March came in like a lion insofar as the Western Hockey League's axis of cash-strapped teams is concerned.
The financial straits of the Prince George Cougars, Kootenay Ice and shareholder-owned Lethbridge Hurricanes have been very public for quite some time.
On Sunday, the Prince George Citizen reported that the Cougars owner Rick Brodsky, whose franchise is at risk of missing the WHL playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons, has an agreement to sell the team to local investors. The Cougars are denying it — "We aren't sold. That's all there is to say" — but that could simply refer to the reality everything is subject to WHL approval.
The franchise has been at the bottom of the WHL in average attendance for (at least) three years. The Citizen's report has a passing reference that supports the speculation the Kootenay Ice will be moved to end the league's 30-year absence from Winnipeg.
From Ted Clarke:
The Prince George Cougars have been sold to local businessman Greg Pocock and a group of investors that includes NHL players and former Cougars Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis, say several sources close to the team.
... The local sources, who requested anonymity, say the team was purchased for close to $7 million, while longtime owner Rick Brodsky had been asking for $8 million. With a tentative deal now in place, it still has to receive approval from the WHL head office and be passed by the league's board of directors.
Neither Pocock nor Brodsky returned calls to The Citizen on Sunday.
The Cougars have been the subject of rumours they would be moved to Nanaimo or Winnipeg. But Nanaimo lacks a WHL-sized arena, and now it appears Winnipeg will be the home of the Kootenay Ice next season.
Sources say the new ownership group plans to keep the team based in Prince George for at least the next two seasons. If the Cougars continue to lose money, the team will likely be moved to another city. (Prince George Citizen)
Prince George's attendance is down 18 per cent from just two seasons ago, and it was already last in the league in 2011-12. There was a time, when the WHL product was new to the city in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it had excellent attendance.
Without getting too far ahead of the story, this reads somewhat like the Charlottetown Islanders' sale and makeover last season in the QMJHL. The league wasn't cutting its ties to the city, but it knew a change was needed.
Two years, though, is a very short window. One can wonder if that would be about buying time until a suitable arena is built in Nanaimo. It all falls under the umbrella of what would be the ideal scenario for the WHL — having teams in all five of Western Canada's largest cities and also having two teams on Vancouver Island to ease scheduling and travel burders. It also needs to be an Eastern Conference team moving to the 'Peg in order to preserve the current 6-6-5-5 division/conference alignment.
Rumour: Buyers from Winnipeg close to buying the Leth Hurricanes to be rebranded as Winnipeg Moose. Kootenay then move to Leth. Stay tuned
— WesternEliteHockeyPr (@WEHPscout) March 3, 2014
Reached out to the @WHLKootenayICE and Gov/Prez/GM Jeff Chynoweth in regard to rumors of sale/relocation to Winnipeg. "No comment".
— Guy Flaming (@TPS_Guy) March 3, 2014
At first blush, fixing feeding two birds with one scone seems like a challenge. Something has to give. Prince George's issue seems to be the customers; Lethbridge's is the outdated ownership structure and Kootenay's might simply be a population base problem.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.