The Western Hockey League’s worst-kept secret became league-sanctioned news when it was confirmed Tuesday the Kootenay Ice would be relocated to Winnipeg in time for the 2019-20 WHL season.
Ice owner Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell, the team’s president and general manager, were joined by WHL commissioner Ron Robison for a media conference to make the announcement official. Together, they spoke about steps needed before an announcement could be made public, and revealed the transfer of the club as part of a larger initiative by Fettes and a group of high-profile local investors, which will now operate under 50 Below Sports + Entertainment.
"We can now start pushing the project forward a little harder. We were trying to keep this as wrapped up as possible and obviously we didn’t do the best job, since it’s the worst-kept secret in Winnipeg, but you’re going to start hearing a lot more," Fettes told the Free Press afterwards. "We’re going start pushing harder on the project, you’re going to see a lot more progress just because we can openly talk about it."
Fettes and Cockell, along with their team of investors, 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 consists of approximately 20 acres of sports, recreational and commercial expansion.
The motivation behind the project comes from Fettes’ love for hockey and community. But he also said the plan is to make money. 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 ensure the project’s success.
The Rink, the Rink Hockey Academy and various other sports and entertainment businesses will operate under the same umbrella, reaffirming 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. Fettes also announced they have purchased the MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues.
They plan to build a commercial and entertainment hub, which would be anchored by an event centre in Winnipeg’s southwestern corner. The centrepiece of the event centre will be a 4,500-capacity arena where the Winnipeg Ice will play. The current logo will also be used.
Fettes said he would not require any public money, as it will be fully funded by private investment. He was also keen on mentioning the financial viability of the project doesn’t rest solely on the revenue generated by the junior hockey team, though he still expected the Ice to be a success in the city.
"We’re building a 4,500-seat arena… we’re expecting it to be full," said Fettes, who wasn’t willing to talk total investment dollars yet.
"The investment into the entire project will be significant. The investment into hockey specific is going to be… we’re going to put our money in very intentional places that we think is going to deliver the best results. But it’s going to be a big investment into Winnipeg, and for south Winnipeg in particular."
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.
The biggest obstacle at the moment is securing a location for the project. The preferred spot would be in South Landing, in the immediate area where the press conference was held, in the new South Landing development off of McGillvray Boulevard. 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 said he is working with the RM of Macdonald to obtain the appropriate zoning changes, adding 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.
"Our ideal situation would be to be connected to this building. The development would centre around what we’ve already built, but it’s a lot of work for us and the RM to get a development arrangement and we’re working on that," Fettes said. "As we work through those details, we’ll make them publicly available when they’re done."
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 composed of WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams.
"There’s no doubt we’re going to be in a competitive landscape for hockey dollars in Winnipeg," he said.
Where Fettes believes the Ice have an advantage is in the game-experience, as well as control over how much they charge the public for parking, tickets and concessions. The target audience for the team, he said, would be families and young adults.
A season-ticket drive will begin this morning at 9 a.m. on the team’s website (winnipegice.ca), 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.
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 are 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.
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, B.C.’s 4,264-seat Western Financial Place is usually less than half full for Ice home games.
"When we bought the Ice, our intention was to be in Cranbrook, and really when we bought the Ice, it was more Matt and I fulfilling something that we had talked about for eight or nine years before," Fettes said. "I think it was out there for a while, thinking about something bigger, but never really knew how to put it together. That was really over the summer."
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).
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.
Updated on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 at 6:23 PM CST: Adds photo
8:38 PM: Full write through
10:20 PM: Final version. Updates headline to print version.