Saturday, June 6, 2015

Kootenay's future takes center stage

In a rather sudden but to be expected expose, Cranbrook Daily Townsman sportswriter Taylor Rocca sat down with WHL Commissioner Ron Robison last week. Robison did not pull any punches in his assessment of the support of the Kootenay Ice. That story is at the bottom of this blog post. The exterior link is behind a paywall, so I'll post it here.

Here's a go at what can be done; Other teams facing attendance woes (and there's many of them across the WHL) can just do what's done here a lot: win. That part of the equation is never in question and really can't be. This season will be the toughest ever, at least on paper. It could be the first time the team misses the playoffs. They're teams in the WHL that haven't seen the post-season for five years; never won a championship, never won a Memorial Cup. That base is clearly covered.

1. The story is, timing-wise, not good. The club is in the midst of its season ticket drive and news like this doesn't help things. Then again, it's never a good time for news like this.

2. The question remains: will the support be there going forward? I renewed my season ticket last week. My youngest has his eyes on a roster spot with the Kimberley Dynamiters Junior B this upcoming season. If so, I guess I'll hold season tickets to both....

3. Before we rip into Robison's comments, there are a few things I've been told that will be a little better this season. Take them for what they're worth as I haven't had confirmation from the club or WFP of this;

  • New sound system for WFP
  • Goal Horn (an actual one, not recorded; apparently the place was always wired for one but somehow was never wired up)
  • The software for the spotlights have been fixed and they will be in place this year so a lights-off intro for the players should be on-tap

4. Some ideas from myself courtesy other fans that care:

  • Bottom rows of WFP: make them for kids and make them cheap; $5-8 max. They'll bring their parents. I would say that kids eat and parents have a "pop" or two but the team doesn't get the concession proceeds, but it would still put more bums in the seats. 
  • I know about the adage about pissing off the season ticket holders with discount seats. I'm not buying it (actually, I do, season tix that is); We season tickets holders will, for the most part, always be as such. The fan base needs to be expanded. The 25-40 year-olds need to be brought into the building (see above) and then they may get hooked.
  • Do whatever you can to jazz up the in-game experience; Blimps that drop things for the kids; T-shirt guns; whatever: I don't care how gimmicky it is. If it can be done, do it.
  • Progressive 50/50 updated as tix are bought; on screens around the rink; If there's one thing in this town that people like to do, it's win money. The progressive 50/50 is a good way to boost those revenues. The system is expensive but I don't think it's cost prohibitive. It's done in many arena around the league and at least deserves a trial here to see the response. The Curling Event a few years back had it and it was a success.
  • City: Explore the cost of updating and placing big screens around the rink; Advertising; 50/50 etc. And a real effort to explore the cost of a new/used video screen clock should be done. WFP is the only WHL rink without one. It is a staple of the Major Junior hockey world. At the Memorial Cup in Le Colisee in Quebec City they might have one for sale. I know they're a lot of money. Maybe a community fund-raiser, whatever, it needs to be looked into.
  • Update the windows of the restaurant. They need to swing open or open up completely so that patrons can hear and experience the game.
  • Approach Canfor and Teck; having the ability to pay for season's tickets by money off the paycheque for employees is an easy sell. Shiftworkers (days/afts- four on, four off) have the ability to share tickets etc. It used to be done with Tembec up until about 2007.
There is a cost/investment associated with the above and I know the owners aren't swimming in money but if this thing is going to be given a go at being a success, no gimmicky/game experience stone must be left unturned. The current course can be continued upon but expecting a different result by doing it over and over again isn't going to work. The further investment can be made now in making a real go of it or the investment will be made when the moving trucks pull up and the team has to start all over in .... I don't know... Abbotsford?

5.  Okay, I get it, the attendance is down, but what purpose does it serve by having the commissioner chime in with the deathknell of the Kootenay franchise without any real solutions? The team is a private enterprise and the books aren't available publicly but it's hard when the public can't see what the dollars and cents are. Or what the bottom line is. The lease of a public facility isn't available to the public - although an Freedom of Information request would do it but really, shouldn't have to. If the owners have had to put money into the franchise to keep it afloat, say so. Costs are up, attendance is down, I get it. I know it's a private enterprise but keeping the fans informed of the real costs of a franchise at this level may give them a real idea of why things are done the way they are.

6. The club did a $399 season ticket price a few years back that boosted numbers. Why not a special price all around? Get the fans back in the seats during a projected down year.

7. Why does Robison pour it all over Cranbrook and surrounding communities for lack of support but his tone is considerably different when talking about other troubled franchises (Lethbridge) or there's no mention that Swift Current, a equally-sized market that draws less fans than Kootenay, is ever in trouble? I know Swift is a publicly-owned team and the financial return is different but at the end of the day, is the return on the investment (Private vs Public, which only has to break even, I guess) the only thing that matters here? Robison states in the story that 3000 fans a night is the line needed. Why isn't he in every city with less than those numbers (Prince Albert, Moose Jaw, Swift, PG) stating the same or more?

