A pair of hockey teams are on the verge of being relocated from Nelson in a decision that could have deep ramifications for several community sports organizations.
BC Hockey is considering a proposal that would move two major midget teams, the Kootenay Ice boys and the Kootenay Wild girls, from Nelson to Trail.
Barry Petrachenko, the CEO of BC Hockey, told the Star that although the provincial hockey body hasn’t yet decided the teams’ future, it is giving it serious thought. Petrachenko also acknowledged the possibility both teams may fold following an internal report that suggested there are too many major midget teams, although that report didn’t single out the Kootenay teams.
“I don’t want to alarm people in the sense that we’re going to fold if this, or we’re going to relocate if that,” said Petrachenko. “We’re not there yet. We certainly have to face all the options and Trail is one of those options.”
The Ice and Wild — the latter of which BC Hockey took control of from the Nelson Minor Hockey Association prior to last season — each finished in the cellar of their respective leagues last season, but Petrachenko said the issue isn’t performance. Instead, BC Hockey is concerned with the inability of both teams to draw in quality players. Petrachenko said the Ice have historically suffered from low player turnout, which in turn leads to poor performance.
“The problem is the fuel for the fire,” said Petrachenko.
His theory to explain this is a number of 15-year-old players who join the Ice leave at 16 to play for a Junior B team such as the Nelson Leafs, and rarely return to the lower-tier league if they fail to make the next step. What this leads to, according to Petrachenko, is a roster imbalance that puts young Kootenay teams against older major midget squads from elsewhere in BC.
Petrachenko said he hoped to have a better sense of the Ice’s future after their spring camp, which took place Friday to Sunday at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Neither team draws much attendance when they play in Nelson, but their departures would be felt throughout the hockey community.
The venue that stands to lose the most would be the Civic Centre.
The Ice and Wild each use the Civic ice for practice, and the loss of two more tenants would add further financial stress and uncertainty to the struggling 81-year-old rink.
Nelson Regional Sports Council chair Mari Plamondon isn’t sure yet what the effect will be if the teams leave the Civic Centre. Plamondon confirmed Monday the council’s intention to hand management of the Civic Centre over to the city.
“It’s definitely an issue as to our income and what the big picture is and what the city and the [Regional District of Central Kootenay] ultimately want to do,” she said. “Way more people are committed to keeping the Civic Centre open than considering closing it. There’s always a panic out there. People hear different rumours and think the worst.”
There was plenty of this sentiment at last week’s minor hockey annual general meeting. The association relies heavily on the Civic Centre ice and several board members voiced concern about the venue’s future and the negative impact losing two teams could have on hockey in Nelson.
“We’re going to lose kids to Trail,” said minor hockey president Tony Maida. “They’re going to live and play in Trail. Right here in Nelson we’ve always looked after the major midget program. We’ve always made sure there was ice available for them and they had their own dressing room. I thought things were doing okay, but obviously BC Hockey sees it different.”
Marty Benson, the manager of recreation at the NDCC, is taking a similar wait-and-see approach. He’s optimistic another group will simply step in to rent the ice.
“I wouldn’t want to say that I’m not concerned,” said Benson. “It is something we’ll need to look at, for sure. Our ice meetings take place in June, so at that point we’ll have a much better sense if in fact those teams leave Nelson what the impact is.”
Complicating matters is BC Hockey’s appointment of Terry Jones and Dara Waterstreet as general managers of the Ice and Wild, respectively. Both are behind a proposal to have the teams incorporated into an academy program based out of Trail.
The hiring of Jones, the current coach and GM of the KIJHL’s Beaver Valley Nitehawks, last month has raised eyebrows in Nelson. Petrachenko dismissed the idea that hiring Jones was proof of the Ice’s relocation.
“As soon as we named Terry Jones as the GM, everybody just assumed that was a package deal and we’d go along with what he’s suggesting for the program,” said Petrachenko. “And we very well might, but it was not a package deal. Our eyes are wide open right now.”
That doesn’t make Leafs GM and head coach Mario DiBella feel any better.
DiBella, a former Ice coach, was one of two people who petitioned to bring major midget hockey to the Kootenays. He disputed Petrachenko’s assertion that there aren’t enough quality players in the Kootenays to fill a roster, and said previous BC Hockey rules keeping players from moving between programs hurt the Ice. (Petrachenko told the Star that BC Hockey is in the process of loosening player movement rules.)
“I think the program has to do what’s best for the program, the players and the community,” said DiBella. “Do I agree with the relocation? I’m not going to comment. I think some work needs to be done to improve the major midget program as is. Is this a move in the right direction? I guess time will tell.”
Jones said he hopes to make significant changes to the team that will ensure sustainable success. He added his proposal isn’t meant to insult Nelson’s hockey community.
“People want to make this a Trail versus Nelson thing? It’s not that,” he said. “It’s that BC Hockey was probably going to pull the pin on this program unless something drastic happened, something changed. People get up in arms [and] I’m not willing to fight that battle. There’s no battle to fight …
“I’m not here to step on toes. … I’m not here to create an empire. I’m here to do something good for kids.”
The Leafs relied on several affiliate players from the Ice last season to fill in throughout an injury-riddled campaign, but DiBella doesn’t expect the Ice to figure into next season’s Leafs roster as much. He did, however, suggest Jones may be in a conflict of interest by taking on the Ice while being in charge of the Leafs’ rivals.
Jones bristled at the suggestion.
“I think it’s ridiculous to be honest,” he said. “If anyone thinks I’m bringing a Kootenay Ice team to Trail so it can be better for the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, it’s absurd, because why would we need to do that? We’ve already been as successful as we can be. I find that ridiculous.
“If a Nelson kid wants to AP for the Nelson Leafs and play for the Kootenay Ice, that’s great. I’m not going to change that. That’s not what this is about. This is about creating a system that can probably work for kids and only time’s going to tell. I’m fired up about what is possible.”
The possibility of both teams folding, though, concerns DiBella more than relocation. He’s worried Kootenay players won’t get the opportunities that Ice alumni Dryden Hunt and Isaac MacLeod had if there are no major midget teams in the region. “People don’t understand the ramifications of losing programs like this,” he said.