The Cranbrook Bucks is the newest BCHL franchise.
In front of a crowd of fans and dignitaries at Western Financial Place, Nathan Lieuwen — the majority owner and president — announced the newest team to compete in the provincial Jr. A league, alongside BCHL Commissioner Chris Hebb and Cranbrook mayor Lee Pratt.
“I’m very excited and proud to bring you this announcement today. It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of long days. To get to this point is very special,” Lieuwen said. “…We look forward to working with our community and the surrounding areas in building lasting relationships and partnerships. We’re excited to be part of the Cranbrook scenery and the hockey behind it.”
The Bucks will compete in the 2020-21 BCHL season
Lieuwen, a WHL alumni with the former Kootenay Ice, is joined by fellow alum Adam Cracknell in the ownership structure, along with Scott Niedermayer, a Hall of Fame NHL defenceman who was raised in Cranbrook. Others with an ownership stake include Craig Shostak and Steve King, who are also owners of the Cardiff Devils, a hockey franchise in the British Elite Ice Hockey League.
Niedermayer credited Lieuwen’s passion and excitement for getting a hockey team in Cranbrook as a reason for getting involved with the effort.
“Especially seeing his passion and how excited he was about trying to do this made it very, very easy for me to say yes,” said Niedermayer.
Both King and Shostak have a hockey background and work in business based out of Calgary. Cracknell is continuing his professional hockey career in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with the Kunlun Red Star in China.
Hebb said Lieuwen reached out to him roughly a year ago to explore the possibility of a franchise in Cranbrook.
“About a year ago, I was getting phone calls and emails from some young guy who thought he could bring a team to your city and his name was Nathan Lieuwen,” said Hebb. “We talked a lot and back and forth and we handed him hoops and he jumped through them and we handed him another and he jumped through it.
“Here we are today with a situation that brings the 18th BC Hockey League team to Cranbrook.”
Hebb noted four pillars with the league— speed and skill, player safety, education, and community.
“Having driven around Cranbrook are for the last couple of days, I think this is a community that is going to do the BC Hockey League proud,” Hebb said.
A BCHL franchise coming to Cranbrook carries a $1.2 million expansion fee.
Hebb also hinted at a league realignment, noting that franchise governors have been in ongoing discussions.
“We’re probably going to have an interior division that Cranbrook fits into,” Hebbs said. “We may stay with three divisions: Interior, Lower Mainland and Island. But I would also ask our competition committee to come back with some ideas where maybe there are four divisions, some six-team divisions, some four-team divisions.
“But that’s going to be decided by the hockey minds and that will be announced with in the next three months.”
Cranbrook Mayor Lee Pratt said the BCHL is an exciting brand of hockey that features high quality players who have gone on to NHL careers.
“We considered a lot of options that would fit into Western Financial Place including the number of fans, fan experience, and the long term sustainability of the franchise,” said Pratt. “These discussions were not taken lightly, and for hockey fans in Cranbrook and the surrounding area, this will be exciting for them to watch for many years to come.”
In an interview following the announcement, Pratt noted that there was interest from other groups working to bring a hockey team to Cranbrook, but noted Lieuwen’s BCHL option was the best fit.
“When we put out the RFP for interest, he was the only one that came back with a league proposal and a business proposal that made sense so from there, then it started to go deeper into the mechanics of it.”
The RFP was a questionnaire that requested potential bidders and ownership groups to provide details on aspects such as management and operations, market research, marketing and community engagement, hockey operations, food and beverage, and lease rates.
The city was left reeling after a messy break-up with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice last January. After 21 years in Cranbrook, new ownership relocated the team to Winnipeg and still have an outstanding lease agreement valid until 2023.
Pratt confirmed the city remains in negotiations with the Ice over the agreement.
He also denied that the water leakage issues around the arena barrel roof would hinder hockey operations next season— a fix that is estimated to cost $3 million as part of an overall estimated $5.6 million roofing project for the entirety of Western Financial Place.
While there is no hockey in the city this season, the KIJHL rules the roost, with franchises in Creston, Kimberley, Fernie and Invermere.
KIJHL president Larry Martel says he is happy to see hockey back in Cranbrook and that the league has a good partnership with the BCHL.
“The KIJHL has a strong developmental hockey model and we promote many players from the KIJHL to the BCHL, AJHL, SJHL and MJHL Jr A leagues,” Martel said. “Having a team this close by for East Kootenay teams could turn out to be another recruiting tool. We have several teams located very close to BCHL franchises and its always been a very positive relationship between the teams and great for the hockey player and local fans.”