The Western Hockey League announced on Tuesday that the Kootenay Ice will be relocating to Winnipeg.
Located in the small B.C. city of Cranbrook, which has population of about 20,000, the junior hockey team has struggled for years with attendance.
The relocation will take place later this year, in time for the 2019-20 season.
“We understand this will be disappointing news for Cranbrook,” said Ice president Matt Cockell. “Unfortunately, our collective effort failed to achieve the results required to create confidence that the franchise could be viable in this market.”
The franchise was awarded to former league president Ed Chynoweth in 1996, and was based out of Edmonton for two seasons before moving to Cranbrook in 1998. The Ice have had some successful seasons in B.C.’s southeast corner, including three trips to the Memorial Cup (2000, 2002, 2011). Yet, playing in one of the WHL’s smallest markets has proven financially tough.
“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,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said in a press release.
“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.”
In April of 2017, the Chynoweth family sold the team to Winnipeg entrepreneur Greg Fettes and Cockell, a former True North Sports and Entertainment executive.
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“The process of relocation is not an easy one and was made with thorough analysis and consideration for all parties,” said Fettes, the team’s majority owner and governor.
“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.”
“It’s been bubbling around for a while and really, it’s too bad,” said Kelowna Rockets president Bruce Hamilton, who’s also the league’s chairman of the board.
“They’re a very passionate hockey community, but I think it’s a case of the population base not being there to support [it].”
In moving to Winnipeg, the Ice will now form a new rivalry with the Brandon Wheat Kings, just two hours west. However, the Ice will also be saying goodbye to two longtime rivals: the Spokane Chiefs and the Calgary Hitmen.
On Jan. 16, 2011, the Ice and Chiefs played in the league’s first outdoor game, an afternoon affair played at Avista Stadium in Spokane, Wash., that drew a crowd of 7,075. The Chiefs crushed the Ice 11-2.
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The Ice also had legendary playoff battles with the Kelowna Rockets. In 2004-05, for example, Kootenay and Kelowna led the league in points with 104, with Kootenay getting the first-place nod because of wins (47 to 45). Kelowna beat Kootenay 4-2 in the conference final.
Hamilton said he remembers travelling back to Kelowna from games in Cranbrook, and Highway 3 would be busy from fans travelling long distances to see the Ice.
The Ice currently play in the six-team Central Division. By moving to Winnipeg and the six-team East Division, realignment will likely take place, with one team getting bumped from the East to play in the Central.
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