The Winnipeg Ice has won 20 of its first 21 games this season. On most nights, the team operates like a high-performance race car — fast and powerful.
But it seems a shame to many WHL fans the East Division leaders don’t have a first-class building in which to play their games.
The Ice, relocated from Cranbrook, B.C., in the spring of 2019, have been tenants at the University of Manitoba’s Wayne Fleming Arena since the franchise’s arrival. The 40-year-old facility, despite extensive renovations more than two years ago, is widely viewed as too small and outdated to serve as anything more than a temporary solution.
Originally, Ice owners Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell and their company, 50 Below Sports + Entertainment, unveiled ambitious plans to develop a new arena complex adjacent to the Rink Training Centre near MacGillivray Boulevard in the city’s southwest corner. The new rink was supposed to open in time for the 2021-22 season.
Those plans went awry when the corporate partnership between 50 Below and The Rink was dissolved. The timeline was further delayed by the onset of a global pandemic. Fettes and Cockell have not commented publicly on how they plan to proceed, but WHL commissioner Ron Robison hinted Wednesday that building a new facility remains a priority.
He also said the Ice will not be leaving town.
"The move to Winnipeg was a permanent move and we have no intention of considering any other options," said Robison by telephone from Calgary. "(We’re) looking forward to creating great excitement in that market now with a hockey team that’s performing at the level it’s currently performing at, so we have no intention of relocating the franchise."
Robison was unwilling to divulge much more. The league, he said, requires any new facility to have a minimun capacity of 4,000 fans and 50 Below is considering its options.
More specifics could be announced later this season.
"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," said Robison. "The facility doesn’t lend itself obviously to the type of facility that we need to play there long term under the current circumstances."
The pandemic, he admitted, has thrown a wrench into planning and design of a new building.
"COVID has had a significant impact on the league as you’re well aware and generally on plans such as a new facility and that’s quite a major cause for the delay and but we’re working at it and we’re hopeful that we can be in a position here to discuss some of the alternatives publicly at some point before too long," he said.
Robison said the impact of COVID-19 has been serious. Attendance is down between 25 and 30 per cent across the league and the clubs remain focused on rebuilding their business. Is expansion possible?
"We don’t (see) expansion in foreseeable future," said Robison. "We believe, if anything, we’ve over expanded with the number of teams we have with 22. But having said that, we’re very pleased with our market position… I think the focus right now is solely on the recovery for our teams to get back to spectator levels that will make our teams viable long term."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.