TORONTO — Greg Fettes has done his research and believes major junior hockey can work in Winnipeg, even with no presence in the Western Hockey League for over three decades and two professional teams already feeding the city.
"We spent a lot of time and money understanding the market here in Winnipeg and what it would be able to sustain and what we need to do to be successful and we came away feeling very confident in the plan we have moving forward," Fettes said from Winnipeg in a phone interview.
The WHL announced on Tuesday that the Kootenay Ice would be relocating to Winnipeg for the 2019-20 season under the ownership of 50 Below Sports and Entertainment, returning major junior hockey to the Manitoba capital for the first time since 1984.
Fettes, chairman of 50 Below, says the Ice are just one piece of the pie when it comes to ownership’s vision of hockey in Winnipeg.
The company, which also includes former NHLer Mike Keane, already owns the Rink Player Development, The Rink Hockey Academy, Testify Sports Science as well as the Rink Training Facility, which is planned to open before the spring.
For Fettes and Co., it’s about hockey development.
"We all started talking about is there an opportunity here to create an integrated hockey development model, almost a European hockey development model training kids from the youngest ages all the way through to the WHL," said Fettes.
"We started getting excited about that, what it would take to get there and really the possibility of connecting hockey and Manitoba at a grassroots level."
Fettes and Matt Cockell, president and general manager of the Ice, originally purchased the club in 2017. Fettes says that they tried to make it work out of Cranbrook, B.C., where the team has been since 1998, but it became unrealistic with attendance failing to get to where they needed it to be.
"We knew going into Cranbrook there had been challenges for years, the challenges with attendance in particular went back to 2010," said Fettes. "But the league made it clear to us if we bought the franchise we had to make an honest go of it in Cranbrook. Matt picked his whole family up, sold his house in Winnipeg and bought one in Cranbrook."
Talk of relocation began in the summer of 2018, according to Fettes, when it was clear the team wouldn’t reach its goal of 2,500 season tickets.
"We knew it was time to start really thinking hard about our options," said Fettes. "We really needed to see continued progress and we saw a pretty significant step back. Once we started the ticket renewals we realized we were going to be a long way off, in fact behind last year."
The Brandon Wheat Kings, owned by Kelly McCrimmon, are currently the only major junior hockey team in Manitoba and often have to drive six hours to an opponent’s rink. Fettes says that he has spoken on many occasions with McCrimmon about adding a second team to the province and has his backing.
"Coming to Winnipeg we wanted Kelly’s guidance and I think he recognized how great a rivalry with Brandon will be and that Manitoba was underserved in the WHL and in terms of hockey development."
True North Sports and Entertainment currently has the Winnipeg Jets and AHL’s Manitoba Moose in the market. Fettes says there will be no competition for fans with the Jets, calling them a "different animal," while adding "I think there’s some ways the Moose and Ice can end up working together.
Fettes, who was born in Regina and grew up in Winnipeg, says that the team will keep the Ice name and colours when it begins play next season.
The Ice will play their home games at the Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba until a new arena is built, while practising at The Rink Training Facility.
The last WHL team to play in Winnipeg was the Warriors between 1980 and 1984, when they relocated to Moose Jaw, Sask., largely due to attendance woes and poor on-ice performance.