8. The team name is the Kootenay Ice but really, how much support is coming from the Kootenay's anymore? We've talked about the great support the Junior B franchises enjoy all within an hour's radius of Cranbrook. Are those fans coming? Are they? I'd say, for the most part, no. Lots from Kimberley but I suspect the amount from the outlying (Fernie, Creston, Invermere) isn't much these days. Is this, for the most part, just a Cranbrook-fan base team now?

9. How will the fans/public in Cranbrook respond? There's some real threats to moving this team from the commissioner of the WHL. He specifically names Nanaimo, Lower Mainland (Abbotsford/Chilliwack), Winnipeg and "Northern Alberta" as possibilities. I mean, Nanaimo doesn't' have a suitable arena yet and no plans to build one; Abbotsford is empty but presents it's own challenges and is more realistically is going to be Vancouver's AHL team in the next year or two with the AHL exodus to the West Coast to support their NHL franchises. The Canucks won't wait long to do the same. And with Seattle building their new rink, an NHL franchise will be there soon enough which will also present more challenges. Northern Alberta? Not a chance. Expenses and the map make that choice more than prohibitive. Winnipeg? The AHL is already there. That ship has sailed.

10. Threats aside, we have a problem with attendance but threats doesn't fix it. Ideas do. Exhaust every possibility. Small markets can work in the WHL, including this one.

But if this is it.... if this very well could be the last season of the Ice in Cranbrook. Let's everyone know about it. Not if, not maybe, but a solid: This team is moving or will be sold and moved.

The team expenses every year are X; the revenue is Y and the owners have Z, which isn't enough to subsidize the team through extended losses - which are ????.

Then ultimately it will be up to the fans/community to support the team.


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: 3,635
2001-02: 3,473^2002-03: 3,440
2003-04: 2,926
2004-05: 3,370
2005-06: 3,309
2006-07: 3,039
2007-08: 2,963
2008-09: 3,071
2009-10: 2,807
2010-11: 2,501^2011-12: 2,805
2012-13: 2,411
2013-14: 2,227
2014-15: 2,239
* = played at Memorial Arena (capacity 1,704)^ = won WHL Championship

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A better late than never look at next season

Okay, time stops for no man or for no team but for what it's worth, here's a look at the Kootenay Ice for next year.

1. They'll be a new look team from the bench out. This week the club announced that head coach Ryan McGill and the team had mutually parted ways, or will when McGill's contract ends June 30. You had to wonder what the future would be for McGill as usually any coach entering into their final year of their contract is always a harbinger for their immediate future and there was never any word out of Iceland that McGill's contract had been renewed. The release stated that the club and coach had mutually agreed to part ways. It's a curious decision; Was it McGill's philosophy? He's never made any bones about his style being, for lack of a better word(s), 'old school'. He was a task-master and some believe that isn't conducive to today's junior player. I don't buy it but next year's club will be younger, much younger.

2. Was it a cost-cutting move? McGill is a WHL/Memorial Cup winning coach and wouldn't come cheap.

3. The status of assistant coach Jay Henderson hasn't been discussed. I would imagine he'll apply to get the head coaching job.

4. Following Kootenay's less-than-stellar game seven loss against the Calgary Hitmen, Sam Reinhart was en route to the Rochester Americans of the AHL. He notched 2 assists in his first AHL game. The Amerks will miss the AHL playoffs, like their parent Buffalo Sabres club. Barring a call to Team Canada for the World Championships - which happened last season for Reinhart - his season is over..... D Rinat Valiev headed to Toronto to play for the Maple Leafs' AHL team, the Toronto Marlies.... Tim Bozon was sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL team of the Montreal Canadiens but they missed the playoffs too and Bozon played in his AHL debut Saturday in Hamilton's regular season finale. Valiev also made his debut Saturday and winds up the regular season for the Marlies on Sunday.

5. Game 7 also marked the end of the WHL careers of Bozon, Austin Vetterl and Levi Cable. The latter two will likely head to the C.I.S. to play university hockey.

6. Kootenay had an astounding 11 19-year-olds on this team. Only three can return next season as 20-year-olds. First Sam Reinhart is signed and will not return and will play in Buffalo or Rochester next season. As is Rinat Valiev (Toronto). That takes care of two. Jaedon Descheneau isn't signed by the St. Louis Blues as of yet and they have until next year (June 1, 2016) to sign him. If signed, he'll likely play in the AHL next season. If not, he'll be a lock to stay (or will he be traded?) Luke Philp, the club's playoff MVP, isn't drafted or signed but was ranked 172nd overall by NHL Central Scouting for the draft in June. He'll likely return as a 20-year-old. G Wyatt Hoflin isn't drafted or signed by anyone. He could return as a 20-year-old... D Tyler King is in the same boat and will likely return next season to mentor a young group... F Jon Martin also falls into the group. F Ryan Chynoweth, D Tanner Lishchynsky, D Lenny Hackman are all on the outside looking in. D Tanner Faith's shoulder injury is the wildcard. If he's healthy he may have a chance to stay and anchor a young blueline. - All told, that means of 14 regular 19 and 20-year-olds, only 3 will return for next season.

