WHL: Kootenay Ice, R.I.P; Long Live the Winnipeg Ice . . . Ice has nine games left in Cranbrook . . . Off to Manitoba capital after this season

Ron Robison, the WHL commissioner, was in Cranbrook on Tuesday morning to provide the last rites to the Kootenay Ice.

The WHL’s Cranbrook-based franchise is dead after 21 seasons. It will be reborn in wpgiceWinnipeg after it plays nine more home games in Cranbrook’s Western Financial Place.

In Winnipeg, the franchise will continue to be known as the Ice and will play out of the WHL’s East Division, something that will result in the Swift Current Broncos moving to the Central Division. That allows each division to remain at six teams.

The Winnipeg Ice began taking $50 non-refundable deposits this morning, noting that the team will spend a couple of seasons in the U of Manitoba’s Wayne Fleming Arena and that seating will be limited. That deposit will get you on “a priority list for season-seat membership,” according to a news release at winnipegice.ca.

As for ticket prices, the news release stated: “Season-seat pricing will be communicated

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Ron Robison, the WHL commissioner, arrives at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook on Tuesday morning to announce the relocation of the Kootenay Ice to Winnipeg.

prior to the seat-selection period. At this time, no decision has been made on whether fans can choose a multi-year season-seat commitment option.”

Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell, who purchased the Ice from the Chynoweth family prior to the 2017-18 season, joined Robison at the news conference that was held in WFP and lasted about 30 minutes.

They had met with members of the business community earlier in the morning in an event that one observer told Taking Note appeared to be by “invite only to friendly business people.”

That observer said the message was that “we are apologetic that it didn’t work . . . and we had to make a business decision,” and that the situation was looked at from a league point of view “for several years and we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to work.”

When the scene shifted to the arena for the news conference, there were a few fans present who had hoped to be allowed in. However, they were told that it was for media only. Someone did stream it on Facebook, so there were people elsewhere in the building who were able to watch.

According to two Taking Note correspondents who were in attendance, Robison began by acknowledging that losing the franchise is difficult for Cranbrook fans. He also thanked the fans for their support over the team’s 21 seasons in their city.

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Taylor Rocca (left), the WHL’s senior manager, communications, wraps up the news conference at which the Kootenay Ice’s move to Winnipeg was made official. Seated, from left, are WHL commissioner Ron Robison, and Ice owners Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell.

Robison pointed out that the previous owners — the Chynoweth family — attempted to increase fan support but that it has continued to slide over the past number of years.

In Robison’s estimation, the Chynoweths, as well as Fettes and Cockell, did everything they could to get things turned around.

Robison tried to take some of the heat off the franchise’s owners by claiming that “this was a Western Hockey League decision ultimately — not the ownership decision — to transfer this franchise. It was a decision made over an eight- or nine-year period of assessment of this market and the ability of this franchise to be sustainable over a long period of time.”

It turns out that the WHL’s board of governors voted on the move in December; Robinson refused to say whether the vote was unanimous.

Asked what this announcement means for other small-market WHL teams, Robison responded that those teams, some of which are community-owned, have to work hard to maintain a balance. He added that moving the Ice isn’t a reflection on the Cranbrook community.

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The Winnipeg Ice will spend two seasons playing in the U of Manitoba’s Wayne Fleming Arena, which, at the moment, has a capacity of 1,400. (U of Manitoba photo)

Asked what went wrong in Cranbrook, Robison referred to the WHL playoffs in the spring of 2011, pointing to poor attendance at Ice games, and adding that the attendance has been declining since then.

The Ice won the WHL championship that season, but the announced average attendance for nine home playoff games was only 3,049. Kootenay beat the Portland Winterhawks in the final, winning in five games, but the arena wasn’t sold out. Of course, it didn’t help attendance that a lot of WHL games, including all games in the final, were televised.

Robison also admitted that attendance league-wide has been declining, saying that it has changed overall for most teams, and stating again that the Ice’s owners, past and present, did all they could to boost attendance.

When Fettes was asked how long he has been looking at the Winnipeg market, he said he had been wanting to buy into the WHL long before purchasing the Ice. He added that the Ice’s owners have been studying the attendance situation and began working on moving plans last summer.

As for the chances of another team moving to Cranbrook, Robison told the news conference that there aren’t any teams interested in moving at this time.

The Ice is the first WHL team to change locations since the Chilliwack Bruins were sold and moved to Victoria after the 2010-11 season.

Prior to the start of this season, the Ice launched a season-ticket campaign — Drive to 25 — with a goal of selling 2,500 season tickets, which would have marked an increase of about 600 from the previous season. Instead of an increase, however, the drive resulted in about 1,700 season tickets.

In 2017-18, the first season under new ownership, the team had an announced average attendance of 2,442, up from 1,754 the previous season.

This season, attendance has slipped to an average of 2,218.

In November, a group comprised mainly of local businessmen — the Green Bay Committee — began work to sell tickets and sponsorships on behalf of the Ice. After raising what members said was more than $50,000, the committee ceased operations due to an “absence of active engagement” from the Ice owners, who chose not to attend GBC meetings or provide anything in the way of support.

