(Photo: Russ Alman/Digital Media Northwest)
Wenatchee Wild owners David and Lisa White have purchased the Winnipeg ICE, moving the team to Wenatchee, Washington.
The Wenatchee Wild are located in Wenatchee, Washington, a city in central Washington. Roughly a two and a half hour drive from each of the other Washington teams, the team will play in the Town Toyota Center, with which dedicated BCHL fans are familiar. Prior to entering the WHL, the Wild were part of the British Columbia Hockey League, the only American team in the league. Wenatchee Wild General Manager Bliss Littler says he’s excited to take the step up to WHL. “The BCHL is a recruiting league,” Littler said. “It’s like college. You go out and you recruit players. The Western Hockey League is based on a couple of drafts. You live and die with the draft, so that’ll be something I haven’t dealt with in a while. I was with the USHL for twelve years and in that time, we ran with two drafts. We’ll have to put a scouting staff in place, [to have] people covering British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba… in the past, it’s been almost all Americans.”
The deal has not been in the works for long. “Not very long at all,” said Littler. “It’s always been thrown out there that Wentachee would be a great fit in the Western [Hockey] League, just by where we’re located. It came together very fast.”
There will not be a BCHL team in Wenatchee anymore. “The BCHL could decide there’s a dispersal draft,” Littler said, “to disperse the kids in the league. My guess is that they’ll all just be free agents. They’re free agents right now, as far as going to American teams, whether it be the North American league or the USHL. We’ll do our best to make sure they all have homes to go to.”
In 2017, Greg Fettes, head of 50 Below Sports and Entertainment, bought the Kootenay ICE. Two years later, Fettes announced the team would be relocating to Winnipeg for the 2019-20 season due to low attendance trends. A new arena in southwest Winnipeg was promised within two years. Four years later, an arena deal was still not in sight.
The new arena was to be located adjacent to the Rink Training Center for the start of the 2021-22 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic quickly derailed those plans. Extending their lease to use the Wayne Fleming Arena, located in the University of Manitoba, the team stayed where they were for that season and the next.
On December 14, 2022, an article released by Mike Sawatzky of the Winnipeg Free Press claimed: “the [ICE] franchise was fined $500,000 by the league for its failure to have a building ready in time for 2023-24.” Three days later, the ICE and the WHL released a rebuttal statement, reporting that “[r]eports of the Western Hockey League issuing a fine against the Winnipeg ICE and its ownership group are false and inaccurate.”
Last season, the Winnipeg ICE were number one in the WHL for the regular season, and came just short of being crowned WHL champions after losing to the Seattle Thunderbirds in the championship final. They finished the 2022-23 regular season first overall, with a .846 winning percentage, compared to the Saskatoon Blades’ .743 and the Red Deer Rebels’ .676. The team has a talent-filled roster with a strong veteran presence, although fans can expect to see a lot of movement in the future. Each WHL team is allowed three twenty-year-olds, and the ICE’s playoff roster had twelve 2003-born players. “There will definitely be some [changes],” Littler said regarding the roster. “The 02s aged out, obviously, and now we’ll have the three twenty-year-olds. We’ll have to wait and see if any of those twenty-year-olds—and I’m guessing there will be some—stick in the NHL. We’ll get busy with camp, and figure that out as the summer and fall goes on.”
With the different coaching staff and management behind the team, the Wild’s inaugural season will definitely be one to see. Will they have the same success the ICE saw last season, or will they see similar results the Edmonton Oil Kings saw in the 2022-23 season? Regardless of what happens, the US Division has a new brand new rival, and the East Division has one fewer. The season is set to start in the fall.