Pictured above: Kids got the chance to hang out with their WHL heroes on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, as players with the Kootenay Ice joined young fans for a skate around the surface at Western Financial Place. Trevor Crawley photo.
Another year is in the books and it is time to reflect on the stories and issues that captivated the community over the last 12 months. There are a number of issues and stories that warrant a lookback from 2019, but none as big as the relocation of the Kootenay Ice, which is undoubtedly the top story of the year and one that carried a few sidebars, as the community grappled with an uncertain future of junior hockey in Cranbrook.
So without further ado, lets dive in.
Kootenay Ice relocation
Without a doubt, the biggest story of the year was the announcement by the WHL of the pending relocation of the Kootenay Ice to Winnipeg during a press conference in January at Western Financial Place. The announcement capped off years of uncertainty about the team’s presence in Cranbrook dating back to speculation under the previous ownership of the Chynoweth family, until Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell purchased the franchise in 2017.
While new ownership attempted to boost flagging attendance numbers — average figures rebounded temporarily — season ticket sales continued to trend downward, and the WHL’s Board of Governors eventually agreed to relocate the team to Manitoba.
That ended a 21-year run of major-junior hockey in Cranbrook, when the Ice first debuted in the Key City after relocating from Edmonton in 1998. Within two years, the fledgling team won its first league championship. Two years after that, the club captured another league title and went on to earn a Memorial Cup championship in Guelph as the country’s top major-junior team.
The team’s third and last championship came after blitzing through WHL postseason in 2011, sweeping two teams in the conference semi-finals and the conference finals en route to a 4-1 series win over the Portland Winterhawks.
One of the lasting legacies of the club’s presence in Cranbrook are the players and coaches who made their mark on the franchise while chasing their professional dreams. Players like Jarret Stoll, Nigel Dawes, Adam Cracknell, Roman Polak, Brayden McNabb, Sam Reinhart and many others electrified fans during their WHL careers en route to pro hockey, while former coaches like Ryan McGill, Brad Lauer, Cory Clouston and Kris Knoblauch have all ascended into professional roles.
Some Ice alumni even returned back to Cranbrook to settle down with their families during and after their professional hockey careers.
The loss of the WHL franchise drew immediate concern on what the future of the game held for the city. Cranbrook has a rich hockey history, dating back to the Cranbrook Colts and the Cranbrook Royals of years and leagues gone by. The Ice’s lease agreement at Western Financial Place also had four outstanding years left on it. Which leads us directly into….
BCHL announces expansion franchise in Cranbrook
Ten months after the press conference announcing the Kootenay Ice relocation to Winnipeg, the BCHL unveiled the Cranbrook Bucks as the newest expansion franchise headed up by Ice alumni Nathan Lieuwen. Lieuwen, who backstopped the Ice to their 2011 WHL championship and went on to enjoy a pro career between the pipes, is heading up the new franchise, which will begin league play next season in September 2020.
Lieuwen was joined by BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb and Scott Niedermayer, who is involved in the ownership group, among others, during the October announcement. Lieuwen is heading up the organization as president and majority owner, but a hockey operations staff has yet to be unveiled. While there isn’t any formal league hockey at Western Financial Place this year, Lieuwen reached out to the KIJHL’s Golden Rockets when their home barn in Golden experienced an ammonia leak. For the last few weeks, the Rockets have been using Cranbrook as their home arena while issues in their home arena are resolved.
While hockey fans are no doubt relieved for the opportunity to cheer on junior hockey, there was the possibility that a different league or franchise could have been in the building. Which leads us directly into…
Local group says city turned down arena sublease agreement
A local consortium attempting to bring a junior hockey franchise to Cranbrook went public with their frustrations working with the city in June. The group, fronted by Colin Sinclair, a Kootenay Ice alum, and Kevin Epp, a player agent based in Vancouver, had attempted to bring an AJHL franchise in from Calgary. That allegedly fell through because the prospective ownership group could not get the approval from BC Hockey to have an Alberta Jr. A franchise within its jurisdiction, which was predicated on the City of Cranbrook supporting a sublease agreement with the Kootenay Ice — support that was denied, according to the group.
From there, the same ownership group said attempted to relocate a KIJHL team to the area, however, that effort failed when a sublease agreement with the city couldn’t be made in time before league deadlines.
There was a lot of buzz in the community following the Kootenay Ice relocation announcement, and what made this issue so explosive and divisive was the prospect of an arena sitting empty for a season, while city hall remained mostly silent during the process of determining a future tennant.
Industrial lands development
In the summer of 2018, the City of Cranbrook purchased 100 acres of industrial lands formerly owned by Tembec for $3 million.
Mayor Lee Pratt has repeatedly stated that the vision is to use the property to lure investors and businesses to set up operations on the land and pay lease revenue to the city in perpetuity.
So far, two businesses have opened up or expanded operations on the land.
Much of last year was spent figuring out how to turn that vision into reality, as contractors have been working the site for a number of engineering and environmental projects.
The issue consumed a large portion of the city’s special budget meetings in the fall, as mayor, councillors and staff wrestled with the size and scale of the development.
The debate involved some big numbers.
An initial proposal to install shallow utilities for the entire property for $8.8 million was quickly shot down, as council favoured a staged and phased approach to the project. So far, the city has budgeted $2.5 million for deep services installation, $2.75 million for shallow utility installation. In terms of money spent and budgeted, the city is into the development for $9.3 million. The city has commissioned a market feasibility analysis for the lands, which should be completed in the coming months.
The challenge with the industrial lands is a chicken-before-the-egg argument — does the city develop portions of the land without knowing the specific needs of investors, or wait until a specific company expresses interest to determine the specific development needs?
A year of transition for federal politics
There was a federal election in October, and while some things changed, others remained the same.
Nationally, electorate returned a Liberal minority to the House of Commons, which should make governing interesting in the coming months as the party will need to secure an additional voting bloc to pass legislation.
Locally, incumbent NDP MP Wayne Stetski was defeated after representing the Kootenay-Columbia riding for the last five years. Stetski narrowly defeated a Conservative candidate in 2015, however, Rob Morrison, the Conservative candidate this time around, was successful at the ballot box.
Morrison, a former police officer and diplomat, was sworn into office in November and has been appointed into a deputy shadow critic role.
MPs are expected to be appointed to parliamentary committees in the coming weeks, according to a recent interview with Morrison.
During Stetski’s tenure as MP, the NDP served in opposition, as will Morrison and the Conservative Party in the current 43rd Parliament.
Jim Oler sentenced to a year in jail
The last proceeding relating to a slew of charges laid against two fundamentalist Mormon leaders associated with a polygamous community south of Creston wrapped up in Cranbrook Supreme Court.
Jim Oler was sentenced to 12 months in jail for his role in bringing an underage girl across the Canada/U.S. border to marry an American man in Nevada in 2004.
Oler was initially acquitted of the removal of a child from Canada charge two years ago, however, Peter Wilson, the special prosecutor who tried the case, challenged the decision to the B.C. Court of Appeal, which awarded a new trial.
Oler was found guilty at the conclusion of the new trial in May, and sentenced in August.
The conclusion brought an end to a series of child removal charges against Oler, and a two other co-accused who were all found guilty and sentenced to jail time.
Oler was also previously convicted of polygamy alongside co-accused Winston Blackmore in 2017.
Wilson was appointed by the provincial government in 2012 to review investigative police reports into individuals associated with bountiful and make appropriate charge recommendations.