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Nanaimo’s new arena proposal draws WHL’s attention

The long-running soap opera that is the courtship between Nanaimo and the Western Hockey League may be headed toward a marriage.

The long-running soap opera that is the courtship between Nanaimo and the Western Hockey League may be headed toward a marriage.

A new development proposal, pegged at between $80 to $90 million, includes a hotel, commercial building and 5,000-seat arena.

“Nanaimo is a market that is of interest to us,” said WHL commissioner Ron Robison, by phone, while attending league meetings in Vancouver.

“We’re certainly encouraged by [the proposal] and will continue to investigate. Nanaimo is a natural location for us. It would certainly be a great advantage for teams travelling to the Island, where they could play two teams [along with the Victoria Royals], and would provide a strong natural rivalry for Victoria.”

Robison, however, reiterated the WHL has no plans to expand beyond its current 22 teams. A team in Nanaimo would have to come via relocation, as the Royals did from Chilliwack in 2011. The most likely candidate for Nanaimo is the Kootenay Ice, a franchise that continues to be dogged by attendance woes, and which recently received some pointed words from Robison about how that needs to improve.

“We are committed to keeping teams in our current markets,” said Robison.

“We have to assess each situation very carefully. We want to keep the teams where they are. In the event that is not viable, then we would look at relocation to a place like Nanaimo.”

The Nanaimo proponents want to be ready if that happens.

“These are the first baby steps,” said Dan Brady, general manager of the Howard Johnson location at Terminal and Comox avenues in Nanaimo, a high-profile intersection that would be redeveloped into the hotel-arena-commercial complex on eight acres. Brady also manages the Howard Johnson on Elk Lake Drive in Saanich. Both are owned by Brian Martin of Victoria, who is heading the Nanaimo proposal.

“We met with the mayor [Bill McKay] and city staff and they were receptive,” said Brady.

“We’ve given the drawings to the WHL, and Ron Robison was very interested. Nanaimo has always been of interest to the league because visiting teams can pay for one ferry fare and get two Island teams.”

Brady said the proposal is not asking for capital funding from the city, nor a referendum, but for “support” in helping with sewer and utility work beneath the site.

Asked for a timeline, Brady replied: “We definitely want to get going on this. [The Howard Johnson building] has run its life. Something needs to be done.”

The WHL is listening.

“We’ve always felt Nanaimo is a potential market. This would be an ideal facility for our purposes. This is creating a lot of interest,” said Robison.

“We’ll see how it develops. This certainly has our attention.”

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

Twitter.com/tc_vicsports