Opinion

Letter: On the future of the Kootenay Ice

I write this letter to bring attention to the recent decision by the Nanaimo City Council to bring the issue of building an $85 million, 5700-seat arena to referendum in February or March of 2017.

What does that have to do with our fair city right here in the Kootenays? ere’s a hint: they want your hockey team to play in their proposed new Harena. And, if approved by the voters of Nanaimo, they want it there next season. (Source: Victoria Times-Colonist; CHEK TV)

Yes, the possibility of the Nanaimo Ice, or whatever nickname they choose, is that much closer to becoming reality.

Think about that for a second…. A hockey club that has been an integral part of the community for the better part of the last 20 years…. A hockey team that has 3 WHL Championships in 18 seasons; 3 Memorial Cup appearances and 1 national championship in 2002… A hockey team that has provided the highest level of junior hockey…. Showcased hundreds of world-class athletes on the ice of the Cranbrook Rec Plex/Western Financial Place… Housed as billets many of those players that went on to become professional NHL’ers… Currently houses many of those players who now make their off-season or post-hockey career homes and livelihoods here.

It’s a team and facility that has provided economic activity in our city that can be measured in real dollars every year – hotels; retail activity; jobs… not just from the Ice, but also from almost every other WHL team that uses our city as a stop-over on their long travels on the bus through Western Canada and the Pacific NorthWest of the United States.

It’s also a team and a facility that’s put us on the map, so to speak, on a national scale in terms of the team, concerts and events that otherwise wouldn’t have known about our beautiful corner of the country.

But most of the citizens here know all about the aforementioned; perhaps even more.

Average attendance has declined, as most also know; from a high when the new 4264-facility that opened in 2000 of 3635 per game to a paltry 1672 this season, just north of the 1600 average in 1998-2000, the first two seasons in the Memorial Arena where you would be hard pressed to squeeze in more than 1700. (Source: hockeydb.com)

For whatever reason; team isn’t very good…. (two seasons out of 18 isn’t bad)… ticket prices are too high… personal protest against Chynoweth ownership – people don’t go anymore, or at least not enough of them. This team needs new ownership, there’s no question. Ice President and GM Jeff Chynoweth has stated that the ownership has become “stale” (Source: Gregg Drinnan – takingnote.com). The team is for sale and has been for some time but while there’s been rumours and innuendo of groups coming forward to purchase the team – both local and otherwise – no sale has been made.

“I’ll come back when Chynoweths sell the team,”…… “I’ll come back when they market it properly,”…. “I’ll come back when the tickets are more reasonable,”….. “I’ll come back when they win,”…… Whatever the reason, people aren’t coming back. There’s an entire generation (some of mine – mid-40’s but more specifically; the 25-40 demographic) that do not come to the games. The lion’s share of the fans are now in their twilight years – “lot’s of ‘snow’ on the roofs out there,” one long-time rink official commented to me six years ago while covering the game for the media referring to the colour of many fans’ hair.

And while those fans are loyal and keep coming to games, that group doesn’t grow, unfortunately.

The lack of WHL-arenas for the leverage needed to threaten relocation hasn’t been there over the last half-decade. Langley now hosts the Vancouver Giants and each club in the WHL has a 100-km radius to veto any relocation. That’s why Abbotsford, Chilliwack (they had the Bruins, remember?) and Penticton haven’t been able to attract a WHL team. Winnipeg? They tired-kicked (True North Entertainment, owners of the NHL Jets) but decided on moving their AHL-affiliate into the same building in Winnipeg, effectively ending the possibility of a WHL franchise moving there. Grande Prairie? Ft MacMurray? Buildings aren’t big enough and that’s a long bus ride from Portland. Boise, Idaho? They have an ECHL pro team that does pretty good. So junior hockey isn’t going there anytime soon.

But with the establishment of the Victoria Royals on Vancouver Island, Nanaimo was a natural rival and fit. Except they didn’t have a building. Well, neither did Cranbrook when the Ice moved from Edmonton; we built one.

Nanaimo is on the cusp of deciding whether to spend up to $85 million of taxpayer’s money to do the same. While it is difficult for any major junior franchise to continue to exist with the low attendance numbers in Cranbrook, it’s not impossible to continue to exist as a major junior franchise in a small market (Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Owen Sound (OHL) anyone?). All community owned. I’m not necessarily advocating for our community to purchase the Ice. It would be great if a local group with deep pockets (lottery winners, anyone?) would step forward to purchase the franchise to reinvigorate it a la Prince George or other WHL franchises that have changed ownership and saw the fans start to return.

Has the idea of being a community-owned team been broached? I don’t know that answer. Regardless of who owns it, if they don’t come to the games, no team will survive.

The club has about 7 years left on a 15-year lease signed in 2009. Will that come into play? Most leases have buyout clauses, although this one specifically said there was no exit clause. It’s a public facility the team plays in,  but it’s not easy to confirm as the lease agreement has never been made public.

At any rate, the shovels aren’t in the ground in Nanaimo yet but by Spring they certainly could be. And the Kootenay Ice are a team they are targeting to fill that new rink they want to build.

The clock is ticking and something must be done or the WHL chapter in the book of Cranbrook history is going to come to end. As a long-time season ticket holder; former media hack and taxpayer of this city, that’s not something I want to happen.

If enough people want to keep major junior hockey in Cranbrook, they need to come back (or start coming) to the games, regardless of who owns the team.

This team needs new fans (and more of them) and a new (local) owner. Without that this team will still exist, it just won’t be here.

 

~ Jeff Bromley

Cranbrook

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