With the Chilliwack Bruins entering the stretch drive of the 2010-11 season, the junior hockey world is abuzz with speculation the team is playing its final games in Chilliwack.
Rumours are furiously flying that the Bruins have been or will be sold to an ownership group with Victoria interests, and the team will be relocated to the B.C. capital for the 2011-12 Western Hockey League season.
Contacted by the Chilliwack Progress on Wednesday, Chilliwack Bruins co-owner Darryl Porter said, unequivocably, that the team has not been sold, but he didn't go very far in ruling out the possibility.
“If you think back over the entire five years and how our ownership group has behaved, there's been all sorts of interest from people in terms of offers and inquiries,” Porter said. “And we just don't discuss those publically and we're not prepared to discuss publically the conversations that may or may not be going on right now.”
Porter stressed that he doesn't want that to be interpreted as evasiveness.
“We can't keep up with all the rumours that we've been hearing over the last few weeks. I bet we've had at least 50 expressions of strong interest in our team over the last five years, and we've never discussed them in the newspapers,” Porter explained. “I just got off the phone with a friend in Chilliwack who said he's heard rumours that we're moving to Nanaimo. Last week it was us going to Langley and Langley (junior A Chiefs) coming to Chilliwack. I can't chase these things, and what we're saying is we're not going to play this out in the newspapers. We never have.”
The last time these Chilliwack-to-Victoria rumours intensified, the Bruins ownership group was more proactive in refuting them and re-assuring the local fanbase.
When asked by the Progress whether the team would be playing in Chilliwack in 2011-12, the answer wasn't exactly a resounding yes.
“I would be very surprised if the Western Hockey League isn't playing hockey in Chilliwack,” Porter replied.
It's no secret that Victoria has been seeking a WHL team for a long time, led by Salmon Kings (ECHL) owner Graham Lee.
It's also no secret that the WHL would like to get into Victoria sooner rather than later to head off another incursion by the westward expanding American Hockey League. The minor pro circuit's aggressive move into Abbotsford with the Heat is one reason why attendance has dipped so precipitously at Prospera Centre over the last two years.
The Bruins averaged over 4,000 fans per game through their first three seasons.
That figure has dipped into the 3,200 to 3,400 range over the last two seasons as the on-ice product continues to struggle (ninth in the Western conference entering weekend play) and the Bruins vie for attention in a more crowded Fraser Valley market.
“People talk about the Heat, but it's not just about that,” Porter said. “The landscape changed a lot and they were just one part of it. The new buildings in Langley and Abbotsford, the team being really poor in our third year. My opinion of this market hasn't changed for the last three years in that it's a good solid market. I think it's got a threshold and the team's model has to fit the market. We've been working on that.”
Matters are complicated by the fact that there is no lease agreement in place for next season and beyond between the Bruins and Chiefs Development Group (owned by Bruins co-owners Moray Keith and Jim Bond) for the use of Prospera Centre.
That's an open invitation for team poachers to come calling.
“This has been quite strenuous over the last nine weeks,” Porter said. “I missed a game because I went scouting, and the speculation was that I missed the game because I was selling the team. Right now I'm going to meet the father of two European kids who are thinking of coming over. I may miss the game tonight (Wednesday) because I'm meeting them in Portland and I might not make it back in time. I bet we'll get e-mails tomorrow because I'm not at the game. All of this is frustrating because it's not based in fact.”
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