The literal worst kept secret in WHL history has been “revealed”, the Kootenay Ice are leaving Cranbrook, BC for the polar vortex that is Winnipeg, Manitoba.
But first let’s take a glance at the history book shall we? The Kootenay Ice originally began as the Edmonton Ice back in 1996, and were operated by Ed Chynoweth who was the WHL’s former President. After just two seasons in Edmonton the franchise would relocate to Cranbrook BC and keep the same team name.
While Cranbrook welcomed the Ice to the city, their junior A team the Colts, an absolute powerhouse team, were forced to fold. Such a small city simply couldn’t support two hockey teams.
The Kootenay Ice would have some amazing seasons, winning three WHL Championships and pulling off a memorable 2002 Memorial Cup victory. Many NHL players developed their game in Cranbrook, such as Mike Comrie, Roman Polak, Jarrett Stoll, Marek Svatos and double blocker goalie Dan Blackburn just to name a few.
However, as the seasons rolled on, apparent attendance issues began, dwindling numbers during the regular season and playoffs took their toll on the franchise. This was noted specifically by the league in 2008 when they suggested to the Chynoweth family that they should consider relocation.
The Chynoweth’s held tight and tried to boost numbers and reconnect with the community, but eventually on April 27th, 2017 they sold the franchise to 24-7 Intouch founder Greg Fettes, who is also the leader of Winnipeg based 50 Below Sports + Entertainment Inc.
It stands to be mentioned that allegedly a local collaborative placed a bid to buy the Ice but they were denied the opportunity There has been long standing rumours that the Chynoweth family refused to sell to local groups and were exclusively looking for outside ownership.
Working under the watchful eyes of a wary hockey community, Mr. Fettes and newly appointed GM Matt Cockell worked hard on rebranding the team. A new series of logos and new team colors were introduced, strangely “Kootenay” was no longer used in any of their new designs. However it can be said they did get more involved with the community via donations and community events.
The Ice were just coming off of their worst season when it came to attendance with an average of 1,754 fans nightly. The new owners worked hard alongside the Green Bay Committee (community initiative) to get more fans at the games, they needed 2,500 season ticket holders per season in order to turn around the franchise. In 2017/18 attendance went up to 2442 per night, BUT season tickets never eclipsed the 1,900 mark, the same can be said for this season as they have the lowest attendance record across the league at 2,218. This isn’t helped by their record of 10-32-7-1, good for second last in the WHL.
The rumours (Editor’s Note: LOOK AT THAT CANADIAN SPELLING!) had been rumbling for sometime, the Ice would be leaving. The Green Bay Committee was getting less and less communication from the Ice owners, and felt shunned by the franchise.
Their suspicions were being backed by Manitoban players being drafted, like Carson Lambos, and more prairie born players being traded for, it almost seemed to some that the team was indeed tanking and loading up on non BC/AB players.
Finally after seemingly two years of speculation, a press conference in Cranbrook brought the truth to light.
On January 29th, 2019 it was announced in Cranbrook the Ice were being moved. WHL commissioner Ron Robinson was in attendance stating, “After many years of monitoring the operations of the Kootenay Ice, it is evident this franchise is not viable in the market moving forward,”. Greg Fettes announced the team will play out the season in Cranbrook with the team relocating to Winnipeg in time for the next WHL season.
“We understand this will be disappointing news for Cranbrook, Unfortunately, our collective effort failed to achieve the results required to create confidence that the franchise could be viable in this market,” Fettes said in the release. “The process of relocation is not an easy one and was made with thorough analysis and consideration for all parties. The decision to announce prior to the end of the season felt like the right thing to do in order to allow the City of Cranbrook and the Ice to prepare for the future and put an end to the speculation surrounding the franchise.”
John Hudak, a Green Bay Committee representative, said, “I think as a fan, as somebody who works at the games for this team and as a person who has a general interest in hockey, I’m highly disappointed that these owners with such deep pockets would end up pulling the chute on this team this early,”
The BCHL and AJHL, the nearest Junior A leagues, have not stated an interest in expanding to Cranbrook anytime soon so they could be without hockey for some time.