At the time, John Hudak, the GBC’s marketing director, told the Cranbrook Townsman that “it’s extremely disappointing that we have had to terminate our campaign at this particular time, but it is what it is.”

On Tuesday, Hudak told Taking Note: “I have never ever heard of successful business people turning down business.”

Asked if 2,500 season tickets would have kept the franchise in Cranbrook, Cockell admitted the community had reacted well in Year 1, but ticket sales didn’t show well prior to this season and reflected a reduction in management’s benchmark goal.

But, Cockell added, management had to acknowledge that people in the community have worked hard in support of the team.

Robison, Fettes and Cockell also spent time with Mayor Lee Pratt and some city councillors, but the franchise’s exit from its lease has yet to be negotiated.

It’s believed that the Ice players were given the spiel earlier in the morning. They then were taken to Kimberley for a team outing, so there weren’t any players around the arena to speak with the media following the news conference.

Robison, Fettes and Cockell departed via a side door, so didn’t have any interaction with fans who were waiting in the arena’s foyer.

“Leaving town and throwing the fans under the bus” is how Hudak put it.

With 18 games left, the Ice is 10-32-8. It is ninth in the 10-team Eastern Conference and won’t make the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the second in a row under the ownership of Fettes and Cockell.

Last season, the Ice went 27-38-7, missing a playoff spot by 16 points. This season, it is 22 points from a wild-card spot.

The franchise began as the Edmonton Ice, an expansion franchise that was owned by longtime WHL president Ed Chynoweth. Unable to gain any traction in two seasons (1996-98) in that marketplace, he moved the franchise to Cranbrook where it now is in its 21st season.

The Ice has won three WHL championships (2000, 2002 and 2011) and the 2002 Memorial Cup.

The Ice will play its final game in Cranbrook on March 17 against the Red Deer Rebels.

The Winnipeg Ice’s next game is scheduled for Friday against the Swift Current Broncos in Cranbrook.

JUST NOTES: Taylor Rocca, the WHL’s senior manager, communications, was on hand to do the introductions at the news conference in Cranbrook. Before going to work for the WHL, he was a sports writer at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman and, yes, he covered the Ice. . . . Fettes confirmed at the afternoon news conference in Winnipeg that he has reached agreement to purchase the MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues. The Blues are the only Winnipeg-based franchise left in the MJHL, which once also included the West Kildonan North Stars, St. Boniface Saints and St. James Canadians. . . . If you have been following this story, you will recall that Fettes purchased two domain names — WinnipegIce.com and WinnipegIce.ca — in April 2017. Asked about that, Fettes said that through his business (24-7 Intouch, a global call centre), he has hundreds of domain names. On this occasion, he claimed he and his eight-year-old son were playing around and just made up some more. . . . The website winnipegice.ca was up and running on Tuesday. . . . Robison has long wanted to have a WHL franchise in the capital city of each of the four Western Canadian provinces. Under his watch, the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers were awarded an expansion franchise that began play in 2007-08 in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital; the Chilliwack franchise relocated to Victoria, the capital of B.C.; and now Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital, has a franchise. Regina, Saskatchewan’s capital, has long been home to the Pats.

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Questions and food for thought . . . Vandervlis prepping for return . . . Fans gone missing . . . Leason, Fix-Wolansky penning great stories


MacBeth

F Jeremy Williams (Swift Current, 2000-04) has signed a one-year contract extension with the Straubing Tigers (Germany, DEL). An alternate captain, he has 14 goals and 15 assists in 30 games. He leads the Tigers in goals, assists and points, and is fifth in the league’s scoring race.


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On the 10th day of our annual Christmas countdown, if you click right here you’ll find GENTRI — The Gentlemen Trio — with a neat version of Little Drummer Boy.


F Ryan Vandervlis, 20, who played 162 games over the past four seasons with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, is joining the junior B Red Deer Vipers. . . . The Vipers, who play in the Heritage Junior B Hockey League, announced the move via Twitter on Friday. . . . Vandervlis hasn’t played since suffering severe burns to 60 per cent of his body during a campfire incident in June. . . . Sean McIntosh of the Red Deer Advocate has more right here.


D James Miller of the BCHL’s Penticton Vees has committed to the Northern Michigan Wildcats for next season. Miller, 20, was a sixth-round pick by the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL’s 2013 bantam draft. . . . Miller, from Spruce Grove, Alta., actually played two games with the U of New Hampshire Wildcats in 2017-18 before returning to Penticton. . . . He went into Friday’s action with 15 goals and 29 assists in 36 games with the Vees. Miller’s 44 points led all BCHL defencemen. . . . According to a news release from the Vees, Miller is the 18th player on their roster “with an NCAA Division 1 scholarship.”


A few WHL-related thoughts during the Christmas break . . .

Just the other day, I noticed this headline — Raiders win fight-fest in Swift Current — at paherald.sk.ca. The story was dated Dec. 14. I looked it up. There appear to have been five fights. Yes, the WHL has moved far away from the days when a fight-fest wasn’t a fight-fest unless the benches cleared and there was at least a 30-minute delay.

