It was possibly the worst-kept secret in major junior. Rumors had run rampant for years that it was only a matter of time before a WHL franchise called Winnipeg home, but only once the Kootenay Ice were sold to a prairie pair two years ago did it seem destined to become reality. This past January, the announcement finally came: the franchise was on the move.
But why now? Winnipeg has gone more than three decades without a WHL franchise, dating back to 1984 when the Warriors left for Moose Jaw, where they have remained ever since. “The timing is right. Winnipeg is ready,” said Ice president and GM Matt Cockell, who owns the team along with Greg Fettes. “I give a lot of credit to Mark Chipman and True North (Sports and Entertainment). With what they’ve done and Mark’s done, specifically, in terms of taking hockey and awareness of hockey and the passion of Winnipeg and bottling that up in terms of what’s happened with the Jets, has really allowed something like this to happen.”
Cockell, 40, is very familiar with the Jets. Prior to landing with the Ice, he was vice-president of corporate partnerships for True North, and his relationship with the city runs even deeper. During his own playing days as a goalie, Cockell had a stint at the University of Manitoba, where he later became an assistant coach. For one season in 1999-2000, he commanded the crease for Manitoba Jr. A’s Winnipeg South Blues. He also spent several seasons down the road as a goaltending coach with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, who have become an overnight nemesis-by-proximity for Ice supporters. “It’s going to be a Trans-Canada rivalry, just an hour-and-a-half away, that people have a lot of excitement about here in Winnipeg and Brandon,” Cockell said.
And he’s counting on competing with the Wheat Kings for provincial supremacy in short order. When the team was purchased, it was done with a vision of not only bringing it to Winnipeg but also establishing a new culture. That shift began last season when Peyton Krebs, drafted 17th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in June, was named captain. “To me, that was a real critical moment,” Cockell said. “Peyton Krebs is a leader unlike I’ve ever seen in junior hockey.”
Winnipeg has been bold in building around its base, as well. To add to Krebs, Connor McClennon and Carson Lambos, the Ice, who already owned the top pick in the WHL bantam draft, acquired the No. 2 selection and used the first and second overall picks to nab top prospects Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie.
The duo gives the franchise future cornerstones who should be in their WHL primes right around the time the Ice shift to a new, 4,500-seat arena on the outskirts of the city. “When you look at Winnipeg as a whole, it’s a growing city, it’s a vibrant city, it’s in the biggest growth phase in my time here that I’ve experienced,” Cockell said. “Where everything’s located and where we’re going to be set up is right in the heart of all the expansion. All those things combined are what makes this really special.”