7. So who makes the cut? Philp and King are locks in my mind. The wildcard is Descheneau's status; if returned he could bring something back in terms of trade value. If not returned, Hoflin and Martin round out the 3rd spot. Faith, if healthy, could be traded but that's another wildcard. 20's are notoriously hard to trade because of the roster limit but both Philp and Descheneau may bring more back in return. If not, both give a young club a chance to pull through what will likely be a tough season.
My picks? Descheneau, Philp and King. If the former are traded Hoflin and Martin come into the mix. Faith is too much of a wildcard to risk a spot on.

8. Goaltenders for next season are in complete flux. Will the club give back-up Keelan Williams a shot? He didn't get a sniff this year and looks to have very little confidence. Declan Hobbs, 17, and Jakub Walter, 16, will have a shot at a job. Could both be here next season? Does Hoflin stay as a 20?

9. On the blueline, there's another question mark, depth-wise. D Tyler King, 20, Troy Murray, 18, Cale Fleury, 17, Dylan Overdyk, 18, Bryan Allbee, 18 make up the top five. 16-year-old, first round pick Griffin Mendel 16, should make the club next season. Problem is, there's more than just talk that the Okanagan product is headed to the BCHL's Penticton Vees next season and is not going to sign with the Ice. Penticton has a history of trying to scoop high-end WHL prospects and those whispers that Mendell not joining the Ice are getting louder. That will hurt a young team's development.

10. Forwards next year will be young, period. Depending on who returns as 20's, the likes of Matt Alfaro, 19, Zak Zborosky, 19, and Vince Loschiavo, 17, will be expected to lead the team in the scoring department next season (behind Philp and Descheneau, if they're back). River Beattie and Austin Wellsby will also be expected much of. Both 18, they didn't play a lot this season. One shining light coming next season is forward Drew Warkentine 16. Warkentine shined with the Tisdal (SK) Trojans of the Sask Midget League this season finishing 4th in league scoring with 66 points in 44 games. Warkentine should make this team next season and hopefully will make an immediate impact as a 17-year-old. Disappointing numbers for Ice 1st round pick (9th overall) Jared Legien with Moose Jaw of the Sask Midget league as a 16-year-old don't bode well for next year's team. Hopefully he can recover and stick with the team and make an impact. Having two successive first round picks in Legien and Mendell not with the team next season are a huge blow if it happens.

OT - All and all, the year will be the most challenging for the club - both on and off the ice - in Kootenay's 17-year history in Cranbrook. Will attendance continue to decline? It actually went up on average this season but only marginally. The Chynoweth's have publicly stated that they cannot continued to operate in Cranbrook drawing 2200 a game. What will the team draw without stars like Reinhart and Bozon in the lineup? The club has a 15-year lease that was signed in 2010. They're five years into it, does that play into things at all? The club's 17-year playoff streak is in serious jeopardy, on paper, at least. At least this season the team had 3 post-season games that generated $50,000-60,000 in revenue. 1st round picks MIA.... Oh, and through all of this; last night during the NHL Playoffs the story broke that former Kootenay Ice captain and LA King forward Jarret Stoll was busted for Cocaine and Ecstasy possession at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.   Stoll, who had a tough season as the Kings missed the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup last year, is an unrestricted free agent June 1 unless the Kings re-sign him. Which doesn't look good right now. Stoll has also been rumoured to be among the group attempting to buy the Kootenay Ice from the Chynoweths but never materialized.

2015-16 could be the most challenging season in Kootenay Ice history.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Post Season Dance begins

As the Kootenay Ice embark on their 17th consecutive season in the WHL Playoffs, a familiar foe is presented. The Calgary Hitmen, the WHL's version of Yin to Kootenay's Yang, will once again be the club's first round playoff opponent as Spring breaks.

1. Dropping two straight 1-goal games to end the regular season against the Hitmen and thus face their rivals in the first round. I don't think the Ice would have it any other way. The Ice beat the Hitmen in the first round last season before losing out to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the second round.

2. Kootenay started the playoffs on the right foot as the Ice beat the Hitmen at the Saddledome in Calgary 4-3. Luke Philp notched two goals and added an assist and Jaedon Descheneau added a goal and an assist. What are the odds that Sam Reinhart and Tim Bozon would be held off the scoresheet in an Ice win? Highlites are here. Game 2 goes at 4PM in Calgary and is on Shaw.

3. Another key plus in facing the Hitmen in the first round? Bigger crowds, at least somewhat given games 3 and 4 are here next Tuesday and Wednesday and should provide a better draw.

