Kootenay ICE departing for friendly Manitoba
It was -52 C in Winnipeg yesterday.
Fitting, considering the name of its newest hockey team: the Winnipeg ICE.
Western Hockey League (WHL) president Ron Robison, Kootenay ICE Governor Greg Fettes and President and General Manager Matt Cockell informed local and visiting media this morning (Jan. 29) at Western Financial Place that the Cranbrook-based franchise is re-locating to the Manitoba capital.
Robison said the league has been keeping an eye on the ICE’s attendance struggles dating back to 2010/11 when the arena wasn’t sold out during a WHL championship series, and said the move of the franchise, only the second WHL team to change homes in the past 20 years, is all about the realities of a small market.
“This is a difficult day for hockey fans in the region. We are confirming today the Western Hockey League Board of Governors has approved the relocation of the Kootenay ICE franchise to Winnipeg,” Robison said, noting the relocation will happen next season.
“The WHL appreciates the support we have received from the City of Cranbrook, the corporate community, and, in particular, hockey fans in the East Kootenay region,” Robison said. “However, after many years of monitoring the operations of the Kootenay ICE, it is evident this franchise is not viable in the market moving forward. It is a difficult decision, but given low attendance trends and the support required to operate a WHL Club, it is necessary to move the franchise to a market where it can be sustainable on a long-term basis.”
Robison stated Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell “did everything they could to turn the fortunes of this franchise around. However, under these circumstances we felt we had no alternative at this point to move in a different direction.”
Noting there are many small markets in the WHL, Robison said “it is a real challenge as costs continue to increase and operating franchises become even that much more difficult. These are challenging times in order for small markets to raise the level of support. It is no reflection, at all, on this community because this community gave everything they had to give in terms of their ability to support this franchise.
“It’s a case we need a larger fan base, a larger market, if you will, in order to sustain a franchise long term.”
Robison also admitted the league is suffering an overall lag in attendance.
The franchise enjoyed much success in the Key City on the ice, Robison pointed out, noting three league championships and a Memorial Cup championship.
“This has been a remarkable franchise for many, many seasons,” he said.
“We’ve got nothing but great respect for this community and for what it has done for this franchise,” he stressed.
Robison also pointed out the league has shown patience with the market and commended the Chynoweth family for its commitment to the community.
“Our intent was to find local ownership that could sustain this franchise but in fairness, at the end of the day, Greg and his group, along with Matt Cockell, I think have demonstrated to us that they are the type of ownership that was going to do everything they could when they first moved here but that assessment really extended much earlier that that.”
While noting “it is a disappointing day for everybody in Cranbrook,” Fettes said he wanted area hockey fans to understand that “when we came here, our commitment was to make it work here the best we could. We came in eyes wide open; we knew there were going to be some challenges but we went all in. We met with the business community this morning and got the same message; judge us by our actions when we first got here. Matt sold his house and bought a house here; moved his entire family here. We invested in the community; we made donations. I made a significant donation to the Canadian Mental Health Association. We really invested ourselves in the community and, to be frank, the community responded. I don’t think this is a typical case where you see a community losing their team because they didn’t step up and support it.
“I think this community was unbelievable. We had unbelievable fans, the business community here I think went above and beyond. It simply couldn’t, and this is easy in hindsight, but it just simply couldn’t get it to where we needed to get it.”
Fettes said the idea of moving to Winnipeg took root in the summer (2018) and “it kind of built momentum from there on.”
As for hopes that another WHL franchise might find an available Western Financial Place and a hungry market still seeking to embrace a team appealing, Robison said, “We don’t have anything available at this stage. Certainly our commitment is to keep franchises where they are. When you look at the fact this was an eight year assessment of this franchise, and not something that happened in the last year or two, we are committed to the communities we are in. We do everything we can to keep the franchises where they are and that’s our objective moving forward.”
With Winnipeg already home to the NHL Jets and AHL Moose, and a former failed WHL franchise home, Robison was asked if he was confident Winnipeg would meet WHL attendance needs.
“The ownership has indicated to us that they are very committed to making it work in Winnipeg. But it is a challenging market, there is no question. There is a lot of competition in the sports entertainment industry in Winnipeg and yet from a league standpoint, the province of Manitoba is a market we are underserved in so that was appealing, certainly, to us.”
Robison explained that the months-long silence from the league and ICE ownership, despite the swirling rumours of re-location led by stories coming out of Winnipeg, was due to necessary due diligence and a series of approvals by the league and Canadian Hockey League, which granted its approval of the move last week.
“We felt it was important, however, to announce it immediately,” once approvals were received, he said, to give as much time for other potential hockey leagues to fill the vacancy at Western Financial Place.
“We’re hopeful that other leagues will look at this market and be very attracted to it and I am sure they will.”
While the ICE is heading east, there remains obligations with the City of Cranbrook that need to be sorted out.
“We met with the mayor and his team this morning and we agreed we are going to tackle those once we get through this announcement,” Fettes said.
“Our intention is to treat Cranbrook fair. I think it is very important to the league and to us that we when leave Cranbrook we consider what it is going to mean to this town and to this building and our intention is to live up to the promise to be fair as we exit. But those conversations are yet to be had.”
And now there remains the business of the remainder of this WHL season, which will see the ICE miss the playoffs by a wide margin.
GM Cockell said he hopes people understand the ICE players “have nothing to do with this. We want to encourage people to come and support the players. The players really enjoy the community; they have great ties to the community. For them playing in front of a building with some energy means the world to them.”
That said, he said he understands that fans will be “disappointed.”
– Ian Cobb/e-KNOW