'It's definitely more than a rumour': WHL fans in B.C. seem convinced team will move to Winnipeg

Winnipeg appears poised to become the only city in Canada to ice two professional hockey franchises and a major junior team.

The mounting speculation even forced Western Hockey League fans in Cranbrook, B.C., to abandon their ticket drive because organizers believe they cannot stop the club from heading to Winnipeg.

"It's definitely beyond a rumour," said John Hudak, director of marketing for the now-defunct Green Bay Committee.

If it happens, Winnipeg's rabid hockey fans will have another team to call their own, in addition to the NHL's Winnipeg Jets and AHL's Manitoba Moose, both operated by True North Sports and Entertainment.

In Cranbrook, Hudak said the fan-led effort to save the Kootenay Ice has been met with inaction from the very ownership group they were trying to help.

He said he spoke with Ice minority partner Matt Cockell a few weeks ago, who conveyed he and his majority partner, Greg Fettes, were going to watch the season ticket drive unfold from the sidelines.

Average attendance sagged to around 2,500 a game this fall.

Owners sat on hands: Hudak

"They were going to stand by and observe," Hudak said in disbelief. "They're the people who have all the money in the game, the skin in the game, that's an odd stance."

After receiving no answer after inquiring about the team's future, they disbanded their ticket drive earlier this week.

Hudak said he hasn't heard a response from Ice brass.

"The club has been silent and the commissioner, the WHL office, has been silent also, which is somewhat perplexing," said Hudak, who's heard from "substantial contacts" of his in the hockey world that the team's move is imminent. 

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

"People are feeling let down by the ownership group." 

Attendance jumped last season, the first under the Winnipeg ownership group, which shows Fettes and Cocknell tried to make the league's second smallest market work, said Keith Powell, publisher of Kootenay Business. He hopes they haven't given up.

"They've built that foundation which they can build on. I don't think they should give up on the market."

Winnipeg roots

Meanwhile, all signs point to Winnipeg as the future home of the club. 

Fettes and Cockell, both from Winnipeg, acquired the franchise in April 2017 from the Chynoweth family. Fettes is the founder of 24-7 Intouch, a global customer service outsourcing company, and Cockell is a former True North Sports and Entertainment executive.

The team's head coach and communications director hail from Winnipeg originally, as do their first and third picks in the 2018 bantam draft — Carson Lambos and Skyler Bruce, respectively. 

Trevor Brine/CBC

A Winnipeg-fronted team would be the city's first shot at the Western Hockey League since 1984 when the Warriors, plagued by waning attendance and a lacklustre on-ice product, hung up the skates.

Recent media reports have suggested the team would play out of the University of Manitoba's 1,400-seat Wayne Fleming Arena as they wait for The Rink to build a new arena outside Winnipeg, off of McGillivray Boulevard.

The Kootenay Ice, however, cannot be moved without two-thirds approval from the league's board of governors. 

Requests for comment from Fettes, the Kootenay Ice and The Rink were not returned.

RM of Macdonald Reeve Brad Erb said he's only heard rumours a 5,000-seat arena would be built in his municipality, at the southwestern edge of Winnipeg.

With the Jets, Moose and a new WHL team, Winnipeg would suddenly become a crowded hockey market.

A University of Winnipeg professor who's studied the economics of sport said a major junior offering would have to carve out a new identity.

"I would have been more optimistic if the Moose weren't here," said economics professor Phil Cyrenne. 

"The lower-end market niche, the Moose, I think, is filling a little bit. The only way it could survive is if they really focus on local — local players."

Under-served market

While Cyrenne acknowledged they'd be limited in terms of which players they can draft and trade for, he said Winnipeg is under-served by junior hockey.

Rick Brownlee, executive director of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, said the previous iteration of a Winnipeg WHL squad was "almost destined to fail."

As Winnipeggers, we sometimes tend to be pessimistic when we get new things coming to us - Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg

Fans didn't have time for shoddy hockey after their Jets, a dynasty in the late 1970s, was picked apart as a condition of the WHA's merger with the NHL.

"People were resentful that that's what happened to our beloved franchise, so there was not much of an appetite for a losing hockey team," Brownlee said. "It showed at the NHL level and I think it trickled down."

With the city growing to 700,000 residents, he thinks Winnipeg can handle a WHL franchise if tickets are priced differently than the going cost for NHL and AHL games.

John Woods/The Canadian Press

Brownlee's concerned, though, for the future of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's Winnipeg Blues, which have survived attendance woes for years. They are the only city team remaining in the MJHL. 

If the Kootenay owners choose to uproot to Winnipeg, Hockey Manitoba's Peter Woods is confident they will know what they're getting into.

"I'm sure they've done their due diligence and they feel that there's a market there."

Hockey town

Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, said it'd be an interesting "claim to fame" if Winnipeg welcomes a NHL, AHL and a major junior team.

The last time that's happened anywhere was in Toronto in 2007, according to hockey historian Eric Zweig.

Spiring said Winnipeg is clearly a hockey town, evidenced recently by the whiteout street parties during the Jets' Stanley Cup run this spring.

"As Winnipeggers, we sometimes tend to be pessimistic when we get new things coming to us," Spiring said. "I think there are a lot of people that are going to do the business case and make sure the numbers make sense, but I think Winnipeggers will come behind their team."