4. Kudos to the WHL/Ice/Hitmen/Shaw who did the Ice and their fans a big favour by NOT televising games 3 and 4 from the Rec Plex Tuesday and Wednesday. Ice fans get the best of both worlds by being able to watch the games on the weekend and head to the rink this week. That's a first for Shaw for covering the WHL Playoffs as they've always followed a particular series to it's end

5. Is Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin in the Hitmen heads for the playoffs? You'll remember that it was then the Ice back-up who backstopped the Ice with the series win last year in 6 games when Mackenzie Skapski was lifted in favour of Hoflin in the goalfest series.

6. Ice attendance woes were front and center this week as the WHL Commissioner Ron Robison talked publicly with the voice of the Ice, Jeff Hollick. The talk started earlier in the week when Robison was quoted in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix stating that "We are monitoring the situation very closely." The full script of that interview is right here.

7. So okay, attendance-wise, we have a problem. What is going to be done to improve it? Is the WHL Commissioner monitoring the situation the only approach? What concrete plans are in place to make this thing work?

8. Kootenay finished second-to-last in WHL attendance with a 2239 per game average this season. Only Swift Current is lower with 2162, which isn't surprising given that Swift Current is the smallest market in the WHL (all of CHL actually with a population of 15,500) while Cranbrook is a close second (2nd smallest, CHL-wise too at just under 20,000; OHL's Owen Sound is third smallest at 21,000.)

9. I haven't been able to find anything that Robison has said about Swift Current's attendance. From what I can gather, there isn't. It' s curious question. Kootenay, which is an identical market, is always fingered for sagging attendance but never Swift Current. I know that the Broncos are community owned and the Ice are privately owned but the economic platforms must be almost identical. Swift Current likely has a somewhat smaller travel budget but the cost structure must be really close. And last season the Broncos reported a healthy profit (but lost money the year before).

10. As if Kootenay didn't need any further hurdles attendance wise heading into the playoffs but the success 20 minutes up the road of the KIJHL's Kimberley Dynamiters will present one. The Dynamiters scored in double overtime Friday night to take game five of their seven-game KIJHL Championship series and a 3-2 lead over the Kamloops Storm. Game six goes Sunday night in Kamloops. Should the Storm push the championship series to a 7th and deciding game, it will take place at the Kimberley Civic Center Tuesday night. Game 3 of the Ice/Hitmen series goes the same night at Western Financial Place. Oh, and if you haven't been following, one of Kamloops' top players has been 15-year-old Max Patterson. Patterson, a Kootenay Ice 4th round pick in last May's WHL Bantam Draft, has notched 3 goals and 4 assists in 6 playoff games with the Storm. The 1999-born, 6'4", 165 lb forward will compete for a roster spot with the Ice next season. Patterson has played in all five games of the KIJHL championship.

OT -  Why is this a problem? It isn't, if you're the Nitros. The club drew a packed crowd of 1358 last night in their 3-2 double OT win, crowds not seen in that rink since the heydays of senior hockey in the region when the Senior Kimberley Dynamiters won the Allan Cup in 1978. If there's a game seven, you can bet that crowd will hit 1400. Competition for the hockey fan dollar.

Double OT - Big shout-out to Everett Silvertips D-man Ben Betker. The Cranbrook product - undrafted in the WHL Bantam Draft - signed an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers this past week. The 6'6", 220lb D-man has had a terrific season for the Tips and helped take a 1-0 opening round playoff series lead over the Spokane Chiefs last night. I played men's hockey with his dad Jeff for many years and when Ben was 12-13 he'd come out and play men's hockey with us old-timers. When he played he was a 5'7" forward. Ben left to play major midget in the West Kootenay and when he came back, was a 6'3" D-man and still growing. He played AA Midget in Cranbrook at 15 and left to play Major Midget as a 16-year-old. At 17 the Westside Warriors of the BCHL rostered the big D-man. Betker was listed by the Portland Winterhawks, played one game and was traded to the Silvertips in the deal that involved now Nashville Predators D-man Seth Jones. Betker, in his last year of junior hockey, will likely get some seasoning time with the Oilers new AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, California before a shot with the big club materializes.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Down to the playoff wire....

Solidly entertaining game to watch last night as the Ice lost nail-biter to the Red Deer Rebels, 2-1 in the shootout. With 7 games remaining and a 33-28-1-3 record, good for 70 points, nothing has been decided in terms of playoff seeding, or having clinched a spot for that matter.

1. Kudos to Rebel goaltender Rylan Toth, who stole one last night was easily the game's first star. Haven't seen a goaltender face that many quality chances in one night and still come out on top. 31 shots against and in stopping 30, 18-20 were high quality scoring chances that didn't get by him.

