Success of small market franchises enthuses WHL commissioner Robison

Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison is interviewed by the league’s senior manager of communications Taylor Rocca prior to Game 1 of the Ed Chynoweth Cup Friday at the Art Hauser Centre.

The last two Ed Chynoweth Cup series has seen two of the smaller centers in the Canadian Hockey League come to the forefront.

After the Swift Current Broncos captured their first Western League Hockey title and the first for a Saskatchewan based club since 1993 last May, the Prince Albert Raiders have made their way to the dance for the first time since winning the Memorial Cup in 1985.

The sold-out and raucous atmospheres in both communities have been much talked about, and it’s also something that commissioner Rob Robison is pleased to see.

“If you look at the back-to-back success of teams like the Broncos and Raiders, it shows that the system is working,” Robison said prior to Game 1 of the league final between the Vancouver Giants and the Raiders at the Art Hauser Centre Friday night. “We take a lot of pride in making sure each team has equal access to the talent and have a competitive chance to competed for championships.

“Obviously this is a very special time for the Raiders to be back after so long and we have to give credit to the organization. They’ve done a great job of building a championship caliber team and a lot of that has to do with the work that (general manager) Curtis Hunt and (head coach) Marc Habscheid have done.”

No matter what teams heads to the Memorial Cup in Halifax next week, it will mark what’s been a decade of parity in the WHL as only one club (the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2012 and 2014) has won multiple championships during the last 10 years.

“The parity with the league has been exceptional over the last couple of years and I think part of that has to do with our playoff format,” Robison said. “It has really enhanced our divisional play and each round has been really exciting as you’ve seen teams position themselves differently in order to go on the long playoff runs.”

Off the ice, the 2018-19 season saw a number of major changes in the WHL, which includes the regular season schedule being reduced from 72 to 68 games and the end of trades that involved signed 15 and 16 year-old players.

“Those two things were extremely important for us,” Robison said. “The players and their families have committed to our league and our teams, and now they know that they’ll be staying there for the start of their careers and not worry about having to move around in their rookie year.

“The reduction of the schedule allows the younger players to complete their studies and also have more time to practice on the ice in the course of the week, so all of those things allow them to focus on their development.”

While there has been talk of the CHL allowing three import players on teams next year if one of them is an overage player, which would end the dual-slot situation that some teams have faced in the past, Robison isn’t expecting any major changes from the WHL rules perspective ahead of the league’s annual general meeting in June.

“We made quite a number of changes in our hockey operations department last year, which included a new director of player safety (Kevin Acheson) and strengthening our officiating development,” Robison said.

“With that said, we always challenge ourselves to come up with ways that we can improve the league, especially when it comes to our player safety, to make it the best environment possible.”

The biggest change for the 2019-20 campaign will be the arrival of the Winnipeg Ice, who have moved from Cranbrook, B.C. following a 20-year run in the community.

“You have to go back to the mid 1980’s (when the Winnipeg Warriors played out of Manitoba’s capital before moving to Moose Jaw) for when we were last there,” Robison said.

“Obviously it’s a very competitive market, but the interest has been tremendous so far thanks to the efforts of the ownership group there, plus with what happened in the Bantam Draft (which saw the Ice select forwards Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie) on Thursday in Red Deer.”

The Ice will be competing in the East Division next year, while the Broncos will move over to the Central Division.

A number of centres in the league will also be a part of a number of showcase events during the next two years.

Medicine Hat and Swift Current are the co-hosts of the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Kelowna will be the home of the 2020 Memorial Cup and the 2021 World Juniors will take place in Edmonton and Red Deer.

“We also have the Canada/Russia Series in November, which will take place here in Prince Albert and in Saskatoon,” Robison added.

“Naturally, our main focus right now is towards the Memorial Cup in Halifax, but we’re excited and feel very fortunate to have our teams be involved in those major events over the next couple of years.”