What’s next for the Kootenay Ice?

Chynoweth family buys out Niedermayers

The Chynoweth family now owns 100 per cent of the Kootenay Ice.

Jeff Chynoweth, the franchise’s president, governor and general manager, announced Wednesday that his family has purchased 24.5 per cent from former WHL/NHL players Rob and Scott Niedermayer.

The late Ed Chynoweth moved the Ice from Edmonton to Cranbrook in time for the 1998-99 season. In December 1998, the Niedermayers and two other Cranbrook investors combined to purchase 49 per cent from Chynoweth. In September 2001, the two local investors opted out and the Chynoweths purchased their 24.5 per cent.

Until this week, then, the Chynoweths owned 75.5 per cent, with the Niedermayers in for 24.5 per cent.

It isn’t a secret that the Chynoweths have been trying to sell the Ice. In fact, earlier this year, Jeff Chynoweth told Taylor Rocca of the Cranbrook Townsman: “Nothing has changed in that my family wants to get out of ownership of the hockey club and have since 2011. Unfortunately, nothing has come to fruition to make that happen.”

For the past while, there has been speculation that the Niedermayers were on the verge of buying out the Chynoweth family. According to Jeff Chynoweth, a deal was close a year ago.

The family had hoped to sell to the Niedermayers, he said in a news release, “but unfortunately after we met the price they presented to my family in June 2015 they did not accept our offer.”

There also was an attempt made to get some local investors together in the hopes that something could be put together that would guarantee the franchise would remain in Cranbrook. There were meetings involving WHL commissioner Ron Robison, Cranbrook Mayor Lee Pratt and local business people, but nothing came of it.

“Despite ongoing efforts, no other local investors have come forward with an offer to purchase shares in the franchise,” Chynoweth said in the news release. “Moving forward, this transaction gives clarity to our ownership structure and will hopefully quell the rumours regarding our intent to continue operating the Kootenay Ice as we have since relocating the franchise to Cranbrook in 1998.”

The Ice is coming off the worst regular-season in franchise history. It finished 12-53-7, ended a run of 17 straight seasons in the playoffs, and had the WHL’s poorest average attendance, at 1,957.

In February, Chynoweth told Rocca: “The bottom line is my family cannot continue to run the hockey club with the numbers that we’re drawing right now.”

In June, WHL commissioner Ron Robison had said that if the franchise was to remain financially viable in Cranbrook the average attendance in the 4,264-seat Western Financial Place would have to get to 3,000.

That obviously didn’t happen.

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But with the number of viable alternatives rather limited at the moment, the Ice will be back in Cranbrook for at least one more season.

“You’re always trying to say the glass is half full and you’re going to move forward,” Chynoweth told Rocca in February. “The question (remaining) is how long can my family operate at the current levels? Guaranteed we are here for 2016-17.

“I can’t commit to anything longer than that because I don’t know what the future holds. I hope it is in Cranbrook. But time will tell if that materializes.”

Right now, Chynoweth and his staff are preparing for a couple of drafts. The Ice has the first overall selection in the WHL bantam draft, which is scheduled for May 5 in Calgary, and the CHL import draft, which is scheduled for June 28.

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So what does it mean now that the Chynoweth family owns 100 per cent of the Kootenay Ice?

Well, the most important and most obvious thing is that it now becomes much easier for the Chynoweths to decide on the franchise’s future as there are no partners with whom to consult.

The Ice has been for sale since 2011 but there haven’t been any takers. That, in itself, is interesting if only because there has long been this belief that there is a long lineup of interested parties who would love to purchase a WHL franchise.

The problem, it would seem, is that any interested parties aren’t wanting to buy a franchise and operate it in Cranbrook, where the average attendance has fallen from 3,635 in 2000-01 to where it ended up this season. On top of that, there isn’t another venue that is seen as being viable right now.

The WHL, of course, would love to have a team in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, where it would have an immediate rivalry with the Victoria Royals. However, Nanaimo doesn’t have an arena that meets WHL standards and there isn’t one in the works.

The other city that is sometimes mentioned as a possibility is Wenatchee, Wash., where the Wild just finished its first season in the BCHL. Wenatchee’s population is about 32,000. The Wild plays in the 4,300-seat Town Toyota Center, a facility that includes corporate boxes.

Wild owner David White is believed to have paid $1.2 million in expansion fees to the BCHL and, from all indications, is quite happy to be in the BCHL.

Of course, there also is an empty arena in Abbotsford, B.C. — the 7,000-seat Abbotsford Centre that had been home to the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate. That franchise is long gone and the arena doesn’t have a major tenant.

Presumably a WHL franchise would need the approval of Vancouver Giants majority owner Ron Toigo before it would be allowed to move to Abbotsford. The Giants have scheduled a news conference for Tuesday, at which they are expected to announce they are moving to the Langley Events Centre for 2016-17.

The two facilities are about 35 kilometres apart, so Abbotsford would appear to be a no-no.