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Where have the hockey fans of Medicine Hat gone? Remember when the 4,006-seat Medicine Arena was sold out for every regular-season game? Now the Tigers play in the 7,100-seat Canalta Centre and the average announced attendance is 3,011 through 16 home games. What changed?

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On the same subject, the Saskatoon Blades appear to have turned the corner — finally! — and are a solid second in not only the East Division but the Eastern Conference. Their average announced attendance (AAA) is 3,658 through 15 games, which has them 14th in the 22-team league. Last season, the Blades finished with an AAA of 3,851 for 36 home dates.

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Will the Kelowna Rockets add an assistant coach over the holidays — to replace the departed Travis Crickard — and will it be former Rockets defenceman/captain Josh Gorges?

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Speaking of Crickard . . . was that him watching the BCHL’s Vernon Vipers practise one day this week?

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Really, there has been no better story in the WHL this half-season than the one written PrinceAlbertby F Brett Leason of the Prince Albert Raiders. He went into this season with 24 goals and 27 assists in 135 regular-season games. This season, in 31 games, he has 28 goals and 36 assists. Here’s hoping that a hand injury suffered while in camp with Canada’s national junior team last week in Victoria doesn’t slow him down, although it has kept him out of the pre-tournament games to date.

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There also is a great story in Edmonton where Oil Kings F Trey Fix-Wolansky has 64 EdmontonOilKingspoints, including a WHL-leading 43 assists, in 34 games. The Edmonton native is lighting it up at home and not a lot of players get to do that. The story, though, is that the 5-foot-7 Fix-Wolansky has had to fight the height-challenged battle his entire career. He should have been in the selection camp of Canada’s national junior team, but his invitation must have gotten lost in the mail. He’s now going to spend the second half of the season continuing to prove himself to the doubters.

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Greg Meachem is a former sports editor of the Red Deer Advocate, who now works for the Rebels and writes at reddeerrebels.com. . . . He’s worth reading, especially for the honesty in the quotes from Brent Sutter, the owner, general manager and head coach of the Rebels. Sutter never pulls any punches in his post-game comments.

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Is anyone else waiting for the Portland Winterhawks to run off about 10 victories in a row at some point after the break? Or is the competition in the U.S. Division simply to stiff for that to happen?

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Worth watching after the break . . .

In the East Division: The WHL record for fewest losses in one season belongs to the Brandon Wheat Kings, who lost five times in a 72-game season in 1978-79. The Wheat Kings finished 58-5-9 that season, one in which they settled for ties in lieu of OT. . . . The Prince Albert Raiders are halfway through their schedule with a 31-2-1 record, so depending upon your point of view they have lost either two or three games. . . . Of course, the Raiders are playing a 68-game schedule, so perhaps it’s time to open a new section in the record book.

In the Central Division: The Red Deer Rebels, having played 32 games, Lethbridge Hurricanes (33) and Edmonton Oil Kings (36) are tied for first place, each with 42 points. . . . Each of the three added major pieces prior to the break. Will one, two or three of them go shopping again before the Jan. 10 trade deadline?

In the B.C. Division: There are 12 division in the CHL’s three leagues and the B.C. Division has the 11th-poorest points percentage (.512), with a lot of that due to the of that due to the Vancouver Giants (22-8-2, .719). . . . The Kamloops Blazers hold down the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot, one point ahead of the Seattle Thunderbirds and two ahead of the Prince George Cougars. If the second half unfolds much like the first half, two of those teams will miss the playoffs; the other will meet the Everett Silvertips in the first round.

In the U.S. Division: The Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs are tied for second in the U.S. Division, each with records of 19-11-4. Everett is 14 points ahead; Tri-City is six points back. . . . How important is home-ice advantage in the playoffs to the Winterhawks and Chiefs? Portland is 2-1-0 in the season series, with three games remaining.

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How upset are you if you’re a follower of the Kootenay Ice who bought a season-ticket during the team’s Drive to 25 off-season promotion, only to watch so many veteran players quit or be traded amid signs your once-favourite club will move to Winnipeg at season’s end? . . . The Ice already has dressed 38 players this season. It has an 8-22-6 record, meaning it has won eight of 36 games, and is 14 points away from a playoff spot.

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Ron Robison, the WHL commissioner, sounded most uncomfortable in responding to a DelisleChiefsquestion about the Kootenay Ice from Dean Millard of the TSN radio in Edmonton on Thursday night. Robison said there will be an announcement involving the Ice “very soon,” but wasn’t any more specific than that, nor did he shed any light on the situation. . . . I can’t imagine what might be in that announcement, but when the Chilliwack Bruins moved to Victoria after the 2010-11 season, the WHL didn’t confirm the much-rumoured move until almost three weeks after their season had ended.

Perhaps fans of the Ice can gain some solace from what Robison told Chilliwack fans after the Bruins left town: “We believe that under the right conditions Chilliwack can be a viable WHL market. We intend to give full consideration to returning should relocation occur in the future.”

One other thing about the Bruins’ move . . . While the WHL didn’t make an official announcement until April 20, 2011, it turned out that the Bruins’ owners and the WHL had agreed to sell the Chilliwack franchise on Jan. 13, 2011.


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