Winnipeg Ice: On-Ice Success & Off-Ice Troubles

The Winnipeg Ice came to Winnipeg from Cranbrook, British Columbia, as a team slowly finding its groove after stockpiling draft picks and premium major junior hockey players. After years of playing underwhelming hockey, through trades and their own draft pick selections, the Ice had built a hockey power house. Filled with NHL drafted and draft eligible players, young hockey players filtered through the Ice’s system, ranging from Peyton Krebs (Vegas Golden Knights), Matthew Savoie (Buffalo Sabres), Conor Geekie (Arizona Coyes), Carson Lambos (Minnesota Wild), Zack Ostapchuk (Ottawa Senators) and Zach Benson (2023 draft eligible).

Related: Senators Prospect Zack Ostapchuk Traded to WHL’s Winnipeg Ice

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The team came to Manitoba’s capital with huge aspirations of turning Winnipeg into the nation’s hockey capital. The only stipulation was that a new major junior caliber arena needed to be built for the Ice to play out of. Ice ownership seemed very confident about this and made statements about how the new stadium would be within the Winnipeg perimeter highway, but outside official city limits in southwest Winnipeg (from ‘CRACK IN THE ICE: First-place WHL team could be on last legs in Winnipeg,’ Winnipeg Sun, February 15, 2023). But when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, those plans were dashed and never regained any traction.

On-Ice Product was the Class of the Western Hockey League (WHL)

Besides a transition year in 2019-20 and a partial season stoppage due to the global pandemic in 2020-21, the Ice were in a class of their own. In their final two seasons in Winnipeg, the team went a combined 110-20-4-2. While they couldn’t win a WHL Championship, they had consecutive deep playoff runs going all the way to the semi-finals and the WHL Championship Final — all while producing multiple first-round NHL draft picks and winning coaching and executive awards. On the ice, the Ice were a force to be reckoned with and they will exit the major junior scene being a very successful team.

Off-Ice Product was a Disaster 

The arena situation for the Ice was on par with the current debacle the Arizona Coyotes are facing. Playing out of Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba gave the Ice the smallest arena in the WHL and as a result also the lowest attendance (from ‘CRACK IN THE ICE: First-place WHL team could be on last legs in Winnipeg,’ Winnipeg Sun, February 15, 2023). What further complicated matters was the over saturation of Winnipeg hockey with the Winnipeg Jets and the Manitoba Moose also garnering attention from Winnipeg hockey fans.

Conor Geekie Winnipeg ICE
Conor Geekie, Winnipeg ICE (Image courtesy of the Winnipeg ICE)

It’s hard to truly pinpoint how and where this whole thing went wrong. If fans were inclined to give ownership the benefit of the doubt, then the only option for this arena conundrum is blaming it on the COVID-19 pandemic, which could make a lot of sense. Not only did the pandemic cause hockey fans to have less disposable income to spend on hockey games, it easily could’ve been the end of any potential arena talks due to money issues. The Ice needed to break ground on a new arena within three years of moving to Winnipeg. Four years have passed since that agreement and that has not happened, therefore it is no surprise the Ice have since re-located.

Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

This whole saga is finally coming to an end and, on one hand, this an extremely embarrassing look for the WHL. They moved a team to an oversaturated market, in which they enjoyed their most competitive years and now Wenatchee (where the Ice have been relocated as the Wenatchee Wild) could be left to endure another rebuild as the Ice left all the cupboards barren, trading nearly every draft pick to go all out for a championship run this past season.

Winnipeg ICE Matthew Savoie
Matthew Savoie of the Winnipeg ICE (Zachary Peters)

On the other hand, Wenatchee has a 4,300 seat arena that is up to the major junior standards set by the WHL. Furthermore, Wenatchee was second in attendance per game in the British Columbia Hockey League averaging 2,672 fans attending a game this past season. The new franchise deserves a fair shot to succeed and it looks like they might finally get it being re-located to Wenatchee.

Disappointing End to a Very Exciting Product

It’s bittersweet to see the Ice’s tenure come to an end. Former Winnipeg Ice owner Greg Fettes summed it up perfectly saying, “I’m sorry we (the Ice) let you (the fans) down.” While it will be easy to celebrate the last two seasons of excellent hockey for the Ice. It’s hard to not think of what could have been if the Ice were able to become a WHL power house off the ice and contribute towards Winnipeg becoming one of the most prominent hockey capitals in the entire world. If only there would have been able to build a new arena for the Ice.

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