2. Been hearing and seeing a few taunts headed Reinhart's way of late. Not a fan of that. Criticism is fine and when it's constructive and warranted, no problem. Has he been light's out of late? I guess not. No, he's not Connor McDavid but just because he cannot carry this team on his back night-in and night-out, doesn't mean he's any less of a player. It's a grind but he's still averaging 1.45 points a game this season, off from last year's pace of 1.75 from a better team than this year's version. If you're going to criticize, basing the argument in a fact or two may help.

3. With 70 points the Ice hold down the first Wild Card spot, 3 points ahead of Edmonton and 9 points clear of Moose Jaw. Prince Albert is still in the hunt mathematical but in the era of three point games for both teams (a la, last night), it's going to be tough for either to catch a playoff spot. Moose Jaw has seven games left and can get a maximum of 14 more points (75). Kootenay's got the same amount of games left and can hit 84 and theoretically still catch Red Deer or even Medicine Hat, but it's unlikely. So five points or any combination of 3 Ice wins/Warrior losses puts the Ice into the playoffs for the 17th straight season. Kootenay's in Medicine Hat tonight.

4. The bench got awful short last night on the blueline side of things. It'll be interesting how Valiev, King, Lishchynsky and Murray handle the Hitmen or Wheaties in the first round of the playoffs, provided they make it of course.

5. 2200 at the game last night. Just under the average for the season at 2231 a game. FYI, over a thousand (1007) packed the Kimberley Civic Center last night for the Dynamiters 2-1 overtime win over Fernie to knot that series at two games a piece. There's likely be a 1000 stuffed into the Fernie Memorial Arena tonight for game five of that series. If anyone's wondering where the bulk of the Ice fan base has gone in this city, you can start by looking there.

6. The debate is heating up over the CHL Player and minimum wages along with education packages that not always guaranteed. Now NHL Player Agents - powerful ones - are calling out the CHL to start adding some flexibility to the post-secondary packages that are earned by the players. My thoughts have always been that the post-secondary program the CHL offers (one year tuition and books for every year played) is a good one but the restrictions on it are getting some real bad press for the league(s). I'm not a big minimum wage fan (the WHL was up in front of the Washington State Senate lately looking for a minimum wage exemption status) of the argument for the  simple reason that the tuition and books model works for the student/athlete if the professional dream doesn't pan out. But, that player has earned that tuition and books and should have a less restrictive access to it so that they can play pro hockey for a while and then fall back on a university degree if it doesn't pan out. Or even a cash equivalent for those who don't qualify or something along those lines. 18 months use it or lose it as it sits right now doesn't work. 3-4 years would give any 20-year-old ample time to test the pro hockey dream and make an informed decision. At the same time it gives the CHL the "student/athlete" model it's claims - much like the NCAA, only the school part of things is delayed. Some good articles out there by TSN and the Seattle Times.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Playoff Push down the stretch

It's been a month since the last blog as this get's a little hectic to keep up on a consistent basis, but as we head down the stretch into the Spring and the WHL Playoffs.

1.  A 3-2 win over the shorthanded Brandon Wheat Kings last night who were missing D Kyle Clague and F Nolan Patrick but two points nonetheless as the Ice will play the Wheaties to wrap up the four-game road swing through the Prairies tonight.

2. The Ice, with three straight shoot-out games - 2 wins and a loss - improved to 33-27-1-2 on the season with 69 points, seven clear of the Edmonton Oil Kings.

3. Ironically enough the Ice are also four points clear of the Swift Current Broncos but with the new NHL-style playoff format, catching the Broncos doesn't mean anything but home-ice advantage in the later rounds if they were to meet in the playoffs. This season the top three in each of the East and Central Divisions make the playoffs while the two next best teams in terms of total points grab the 1st and 2nd wildcard berths. As it stands right now, if the playoff were to begin today Kootenay would entertain the red-hot Calgary Hitmen in the first round. If the old conference format were in place, Kootenay would be the sixth seed and get the Tigers in the first round.

4. Drawing the Hitmen isn't a bad thing however. I'm sure the memories would be fresh of the 1st round defeat by the Ice last season and fuel the rivalry between the two clubs. The Hitmen are also a good draw in terms of attendance as well.

5. Kootenay could still catch the Red Deer Rebels as they are only four points back with 9 games, including two head-to-head, left in the season. The Rebels have two games in hand and will be difficult to catch unless they stumble.

6. Of course a playoff berth isn't assured as of this point but there is a magic number of four or 8 points. Any combination of four Ice wins or Warrior losses (or points totaling 8) give the Ice their 17th straight year in the WHL playoffs, all while in Cranbrook. It is the longest current playoff streak in the WHL.

7. Offensively, Kootenay's a deep team. It's on the blueline that one wonders if they'll have the horses to get out of the first round of the playoffs. D Tanner Lischynsky has been a welcome presence on the blueline but blueline depth could be a tough wall to break through this playoff season.

