Find stability before the WHL puts Winnipeg on Ice
By – Keith Borkowsky
For whatever reason, the Winnipeg Ice are a cursed franchise.
It’s not because of on-ice operations — the Ice franchise has won three Western Hockey League championships, a Memorial Cup, and could win both this year. As the Winnipeg Ice, the franchise reached the Eastern Conference final in 2021-22 — the only post-season played in the past three seasons. On-ice, the Ice have done everything they can to fill a Western Hockey League arena.
They just don’t have a Western Hockey League arena to fill.
And in spite of that being a condition to moving the franchise to Winnipeg, there doesn’t seem to be one forthcoming in a foreseeable future.
Naturally, that draws a lot of concern, and it should. There is talk of relocating the franchise again, which under normal circumstances, would be a reasonable course of action.
However, with the current Ice management team having traded WHL bantam draft picks to go all-in on current success, does that not set a future market up for failure? How do you generate interest in a lineup where, without receiving draft picks back in trade, talent will be much harder to find and attract to the new market?
There may be discussion about new locations for the Ice franchise. There’s another option the WHL should consider.
Cease operations of the Ice at the end of this season. Hold a dispersal draft of the remaining Ice assets, with those being owed draft picks getting the first crack at the remaining players and those having been drafted by the Ice. Start fresh somewhere else.
The WHL could better control the future of its 22nd franchise by offering it through expansion, to a community with a suitable arena, suitable ownership, and — something the Ice have never really had — stability.
While that may well put an end to the Manitoba rivalry between the hometown Wheat Kings and the Ice, it may not. Calgary now has an NHL team, AHL team and a WHL team under the same ownership structure. Who is to say that couldn’t work in Winnipeg under True North Sports and Entertainment’s banner? There is an arena there, in downtown Winnipeg, and NHL-class practice facilities on the edge of Winnipeg. The WHL might look favourably to that. Would True North?
Or it may consider British Columbia an option. The lower mainland has lots of people, and arenas which could fit the bill. There are markets in the United States which could get a look as well. While it hasn’t been named, Grand Forks, N.D. has hosted junior hockey before in a facility that would put almost all of the existing WHL arenas to shame. There is also a new arena being built in Steinbach. Shovels are in the ground, the Junior A team has been very well supported, and with 17,000 people in city limits, and a strong population, commercial and industrial base in the surrounding area. If Swift Current can be viable, Steinbach could absolutely be successful as a WHL market.
The WHL governors have options. They should look at all of the possibilities when making its decision.