The Kootenays say farewell to the Ice, and major junior hockey
Anger, betrayal, frustration, and even a small flicker of optimism. There’s a myriad of emotions being expressed around Cranbrook following the end of the latest Western Hockey League season. And Stompin’ Tom wouldn’t blame them a bit for any bitterness!
After 21 mostly successful seasons which include a Memorial Cup Championship, Cranbrook’s WHL team not only missed the playoffs with just 13 wins and 55 losses, but the club has also packed up the dressing room and left town for good.
Next year, the Ice franchise is relocating to Winnipeg. To say diehard hockey fans and business leaders in the Kootenays aren’t happy about it would be an extreme understatement.
“It was a huge sense of pride,” says Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce executive director Kristin Parsons, who contends that the Ice contributed to Cranbrook’s identity.
They’ve only just begun to consider the economic impact.
“Without question, the loss of the team will have an impact,” adds Parsons, referring to the feared effects on businesses such as restaurants, hotels and player billets. In fact, a recent report by Kootenay Business Magazine estimates that losing the Ice will cost the Cranbrook economy almost $5 million.
“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,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison at a late January news conference.
The Ice did in fact have the worst home attendance in the WHL this season, rarely attracting more than 2,000 fans per game, but the writing was probably on the wall back in September, as speculation about the team’s possible exit from Cranbrook swept through the local hockey community.
In a small town like Cranbrook, news travels fast and it didn’t take long after new ownership took over for locals to learn that new team owner Greg Fettes had secured the domain name “Winnipegice.com” in the spring of 2017.
“This community is very supportive of each other and they take things personal,” laments Parsons ,who also argues that despite falling attendance this season, the Ice enjoyed widespread corporate support.
“We might be small in people, but we’re also big in reach.”
However, taking a more pragmatic view is the local newspaper editor. The Daily Townsmen‘s Barry Coulter says while virtually every other junior hockey team would be thrilled to attract one-tenth of their city’s population, it was only a matter of time before that number would no longer be viable for the Ice.
“It has always been my personal belief that the market got too small to support major junior hockey in the form that it is now,” argues Coulter.
With a population of only 19,000, Cranbrook is surrounded by several communities with hockey teams in different leagues. Coulter notes that while those out-of-town fans were once willing to brave winter driving conditions to attend an Ice game, in recent years that desire and dedication had faded to a trickle.
Coulter says Cranbrook is “resigned” to losing the Ice, and says over the past season especially, communication between the team and the community “has not been good.”
With the WHL giving up on Cranbrook, city officials have also been left scrambling to fill the town’s 4,000 seat arena, Western Financial Place.
Determined to take the high road, the president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Wes Rogers says he personally doesn’t feel any anger toward the Ice ownership.
“Cranbrook is much more than a hockey team,” says Rogers, confident the arena will soon be filled with a new tenant. While some in the community fear that the rink’s financial burden will now fall directly on local taxpayers, Rogers is more upbeat, confident that city officials will fill the void with another level of junior hockey.
Over at the nearly-vacant Kootenay Ice office, President /General Manager and co-owner Matt Cockell is reflective, but unapologetic:
“Everybody has done everything they possibly can,” he sighs, remaining resolute that moving the team was never the original intention.
“We feel that we put in our best possible effort,” adding that he understands the community’s frustration and anger.
His final message to Cranbrook: That moving their beloved Ice to Winnipeg was a business decision only.
“The burden to run the team is on the people who own the team – and sometimes there’s a choice that has to be made.”
And with that, for the time being at least, Stompin’ Tom’s familiar refrain is on pause in Cranbrook.
“Oh! The good ol’ hockey game, is the best game you can name.
And the best game you can name, is the good ol’ hockey game…”
As always, I welcome your comments and criticism on Twitter: @kammornanchor
Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.