8. Speaking of D, Ice first round Bantam pick Griffen Mendel, playing his first year Midget with the Okanagan Hockey Academy club played for Team BC at the Canada Winter Games this past week. Mendel, a 6'2" rearguard eligible to play full-time next season, has also played 2 games for the Penticton Vees of the Junior A BCHL. It isn't out of the ordinary for BCHL teams to affiliate local players but it does raise some eyebrows when the top pick does it. Penticton is known for heavy recruiting of top propects - WHL prospects (Ryan Gropp of Seattle comes to mind) so something to watch for Ice fans. Kootenay has a solid group of D-men coming up but they'll be young next year.

9. Back to the playoff race, those four points behind Red Deer, brings those weekend losses a few weeks back to Moose Jaw and Saskatoon into perspective.

10. Lastly, good to see 20-year-old Mackenzie Skapski, who could have played this year in Junior, make his first NHL start and get his first win this past week with the New York Rangers' win over Buffalo. The one place Kootenay's been consistent this year is in goal with Wyatt Hoflin, however he's played the most by far of any Ice goaltender over the years. Well ahead of the pack in terms of minutes played as Hoflin's over 3350, 200 more than the anyone in the WHL. His save percentage and GAA isn't great but really the question is of fatigue. He may not get a night off until the club's playoff spot in secured and even then perhaps not. Have to feel for back-up Keenlan Williams who hasn't broken the 400 minute mark this season. And he's an 18-year-old that basically hasn't played this season. Adding insult to injury the club brought in Declan Hobbs, 16, a couple of weeks back to play two games.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Deadline came and went with a whimper; Ice stop 4-game losing skid

For a team that may have been worried about losing two of their top players to the World Juniors and if they would stay in the playoff hunt without them, getting them back has been more of a challenge than anyone thought, losing four straight since Reinhart returned with the gold medal and Valiev returned with the silver, and missing three games due to illness.

A relatively easy (on paper) trip through the prairies with Moose Jaw, PA and Saskatoon on the docket, six points were important as the club needs to beat the teams behind them. Losing to Moose Jaw but rebounding to beat PA last night, Saskatoon is on the schedule tonight in the Bridge City. The Blades, one of the WHL's worst teams but on the upswing of late, beat the Ice last Saturday night at the Rec Plex and beat the Tigers last night. At 22-21-1 on the season the Ice are in the final playoff spot but only have a 5 point cushion with a lot of time left.

1. At the deadline the Ice added D Lenny Hackman from Lethbridge, who had left the club and wasn't playing for them anyway. A 2015 12th round Bantam Draft pick went the other way, which, if you look at the draft rounds, is basically nothing as most clubs have had their fill by then and can't pick (50-man protected list) anymore anyway. He's a diminutive 19-yr-old rearguard that will provide the team some depth in light of D Tanner Faith's season-ending shoulder surgery. As mentioned previously, D Tanner Lischynsky was also kept after playing as a AP call-up from Flin Flon of the SJHL.

2. I had been told that the Ice were in on many possibilities at the deadline for a D-man and a back-up goaltender but nothing materialized.

3. With this line-up being healthy they are still a thick line-up that could push a couple rounds into the playoffs. However the prospect of the 8-hole and facing the high-flying Brandon Wheat Kings doesn't bode well. To avoid Brandon or Medicine Hat in the first round they'll have to catch Calgary or Red Deer due to the new playoff format. The top three clubs in each division are seeded 1-2 and 3-6. The two wildcards play the Division winners.

4. Tuesday the Vancouver Giants are in town for the first time in two years. (stupid WHL interlock schedule). Cranbrook native Payton Lee should get the start in goal for the Giants on the little-known 2-for-1 Tuesday nights. Get two tickets for the price of one, among other concession items.

5. Another Cranbrook product, D Ben Betker, 20, had a career night last night. The Edmonton Oiler prospect notched 4 assists for the Everett Silvertips in a 5-3 win over Spokane. Betker's got 12 points in his last 10 games.

6. I've been asked a number of questions about the recent internet rumours about the Ice relocating. One has them going to Abbotsford; another has them going to Boise, Idaho. Some questions have been posted in the comments section of the last post.

7. First, I'm not aware of any application to move the team at the league level, although, like lots on the internet forums, I've heard about the Boise application. If it's real, only the WHL Board of Governors would know if the Chynoweth family made application. There's been nothing public that I'm aware of. There's been no media on the subject at all this season.

8. The club does have a lease - arguably the best lease in the league - that was signed in 2009. It's a 15-year lease but not much else is known about it. I asked the powers that be at the City of Cranbrook some time ago about seeing a copy of the lease but they wouldn't make it available. I am a taxpayer and thought I should be able to see it but didn't have any luck. I could've pushed it, I suppose, through a Freedom of Information request but didn't.

9. On the flip side of the argument, I've also heard that the group that was supposedly close to buying the club last season has re-surfaced again and is close to making something happen. But again, nothing to substantiate; just rumour.

