The future of the Western Hockey League in Cranbrook is on thin ice.
According to WHL commissioner Ron Robison, should attendance woes, financial struggles and corporate support of the Kootenay Ice not improve over the course of the 2015-16 season, the league may be forced to relocate the franchise.
“Our position is that we want to maintain our current markets where our clubs have operated, especially in the case of the Kootenay Ice who have operated in Cranbrook for many years,” Robison said over the phone from the WHL head office in Calgary on Wednesday afternoon. “Our hope is we can find a way to improve the fan support to keep the franchise in Cranbrook.
“But if that doesn’t change, we’ve got to look and explore options. We continue to be very concerned about the low attendance and the challenges that the club faces.
“It’s reached a very critical stage. I think it’s something we’re going to have to determine this year. If things aren’t improving, I don’t believe ownership or the league will be in a position to continue to support the franchise remaining in Cranbrook. It’s a very critical season coming up. We need to see more support in order to get us to a position where we have confidence in the market moving forward, but at this stage, we’re very concerned about the future of the franchise.
“[Cranbrook] has to be a viable market moving forward. We’re concerned right now, under any circumstances. It’s going to be a challenge, regardless of the ownership group.”
Upon relocating to Cranbrook from Edmonton ahead of the 1998-99 WHL season, the Kootenay Ice played its first two campaigns out of the 1,704-seat Memorial Arena before moving into its present-day home — the 4,264-seat Western Financial Place.
According to the Internet Hockey Database (hockeyDB.com), the inaugural season at Western Financial Place (2000-01) was a success at the gates as a nightly average of 3,635 fans piled into the brand-new building to support the defending WHL champions.
Unfortunately for the franchise, attendance hasn’t been the same since then, declining by approximately 38.4 per cent as of the 2014-15 season.
Numbers at the Western Financial Place gates hit a franchise-low mark of 2,227 during the 2013-14 campaign before improving slightly to 2,239 during 2014-15.
Only the Swift Current Broncos registered lower average attendance (2,162 fans per game) than the Ice during the 2014-15 season.
Despite a quality on-ice product that includes three WHL championships (2000, 2002, 2011), a Memorial Cup championship (2002), 17 consecutive playoff appearances, 16 straight seasons with a regular-season record of .500 or better, the attendance woes have not shown significant signs of improvement.
Robison said the slight bump in average attendance from 2013-14 to 2014-15 isn’t enough.
“We recognize Cranbrook is a small market in relation to other markets,” Robison said. “I think back to when the franchise moved into Cranbrook and the goal and certainly the requirement at that time was to draw a minimum of 2,800 fans. What we see now, is it’s going to have to be something in excess of 3,000 a game. When you look at the attendance this year, that’s certainly a long way from where we need to be.
“We’re a ticket-driven industry. That’s what determines, ultimately, the viability of a franchise in a certain market.”
With that in mind, Robison said the fate of the franchise lies in the hands of people within Cranbrook and its surrounding communities. Without improved fan support and corporate support, the league doesn’t see Cranbrook as a viable market for WHL hockey.
“We have to determine whether the ownership is prepared to continue under these circumstances and that’s a challenge unto itself,” Robison said. “All of our franchises are committed to their current markets provided they can run a viable franchise. That’s been a real challenge for several years. Anytime you have losses sustained by a club over an extended period of time, you have to consider your options.”
Robison said the league works to support its small-market franchises in many ways including monitoring financial performance, assisting with league-wide marketing programs and sponsorship arrangements, communications and broadcast support, as well as a special-events revenue-sharing program.
But those support systems alone aren’t enough to keep a franchise afloat.
“At the end of the day, it just comes down to the local support, from a ticket-sales and sponsorship standpoint, that will ultimately determine the fate of the franchise,” Robison said.
“Our hope would be we can get things turned around. But that will depend largely on the level of support that’s going to be forthcoming. If that doesn’t happen, we may not have any other alternative but to consider relocation.”
Should the fate of the franchise be relocation, Robison said there is no shortage of demand for franchises across western Canada, listing the Lower Mainland, Nanaimo, Winnipeg and “other markets in northern Alberta” as a selection of potential relocation options, should push come to shove.
At the end of the day, the WHL commissioner hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“It’s largely up to the community to step forward and support the team,” Robison said. “The team is prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve the franchise there, but it’s ultimately going to come down to ticket revenue and level of sponsorship to maintain [the franchise in Cranbrook].”
As it stands, the Chynoweth family owns a controlling interest in the Kootenay Ice.
The early bird deadline to purchase Kootenay Ice season tickets came to pass May 29.
Adult season tickets can be purchased for $585, a cost of $16.25 per games (36 games). Walk-up cost for an adult ticket is $23.
Senior (65 plus) season tickets can be purchased for $485, a cost of $13.47 per game, versus walk-up price of $18.
Finally, a season ticket for a child (ages four to 17) can be purchased for $385, or $10.69 per game, versus walk-up cost of $11.
Representatives from the Kootenay Ice were unavailable for comment as of press time Wednesday evening.
Kootenay Ice attendance (Attendance records courtesy HockeyDB.com)
Western Financial Place capacity: 4,264
1998-99: 1,611*1999-00: 1,528*^2000-01: 3,6352001-02: 3,473^2002-03: 3,4402003-04: 2,9262004-05: 3,3702005-06: 3,3092006-07: 3,0392007-08: 2,9632008-09: 3,0712009-10: 2,8072010-11: 2,501^2011-12: 2,8052012-13: 2,4112013-14: 2,2272014-15: 2,239
* = played at Memorial Arena (capacity 1,704)^ = won WHL Championship