OPINION: Ominous sign of things to come?

Attendance on opening night of WHL season at Western Financial Place doesn't bode well for struggling Kootenay Ice

Kootenay Ice

Kootenay Ice

A little less than a week ago, I sat in the press box at Western Financial Place, excited for the start of another Western Hockey League campaign.

This season, the 50th anniversary of the WHL, is a pretty monumental one from a league standpoint.

For the Kootenay Ice, the 2015-16 season could also be monumental when you consider the message sent down from league commission Ron Robison earlier this summer.

Robison characterized the situation surrounding the Ice as having reached “a very critical stage.”

As the lights went down Friday night, the fog rolled in and the public address began to introduce the 2015-16 edition of the club to fewer than 2,200 people I couldn’t help but wonder if the dark cloud and relatively quiet applause was an ominous sign for the year to come and what might follow.

When all was said and done, 2,137 people were reported as having entered into Western Financial Place for the Kootenay Ice home-opening game against their longstanding Central Division rivals, the Calgary Hitmen.

A premium matchup. The excitement of seeing a new group of players led by a new coaching staff for the first time. And yet, the attendance in the building was 102 people less than what the club averaged through the entire 2014-15 season.

In July, Robison told me attendance was going to have to peak beyond 3,000 spectators a night at Western Financial Place if the league is to consider Cranbrook a viable market for WHL hockey.

To expect 3,000 people in the barn might be a stretch, but I can say I didn’t expect to see attendance continue its slide. Most certainly not on opening night.

Now, I don’t want this to come across as an attack on citizens of Cranbrook or a full-on defense of the Kootenay Ice organization. It is neither.

I understand families are on tight budgets as we trudge through a difficult economic time and perhaps this doesn’t leave room for tickets.

As a print media reporter who went to school for six years, I’ve got student debt and don’t exactly collect the most handsome of paycheques. It’s enough to live comfortably but my monthly entertainment budget is pretty slim. I get it.

I understand people around here maybe have issue with how the club has been run. It’s a tough business to operate in and there are critics in every market you go to.

But at the end of it all, there is a prestige that comes with having a major junior hockey club associated with and calling your town its home.

For up to eight months of the year, bus loads of local economic benefit cruise into town, with players filling hotel rooms, eating in restaurants and occasionally spending at the local sports shop.

Not to mention, you have an anchor tenant holding down space in a relatively new, 4,264-seat Western Financial Place.

I didn’t grow up in Cranbrook but I’ve been here long enough to hear people complain about the white elephant that building could become should its primary tenant vacate.

There certainly aren’t enough minor hockey teams to rent all the ice left behind and I’m not convinced enough concert opportunities exist to fill the 36 nights of the year that the Kootenay Ice wouldn’t be entertaining folks.

I’m a fan of major junior hockey and the opportunity it provides so many young Canadians to advance their careers and earn an education in the same shot. That’s no secret.

In my time living in the East Kootenay, I’ve come to love the area.

It will be a sad day for the city of Cranbrook should the Kootenay Ice be uprooted by the WHL and taken somewhere else.

But at this rate, that very well could be the reality of the situation.

I’m not here to be a cheerleader for the Kootenay Ice, but I do hope citizens and hockey fans realize what is stake for their city.

With the WHL’s 50th season underway, I hear legendary stories of a raucous Memorial Arena and thousands of fans travelling hundreds of miles to watch the Kootenay Ice away from Cranbrook.

When two more longstanding rivals, the Spokane Chiefs and Lethbridge Hurricanes, visit Western Financial Place this weekend, I’m hoping to hear a little bit of that legendary roar and see a few more butts in the seats.