10. At the end of the day, it's about attendance and bums in the seats. Last season the club attracted over 80,000 to their home games. 20th in a 22-team league. That, based on a $20 average ticket price, is about $1.6 million to operate the club. The cost to run this club in the WHL is in that range - $1.5 million 5-6 years ago. It's probably closer to the $1.8-2 million range now. The average attendance for this club through 21 home dates is 2222. 10 short of the 2232 average last season with 15 home dates to go. Right now the club is 21st in the WHL attendance rankings, above only Swift Current.

That's why it's so important to get to the playoffs. The club had six home dates last season and attracted 15,781 to those six games (2630 per game). At an average $22 ticket cost, those playoff dates added $347,000 to the bottom line (minus playoff costs - bus, hotels etc) last season. Add that number to the $1.6 million in ticket sales, plus ad revenue etc, it pushes over the $2 million mark. Of course that's if the team makes the playoffs and has a run.

Swift Current, a publicly owned, small-market team that mirrors Kootenay in terms of attendance, managed to post a $200,000 profit last season. In 2011 the team lost the same amount and missed the playoffs that year. Swift had three home playoff dates of an average over 2800 last spring that undoubtedly contributed to the profit.

This season Chynoweth has already publicly said that the club will be running a six-figure deficit. Many comments on this blog state that if it wasn't for him the attendance would be better. I'm not sure how. It may go up marginally (Prince George's ownership change saw an increase from 1700 average per game last season to 2700 this season) but I doubt the uptick is as big as many speculate here in Cranbrook. I've ranted about the in-game entertainment and that the arena and the club need to get into the 21st century in terms of game entrance, giveaways and video replay clock but no one can argue about the quality of the product on the ice, and really, that's what hockey fans want, no? Wins and success.

Could the club move? There's always that risk here in the small market that is Cranbrook. There's always the issue of 9 years left on the 15 year lease signed but it's not like those haven't been fought out in the courts before.

Could the club be sold, to local owners? Perhaps, but they would face the same small-market challenges. At the end of the day, attendance needs to go the other direction, up. I would much rather see more public discussion on the issue than just those making the rounds at the rink and coffee-shop row, (and internet). The local media need to bring more awareness to the issue. Someone mentioned on the comments the Chilliwack Bruins. That club moved almost overnight to Victoria once the league realized the pro ranks (AHL) were considering moving a team there. The AHL continues to look at the possibility of a Western Division for the affiliates of western-based NHL teams, so the competition is high for markets on this side of the Rockies.

Boise? They support ECHL pro hockey to the tune of 4000 a night. Not bad. They're a big market, over 200,000 but no necessarily a traditional hockey market. They're off the beaten path too. 4-5 hours away from Tri-Cities, 6-7 away from Spokane and Portland. That's a trek for a divisional rival. The Canadian clubs are minimum 11-12 hours by bus away.

Abbotsford? Sure, it could work at a junior hockey market but they may draw in the 3-4000 range in the 7000 seat facility there. That's if the Giants okay another team moving into their 100-km area. I was told they are looking into the availability of the arena because of the Pacific Coliseum's age and location. Ron Toigo, owner of the Giants, stated publicly that the Giants have lost money over the last few years ($400,000 each year).

But at the end of the day folks, it's about supporting the home team. Like the GM or not, the product on the ice is always good. The sizzle will get better, eventually there'll be upgrades in that department but supporting junior hockey in this market is the only way it will.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Season Turnaround complete as deadline nears

With the club's streak to the .500 mark complete and back in the race for a playoff spot following a 3-13 start to the season, the trick as they lost captain Sam Reinhart and top D-man Rinat Valiev to Team Canada and Team Russia, respectively, at the World Junior Championship, would be to at least roll a .500 record in the 8-games without Reinhart (6 w/o Valiev).

Following a home and home sweep of the Calgary Hitmen, the club is riding a 5-game winning streak - without Reinhart, Valiev and also injuries to D-men Dylan Overdyk and Tanner Faith - and finds themselves not only in a playoff spot but at 3 games above .500, knocking on the door of 2nd-3rd in the Central Division.

1. Kootenay sits at 20-17, 40 pts on the season with 3 key road games against Medicine Hat, Red Deer and Edmonton this week.

2. With a record of 17-4 since Nov 1, a playoff spot is a likelihood now rather than a possibility. Barring a complete collapse of the direction they've been heading, the question now arises to January 10 and being buyers in hopes of making a run come spring.

3. The club added some experience to the blueline this week with the addition of affiliate player D Tanner Lishchynski, 19. The Saskatoon product was with the Prince George Cougars for parts of the last two seasons spending 78 games with them before being released to the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. He was with Flin Flon this season and is being given a look-see while the club is down three regular D-man. Lishchynski played top 3 minutes this weekend against Calgary and didn't look out of place.

