COLUMN: A state of limbo for Cranbrook’s hockey future

What’s happening at Western Financial Place next season is anyone’s guess

It was a throwback to a different era inside Western Financial Place when a former WHL team that called Cranbrook home clawed back from an early deficit to earn a thrilling 5-4 win over the visiting Red Deer Rebels.

In the final game of the season, the (formerly) Kootenay Ice snapped a six-game losing streak to cap off a season that featured only 13 wins in 68 regular-season games.

It was a cathartic win for local major-junior hockey fans, who had watched the team miss the playoffs for the last four years and knew it was their last chance to watch a WHL game in Cranbrook.

But the team has officially packed up and moved to Winnipeg, where they will play out of an arena at the University of Manitoba while waiting for the completion of a larger facility currently under construction.

But the lingering effects of the move are still felt in Cranbrook, as ownership and the City of Cranbrook are currently in talks to resolve issues that come with breaking the lease agreement at Western Financial Place.

The lease agreement, which was signed by the previous ownership in 2008, is in effect through to 2023.

Let’s do some very simple math.

For the sake of argument, let’s say attendance over the next four years remained at this year’s average of 2,214.

According to the lease agreement, the Ice pay an annual occupancy fee of $20,000 if the average paid attendance is below 2,800.

Right off the hop, that’s $80,000 in lost occupancy fees over the next four years.

Then some other variables come in to play.

In addition to the annual occupancy fees, the city gets a two per cent cut of the gross game receipts for each hockey season. Other variables include the loss of parking revenue, concession revenue (which was run by a third party) and some advertising revenue-sharing agreements.

How much of a dollar value that adds up to is anyone’s guess.

During the press conference announcing the club’s relocation to Winnipeg in February, owner Greg Fettes said it was ownership’s intention to treat Cranbrook fair throughout the lease process.

Matt Cockell, the president and general manager, declined to provide an update on the state of the negotiations during a season-ending press conference before the Ice’s last game in Cranbrook.

So too, city staff have been pretty quiet about where talks are at.

Whether the franchise relocation affects the naming rights of Western Financial Place is also unknown.

The arena sponsorship agreement is a 10-year contract that totals $750,000, which included an advance of $500,000 when the deal was signed seven years ago.

While the city and the Ice settle the issues around the lease agreement, the question about what happens inside Western Financial Place next hockey season remains unanswered.

It’s an open secret that two local groups are pursuing Jr. A options between the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).

A BCHL general manager confirmed that two groups had approached the league, however, commissioner Chris Hebbs said the league is not commenting on the situation.

Ryan Bartoshyk, the commissioner of the AJHL is also tight-lipped about any potential presence in the Key City.

Given that it’s already a week into May, the prospect of getting a Jr. A franchise into Cranbrook by next hockey season dwindles by the day.

While the BCHL may seem like a proper fit, the proximity to the Alberta border makes an AJHL franchise in the city an intriguing possibility.

However, Hockey Canada bylaws prevent an out-of-province team (AJHL) from playing in B.C. without the permission of its own league and the BCHL.

So, there’s that.

For 19 years, Western Financial Place has been home to high-quality hockey and fans have been spoiled to see future NHL stars in the infancy of their careers.

But even though the WHL is gone, Jr. A leagues in both B.C. and Alberta are producing high-level NHL prospects — Cale Makar was a fourth overall pick out of the AJHL in 2017, while Tyson Jost, Dante Fabbro and Dennis Cholowski were all first-round picks out of the BCHL the year before.

In terms of entertainment value, Jr. A would be a great option if a franchise from either league sets up shop in Cranbrook. But there’s a process to go through first, and for now, it remains to be seen how that process will play out.

However, it’s doubtful anything will be ready in time for the next hockey season.

Till then, go Nitros go!



trevor.crawley@cranbrooktownsman.com

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