Options limited for any WHL return to Nanaimo

nanaimo_aeriel_2009_kenwalker_wikimediacommons

The arena rumblings are happening again in Nanaimo, and while the Western Hockey League would love to return to the Vancouver Island city, options are very limited.

In particular, the WHL’s fallback strategy of expansion to prevent relocation is likely not an option this time around, as 22 teams is likely the upper limit that the league can handle.

Nanaimo’s most recent move on the arena front is a study that highlights two possible locations for a new events center, one that would hold 5,200-5,700 for hockey and up to 8,000 for concerts and other major events. However, the cost, between $63-$82 million, has city officials hesitant to move forward unless they have a commitment from a WHL team to move to the city, and a financial investment from that team in the arena to ensure they wouldn’t be tempted to move away after a few seasons. That, so far, hasn’t happened.

The WHL has wanted a team in Nanaimo since the league returned to Victoria in 2011. One major reason is saving on travel costs, as a Victoria-Nanaimo weekend can be cheaper than a two-game series in Victoria or, on some major travel weekends, even a single game in Victoria. That Nanaimo is the biggest Canadian market west of Manitoba without a WHL team also plays into the league’s interest in the city.

It has been 34 years since the WHL played its single season in Nanaimo. The Islanders played in the fairly-new Frank Crane Arena for 1982-83 after moving to Vancouver Island from Billings, Montana. But the building was too small, as was fan interest, and the team moved on to New Westminster, becoming the second incarnation of the Bruins for four seasons. The team is now the Tri-City Americans, playing their 30th season in Kennewick this year.

Ironically, the Tri-City franchise and its turbulent past play a direct role in the future of the WHL in Nanaimo. Two of the league’s most recent expansion teams, the Vancouver Giants and Chilliwack Bruins, came into existence because the league wanted to prevent the then-owners of the Americans from moving the team into those cities, but wanted teams in those Lower Mainland markets.

In fact, the WHL’s last four expansion teams came about to prevent franchise shifts. The Everett Silvertips were born after an attempt to move the Seattle Thunderbirds north, and the third edition of the Edmonton Oil Kings came into being so that the Oilers would stop trying to buy teams for the purpose of moving them to Edmonton.

Putting teams in Vancouver, Everett, Chilliwack and Edmonton means the WHL now has 22 teams, two more than the Ontario and Quebec leagues. There’s a belief that the WHL has reached its limit on how many teams it can have, simply because the talent pool in western Canada is getting smaller, and teams often have to battle the NCAA for American players. That the NCAA will accept players from Junior A leagues (like the British Columbia Hockey League and Alberta Junior Hockey League) but not the WHL, OHL or QMJHL also cuts into the talent pool, as players in the BCHL and AJHL are looking as much for NCAA scholarships as a shot at the pros.

This puts the WHL in a tough spot. They can’t expand to Nanaimo, but yet the city won’t likely commit to a new arena unless they are guaranteed a WHL team. Plus, there has been no known local ownership group in Nanaimo looking for a team; relocation, with established owners, looks to be the likely path for the league returning to Nanaimo.

Any new WHL team in Nanaimo would likely have to play in Frank Crane Arena for at least a couple of seasons while the new arena is built. The former home of the WHL Islanders is still busy, being the home of the BCHL’s Clippers and just having gone through a needed remodel a few years ago. It seats about 2,400, with standing room likely moving it towards 3,000. Good for a BCHL team, but nowhere near good enough for the WHL in a market like Nanaimo.

Back to the talent pool for a moment…if that wasn’t an issue, could the WHL expand to 24 teams? Possibly. There have been rumblings that the owners of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and AHL’s Manitoba Moose have looked at possibly trying to add a WHL team to its portfolio. There’s been talk of a WHL-ready arena being built in Lloydminster, Alberta that would hold 7,500. Newish arenas in Penticton, BC and Wenatchee, WA would be tempting to an owner, and both are among the best drawing teams in the BCHL. The move of the Vancouver Giants to suburban Langley eliminated any thoughts, for the time being, of either Abbotsford and Chilliwack being mentioned for a WHL team.

But if relocation is needed to get a team to Nanaimo (or any other market looking for a WHL team), the talk usually centers on the Kootenay Ice. The Cranbrook, BC based team has been at the bottom of WHL attendance for a number of seasons, is at the bottom of attendance this season, and ownership has had the team up for sale for years. There was a report of a Cranbrook-based group looking to buy the team in October, but nothing has come of it.  But as long as they are struggling, and for sale, the Ice will be at the top of the list of WHL teams most likely to move. But, as mentioned earlier, unless they and/or the WHL give a financial commitment to a new arena, a move to Nanaimo is nowhere in their future.

Are there any others? Swift Current and Prince Albert aren’t going anywhere despite of small attendance because they are community owned. The Lethbridge Hurricanes, seemingly on the brink a couple of years ago, have righted the ship & look to be out of trouble for now. New ownership has revitalized the Prince George Cougars, and they’re drawing their biggest crowds in over a decade.

If there’s a wild card, it might be the Vancouver Giants. Yes, they just moved to Langley after playing in the Pacific Coliseum (the former home of the Canucks) for their first 15 seasons. But they are having their worst season ever, so far, in average attendance. Part of that may be the smaller building in Langley, but averaging just about 3,800 in a 5,276-seat arena likely wasn’t what they were looking for. In comparison, their worst-season for attendance at the Coliseum was 2003-04, when they averaged 4,956 per game. Last year, they were drawing 5,169 per game in the Coliseum, and that probably does look worse in a 16,000-seat arena (even with the upper level curtained off) than 3,800 does in a 5,276 seat building. The Giants have time, but if the crowds keep getting smaller in Langley, then some hard questions have to be asked.

(If you’re curious, Langley’s BCHL team, the Rivermen, average just 635 fans a game so far this season after having to accommodate the Giants and move from the Langley Events Centre to the much, much smaller George Preston Recreation Centre [formerly the Langley Civic Centre]. That’s 4th worst in the BCHL.)

The Giants’ move to Langley also effectively blocked any WHL team from considering Abbotsford, with its 7,000-seat arena still seeking a main tenant since the AHL’s Heat moved, or Chilliwack, where the BCHL’s Chiefs play in the arena that was enlarged for the WHL’s Bruins. Ironically, the original Chilliwack Chiefs moved to Langley when the Bruins moved into the Prospera Centre, and the new Chiefs moved in when the Bruins moved to Victoria to become the Royals in 2011 (and blocking a likely move by the AHL to put a team in the BC capital to couple up with Abbotsford…it all feels like a circle, doesn’t it?).

It was the Victoria Royals that got the WHL interested in Nanaimo again. Arena talk has gone on for a few years, and it’s taken a long while to even get to the point where a study has taken place. But the slow pace of the arena process, plus the city’s insistence that the WHL and/or a new Nanaimo team have a financial stake in the arena, ensures that it will still be a long time before the league returns. Both sides will want guarantees, and that means long negotiations are still ahead.

However, with 22 teams and expansion likely not viable, it may be the only way for the WHL to get back to Nanaimo. Patience, for the league and for those in Nanaimo, will still be needed.

(Photo of Nanaimo, BC by Ken Walker, via Wikimedia Commons)

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