4. The addition of Lishchynksi - temporary or otherwise - is a good move given the sorely needed experience on the blueline. He's 19, not flashy and could provide serviceable minutes for the time being. The obvious question being is there an upgrade available prior to the deadline that would help out the blueline to push for a run?

5. I see the defensive corps as the position sorely in need of an upgrade if a playoff run is going to come to fruition. The top 6-7 forwards, when healthy and here, are as deep and dynamic as any team in the WHL. In goal, Hoflin has been a horse and continues to be between the pipes. He set a team record for consecutive appearances in Sunday set by Todd Mathews in 2009 and I don't see that streak ending anytime soon. You wouldn't be embarrassed if you forgot the name of the Ice backup (Keenlan Williams). I don't know when Williams may get into another game. Hoflin can relate playing behind Mackenzie Skapski the past two seasons.

6. A blueliner is on the wishlist of GM Jeff Chynoweth come hockey's version of Christmas come January 10 with the trade deadline (provided you're a buyer, I presume). It's not going to be cheap to add a player for any team this season and that's why you see the club hoping that Lishchynski pans out as that depth to the blueline. The d-man didn't cost them anything.

7. Back to the depth at forward, 20-year-old Levi Cable, provided the best example of that this weekend with a four-goal performance Saturday against Calgary, tying a club record (held by 8 players) of four goals in a game. He finished the two game set with 5 goals and 2 assists.

8. Saturday's 6-2 win was the strangest lopsided win I've seen in a while. Out-shot almost 2-1 (53-26), this game was Calgary's to lose. Dominate for long stretches in Kootenay's end only to come up empty and then give up a goal on the rush. Strange stat: all four games Kootenay's played Calgary this season they've chased starter Mack Shields in every game. Could the Hitmen be in the hunt for a goaltender at the deadline?

9. Largest crowd of the season on Saturday at 2967. So how does an average crowd of 2200 this season balloon to almost 3000 on a Saturday over the Christmas break? What's the difference? Lots of people back for the holidays; lots of people off work for the holidays? A 36% increase for one game is too substantial to not have something to look into to try and give the overall average a boost.

10. Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't include the wire stories going on about the investigation into the CHL franchises and whether or not they've violated minimum labour standards in Canada and the U.S. There are three articles that capture the current situation with the New York Times (the Times????), the Toronto Star and finally with Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail.

In the interest of full disclosure, I work as a full-time union rep for the United Steelworkers (USW) in the East and West Kootenays, but having been around and covering the junior game for the last 16+ years, I have a bit of differing opinion on whether the players fall lock, stock and barrel into the employee/minimum wage category. However, in the letter of the employment standards law, the CHL clubs in Canada (and perhaps the U.S., as the State of Washington is looking into the four franchises there) may be vulnerable. I don't know if it's the be all, end all answer but the Student Athlete claim by the CHL could be a valid one but they will have to guarantee the scholarships earned. Currently the CHL scholarship program - a very good program - has flaws. There are time limits to it as players who play minor pro hockey longer than 18 months forfeit their earned scholarship. And if you sign a pro contract at the NHL/AHL level, it's also gone. In my opinion, if those stipulations of the program are changed/eliminated. The value of those scholarships would likely far outweigh any minimum wage/vacation pay calculation.

The issue Chynoweth speaks about in the Globe and Mail article about the  WHL (and CHL-wide) are valid. There is a wide gap between the Edmonton, Calgary, Portland and Vancouver franchises to the middle of the pack franchises (Red Deer, Kelowna, Kamloops, Saskatoon, Regina, Victoria) and the small-market locales in Cranbrook, Swift Current, P.A. and Moose Jaw. Revenue sharing, and idea broached many times by Ed Chynoweth, is in the best interest of the league as a whole. Revenue sharing to guarantee those scholarships as a tangible alternative to the minimum wage issues is a must if the league is going to face these very real issues.

Do pay particular attention to paragraph 49 in the Duhatschek's story in the Globe and Mail. Chynoweth talks about 17-19 former players in the scholarship program - a great number - but the cost of which puts the club in a deficit position, "a six-figure deficit this year, a significant six-figure deficit." That is obviously very troubling if the club is losing north of $100,000 this season. Eventually, something has go to give.

Finally, the face of the WHL portion of the lawsuit - Lukas Walter - has a connection to the Ice as his younger brother is a prospect of the club. Jakub Walter - both nephews of former NHL'er Ryan Walter - is a goaltender with the Valley West Hawks of the BCMML. He was drafted by the Ice in the second round, 33rd overall in last May's Bantam Draft. This issue is causing a major storm of controversy in the hockey world and you have to respect the stand the older brother is taking, agree or not.

And lastly, former Ice forward Matt Fraser was claimed by the Edmonton Oilers off of waivers from the Boston Bruins this week. Talk about going from one end of the spectrum to the other. At least Ice fans will be able to watch him play more, at least until spring when the playoffs start...... Sorry Oiler fans, couldn't resist.