The Chilliwack Chiefs could be displaced by a WHL team — again

If the rumours are true, a Western Hockey League franchise could be headed for relocation to British Columbia, which may affect the BC Hockey League in a big way. The 18-team junior A loop has teams located in several rumoured locations for the WHL franchise.

A recent article by the Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen summarized the ongoing issues for the Winnipeg ICE and the WHL. Ownership moved the club from Cranbrook, BC to Winnipeg before the start of the 2019-20 season, with the promise of a new arena built to WHL standards within two seasons. For the last four seasons, the ICE has played out of the 1,600-seat Wayne Fleming Arena, which is located on the University of Manitoba campus.

In a follow-up article, the reeve for the Rural Municipality of MacDonald, which is just outside Winnipeg city limits, explained there has been little-to-no communication with the ICE since initial discussions were had in 2019 to build a 4,500-seat arena.

It is now believed that the ICE franchise was fined $500,000 by the WHL and according to a source from sports talk show host Rod Pedersen, the league will force the club to be sold and moved to another location. According to Pedersen, the sale and relocation of the ICE could happen before this fall’s 2023-24 season.

BCHL concerns

How a potential move of the Winnipeg ICE affects the BCHL remains to be seen.

Also in Pedersen’s blog post, he states that he’s hearing the ICE franchise will play out of Chilliwack next season. This poses a potential problem, as the Chiefs currently occupy the 5,000-seat Chilliwack Coliseum. Could the Chiefs potentially co-exist with a WHL in the same arena? If not, will we see the same situation play out as it did in 2005?

The City of Chilliwack has hosted a WHL team before, as the league awarded an expansion franchise to the ownership group of Brian Burke, Glen Sather, and Darryl Porter in 2005. At the time, they were owners of the Tri-City Americans and wanted to relocate them to Chilliwack. The WHL said no to that move and instead granted an expansion franchise to the trio once they sold the Americans.

The new franchise was named the Bruins and lasted until the end of the 2010-11 season before being sold and relocated to Victoria.

There is a precedent of cities that are currently home to both a BCHL and WHL team, including Prince George and Victoria, but none of them play games in the same facility. Additionally, the WHL’s Vancouver Giants play in the same community as the BCHL’s Langley Rivermen, with both respective home arenas located in Langley Township.

The City of Chilliwack is poised to take over ownership of the building soon and may be interested in having the WHL return. It remains to be seen if two high-calibre junior hockey leagues can exist in the same building.

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The WHL potentially moving to other BCHL cities

At the risk of throwing out a bunch of hearsay, other potential homes for a relocated WHL franchise have been stirred up in the midst of the rumours. Wenatchee, Abbotsford, and Penticton have all been spoken about in various hockey circles.

That said, neither Wenatchee nor Penticton seem to have an appetite for the WHL, as both teams fare well in drawing crowds and neither franchise has publicly expressed interest in switching to the Major Junior level.

In terms of logistics, the buildings in both cities are large enough to host a WHL team and minimal upgrades would be required to have franchises in those locations.

The Wenatchee Wild plays out of the 4,200-seat Town Toyota Center which was completed in 2008, and the Penticton Vees’ home is the 5,000-seat South Okanagan Events Centre, which was also completed 15 years ago.

It is entirely possible that the WHL moves to a city like Abbotsford, BC and completely avoids infringing on BCHL territory. The Abbotsford Centre is home to the American Hockey League’s Canucks and seats 7,000 for hockey.

If Penticton is potentially an option, there is the issue of territorial rights for the Kelowna Rockets, which you’d expect to be the same for the Vancouver Giants if a WHL team goes back into Chilliwack or moves to Abbotsford.

Fans will need to take a wait-and-see approach as the WHL holds its cards close to its chest when it comes to franchises and their general standing. News is not likely to be public until the conclusion of the 2022-23 WHL season and the Memorial Cup, which is being hosted in Kamloops, BC this year. The tournament’s final day is June 4.

It’ll depend on those decisions to see how the dominos fall, and if they affect the status of any BCHL franchises, as they did in 2005 when the WHL first went into Chilliwack.