When Greg Fettes first considered the possibility of moving his Western Hockey League franchise to Winnipeg, he knew he would need the support of True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman.

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When Greg Fettes first considered the possibility of moving his Western Hockey League franchise to Winnipeg, he knew he would need the support of True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman.

It was fair to assume the man in charge of the NHL's Jets and the AHL's Manitoba Moose would be concerned about a crowded hockey marketplace becoming even more fragmented with the arrival of another team. Chipman, however, gave his blessing.

"I speak with Mark pretty regularly and he's a good friend and he's been very good to me through this process," said Fettes, who purchased the Kootenay Ice in partnership with Matt Cockell almost two years ago. "When this started to become a possibility, I was pretty upfront with him... I don't want to speak for Mark but I think he recognizes how important private investment is into Winnipeg and it's something I think he wants to support...

"Honestly, he's been a bit of a mentor for me the last three or four months."

Fettes and Cockell, who serves as the team's president and general manager, are the public faces of an ambitious commercial development that a group of local investors is planning to build adjacent to The Rink Hockey Academy's new headquarters on South Landing in the RM of Macdonald. The centrepiece of the construction is a 4,500-seat arena on land that will require rezoning and the co-operation of the municipality.

Chairman and ICE Governor Greg Fettes: 'Honestly, (Mark Chipman) been a bit of a mentor for me the last three or four months.'

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chairman and ICE Governor Greg Fettes: 'Honestly, (Mark Chipman) been a bit of a mentor for me the last three or four months.'

Fettes, who said his group is not seeking public funding for the project, believes an arena in the southwestern corner of the city is a good alternative for hockey fans.

"I think there's going to be some friendly competition with the Moose," said Fettes. "I think we're also going to find some ways to work together with the Moose. I think people are going to be surprised."

The arrival of the Ice franchise also promises to be a boon to the University of Manitoba, which will host the WHL team for at least two seasons while a new arena is built. Wayne Fleming Arena, which is nearly four decades old, is in desperate need of upgrades costing in the range of $400,000. Fettes and Cockell will fund those renovations.

"(A new) video scoreboard, there's going to be some lighting enhancements, (renovating) dressing rooms, media and broadcast areas," said Cockell. "For the visiting team, they're just no where near the level the need to be. So easy changes to make -- well, outside of the money piece."

Added WHL commissioner Ron Robison: "We've done an inspection, we've done walk-throughs and we've looked at the facility... Part of the commitment and the legacy of this ownership group is there will be improvements made to the Wayne Fleming Arena, which would bring it up the Western Hockey League standards.

"We understand it's a temporary facility and we'll take that certainly under consideration but it will be outfitted according to the minimum standards we have in the league."

Ice president and general manager Matt Cockell.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ice president and general manager Matt Cockell.

The Ice are also hoping to boost the arena's capacity to 2,000 from the current 1,400. Renovations are slated to begin at the conclusion of the current hockey seasons of both U of M squads.

"I can say that it's a relationship that we're looking forward to," said Gene Muller, the U of M's director of athletics and recreation. "I think there's an opportunity for us. I'm just glad because there's a fit between our program and the Western Hockey League.

"Fifteen of the guys in our program have received Western League scholarships and that is just an incredible gesture and an incredible gift to universities. More than that, I'm very happy with it. I think it could be symbiotic, I think it could bring more people on campus. I think it could help us with recruiting."

"I think there are going to be scheduling challenges but there are smart people in both organizations and we'll find a way. I don't envisage it being disruptive."

Cockell also expects head coach James Patrick, a Winnipeg native, to make the move with the team as well as the club's business team.

Brandon Wheat Kings owner Kelly McCrimmon was unequivocal in his support of the move.

Winnipeg Ice logo

WHL

Winnipeg Ice logo

"First and foremost, it’s good for the Western Hockey League. Winnipeg continues to raise the profile of our league," said McCrimmon via telephone. "Winnipeg on one end and Vancouver/Victoria on the other end. I think it’s a good thing for our league. With respect to the Wheat Kings, it’s the first opportunity as long as I’ve been involved where we have a natural rival, a travel partner, a team that’s 2 ½ hours down the road, which is much different than what I’ve ever known and I think that’s going to be a positive for fans of both teams. 

"I think Greg and Matt will do a really good job with the way they run their organization and the value that they add to the league."

In a further development, Fettes announced he has a letter of intent to purchase the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's Winnipeg Blues from their ownership group and relocate the club from Bell MTS Iceplex to The Rink's new digs.

In addition, Fettes said the timing of Tuesday's announcement would allow Cranbrook to move ahead with other options for 2019-20.

"Something that was really important to us and the league was making the announcement with enough time for the the community to get a junior A team or a junior B team," said Fettes. "We were trying to balance between what was was best for our launch here in Winnipeg and making sure we pay our respect to the community."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
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Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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