You don't necessarily need fans in the seats to play a hockey game, but it sure helps.
You do however, need fans to support the business of having a hockey team, and that's the problem the Kootenay ICE have been faced with the last number of years.
It's a problem the Western Hockey League will soon see solved, as the league announced Tuesday that the Kootenay ICE will be relocated from Cranbrook to Winnipeg before the 2019-2020 season.
The WHL Board of Governors approved the move and made the announcement Tuesday in a press conference in Cranbrook. WHL Commissioner Ron Robison stated that "after many years of monitoring the operations of the Kootenay ICE, it is evident this franchise is not viable in the market moving forward. It is a difficult decision, but given low attendance trends and the support required to operate a WHL Club, it is necessary to move the franchise to a market where it can be sustainable on a long-term basis.”
The ICE are currently posting a league-worst attendance with an average of 2,218 fans attending their home games. To contrast that, Kootenay's division-mates Calgary and Edmonton each average just below 7,000 fans at their games, which are played at NHL arenas. Locally, the Cougars currently sit at fourth-worst in the WHL for attendance, with a reported average of 2,657 fans a game.
Cougars goalie coach Taylor Dakers played for the ICE for the entirety of his four-year WHL career. His best season was his last and saw him post a 33-10-4 record with 5 shutouts, contributing to his franchise-best 18 career shutouts. Dakers says due to being stationed in a small town, he was always very close with his teammates and says they felt the love the community gave them as well.
"When I came in in '03, they were still pretty high from their Memorial Cup win [in 2002], so they were still a buzzing hockey town...the town itself, being 20,000-ish, people knew who you were around town and you got a lot of respect from people around town."
After spending two seasons in the San Jose Sharks organization, Dakers has since coached in the WHL for seven years. In his five years with the Central Division's Red Deer Rebels, they met the ICE often. He remembers the team as one that would often pull things together near the end of the season and put up a fight in the playoffs.
The Kootenay ICE relocated from Edmonton in 1998 after being founded two years earlier. They made 17 straight trips to the playoffs, including three WHL Championship titles and one Memorial Cup win in 2002. Their playoff stretch ended in 2016, and are currently three seasons removed from their last playoff berth.
The ICE have 18 games remaining on their schedule, with nine games still to be played at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook. They will then join a busy Winnipeg hockey market, which already consists of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets and the AHL's Manitoba Moose.
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