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Spokane Chiefs

‘It’s incredible for us’: Spokane Chiefs welcome move of WHL franchise to Wenatchee

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Western Hockey League’s Board of Directors met earlier this week in Calgary, Alberta, with a handful of agenda items, perhaps none more pressing than redrawing the league’s schedule for the upcoming 2023-24 season.

The previous slate was upended last week, when the Winnipeg Ice – reigning champion of the Eastern Conference – announced a sale and move to Wenatchee and a shift to the Western Conference.

While that created some issues in the short term as far as the schedule, Spokane Chiefs President Mark Miles said Wednesday that adding a team to the U.S. Division is a positive development for the Chiefs organization.

“It’s massive,” Miles said by phone between meetings in Calgary. “It’s incredible for us.”

Wenatchee has been home to a junior hockey team since 2008, all the while known as the Wild. From 2015 to 2023, the Wild played in the British Columbia Hockey League, a step below the WHL, as that league’s only U.S.-based team.

With the Ice moving to Wenatchee, the franchise will change its name to the Wild, and Wenatchee will no longer have a team in the BCHL.

The Chiefs will play the Wild eight times in the upcoming season, Miles said, four games at Spokane Arena and four games at the Town Toyota Center, Wenatchee’s 4,300-capacity arena. The league will release its schedule over the next couple of weeks.

Having a sixth team in the U.S. Division gives the Chiefs another natural rival. It is in some ways a revival of a previous one: From 1998 to 2019, the Ice were based 3½ hours north of Spokane in Cranbrook, British Columbia, known then as the Kootenay Ice.

But the difference now, Miles said, is that the Wild are better positioned to be a geographic rival for all the U.S. teams.

There are also financial benefits. Over the course of a season, the U.S. Division teams won’t have to travel as far. When the Chiefs play at the Wild, they won’t necessarily need to stay in a hotel.

“It’s nice because we have another team where it’s (not an) overnight, it’s a day trip,” Miles said. “We were very limited on those day trips to begin with.”

Competitively, balancing the league’s two conferences is also a benefit, as each will have 11 teams, with eight from each league reaching the playoffs. Bringing into the U.S. Division a franchise that just went to the WHL Final will also elevate the quality of hockey, Miles said.

“They’re going to have some high-end NHL talent for (Spokane fans) to see like (Conor) Geekie, (Matthew) Savoie and (Zach) Benson,” Miles said, referring to three of the Ice’s top scorers last season. “It brings a very, very competitive team into our division.”

As for how well Wenatchee will support the state’s fifth WHL team, Miles said he is confident that the Wild will draw well and that this is a sign of hockey’s growth in the region as a whole.

On a conference call with media on Thursday, league commissioner Ron Robison highlighted the growth of hockey in the Pacific Northwest, some of it due to the Seattle Kraken’s presence as an expansion National Hockey League franchise since 2021.

As the league looked to balance its conferences at 11 teams each, Robison said the priority was to find a suitable market in the United States or in British Columbia.

“Wenatchee was the one that we chose ultimately,” Robison said. “We think it’s going to be a great fit in the Western Conference.”

In announcing the franchise’s relocation last week, the WHL pointed to ownership’s inability “to construct an arena facility of acceptable WHL standards in Winnipeg, based on the agreed upon timeframes,” according to the league’s statement.

Last season, the Ice played at Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba, which had a seating capacity of 1,600. According to hockeydb.com, the Ice averaged the lowest attendance in the league last season. Spokane ranked second, averaging 5,842 per game.

WHL average attendance increased to 3,895 per game last season, up 22% from the previous year and in line with pre-COVID levels, according to a league release.

WHL commissioner plans to step down

Robison’s final year as WHL commissioner will be the upcoming 2023-34 season, the WHL announced Wednesday.

Robison said Thursday that he had made a commitment to get the league through the pandemic. Now that the league is headed in the right direction, he said, the time was right.

“I think it’s time to step aside and let others have an opportunity to run this great league,” Robison said.

It will be the 24th season in the role for Robison, making him the longest-serving commissioner in WHL history.