The Western Hockey League wants to give the Victoria Royals a new playmate in the Island playpen.
“We’ve identified Nanaimo as a potential market that would be a nice complement to Victoria,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said in an interview Monday night.
“It would be a natural rival for Victoria. And it really helps with scheduling and would alleviate the double-headers [the back-to-back home games against the same team that the Royals are now forced to play].”
Robison spoke after addressing an in-camera meeting of Nanaimo city council Monday.
“We are in ongoing discussions with Nanaimo and the city invited us to make a presentation,” said Robison.
Also taking part in the in-camera session were Graham Lee, who owns the Royals and operates Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, and Ken Wagner, part owner of the Nanaimo Clippers of the B.C. Hockey League.
Lee did not return phone calls Monday.
Robison said Lee attended only to talk about his experience as a team owner and arena operator. Lee’s firm, RG Properties, also runs Prospera Place, home of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. “Graham made it clear [his appearance] was just for information,” said Robison.
“He took them through his experiences in Victoria. No commitments were made. It is up to Nanaimo council to see if it wants to proceed. We left it for them to determine.”
The biggest obstacle is the lack of a suitable venue. A new arena would have to be built in the Harbour City for a WHL team to make Nanaimo its home.
But the WHL’s interest won’t be indefinite, Robison indicated.
“We want to know at some point in the near future,” said the WHL commissioner.
Nanaimo city staff have been assembling details from other cities that have built arenas in the 5,000-seat range. A report is expected in the coming weeks.
Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan has said he would like to see a WHL franchise move in, but he isn’t interested if Nanaimo taxpayers have to underwrite the cost of a new arena. He wasn’t immediately available for comment on Monday.
Robison said the WHL would not expand but that an existing team would be relocated to Nanaimo. He did not specify which team that could be.
Teams that are vulnerable include the Prince George Cougars — the former Victoria Cougars — the Kootenay Ice, Swift Current Broncos and the Prince Albert Raiders, each of which averaged fewer than 2,674 fans per game last season, with Prince George bottoming out at 1,840.
The Royals listed an average attendance of 5,189 fans last season.
Nanaimo had a team for one season in the WHL. The former Billings Bighorns became the Nanaimo Islanders for the 1982-83 season, and played out of the 2,432-seat Frank Crane Arena with a 20-51-1 record and didn’t make the playoffs. The Islanders relocated the next season to New Westminster. That franchise is now located in eastern Washington state and known as the Tri City Americans.
The Clippers now play in Frank Crane Arena.
— With files from the Nanaimo Daily News
© Copyright 2013