, and in December said an announcement was imminent.
That announcement — one of several proposed dates that were postponed — was delayed in order to give the current Ice ownership – Winnipeg-based Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell — more time to work out the additional plans surrounding the move that will bring a WHL franchise here for the first time since the Warriors relocated to Moose Jaw, Sask., after the 1983-84 season.
The Free Press has spoken to several WHL sources for this story, all of whom requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the topic. What has surfaced is a project, if executed according to plan, that will have a ripple effect on hockey at every level in Winnipeg.
The WHL did not respond when asked for comment.
Sources say Fettes and Cockell, along with a number of other high-profile investors in the city, are in the midst of implementing a strategy that will see Winnipeg receive among the largest ever private investments for the game's development in Canada. The project is also said to include at least 20 acres of sports, recreational and commercial expansion.
Highlighting the project is an event centre where the Ice will play. The arena complex is expected to have about 4,000 seats. One source who had seen early renderings of the arena said the architecture of the proposed building resembles a huge snowdrift.
Once the transfer of the team is finally announced, a season-ticket drive will begin asking for a small deposit. Ticket prices for WHL games would range from $15 for standing-room tickets to $35 for premium seats. Various ticket packages will also be available.
It is not known whether the owners will ask for multi-year ticket commitments, as the Winnipeg Jets did when the club relocated from Atlanta in 2011, that would presumably secure first selection of seats in the new facility.
It is believed a fieldhouse with indoor soccer and track fields is also in the plan, along with partially covered outdoor rinks equipped with an ice plant that can be used to host outdoor minor hockey tournaments and game-day events. During the summer months, the development would potentially showcase a farmers' market, soccer fields and an outdoor amphitheatre.
Sources said Fettes isn't asking for any public money. The project will be paid for privately by Fettes, his partners and new investors, along with debt financing. The financial viability of the project is not tied solely to the relocation of the junior hockey team.
The Rink, The Rink Hockey Academy and various other sports and entertainment businesses will operate under the same umbrella, re-affirming the project goes well beyond a WHL team, with a much bigger picture in mind. The business will be built upon the various tenants in the event centre (including the Ice and concert events) as well as other money streams, including what’s generated from the specialized sports programs across all ages, land development, sports and wellness clinics, restaurants and retail.
The motivation behind the project, noted various sources, comes from Fettes’ love for hockey and community. The CEO of 24-7 Intouch, a vast international customer outsourcing operation, has partnered with Tina Jones, Brad Rice and former NHL player Mike Keane, among others, to merge with The Rink Training Centre, which is preparing to move from its current facility on Lowson Crescent and into a nearly completed hockey facility and high-performance training centre on South Landing, just off McGillivray Boulevard at Loudoun Road.
Sources also have confirmed that the Ice group also plans to purchase the Winnipeg Blues, bringing the Manitoba Junior Hockey League club into the mix and making the area a one-stop-shop for hockey development, from minor hockey up to the WHL. The MJHL Blues have struggled to remain viable in recent years.
The biggest obstacle at the moment, according to sources, is securing a location for the project. The preferred spot would be in South Landing, where the The Rink Hockey Academy’s new facility is located and set to open in the spring.
The area is currently zoned for agriculture, which allows for the construction of a recreation centre, but not the commercial development component critical to the project's success.
Fettes is said to be working with the RM of Macdonald to obtain the appropriate zoning changes but sources added he and his business partners have additional land they’d be willing to develop, including multiple areas in the south end of the city, as well as in the vicinity of Chief Peguis Trail.
It’s unclear how long it will take to complete, but projections suggest it would take two years. While the event centre is being built, the Ice are expected to play the first two seasons at the University of Manitoba’s aging Wayne Fleming Arena.
The team would only play games at the U of M, spending most of its time at its 14,000-square-foot high-performance training facility scheduled to open in March that includes team offices, coaches offices, therapy rooms, sauna and pool.
For its assistance, the U of M is set to receive up to $400,000 in free upgrades, including a new state-of-the-art scoreboard. In order to adhere to WHL standards, work will also be done on the boards and surrounding glass, as well as improvements to accommodate media and visiting teams. The main arena scoreclock is not currently operational, replaced by rudimentary scoreboards at the north and south ends of the building.
Wayne Fleming Arena has a current seating capacity of approximately 1,400 but plans are in the works to add room for as many as 600 more. The cramped quarters have the potential to create an atmosphere unlike any other in the WHL.
While the Ice have certainly struggled for some time — Kootenay is currently six points ahead of the last-place Swift Current Broncos, with a record of 10-29-6-1 — there is reason to believe the future is bright.
The Ice is the youngest team in the WHL, with 19 of the 24 current roster players age 18 or younger. Kootenay also has some of the brightest young stars in the league, including centre Peyton Krebs and right-winger Connor McLennan, who were drafted first and second overall in the WHL bantam drafts in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2018, the Ice selected Winnipegger Carson Lambos with the No. 2 pick.
All three players are expected to go in the first round of their respective NHL drafts, with the 16-year-old Lambos, who is scheduled to become a WHL regular next fall, widely considered the top blue-line prospect in Western Canada and who some have already pegged as a top-three selection in the 2021 NHL draft.
Fettes and Cockell purchased the Ice in the summer of 2017 and have operated the club since that time. The team, located in one of the league’s smallest markets, has faced dwindling attendance in recent seasons. Cranbrook’s 4,264-seat Western Financial Place is usually less than half full for Ice home games.
Given the low attendance, sources suggested Kootenay’s young roster and subsequent rebuilding, along with recent Manitoba player acquisitions, might be by design, a necessary evil in order to build for the future and bring a homegrown flavour to the team.
The Ice is once again in the running for a lottery pick in this year’s draft and could end up acquiring young hockey phenom Matthew Savoie a 14-year-old centre from Edmonton.
Savoie recently applied to Hockey Canada for exceptional status for early entry into the WHL. He is heavily favoured to go No. 1 overall and could be eligible to play as early as this fall.
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 2,199 per game so far in 2018-19.
The 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, together with the unprecedented investment in hockey development, would create a unique sports marketplace and position Winnipeg as the hockey capital of North America, home to teams in the NHL, AHL and the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization comprised of WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams.
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Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.