Ice, Ice, baby

Koote­nay WHL team re­lo­cat­ing to Win­nipeg, end­ing ‘bad mar­riage’

Edmonton Sun - - SPORTS - paul FRIESEN [email protected]­media.com @friesen­sun­media

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.

Post­media File

The Koote­nay Ice will re­lo­cate to Win­nipeg at the end of the sea­son, but can this city sup­port an­other team?

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