The owners of the Vancouver Canucks may soon own another hockey team.
According to a report from Chek TV’s Rick Dhaliwal, the Aquilini family may be involved in an attempt to move the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice to Chilliwack.
The Ice have been rumoured to be on the move for months, as the team has made no progress on the arena they promised to build four years ago — they were reportedly even fined half a million dollars by the league for failing to follow through on their arena plans.
The Ice currently play in the smallest rink in the WHL, the 1,600-seat Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba. Combine that with the difficult travel associated with being the easternmost team in the WHL and it’s understandable why rumours have swirled that the team will have to be relocated.
According to Dhaliwal, their new location could be in the Fraser Valley.
“Out of the blue yesterday, a lot of people reached out to me, hearing rumours again about Winnipeg moving to Chilliwack,” said Dhaliwal on Monday’s Donnie & Dhali show. “A lot of people feel the Aquilini family may be behind this — involved, anyway. Sources in the Western Hockey League and the BC Hockey League have heard the same.”
The possibility of the Ice moving to Chilliwack is not a new rumour. Chilliwack was brought up as a possible destination back in February. The city hosted the WHL’s Chilliwack Bruins for five years and has a 5,000-seat arena in the Chilliwack Coliseum, which is plenty for the WHL — only three WHL teams had an average attendance above 5,000 this season.
The WHL’s desire to put a team on Vancouver Island ended the Bruins’ stay in Chilliwack, as they moved across the Strait of Georgia and became the Victoria Royals. There were potential buyers for the Bruins that wanted to keep the team in Chilliwack at the time but the league wanted a team in Victoria and also had concerns with Chilliwack’s arena lease agreement.
The rumours of the Ice coming to Chilliwack were shot down back in February by the general manager and head coach of the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs, Brian Maloney.
“I’ll clear the air right now. The Chilliwack Chiefs aren’t going anywhere. The WHL’s not coming here. We’ve tried that song and dance before,” said Maloney. “Our owners are invested into this community. They’ve been here for years. They did try it for a few years as everyone knows. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way…I think it was handled poorly to be honest with you.”
That was echoed by Barry Douglas, the Chiefs’ vice president of business operations.
“We’re flattered being identified as a top junior hockey market in Canada,” said Douglas. “But Chiefs ownership is committed to the BCHL and is thrilled with the support the Chiefs receive in Chilliwack.”
That was before the rumoured involvement of the Aquilinis, however. According to Dhaliwal, the previous issues with the arena lease that played a role in the WHL leaving Chilliwack could be solved with the application of the Aquilinis’ chequebook.
“The rink in Chilliwack — the Chilliwack Coliseum — could also be a part of the deal, as in selling it — buying it,” said Dhaliwal.
The presence of the Chiefs certainly presents a complication, as sharing space — and a fanbase — between a BCHL and WHL franchise seems untenable. The WHL, however, is the bigger draw. The Chiefs averaged 2,258 fans per game last season, which are excellent numbers for the BCHL, but the Bruins averaged 1,000-2,000 more fans during their five seasons in Chilliwack.
As Don Taylor pointed out, however, there is a lot of competition in the Fraser Valley when it comes to hockey.
“The market’s saturated,” said Taylor. “You’ve got the Abbotsford Canucks out there, there’s the Chilliwack Chiefs, the Chilliwack Jets — a Junior B team — the Abbotsford Pilots, another Junior B team. You’ve got the teams in Langley — the Rivermen and the Trappers. Out towards the Fraser Valley, there’s a lot of hockey out there.”
Beyond just the competition for attendance, the WHL coming back to Chilliwack would also split sponsorship dollars and have further repercussions in the community, as the addition of another junior team would also require more billet families.
Dhaliwal suggested that the Chiefs would have to move if the WHL returned to Chilliwack.
“There’s been rumours of them going to Quesnel, possibly Squamish,” said Dhaliwal. “Do they play in Abbotsford for a year?”
Chilliwack got burned badly by the WHL with the Bruins. Would the Aquilinis’ money be the salve to that wound?
As for the Aquilinis, do they want to own an NHL team, AHL team, and WHL team? Would there be synergy in operating three teams within a couple of hours drive from each other? Or, would this have a lot more to do with realty — buying and owning land and buildings, specifically the city-owned Chilliwack Coliseum?