Junior A hockey will return to Chilliwack for the 2011-12 hockey season.
The BCHL board of governors held an email vote this weekend to yay or nay the sale and relocation of the Quesnel Millionaires to Chilliwack. The result, a resounding yes for what was once one of the league’s flagship markets.
“We are very proud to once again be involved with the BCHL, a first-class league with a great tradition of providing exciting hockey entertainment while also grooming quality young men to be professional hockey players, top college students or for a head start into the world of business,” said Moray Keith in a news release issued late Tuesday morning. “We are enthusiastic about BCHL hockey and passionate about the role the club plays in moulding our leaders of the future. So many prominent and successful men have come through the ranks of the BCHL to the forefront of business and community service because of the philosophy and practices of the league.”
The relocated team will take the name Chiefs, reclaiming the moniker used by the junior A squad that played in Chilliwack from 1990 to 2006. The name was made available when the Langley team changed its name to the Rivermen in late April.
Chilliwack will play next season in the Interior conference, flanked by the likes of the Vernon Vipers, Penticton Vees and Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
That’s not an ideal arrangement, but the league will explore re-alignment for the 2012-13 season.
“That was one of our debating points, and we certainly didn’t prefer the Interior conference option,” said Glen Ringdal, who led the negotiations on the Chilliwack side. “We want the rivalries with Langley and Surrey and Coquitlam, but it was very important for the BCHL that we do this for one year, and that’s a concession that we made. I like good, tough negotiations. You want to come to a point where the deal works for both sides, and the answer here is that yes, we did that.”
The ownership group bringing the BCHL back to Chilliwack is effectively the same one that just sold a BCHL team in Langley, minus Heinz Hasselmen. Moray Keith, Jim Bond are the majority owners, joined by Harvey Smyl.
More local investors are expected to come on board in time.
Keith, Bond and Smyl sold the Langley Chiefs to John and Roy Henderson in late April. Keith and Bond were also part of the ownership group of the Chilliwack Bruins, the Western Hockey League franchise that played five seasons in Chilliwack before bolting to Victoria. Keith was vocal in his desire to secure another major junior franchise, with the Prince George Cougars rumoured to be the primary target. He also pushed for another WHL expansion franchise, but the league was quick to shoot that down.
One of the main questions the BCHL board of governors wanted answered was how committed the Chiefs ownership group would be.
The league got the commitment it wanted, with Keith and company locking in for 10 years.
“It wasn’t all that important to us, but it was to the league,” Ringdal said. “We were in the league and left the league and now we’re back in the league and are we going to leave the league again? It was a very legitimate question, and once we understood their concerns we had very little difficulty committing to a long term.”
Another part of the agreement was the payment of a very steep relocation fee of $250,000.
“I was very unhappy about that because there’s never been a relocation fee paid before,” Ringdal said candidly. “But it is what it is, and I said to the boys when this was coming through that we’re going to have a nice success on our hands and we’ll look back on this and not regret it.”
At their height, the previous incarnation of the Chiefs had the best attendance of any junior A team in Canada.
The Chiefs earned fan loyalty during their 16 year run, claiming three Mowatt Cups (1994-95, 1999-00 and 2001-02) as BCHL champions.
The team added a Doyle Cup title in 2001-02, beating the Alberta champion Drayton Valley Thunder in six games.
The Chiefs lost in the Royal Bank Cup semi-final that year.
As expected, the man who guided those teams will control hockey operations for the new-look Chiefs. Smyl was the head coach and general manager of the Langley Chiefs over the last five seasons, and he has a tall task ahead of him trying to take the transplanted Millionaires roster and turn it into a winner. The 2010-11 Mills stumbled to a 13-38-3-6 record and made a quick playoff exit, yielding in four games to the Penticton Vees. Quesnel scored a league-low 140 goals in 60 regular season games while surrendering 250.
Only Williams Lake, Coquitlam and Cowichan Valley were leakier defensively.
With a large chunk of recruiting season already gone, Smyl will need to pull some rabbits out of the hat to keep the Chiefs competitive in the stacked Interior conference.
“Harvey was very important, not just on the hockey side but for his connection to the community. He’s going to be very comfortable, much moreso perhaps than he was in Langley,” Ringdal noted. “And we’re going to have him concentrating on the hockey side, where he had to wear two hats (business and hockey) in Langley. We’re going to have someone who’s quality and professional running the business side, and the two of them can work together.”
A president has yet to be named, although an announcement should be made soon.
On the business side, Ringdal said there’s plenty of work to be done rebuilding bridges scorched during the five years and subsequent departure of the Bruins. Much has been said about the WHL team’s failure to engage in the community, although Rindal is quick to credit the players and coaches for doing their part.
“I think they did their job and did it well. The disconnect came at the higher level and not at the team level,” Ringdal said, pointing the finger of blame in the direction of former Bruins president Darryl Porter.
Though there is lingering bitterness over the Bruins, and a hesitancy to invest emotionally and financially with another hockey team, Ringdal believes the fan and business support will be there for the Chiefs.
“I’ve been through this trick before when we took over the B.C. Lions in 1997. Fans and business people had been burned so bad by the club that a lot of them just took a wait-and-see attitude,” Ringdal said of his experiences with the Canadian Football League team prior to David Braley’s ownership. “Sometimes you have let them sit back and see if you’re genuine and if you’re doing what they’d hoped. We know we’re going to, so I don’t have any lack of confidence that those people will eventually come back, even if it’s not right away.”