The WHL board of Govenors and CHL approved of the teams transfer to Winnipeg this past December.
A secondary conference was held later on in the day in Oak Bluff, Manitoba just outside of Winnipeg City limits. 50 Below Sports + Entertainment Inc announced the arrival of the Winnipeg Ice, with the same logo and same name, and a partnership with RINK Hockey Academy to further the development of hockey from the grassroots level to junior hockey & beyond.
A new arena will be built in the RM of Macdonald, likely next to RINK’s facility in Oak Bluff, with the expected capacity to be 4,500 seats. Mr. Fettes outlined that they want to focus on the entertainment value not necessarily the hockey dollars, targeting families & millennials by bringing them to the arena for not only hockey, but concerts, dining and more.
50 Below plans to open a Rink Hockey Academy facility for development of players of all ages, including 9,000 sq feet worth of locker rooms, classrooms, medical facilities a pool and more. The goal is to make, “Winnipeg the hockey center of Canada.”
In the mean time, the Winnipeg Ice will be playing for the next two seasons out of the Wayne Fleming Arena located on the University of Manitoba campus. The Fleming has a current seating capacity of 1,400 which will be boosted to 2,000 while locker rooms and concessions get worked on to the tune of roughly $400,000. A new scoreboard will also be installed.
Now, there has been mention of concern, including if Winnipeg can handle having the NHL, AHL, WHL, CIS, and MJHL all in the city. With the announced partnership with the University of Manitoba and the announcement (this shocked locals) that a letter of intent to purchase was sent to the Winnipeg Blues (MJHL), plus the expected price point for Ice tickets ($15-35 dollars) it certainly looks to be doable.
While the Winnipeg Jets declined to comment on the recent hockey news it must be stated that TNSE originally planned on bringing in their own WHL team to the Manitoba capital back in 2015, but opted to return the Manitoba Moose to the province. That move was made to lessen the strain on NHL call ups as the Moose were located in St.Johns at the time.
Winnipeg has a checkered WHL past including the Winnipeg Jets*, Winnipeg Clubs, Winnipeg Monarchs, and more recently the Winnipeg Warriors who departed the Peg for Moose Jaw back in 1984 due to horrible attendance & abysmal hockey being played.
Certainly this new WHL team has some Manitoba content to it, President and GM Matt Cockell finished his goaltending career with the Winnipeg Blues and he served as the goaltender coach for the soon-to-be rival Brandon Wheat Kings for a number of seasons.
The Ice’s Head Coach, James Patrick was born and raised in Winnipeg, he played over 1,000 games in the NHL, and has a credentials list is as long as your arm. He might as well be the godfather of hockey in Manitoba.
Current roster players from Manitoba are Cole Muir (Vita, MB), Marco Creta (Oak Bluff, MB), Jordan Chudley (Souris, MB), Zachary Patrick (Winnipeg, MB), Duncan McGovern (Winnipeg, MB ), also upcoming star who plays for RHA Prep, Carson Lambos is from Winnipeg. Lambos was selected #2 overall by Kootenay during the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft.
If current star player Peyton Krebs gets returned to Winnipeg by whomever drafts him in the upcoming NHL draft, the Ice could certainly have two of the leagues best players on their team.
The WHL will be making some realignment adjustments as a result of the move, seeing the Swift Current Broncos change conferences so the league will balance out.
The Winnipeg Ice will be going into this off-season’s draft with two first round picks and a roster that should mostly stick together, with 21 of 25 players expected to return.
**On a personal note, I’m excited to see my hometown get another crack at the WHL. I feel for the fans in Cranbrook though, I know what it’s like to lose a team. As for all the controversy, the true story may never get told, it just comes with the territory.** – Mat
The Winnipeg Ice have already made season tickets available via their website http://www.winnipegice.ca