With the sale and relocation of the Chilliwack Bruins complete and the moving vans rolling into Prospera Centre, Moray Keith was finally able to speak on Wednesday afternoon.
No longer bound by a confidentiality agreement, the Dueck car magnate and former Bruins minority owner offered his response to a WHL-issued press release that effectively threw him and business partner Jim Bond under the bus.
“I see we’re being blamed for the rent,” Keith said, referencing a large part of the news release citing an expensive lease as a reason for the team to move. “I think that’s using a scapegoat. The rent’s $125,000 per year on a $2.5 million budget. The rent wasn’t the critical factor at all.”
In fact, Keith said the rent was exactly where it was supposed to be according to league guidelines.
“The percentage used by the league is between 10 and 12 per cent of the gate revenues,” he explained. “The gate last year was $1.1 million. We were asking for $100,000 for the first three years and back to 12 per cent or a minimum $125,000. You can’t convince me a $2.5 million grossing business is going out of business over $125,000.”
Plummeting attendance was a factor, and Keith delicately pointed the finger of blame in the direction of managing partner Darryl Porter.
“They’d dropped from $1.5 to $1.1 million in season ticket revenue, in one year,” Keith said. “Unfortunately, at the end of the day you have to look at management. Whether I wasn’t involved enough or whoever wasn’t involved enough, we certainly weren’t getting the job done and the people there weren’t getting the job done.”
The other three owners (Burke, Porter and Glen Sather) are quick to point to the Abbotsford Heat as the real reason behind the attendance woes.
“I don’t know that we were never a large market, we were always 70 to 80 thousand people and we should be able to hold our own,” Keith said. “And with Abby, look at what they’re drawing there. I don’t think that the 200 tickets that went down the road, or 150 that we actually knew about, really cost us a whole lot of business.”
It’s no secret that a serious rift had developed among the five-man ownership group, stemming from the internal disputes over the Heat, Prospera Centre lease and the viability of the market.
On Wednesday the rift had both camps effectively calling each other liars.
Burke and Porter talked about a Jan. 13 conference call in which Jim Bond allegedly gave his and Keith’s approval to the pursuit of a sale, at the same time locking the group into exclusive negotiating rights with Victoria.
Keith wasn’t involved in that meeting, but he got a play-by-play from Bond.
“Burkie talked and he was the only guy that talked, and it was presented as a fait d’accompli that this was done,” he continued. “Jim is adamant that he didn’t concur in a unanimous way that it should be sold. Porter, Burke and Sather agreed to sell the team. That’s 75 per cent and that’s not unanimous.”
Keith cited an Apr. 11 phone conversation between his right-hand man Glen Ringdal and Porter where Porter fingered Robison and the WHL executive as the masterminds behind the Chilliwack-to-Victoria plot.
“When Burkie (Brian Burke) asked him (Robison) about selling the team back on Jan. 1 Robison said they had to sell to Victoria and they had to sell at a fair price,” Keith elaborated. “The problem with that is that they knew we (Keith and Bond) were there with $6.1 million, and another offer was there at five-plus, and they chose to sell and move the team. That makes no sense to me.”
The WHL’s own press release on Wednesday identified a strategic plan and a determination to get into Victoria with relocation, not expansion.
If it wasn’t Chilliwack, another market was going to eventually lose their team.
Regardless, in the short term Chilliwack is now without a WHL team and Keith is without a tenant for his arena.
The easiest fallback option is a return to the junior A BCHL, which would return to Chilliwack in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself.
But that is, at the moment, plan B.
“We still believe that a WHL team in Chilliwack is a viable alternative, and if they’d grant us an expansion franchise, we’d do it tomorrow,” Keith said. “I don’t think you engage the fan support and turn around and pull the rug out from under them. I just don’t think it’s fair.”
Unfortunately, Robison has made it clear that expansion is not on the league’s agenda.
“Further expansion was not considered a viable alternative due to the demand it would place on the talent pool of players and the ability for WHL clubs to remain competitive at the national level,” the release stated.
Keith doesn’t agree.
“You can’t tell me there’s not 12 more kids out of Saskatchewan,” he said. “I can’t imagine that. How dare people judge that these kids aren’t good enough. Why not give them the chance?”
Which leaves relocation.
Much bandied about possibilities include the Prince George Cougars and Kootenay Ice, with a couple very slim possibilities in the Regina Pats and Saskatoon Blades.
There’s a good possibility that if the WHL doesn’t come back now, they may as well not bother at all.
The way this has gone down has left a bitter taste in the mouth of local hockey fans, and the league is unlikely to be welcomed back with open arms.
“I think at the moment, based on what I’m seeing today, the WHL isn’t giving us any choice but to go to the BCHL,” Keith said. “We haven’t stopped having conversations with Mr. Robison and other WHL teams to talk about what’s going on. But I’m not optimistic at this point.”