Kootenay Ice moving to Winnipeg for next season

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Kootenay Ice captain Peyton Krebs controls the puck during a game against the Prince Albert Raiders earlier this season.

The worst kept secret in the Western Hockey League became official Tuesday.

During a morning press conference in Cranbrook, B.C., it was announced that the Kootenay Ice would be leaving after 21 seasons to move to Winnipeg for the 2019-20 campaign.

“This was a Western Hockey League discussion ultimately — not the ownership decision to transfer this franchise,” WHL commissioner Rob Robison said to the media. “It was a decision made over an eight or nine year period of assessment of this market and the ability of this franchise to be sustainable over a long period of time.

“These are difficult decisions, especially difficult when you look at the passionate fans in this community and how it supported this franchise.”

The Ice franchise moved to Cranbrook from Edmonton in 1998 and won three championships in 2000, 2002 and 2011, along with a Memorial Cup in 2002.

The team has been subject to relocation rumours for the last few seasons, as they were linked to a move to Manitoba’s capital in 2014 and looked to be headed to Nanaimo, B.C. in early 2017 before its residents voted against building an $80-million events centre.

The Chynoweth family, who had owned the Ice since 1995, sold the team in March 2017 to Winnipeg entrepreneur Greg Fettes and hockey executive Matt Cockell.

“We came in eyes wide open. We knew there was going to be some challenges, but we went all in,” Fettes said. “Judge us by our actions when we first got here.”

“When we bought this franchise our desire to be part of the WHL went way before Matt and I actually had the opportunity to have a franchise. When we had this opportunity the league made very clear to us that is we were to buy the franchise we had to go 110 per cent to make it work here — and we made that commitment and frankly we were all in, but again judge us by our actions.”

The Winnipeg Free Press originally reported in October that the Ice would be moving into a new arena that is part of a commercial and entertainment hub in the southwest corner of the city.

While the 4,000 seat arena is being built, the team will play out of the 1,400-seat Wayne Fleming Arena, which is on the campus of University of Manitoba.

The Ice will now compete in the WHL’s East Division, while the Swift Current Broncos will move over to the Central Division next year.

This marks the first time since the 1983-84 season that the WHL have had a team in Winnipeg, as the Warriors franchise moved to Moose Jaw following the campaign.

Kootenay’s last visit to the Art Hauser Centre to face the Prince Albert Raiders will take place on Friday, Feb. 22