The junior hockey landscape in Manitoba just got a lot more interesting.
The Brandon Wheat Kings have been the only Western Hockey League team in Manitoba since the spring of 1984, when the Winnipeg Warriors packed their bags and relocated to Moose Jaw, Sask.
This will change next season, though, as the Kootenay Ice are officially relocating to Winnipeg.
When Winnipeggers Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell purchased the Kootenay Ice a couple of years ago, it was long suspected they wanted to move the team to Winnipeg, which has undergone a hockey revival in recent years starting with the return of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets.
The relocation of the Ice has several implications for the Wheat Kings, not the least of which is an opponent located only two hours away.
Wheat Kings assistant coach Don MacGillivray has spent most of his coaching career in the province of Manitoba and has a unique perspective on the return of the WHL to this province.
“I think it’s excellent. I think it’s very good for the league to have a profile in Winnipeg. There are a lot of players in Winnipeg who aspire to play in the Western Hockey League,” he said.
“And I think it creates an instant rivalry with the Brandon Wheat Kings with them being just two hours down the road. It’s just a real positive for junior hockey in Manitoba in general. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.”
There are other advantages to having another WHL franchise close to the Wheat City.
“It’s great for us, having a team that we can go there and back in the same night,” noted MacGillivray. “Right now our closest opponent is Regina, which isn’t too bad, but after that you start talking about games that are four and a half hours away or longer.
“Also, my understanding is our teams will travel together – meaning one night we’d be in Saskatoon and they would be in Prince Albert, and the next night it would switch,” he added. “The same for teams that come west – now they’ll have two teams to play, which means we won’t necessarily have double headers on the weekends. So we would have two different teams, which should be better for our crowds.”
He added this could also open up more opportunities for different officials to make their way west and work shots in Winnipeg and Brandon.
MacGillivray is also impressed with the ownership group, adding they seem to have a plan to create a real entertainment destination with hockey as the central attraction.
“They obviously seem to know what they’re doing, and have a broad vision of what they want to achieve, which I think is outstanding for the Western Hockey League,” he said.
Fettes also purchased the MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues, the final Junior ‘A’ team in Manitoba’s capital city. Winnipeg hosted four Junior ‘A’ teams for many years – the Winnipeg Blues, the Southeast Blades, the St. James Canadians and the Winnipeg Saints. Only the Blues remain and they were undergoing difficult financial times, which put their future in jeopardy before this purchase.
MacGillivray once coached the Blues to a Manitoba Junior Hockey League championship, and his son recently graduated from the team. He says having his former team in a stable situation is great for junior hockey in the province.
“I think it’s really great for the Winnipeg Blues and for the Manitoba Junior Hockey League,” he said. “At the end of the day it really secures that franchise. I really would have hated to see that franchise leave the city… The Blues have a lot of history, and a lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that operation, and to see it die would have been really sad.
“It’s a great day for the Blues’ organization.”