The West Kelowna Warriors have always seemed to be a franchise in turmoil. Maybe it is because they live in the shadows of the well-run BCHL franchises in Vernon and Penticton. Maybe because they compete for eyeballs with the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets, another successful franchise. Maybe it is because of the ownership issues that have plagued the team for the past few years. Regardless of the reasons, even after the Warriors were crowned national junior A champions in 2016, attendance at Royal LePage Place has declined and community interest has waned.
The Warriors relocated from Langley in 2006 and regular season attendance averaged as high as 1,250 per game in 2008-09. This past season, attendance was down to 717 per game.
Fans have spent years listening to dire warnings from prior ownership that if the team didn’t get more community support, it would be sold and moved. In fact, in 2017 the Warriors very nearly moved to Delta. Years of negativity from various ownership groups took a toll, both for the fans and local corporate support.
On top of that, the results on the ice have not been particularly good. The Warriors found themselves in the middle of the pack or near the bottom of the standings for the past four years and haven’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since winning that RBC Cup in 2016. West Kelowna had its worst year in 2019-20 since the Warriors moved from Langley and finished 16th out of 17 teams.
On the right track
The good news is the ownership issue seems to be resolved. In November 2019, the team was purchased from the BCHL by a group led by John Murphy and Rod Hume (JMRH Hockey Development). Chris Laurie, who was raised in West Kelowna and worked as the Marketing Director for the Warriors when they first moved from Langley was named president of the team.
NEWS: The Warriors name Chris Laurie President of Hockey and Business Operations.
— West Kelowna Warriors (@BCHLWarriors) November 13, 2019
Laurie had moved back to West Kelowna in 2013 after honing his hockey management skills in the American Hockey League and the North American Hockey League. After years of inconsistency in the back office, the team seemed to be back on a firm footing.
Last year’s performance also wasn’t as bad as it looked. The loss of Parm Dhaliwal in the pre-season and Jake Harrison in the first game of the year stripped the young team of the on-ice leadership it depended on.
The first home win didn’t come until October 18 and by the end of December, the Warriors had only won three home games. It was obvious by the new year that this team was in a rebuilding phase. By the end of the year, they were one of the youngest teams in the league. West Kelowna was in a lot of close games but just could not seem to finish.
A coaching change in December to bring in Simon Ferguson seemed to breathe new life into the Warriors. In January, they won four out of seven games at home and three out of six on the road. There was a different vibe in Royal LePage Place. Attendance went from 682 per game in December to 738 per game in January.
February brought hope
In the last three games at home in February, the Warriors averaged 1,227 fans. They did manage to make the playoffs and met the powerhouse Penticton Vees. Penticton won handily in the first two games and then embarrassed West-K at home in the third game, outscoring the Warriors 9-2.
The Warriors were down three games and the series outcome seemed a foregone conclusion, but the young squad fought back with a 2-1 overtime win at home in game four.
Forcing another game in Penticton, West Kelowna played its best game of the season. Although they came up short and lost 5-4 in overtime, the playoff experience for all the young players was invaluable.
The future looks bright for the Warriors. They are young and the franchise has a front office that seems committed to putting a quality product on the ice. Hopefully, stability and success translate into more bums in the seats. After 14 seasons, it would be a shame to see the team leave for supposed greener pastures.