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BCHL adds Cranbrook Bucks as league’s 18th team

The BC Hockey League is expanding to Cranbrook.

The league announced today that the Board of Governors approved adding the city in the East Kootenay region of BC as the league’s 18th franchise, with play set to begin in the 2020-21 season.

The Cranbrook Bucks fill the junior hockey void left in the city after the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice left for Winnipeg at the end of the 2018-19 season. The announcement came a day after images surfaced on the ticket website ShowPass with what would end up being the Bucks logo and an address in Cranbrook.

“We are pleased to add Cranbrook as the 18th member of the BC Hockey League,” said BCHL Commissioner Chris Hebb. “The city already has a rich hockey history and we are excited to see them add to that legacy and bring BCHL hockey to another great community in our province.”

Prior to the Ice moving to Cranbrook for the start of the 1998-99 season, the city had a very successful junior A team. However, the Colts were actually first established as a junior B team in 1971. After 20 years in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, the club joined the Fernie Ghostriders, Kimberley Dynamiters and Trail Smoke Eaters as the new Kootenay Division of the Peace-Cariboo Junior Hockey League. For that 1991-92 season, the league was christened as the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League. Cranbrook was a flagship member of the RMJHL, advancing to the league finals four times in seven years and coming out with a championship in 1995, 1997 and 1998.

Cranbrook didn’t have much luck in the provincial junior A Mowat Cup championship, being swept 3-0 by BCHL teams in all three trips to the best-of-five final. The Colts lost to Chilliwack in 1995 and South Surrey in 1997 and 1998. After the 1997-98 season, the team folded to make way for the Ice, but during its time in the RMJHL produced two future NHLers in Brad Lukowich and Jon Klemm.

“We are extremely excited to bring a BCHL franchise to Cranbrook and the East Kootenay,” said Bucks majority owner Nathan Lieuwen. “The Cranbrook Bucks Hockey Club looks forward to being a proud member of the Cranbrook community and surrounding areas for many years to come. We are grateful for all parties involved in bringing the BCHL to Cranbrook and we can’t wait for the puck to drop for the 2020-21 season.”

The BCHL didn’t officially announce the fee the Bucks will pay to join the league, but the expansion franchise came with a price tag of $1.2 million. The ownership group is led by Lieuwen, NHL Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer, pro hockey player Adam Cracknell, and Craig Shostak and Steve King, who also own the Cardiff Devils of the British Elite Ice Hockey League. Lieuwen and Cracknell are former Kootenay Ice players while Niedermayer was raised in Cranbrook.

Lieuwen, who’s from Abbotsford, played 11 games in the BCHL with the Westside Warriors in 2007-08 before joining the Ice for a four-plus season WHL career. The 28-year-old had a six year pro career in the AHL and ECHL before retiring in 2017 to join Kootenay as a video coach. He played seven games in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres in 2013-14, finishing with a 1-4-0 record, a 2.98 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage.

Niedermayer’s Hall of Fame resume speaks for itself, but the four time Stanley Cup champion played his midget hockey in Cranbrook during the 1988-89 season and scored 92 points in 62 games. After that, he embarked on a three year WHL career with the Kamloops Blazers and was the 3rd overall pick by the New Jersey Devils in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. Despite his ties to the WHL, Niedermayer’s son Jackson is currently playing in the BCHL with Penticton and committed to the University of Arizona for the 2021-22 season.

Cracknell didn’t play junior A hockey, but he did skate for a season in junior B with the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League’s Saanich Braves before four seasons in Cranbrook with the Ice. The 35-year-old is playing this season in China with the Kunlun Red Star of the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.

Although the Wenatchee Wild was considered an expansion team when it joined the BCHL in 2015, it was already an established franchise in the North American Hockey League. The Bucks represent the first “true” expansion team built from scratch since 2002 when the Williams Lake TimberWolves joined. Although the T-Wolves took a leave of absence in 2007 and rejoined the league in 2009, they weren’t really a true expansion team because of being restarted from an existing franchise.

The population of Cranbrook is 19,259 (2016 census), which makes it the 13th largest market in the BC Hockey League, ahead of only Salmon Arm, Alberni Valley, Powell River, Trail and Merritt. The Bucks will play out of the 4,264-seat Western Financial Place. The arena, which is owned and operated by the City of Cranbrook, was built in 2000 at a cost of $22.6 million.

With the addition of an 18th team, the BC Hockey League will need to realign its divisions for the 2020-21 season. What we do know is that the Bucks will join the Interior Division. How that impacts the remaining 17 teams remains to be seen. It’s less likely to have a major effect on the Island Division, but definitely could on the Mainland Division (if Prince George moves back to the Interior) and most certainly will on Merritt, Penticton, Salmon Arm, Trail, Vernon, Wenatchee and West Kelowna.

Hebb has tasked the league’s competition committee to come up with a variety of scenarios regarding division realignment. It’s expected that league Governors will determine a new divisional structure within the next few months. Let the speculation about that begin, it’s already rampant on social media.

With just 11 months until their first game and likely less than six months before the Bucks’ first spring camp, Lieuwen and his group are looking now to get a hockey operations staff of scouts and coaches in place to start building the roster for the inaugural season for the BCHL’s newest franchise.