It was a journey with plenty of patience, some close calls and even some outside luck that brought the Western Hockey League back to Victoria this season.
As the Royals host their first league game against the Vancouver Giants on Saturday (7:05 p.m. at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre), it marks the end of a process that began 11 years ago.
“A long, long process,” said Dave Dakers, president of RG Properties’ sports and entertainment division, which owns the Royals and runs Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.
When the Cougars left Victoria for Prince George in 1994, rumours of the WHL’s return to Victoria waffled until Victoria city council finalized a move to replace the antiquated Memorial Arena in 2000.
Vancouver-based RG Properties won the contract to build and operate the new rink, just as it does with Kelowna’s Prospera Centre.
But getting a WHL team wasn’t easy. In 2004 the new ice arena was nearing completion and RG had 7,400 seats to fill.
It turned to the ECHL, a minor pro league enjoying success in California after many years on the East Coast.
“The ECHL was a great option but it didn’t have the same reach into the community the WHL does,” Dakers said.
Still, the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings had its share of highlights during its time here from 2004 to 2011.
In 2008-09 the Salmon Kings averaged just under 5,000 fans per game, ninth in the ECHL. That number would have been seventh in the WHL the same year.
Despite the Salmon Kings’ success, RG was adamant to get major junior franchise.
“We went to the (WHL) and got word we’d have a team available to us by 2012-13 at the latest, whether it was through expansion, relocation or even by rent, but we were assured,” Dakers said.
And by the powers of the hockey gods, it came even sooner.
The American Hockey League stepped on the WHL’s toes in 2009 setting off a chain of reaction that’s led to the Royals being here today.
The Calgary Flames’ affiliate Quad-City Flames relocated from Moline, Ill., to Abbotsford as the Heat. It was just 20 minutes down the highway from the Chilliwack Bruins, a team only three years old.
A territorial battle erupted over the hockey market of the upper Fraser Valley.
Bruins attendance plummeted from 4,041 fans per game in 2008-09 (15th in the league) the season before the Heat arrived, to 3,260 in 2009-10 (17th) and 3,357 in 2010-11 (16th).
“We lost 800 season ticket holders the summer (the Heat arrived),” said Daryl Porter, part of the Bruins’ ownership group.
“I know through database analysis where those fans came from. We went from 1,200 fans per game from outside of Chilliwack to 300 overnight. (The Heat is) struggling as well. The fan base was split.”
Ironically, rumours of the AHL’s desire to bring even more teams west had already convinced some that Victoria would soon become home to its own NHL farm team, likely the Canucks’ Manitoba Moose, if not another team.
Turns out the rumours were true, partly.
“A number of AHL opportunities came to us over the years but we couldn’t find the right business model,” Dakers said. “When you add it all up the city of Abbotsford is giving the Heat a $2-million subsidy in rent and expenses. I wish them well, but it’s not likely going to work without that deal.”
Regardless, it prompted the WHL to take action.
“The WHL’s board of governors agreed in 2009 to relocate a team to Victoria and last January, the majority owners of the Bruins made their team available,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said.
Common sense pointed to teams with lagging attendance such as the Prince George Cougars over the newly established Bruins. But the Brodsky family – who moved the team from Victoria in 1994 – remains unswayed in its belief in Prince George.
In the end it was the Bruins’ majority owners of Porter and Glen Sather, who wanted out. Porter cited financial losses as the primary reason. Minority partners Moray Keith and Jim Bond didn’t want out, but couldn’t stop the sale and relocation from happening.
By withdrawing from Chilliwack the WHL left an embittered fan base, dissolved an unhappy ownership group and possibly staved off a potential western front by the AHL by locking up the most desirable hockey market in Western Canada.
And despite the process spanning 11 years, RG got its WHL team.
Relocation was preferred over expansion, said Robison.
“We didn’t want to expand the WHL any further. We wanted to stick with (the current) 22 teams to be that much more competitive to win Memorial Cups,” Robison said. “The WHL is already bigger than the Ontario (20 teams) and Quebec leagues (17 teams).”