December 13, 2018

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Is Winnipeg hockey market too saturated for relocating WHL team to be successful?

Opinion

You can never have too much of a good thing, or so the saying goes.

That’s about to be put to the test for local hockey fans, as a market that is already saturated with options is about to get even more crowded.

Like more potholes or mosquitos, the last thing Winnipeg appears to need is another team. Yet that’s what we’re about to get with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League set to re-locate in time for the 2019-20 season, as colleagues Jeff Hamilton and Mike Sawatzky are reporting.

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You can never have too much of a good thing, or so the saying goes.

That’s about to be put to the test for local hockey fans, as a market that is already saturated with options is about to get even more crowded.

Like more potholes or mosquitos, the last thing Winnipeg appears to need is another team. Yet that’s what we’re about to get with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League set to re-locate in time for the 2019-20 season, as colleagues Jeff Hamilton and Mike Sawatzky are reporting.

Greg Fettes is co-founder and CEO of 24-7 Intouch.

MARTIN CASH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Greg Fettes is co-founder and CEO of 24-7 Intouch.

It’s a puzzling move, to say the least. Winnipeg entrepreneur Greg Fettes and his business partner Matt Cockell, clearly see something I don’t in believing this can be a successful venture.

They’re going to face a major challenge trying to establish a foothold in a city that, I would argue, is already over-extended when it comes to supporting the sport.

Let’s start with the top. This is no doubt an NHL town, with the return of the Jets in 2011 completely changing the hockey landscape. We saw the city hit a fever pitch last spring when the club charged all the way to the Western Conference final and the downtown street party outside the raucous, sold-out rink grew bigger by the game.

The Jets appear well-equipped for several years of sustained success, meaning recent history may repeat itself for the foreseeable future.

Former Brandon Wheat Kings goaltending coach Matt Cockell of Winnipeg is the president and general manager of the Kootenay Ice.

SUBMITTED

Former Brandon Wheat Kings goaltending coach Matt Cockell of Winnipeg is the president and general manager of the Kootenay Ice.

All of which comes with a heavy price, both figuratively and literally. There’s only so much disposable income to go around, and no doubt many had to dig deep last season to show their support. From golf courses to live theatre to the Winnipeg Goldeyes to the ballet and opera, there’s a widespread belief that many other ventures took a subsequent, related hit.

It may even be directly impacting the Jets themselves this season. There are plenty of re-sale tickets available for purchase before pretty much every regular-season game these days. That alone is a sure sign we’re nearing the threshold, at least when it comes to paying NHL prices.

However, that alone wouldn’t mean trouble for the WHL. I have no doubt these two entities could co-exist without any issue, as they do in other western Canadian markets such as Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. No, the real red flag for me is what’s going on these days with the Manitoba Moose.

Have you been to a game lately? Because if you have, you’ve no doubt noticed the alarming number of empty seats. The Moose are averaging just 4,114 fans per game through 10 home contests this season. Even those numbers have been inflated by a couple of hugely successful promotional nights which produced big spikes. I’ve been to a couple games where you’d have a hard time convincing me there were 2,000 people in the building, if that.

The 4,114 average is down more than 1,000 fans a game from the 5,277 who attended last year. And more than 1,500 a game from the 5,656 who were there a season earlier. And more than 3,000 a game from the 7,285 who welcomed the AHL club back in 2015. That’s an alarming trend.

The Manitoba Moose are only drawing an average of 4,114 fans per game this season, that's down more than 3,000 a game from the 7,285 who welcomed the AHL club back to the city in 2015.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Manitoba Moose are only drawing an average of 4,114 fans per game this season, that's down more than 3,000 a game from the 7,285 who welcomed the AHL club back to the city in 2015.

To put it more bluntly, fewer Winnipeg hockey fans than ever are paying as little as $15 per ticket to see the future stars of the Jets skating on the same ice as the big club. That’s a steal, actually, to watch the likes of Sami Niku, Mason Appleton, Tucker Poolman, Eric Comrie and C.J. Suess, just to name a few. And yet it’s becoming an increasingly difficult sell.

And so how does anyone think the very same pool of potential customers is going to pay similar prices to watch an even lower level of hockey, with absolutely no connection to the main draw in town, and with a lineup of few actual prospects who will ever make a name for themselves at the highest level.

No doubt the WHL would be popular if it was the only game in town, as it is in many smaller markets such as Brandon, Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. But they would be a distant third, at best, in Winnipeg and having to compete directly with the Jets and the Moose and their powerful owners, True North Sports & Entertainment.

And if the goal is to force the Moose to move, well, good luck with that. Sure their crowds may be dwindling, but I’m told it’s still a money-making enterprise. True North has invested plenty in them, including the $7.5-million overhaul of the Bell MTS Iceplex in 2015. There’s no doubt a major cost benefit to consolidating your NHL and AHL operations in one city, not to mention the developmental positives.

And keep in mind the WHL won’t just be competing for ticket sales, but also for media coverage, advertising revenue and sponsorships.

But what about people who don’t give a hoot about the pros and want to support junior hockey, you might ask.

Well, we’ve got plenty of options here as well in the Winnipeg Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and the University of Manitoba Bisons Men’s and Women’s teams in U Sports. All of which struggle to draw crowds on a regular basis, despite offering up an exciting and cheap alternative.

In fact, the 88-year-old Blues — the last of four original Junior A teams in this city — may be the first causality of the WHL. Their rather dire financial issues are well-documented in recent years, and this could be the final nail in their coffin. It would be a sad day if that were to occur.

I haven’t even mentioned all levels of minor hockey — from high school all the way down to Timbits — which fill the calendars of hockey parents and players through the winter months. Many of these people would be among the prime targets for a WHL franchise looking to build a fan-base, but you’ll excuse them if they don’t exactly have an abundance of free time or cash at their disposal.

Kootenay’s attendance in Cranbrook, B.C. has dipped to a WHL-worst 2,208 this season, down a couple hundred from last year. And the relocation plan apparently involves building an arena on the southwestern edge of the city that could house between 4,500 to 6,000 fans.

Overly optimistic or hopelessly naive? Perhaps a little of both.

There’s another old saying that comes to mind when thinking about this project: The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. And that may be especially true of a hockey-crazed city like Winnipeg, even if that grass is covered in snow for several months a year.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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