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Posted: December 22, 2018

A few thoughts on the imminent demise of the Kootenay ICE

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

It’s a shame and I wish it wasn’t so, but in the business known as hockey the almighty dollar has spoken and the consequences are inevitable. The Kootenay ICE are leaving and we should be appreciating what the team brought to Cranbrook for almost two decades instead of lamenting their loss.

What the ICE brought to town was considerable. A Memorial Cup, emblematic of junior hockey supremacy in Canada and nation-wide publicity for our isolated burb in the Rockies. In all, the ICE made it to the Memorial Cup playoffs three times, not bad for one of the smallest cities in the league and the 17 consecutive times the ICE made it to the WHL playoffs is a record that will probably remain unbroken for eons.

We also saw several players move up to the bigs in the NHL; Jarret Stoll, Mike Comrie and Nigel Dawes (my favourite) to name but three. Together these players scored 351 goals in the NHL and they all learned their critical hockey skills in Cranbrook. Take a bow, Key City. You deserve it.

But now the party is over. When asked by a local radio station if the WHL would approve the ICE leaving Cranbrook at the end of this season, all WHL Commissioner Ron Robison would say was: “The WHL is looking forward to the Kootenay ICE continuing to operate this season in Cranbrook.”

“This season?” Take that as confirmation that the league is only waiting for the ink to dry on the documents to move the ICE to Winnipeg. Remember what was said at the beginning? Junior hockey in Canada is a business. And when you look at the machinations that brought the ICE to Cranbrook in 1998 it only reinforces the previous comment.

The ICE saga actually began in Edmonton in 1996 where the team was founded by former WHL president Ed Chynoweth, who moved the team to Cranbrook two years later as often happens in a league where teams are shuffled from town to town like used cars.

The ICE won the Memorial Cup in 2002 and made another appearance at the CHL finals in 2011 by which time Chynoweth’s son Jeff was essentially running the team. Jeff carried on his father’s winning tradition for many years but unlike his dad was never a fan favourite.

At the same time, attendance began to drop at the Rec Plex and no one could really figure out why because the ICE was still a highly competitive team making the playoffs until the last two seasons.

Rumours began to swirl that the ICE were for sale. An attempt was made to sell the club to local hockey royalty Rob and Scott Niedermayer, who already owned 24.5 per cent of the team, but the deal eventually fell through and the Chynoweth family became 100% owners. Attendance continued to plummet and fingers began to point at reasons. Young fans were playing games on their smart phones instead of going to games. Ticket prices were too pricy for seniors. Out of town fans had stopped coming. There was probably some truth in all these reasons but no real answer.

Then it was time for scapegoating and the chief scapegoat on most lips was Jeff Chynoweth, which this writer thinks is highly unfair.

As owner and CEO of the ICE business, Chynoweth’s job was to put a winning team on the ice, which he manifestly did for 17 consecutive years along with his father. A winning team draws fans and the fans fill the seats and the team makes money. That’s the standard formula for the hockey business, and for that matter the entire corporate business of sport, which makes money in the billions, if not the trillions, for players to hit balls and pucks with wooden sticks or put balls in a basket or down a little round hole. It sounds crazy and it largely is, but that’s the way of the world when it comes to the mega-business of sport.

What you mostly heard around town was that Chynoweth didn’t “market” the team well enough or didn’t shake enough hands, press enough flesh or bought a vehicle in the wrong place. Pretty nasty, don’t you think? What he did do most of the time was win. But apparently that’s not enough for Cranbrook.

And what did Cranbrookians think when a couple of Manitoba fast talkers came to town and bought the team? Did they think they wanted to “save” hockey in Cranbrook when they’d spent most of their lives in hockey three provinces away? If you believe that, I’d like to sell you the McPhee Bridge!

No, there’s a very simple reason the Kootenay ICE are leaving town. The Cranbrook fans stopped coming.

Gerry Warner still remembers the glory days of the Trail Smoke Eaters. And the Smokies didn’t leave town even when they were no longer World Champions (twice).


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