After 20 years, news that the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice team is moving to Winnipeg shocked some and disappointed many fans of WHL hockey including former Ice players from Greater Trail.
Steve McCarthy, Trevor Johnson, Derek Price, Pat Iannone and Steve Makway suited up for the Kootenay Ice in the years following the franchise’s move to Cranbrook in 1998.
The new Kootenay team was successful right out of the gate with Iannone, Johnson and McCarthy winning a WHL championship and a trip to the Memorial Cup in 2000. However, Makway was the only Trail talent playing for Kootenay when it reached the top of the mountain and won the Canadian Junior Hockey League championship, Memorial Cup, in 2002.
Makway, who now lives in Saskatchewan, went on to a long professional hockey career, and the 35-year-old former Beaver Valley Nitehawk still laments the imminent move of his first WHL team.
“It’s disappointing obviously,” said Makway. “We heard rumblings when initially the new ownership group was from Winnipeg and Cranbrook had been struggling for attendance.
“I wouldn’t say it was the biggest shock, but it’s definitely disappointing. That’s where the first time I moved away from home and had relationships with my billet family that I still try to go see every summer – it was just a really good place to play.”
Iannone, a Fruitvale product, joined the team in 1999 from the KIJHL Beaver Valley Nitehawks and spent two seasons with the team. He made a trip to the Memorial Cup in his first year, before being traded to the Tri-City Americans in 2001.
For Iannone, who makes his home in Greater Trail, the news was a bitter pill to swallow, but it certainly stirred some memories.
“It sucks. My first year was the last year in the old rink, so it was basically a year after they moved. Then we went into the new rink and it was awesome. The fans were crazy and obviously we went to the Memorial Cup, so the teams were good, and it was always a huge hockey town.
“It’s too bad, it’s a great hockey town and I know a lot of people who are pretty devastated by it, for sure,” said Iannone.
The Ice’s front office finally broke a prolonged silence and officially announced last week that the Ice is moving to Winnipeg to play in the Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry Campus in the fall of 2019.
WHL commissioner Rob Robison said in a statement that the franchise is no longer viable in the Kootenay market.
“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,” said Robison.
When the Cranbrook Rec Complex (now Western Financial Place) opened in 1999, fans packed the arena, which accommodated over 4,200 fans. Despite years of success, three WHL championships and a Memorial Cup, the team’s fan base declined from a high of 3,635 per game in 2000-01 to a low of just over 1,700 fans per game in 2016-17.
“It’s too bad, they have that nice, big rink there, hopefully they get something, and you never know a team may move back there down the road,” said Iannone. “It’s tough when you have such a good team there for five or six years, they won the Memorial Cup and I went to one. Fans, after a few years of a downturn, they start to get turned off a bit … I don’t know.”
Winnipeg is also a hockey town, and quintessentially Canadian. With a much greater population, the Manitoba capital supports the NHL Jets and the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, so the owners are betting that a WHL team playing in a smaller arena is likely to prosper.
“The fans support the Jets really good,” said Makway. “When I was there last season when the Jets had that great playoff run, the town really loved it, and I know they support the AHL team pretty well too. Hopefully, they’ll get behind the Ice as well, and in time I think they will.”
For Cranbrook, the move leaves a massive void, with just one satellite KIJHL team (Kimberley Dynamiters) playing in the area. There have been reports of possible BCHL or AJHL teams taking the space, but nothing has been substantiated.
“Hopefully they can get a Junior A team to come in and fill that void,” said Makway. “Because it is a good community, it’s just too bad that they couldn’t get the support with the attendance they needed to be successful … but just the way the team has bonded with the community, it will be a tough loss for sure.”
Iannone was traded to the Tri-City Americans in 2001, but his time spent close to home on one of the most successful franchises in WHL history will always be a memorable one.
“It was awesome,” said Iannone. “I went from the Nitehawks right to Kootenay when I was 16 just turning 17 and it was a lot of fun. Good memories, good guys, and when you make a run all the way to the Memorial Cup in your first year in the WHL with one of the best teams in the country, it’s pretty sweet.”
Makway was traded to Tri-City in Nov. 2002, and while, the experience of winning the Memorial Cup with Kootenay will always be a highlight, it was a game played in the Cranbrook rink that remains his fondest memory.
“Winning the Memorial Cup was great obviously,” said Makway. “But probably the Western League final actually was probably the best one, when we won Game 6 at home in double overtime against Red Deer … It was great to do it at home in front of the fans.”