On a fittingly frigid afternoon, Greg Fettes and 50 Below Sports and Entertainment announced the imminent arrival of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Winnipeg Ice.
During a Jan. 29 press conference held at the site of franchise’s future home, Fettes — chairman of 50 Below — was joined by Ice general manager Matt Cockell and WHL commissioner Ron Robison to discuss the relocation of the WHL’s Kootenay Ice to Winnipeg.
The team will begin play in the Manitoba capital during the 2019-20 season, hosted at Wayne Fleming Arena at the U of M. Wayne Fleming will serve as a temporary home for the franchise for an expected two years, until construction of its permanent home — located on west McGillivray — is complete.
Bisons men’s hockey head coach Mike Sirant and Bisons women’s hockey head coach Jon Rempel were in attendance to hear what awaits their respective teams.
“First of all we welcome the Ice to the Winnipeg hockey community,” Sirant said.
“From our perspective with the Bisons, it’s going to provide a great opportunity to keep our talented Manitoba players in our province.”
“I congratulate Matt and Greg — knowing Matt personally for as long as I’ve known him and a good friend of mine — just to see what they’ve all accomplished is amazing,” Rempel said.
While the situation will be temporary, Cockell said the Ice and 50 Below will make a major capital investment to bring Wayne Fleming up to WHL standards, including renovations to the dressing rooms, a video scoreboard and expanded seating.
Commissioner Robison said the WHL conducted an inspection of the site and is confident the arena will be up to league standards when the puck drops on the 2019-20 season.
Sirant and Rempel both said they are excited for the renovations, stressing the impact a more professional atmosphere will have on their respective clubs.
“To have some capital money put into it is a big thing for our current players for sure,” Rempel said.
“Just having a sense of keeping up with what’s going [on] around us in the conference […] from a recruiting standpoint that’s a big deal. Just a sense of professionalism and adding to what’s already there.”
Sirant in particular benefits from having the Ice in his own backyard. The men’s hockey bench boss says he will be able to scout and evaluate talent more effectively, even after the club leaves Wayne Fleming in two years.
“It’s a great advantage for us recruiting-wise,” Sirant said.
“It gives me an opportunity to scout the players on a weekly basis. Currently the closest franchise in the [WHL] is Brandon so it’s a lot more difficult for us — with our schedule — to get out and watch the games.”
“Having the Ice players play in our building, the familiarity with our campus, our players, our program, will certainly be an advantage […] for evaluation, scouting and of course recruiting,” Sirant said.
The Bisons already sport plenty of WHL talent, including new arrival Colten Veloso, a product of the Ice franchise. Veloso has a goal and three assists in eight games with Manitoba.
A potential hang-up may be scheduling conflicts, a fact not discussed at the press conference.
From October to April, the Bisons alternate home weekends, leaving time for players to fulfil the student half of the student-athlete role. With Ice players being by-and-large high school students, weekend dates will be a necessity for all three clubs.
“I don’t really know logistics,” Rempel said.
“I know there’s a plan in place — which I’m sure Mike and I will [have] shared with us. I guess our group [Bison Sports] wouldn’t have gone into it if they would’ve felt that we were compromised and I feel that will not be the case.”