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The COVID-19 crisis forced a premature end to the 2019-20 WHL season. Now, the pandemic fallout is complicating plans by the owners of the Winnipeg Ice to build a new arena.
Fifteen months ago, Ice chairman and governor Greg Fettes announced his intention to move the Kootenay Ice to Winnipeg. The news included a plan to build a 4,500-seat arena with additional development on 300 acres of land adjacent to the Rink Training Centre in the RM of Macdonald.
The team made the move, playing its games at the University of Manitoba’s 1,600-seat Wayne Fleming Arena for the first of two seasons it was supposed to play on the Fort Garry campus until the new arena was built.
That timing, already affected by the slow pace of obtaining zoning approval for the land, has been further delayed by the pandemic.
"If you’re asking about a change in terms of the current circumstance, obviously I’ve been monitoring what’s happening," said Fettes Thursday. "We don’t know what the hockey landscape’s going to look like after this. 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."
Fettes said the ownership group, which also includes Ice president and general manager Matt Cockell, will need at least two years to build a new arena. Since construction has yet to begin, the team will need to spend an additional year at the U of M.
Now, the earliest the Ice will be playing in its new home would be the start of the 2022-23 season.
In the interim, 50 Below Sports + Entertainment plans to make additional improvements at Wayne Fleming Arena after investing $1.3 million during the original renovation.
"We’d like to have a bigger venue, obviously," said Fettes, who also serves as chairman of 50 Below, the WHL club’s parent company. "But at the same time, I think we’ve learned a lot working inside of the U of M. I think it’s been a really great venue for families to come and watch."
Original designs for the new building are under review but Fettes said the final capacity is likely to remain the same. He wants to be careful not to overbuild, retaining some of the intimacy of the U of M facility.
"We’re certainly intending to push forward with the building but we’re evaluating what the timing might be and we’re evaluating what type of building we might build based on the environment that gets created with COVID. We don’t know the answer to that yet... We’re going to be in that building for 30 or 40 years. It’s not worth rushing to not get it right."
Meanwhile, Fettes would not comment on recent suggestions he and Cockell are selling their ownership stake in the Rink Training Centre.
He did respond to speculation the MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues, also owned by 50 Below, would be returning to Bell MTS Iceplex after spending the 2019-20 season at RTC.
"To the best of my knowledge that’s not happening, and I would know," said Fettes.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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Updated on Friday, May 1, 2020 at 8:19 AM CDT: Corrects typo