Ice, Ice, baby
Kootenay WHL team relocating to Winnipeg, ending ‘bad marriage’
WINNIPEG — It was a sham all along.
That’s the bitter conclusion supporters of the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay
Ice have come to as the junior franchise is poised to move to Winnipeg.
At first, John Hudak wanted to believe in Winnipeggers Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell, who purchased the Ice a year and a half ago.
But Hudak, a retired RCMP officer who spearheaded a local drive to save the team, says it turns out he was banging his head against the wall.
“Sometimes people gotta be called out on what’s going on,” Hudak said from Cranbrook, B.C., Friday. “You can only deceive people for so long. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put pieces of the puzzle together.”
That puzzle spells W-I-NN-I-P-E-G: a WHL source on Friday confirmed the franchise will be relocated at the end of this season.
All that’s left is a “rubber stamp” by the WHL board of governors, the source said. That could come the next time governors meet face-toface at the league’s winter meetings in Las Vegas in February.
Hudak doesn’t need to wait for the vote. He’s seen and heard enough.
“It’s a done deal,” he said. “When people are telling you in town that the guy who’s the team president and general manager, his house is just about vacant, that he’s living in his basement and that his wife and kids have moved to Winnipeg... the kids aren’t in school any longer. And there was a vehicle from Manitoba that was helping load stuff up...
“It feels like you’ve been deceived right from the get-go.”
Hudak now has a good idea how Winnipeggers felt when they lost the Jets more than two decades ago.
“The Ice to us is like the
Jets are to Winnipeg,” he said.
Those who cracked open piggy banks and tossed money at the effort to save the Jets back in 1995-96 will know how Hudak feels, too.
The Cranbrook native worked tirelessly to save his team, heading up a group called the Green Bay Committee, formed last month with the goal of trying to sell more season tickets.
“Personally, I sold just a little over $15,000 worth in a matter of 10 days,” Hudak said. “I’m a retired policeman. I’m not a marketer.”
That told him the owner, Fettes, and team president/ GM, Cockell, hadn’t been trying very hard.
Something else told him they didn’t give a damn: the Ice didn’t even get involved in the fundraising drive.
Then they said they couldn’t distribute the tickets that were sold.
“There’s schools in the area,” Hudak said. “The tickets are paid for, and you’re telling us you can’t distribute them? When you start seeing things like that, you say,
‘Hold on a second here.’
“If we’re trying to partner with somebody, and they’re not committed — it’s like being in a bad marriage.”
Fettes, who made his fortune by founding 24-7 Intouch, a global call centre, and Cockell, a former WHL goalie who used to oversee corporate partnerships for the Jets, must believe Winnipeggers will fall in love with their new toy.
How much puck love there is to go around is debatable in a town that’s so busy swooning over the Jets it can barely bat an eye at their AHL farm team, the Manitoba Moose.
Moose attendance has plummeted since the Jets brought them back, and a WHL team will try to attract a similar, family-oriented crowd.
A regular Moose ticket will cost you between $29-$39, while one WHL executive said a WHL team might be able to go as low as $15 with a bottom-end seat. But a high-end seat will be in similar territory to where the Moose roam.
Reports suggest the team plans to build an arena seating around 5,000 in southwest Winnipeg, using the University of Manitoba rink until the new building is ready.
Cockell didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Hudak, who works as an off-ice official for Ice home games, says Cockell hasn’t responded to him lately, either.
As for Fettes, Hudak described him as “an absentee owner.”
“There’s a lot of fans that are just shaking their heads,” Hudak said. “People were hopeful things were going to change with the new ownership. And when they found out it hasn’t, it’s going to open up an old wound that existed from the previous ownership. That was always a threat, that the team was going to be moved.”
It appears that was the plan all along.
So for the first time since the 1980s, when the money-losing Winnipeg Warriors skipped town, major junior hockey is coming back.
But as Winnipeggers know all too well, one city’s gain is another’s loss.
The Kootenay Ice will relocate to Winnipeg at the end of the season, but can this city support another team?
WHL FRIESEN PAUL