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Why the WHL would work in Winnipeg; multiple franchises in trouble

Winnipeg Jets logoThe Winnipeg Jets’ ownership group, True North Sports and Entertainment, is reportedly aiming to buy a Western Hockey League franchise with plans to relocate it in Winnipeg’s MTS Centre.

It seems Winnipeg would be a perfect fit for a WHL team. They have a quality NHL barn, which sits 15,004 people, a huge hockey fan base, and a strong ownership group interested in a team.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison is fully aware of Winnipeg’s major junior potential, hoping to bring Manitoba’s capital a team in the future.

“If there was to be relocation certainly from an Eastern Conference standpoint, our first priority would be Winnipeg. We really feel that we can be successful in an NHL market now, in a similar way we’ve done so in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton successfully,” said Robison during last year’s WHL playoffs.

As Robison noted, other cities similar to the size of Winnipeg have had no problem selling tickets despite having to compete with NHL clubs. In fact, ownership groups that own both the WHL and NHL clubs have used the demand for NHL tickets to their major junior team's advantage by selling ticket packages that include both team's admission passes.

In an interview with Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun in March 2012, Brandon Wheat Kings owner and general manager Kelly McCrimmon encouraged the WHL to bring a second team to Manitoba.

“From a Brandon standpoint, it would provide us with a natural rival. We don’t have a natural rival,” McCrimmon said. “Everything in Brandon is about day of the week. So we can play Friday or Saturday. It doesn’t matter who we play necessarily because we don’t have any rival that is better or worse than any other. So that would be positive.”

And even though Winnipeg would be the league’s eastern outpost, he doesn’t believe the league’s other 21 franchises would complain about having to travel two more hours down the Trans-Canada Highway.

“I don’t think that would be the case at all,” McCrimmon said. “Winnipeg would be a great market for our league. I really believe that. Is there a challenge with geography? Yes, there is. Obviously teams coming into Manitoba would be looking to play both teams, but I don’t think that there would be resistance. I can sure see at some point in time there being an appetite for the league to get to Winnipeg.”

The WHL didn’t seem to work in Winnipeg last time as they lost the the Warriors to Moose Jaw in 1984. Or the time before that with them losing the Winnipeg Monarchs to Calgary in 1977, who have since relocated in Lethbridge as the Hurricanes.

Nevertheless, with Edmonton losing the Ice to Kootenay in 1998 and having the Oil Kings prosper after their 2007 expansion, precedent show NHL cities that have lost WHL teams in the past can succeed with a strong ownership group behind them.

Talked with Kootenay

Multiple sources believe True North Sports and Entertainment recently kicked tires at the Kootenay Ice. The two sides apparently didn’t go far in negotiations with Ice owner Jeff Chynoweth asking for a much higher price than the Jets' ownership group is willing to pay.

The Ice has struggled at the box office in Cranbrook, B.C. Their 2011-12 average attendance of 2,805 placed him fourth last among the WHL's 22 clubs. Despite winning a championship in 2011, they have been under the 3,000 mark since 2008-09. They are third-lowest in attendance this season, ahead of only the Swift Current Broncos and Prince George Cougars. Chynoweth and the franchise signed a new lease in 2009, but there seems to be reason to take the latest rumours seriously.

It must be stressed this all speculation at this point. It seems other franchises besides the Ice might be willing to listen to offers based on their poor financial track records.

Three other teams struggling

The Lethbridge Hurricanes have been vocal about their financial woes. In late August the southern Alberta-based team announced a loss of $602,000 for the 2011-12 and a combined loss of $1.25 million over the previous three years.

The Hurricanes’ problems seem to stem from a handful of different issues. They had a failed marketing campaign in 2011, which included selling tickets at a 25 per cent discount, and their arena, the Enmax Centre, has been under renovations. In addition, they haven’t made the playoffs in three years..

The Hurricanes could, however, end their post-season drought this year. Entering this weekend's play, they are ninth in the Western Conference, one point back of the eighth-place Ice with 12 games remaining.

As Prince George Cougars owner Rick Brodsky said in a September interview with BTN, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we haven’t been profitable the last few years.”

The Cougars were dead last in attendance last year with a 2,047 average. Looking into past years it doesn’t get much better as they have been in the league’s bottom-five attendance averages since 2004-05.

The Cougars have been rumoured to receive interest from parties looking to move the team in the past. The Brodsky family has chosen to keep the team in Prince George, though.

Nonetheless, if the Cougars continue to bleed money, they might have no other option than to sell the club to cut their losses.

In the WHL’s smallest market of roughly 15,000 people, Swift Current has struggled to put together strong financial reports, reporting a loss of roughly $200,000 in 2010-11.

But it seems the Broncos aren’t behind the eight ball. Sources suggest they still have a financial cushion left over from their glory days. Therefore, taking into account their importance to the community and apparent leftover cash, they should not have a For Sale sign in front of their barn in the near future.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen.

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