Ice defenceman Dallas Hines (middle) battles Americans forward Tyler Sandhu (right) in front of goaltender Wyatt Hoflin (left) and a significant number of empty seats at Western Financial Place on Feb. 10.

Ice defenceman Dallas Hines (middle) battles Americans forward Tyler Sandhu (right) in front of goaltender Wyatt Hoflin (left) and a significant number of empty seats at Western Financial Place on Feb. 10.

Kootenay Ice staying put in Cranbrook for the time being

Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison says team committed to Cranbrook despite declining attendance

It’s no secret the future of the Kootenay Ice has been on unsteady footing in Cranbrook in recent years.

With attendance numbers continuing to plummet and the team struggling through its worst season in franchise history on the ice, times are tough in Cranbrook.

If there’s one positive takeaway for hockey fans, it’s that the Kootenay Ice will remain in Cranbrook for the 2016-17 Western Hockey League season.

“Absolutely we will be here in 2016-17,” said Jeff Chynoweth, president and general manager of the Kootenay Ice, whose family owns a 75.5 per cent stake in the club. “Nothing has changed in that my family wants to get out of ownership of the hockey club and have since 2011. Unfortunately, nothing has come to fruition to make that happen.”

While the Chynoweth family remains the majority shareholders of the club, Rob and Scott Niedermayer hold the remaining 24.5 per cent of the franchise ownership.

“[Current ownership] despite declining attendance still remain committed to the market,” said Ron Robison, commissioner of the Western Hockey League, over the phone from Calgary Thursday afternoon. “We believe the most important step would be to have local ownership come forward and invest in the franchise to hopefully keep it in this market long-term.”

Though the Kootenay Ice will remain in Cranbrook through next season, uncertainty beyond still remains and it comes back to ownership and attendance.

The Chynoweth family wants out and the league has stressed the importance of a locally-based ownership group to help ensure the success and stability of the franchise in the East Kootenay region.

Enter City of Cranbrook Mayor Lee Pratt.

According to Chynoweth, Mayor Pratt — who is also a Kootenay Ice season-ticket holder — helped facilitate a Cranbrook-based group of interested investors, which included Rob Niedermayer and others. The group met with WHL commissioner Ron Robison and vice-president of business Yvonne Bergmann in Cranbrook back in October and November 2015.

“Unfortunately, nothing came to be of that,” Chynoweth said. “I think the league is looking at all [ownership] options… The bottom line is my family cannot continue to run the hockey club with the numbers [attendance] that we’re drawing right now.”

The Townsman extended interview requests to both Mayor Pratt and Rob Niedermayer Thursday afternoon. By print deadline Thursday evening, neither had responded.

“We’ve been in constant discussion with the mayor and with the community at large,” Robison said. “We’re certainly looking for investors to come forward. We rely heavily on local people with influence in the community to bring forward credible investors and yet that has not occurred to date. There have been expressions of interest and we hoped that expression of interest would lead to investors. We’re still hopeful that will happen, but to date, that has not occurred.

“We’re going to continue to work at it to find ways to encourage local investors to come forward. That is certainly our preference. But in the event that doesn’t occur soon, we’re going to have to reevaluate the position moving forward.”

With all that said, ownership uncertainties remain a key problem in determining the future of the Kootenay Ice.

At the root of that issue is the state of attendance for Western Hockey League games played at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook.

In June 2015, Robison stated the franchise needed to see a turnaround at the gates to the tune of an average of 3,000 fans per night if the club were to remain financially viable in Cranbrook.

While the toughest on-ice season in franchise history has seen the Kootenay Ice go 10-42-5-0 and undoubtedly had an impact on ticket sales, the harsh reality is attendance has dropped drastically from the 2014-15 campaign to 2015-16.

The club averaged 2,239 spectators at Western Financial Place during 2014-15. Through 29 home games in 2015-16, an average of 1,937 fans per night makes for a vertiginous drop of 13.49 per cent from from last season to this season.

“We knew it was going to be a down year on the ice,” Chynoweth said. “Maybe not as down as it has been. The way were trending, it was probably going to be down off the ice as well. It has been a perfect storm. Not a lot of things have gone right, both on and off the ice.”

When the Kootenay Ice first moved into the 4,264-seat Western Financial Place (2000-01), average nightly attendance was 3,635. In the 15 years since, average nightly attendance has dropped by an earth-shattering 46.71 per cent.

While Robison has eased on his expectations of 3,000 fans per night, the fact remains pretty plain — 1,937 fans per game is not enough.

“The number needs to get back up into the 2,800 to 3,000 range in order for it to be on very solid footing,” Robison said. “At minimum, we need 2,500 to 2,600 a game. That would certainly be very encouraging. But the current numbers are just not going to work.”

According to WHLstats.ca, the Kootenay Ice own the worst attendance record in the league this season. Next on the list is the Swift Current Broncos (1,975 per night average) and Prince Albert Raiders (2,334).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Calgary Hitmen hold the highest average nightly attendance in the league with 8,196 fans per game. But in a market of more than one million people and with NHL ownership running the operation, the Hitmen don’t make for a fair comparison with the small-market Kootenay Ice.

So while there still isn’t a resolution in place regarding the long-term fate of the Kootenay Ice in Cranbrook, local hockey fans can rest assured knowing their team will remain in town for at least one more season.

“We care deeply for those fans that have supported this team through thick and thin,” Robison said. “No question, there’s a very strong, core fan base but the reality is, what are the numbers we need to make the franchise work long-term?

“That’s the same in any small market where there’s a challenge with attendance and getting the numbers to a level that’s going to keep this franchise financially viable moving forward.

“This is not a message to the fans that have been loyal through all of this. It’s the fans that are not supporting the team that we need to come out and the community at large that needs to support this team moving forward.”

Despite a quality on-ice product that includes three WHL championships (2000, 2002, 2011), a Memorial Cup championship (2002), 17 consecutive playoff appearances and 16 straight season with a regular-season record of .500 or better (though that will come to an end at the conclusion of 2015-16), attendance woes have not shown signs of improvement, but rather steady and steep decline.

“You’re always trying to say the glass is half full and you’re going to move forward,” Chynoweth said. “The question remains is how long can my family operate at the current levels? Guaranteed we are here for 2016-17.

“I can’t commit to anything longer than that because I don’t know what the future holds. I hope it is in Cranbrook. But time will tell if that materializes.”

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