Years of Stability

SaskPlace Concourse

As the clubs of the WHL stabilized by 1988, it's worth noting that 1988 also marked the beginning of the WHL's new arena boom. Whereas the East held on to their classic rinks until well past the turn of the millennium, the new buildings in the west started coming in thick and fast beginning with the 1988 opening of SaskPlace as the new home of the Blades. The following year, the Seattle Thunderbirds moved from Mercer Arena to the Seattle Center Coliseum.

The 1990's saw a few years of stability before the league began the process of expanding. Tacoma was granted a team in 1991, with the Rockets beginning play at the Tacoma Dome. The next year saw the creation of the Red Deer Rebels, playing at the new Centrium. 1992 also saw the birth of a trend that would slowly spread across the entire CHL – the birth of the ‘clone rink'. Kamloops was the first, with tiny Memorial Arena replaced by the Riverside Coliseum a few blocks away.

In 1994, the Victoria Cougars, saddled with low attendance and high travel costs, moved to what was and remains the farthest-flung outpost in the entire CHL. The Prince George Coliseum would be the team's home for the first season while their new arena, the Prince George Multiplex, was being built.

1995 saw one franchise move and one expansion. The Tacoma Rockets had never been successful in Washington, and with a new arena on the way in Kelowna, they relocated to the Okanagan, keeping their name and temporarily playing again at the Memorial Arena. Meanwhile, 1995 also saw the birth of another Calgary team, the Hitmen, named for the wrestling nickname of one of their owners, Bret “The Hitman” Hart. The Hitmen originally played at the Corral, but after a rough first few years the Calgary Flames pioneered a new model of ownership and bought the team outright, moving them to the Saddledome and cross-promoting them to an NHL crowd, and thus finally finding a way that junior and professional hockey could co-exist in the same city.

Finally, 1995 also witnessed two American teams in new arenas. The new Portland Rose Garden opened that year for the NBA's Trail Blazers, and the Winterhawks began playing odd games there, a practice that would continue until 2021. Also, the old Spokane Coliseum was replaced by Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena as the home of the Chiefs.

In 1996, spurred on by the success of the Hitmen in their first year, the WHL also expanded to Edmonton, but unlike the peaceful coexistence in Calgary, the Edmonton Oilers were openly hostile to the idea of competing with another team in the city and refused permission for the Ice to play at Northlands Coliseum. With no other suitable rink in the city, the Ice were forced to play at the Northlands Agricom, a 3500 seat arena across the street which was substandard even by the standard of the times. Moreover, Northlands still charged full price for parking for Ice games, which nearly doubled the cost of tickets, and it was no surprise that the team only lasted two years.

In 1998 the Ice moved southwest to Cranbrook, BC, taking the name Kootenay Ice. They played at the Cranbrook Memorial Arena while their new home, the RecPlex, was under construction (it opened in 2000). Another new arena in the BC interior, Kelowna's Prospera Place, opened in 1999 as a full-sized and permanent home for the Rockets.

No one knew it at the time, but the Edmonton Ice's move to Cranbrook was the last WHL franchise move for a decade. The next few years witnessed the league expand a couple of times, with 2001 giving birth to the Vancouver Giants, playing at the Pacific Coliseum, and then 2003 birthing the Everett Silvertips, playing at Everett Events Center. 2006 saw the addition of the Chilliwack Bruins, taking their name from the old New Westminster team and playing at the Chilliwack Coliseum.

Finally, the 22nd WHL team, the reborn Edmonton Oil Kings, began play in 2007. Unlike the Ice, in this case the Oilers ownership, spooked by the 2004-05 NHL season where they had zero revenue coming in apart from their emergency move of their own AHL team to the city, decided they wanted to copy the Calgary model. The Oil Kings took their name from Bill Hunter's old team and would play alongside the Oilers at Northlands Coliseum.

In 2009, the Seattle Thunderbirds inaugurated a purpose-built, junior-sized arena in Kent, Washington, south of downtown. The ShoWare Center helped the Thunderbirds establish an identity of their own in the crowded Seattle sports market, and by moving south they avoided competition with the Silvertips to the north.

In 2011, a group of investors on Vancouver Island tried to buy a team to move back to the BC capital. Their first target was the Tri-City Americans, but a group of Tri-City alumni stepped in to keep the team local. The next target was the Chilliwack Bruins, who despite reasonable attendance in Chilliwack were packed up and moved, becoming the Victoria Royals. The Royals moved into the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, which had been built originally for an ECHL team. The same year, the Moose Jaw Civic Centre closed and was replaced by Mosaic Place as the home of the Warriors.

Three more building moves took place in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, venerable Medicine Hat Arena closed, replaced by the Medicine Hat Events Center on the fringes of the city. In 2016, two big-city teams moved buildings. While the Vancouver Giants had been doing well at Pacific Coliseum as that arena's main tenant, the lure of a purpose-built junior rink was too much, and they decamped forty-five minutes to the east and the Langley Events Centre. And finally, Northlands Coliseum closed as home of the Oilers and Oil Kings at the end of the 2015-16 season, replaced by Rogers Place downtown.

As of this writing, the last WHL move was one of the stranger ones in league history. The Kootenay Ice never drew particularly well in Cranbrook, and attendance there frequently was below 2,000. A group of investors in Winnipeg bought the team in 2019 and moved them to the prairies, so that for the first time since 1973, the WHL finally had a presence in all four of Western Canada's largest cities. The NHL Jets already had their own AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, playing at the MTS Centre, so they elected to follow the Edmonton Ice model and attempted to crush the new upstart, banning them from any hope of a lease at the only full-sized spectator arena in the city. The Ice began playing at Wayne Fleming Arena on the campus of the University of Manitoba, a college rink seating under 2000, with Ice ownership planning to construct a purpose-built junior-sized rink on land in the southwestern corner of the city.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, sports around the world shut down. The WHL did eventually play a 2020-21 season, 24 games only with no fans, and as a result of the no fans policy, both WHL teams playing at NHL arenas decided not to pay to open the big rinks for those games. For that season only, the Oil Kings moved to Downtown Community Arena, the team's 1500-seat practice facility. To the south, with the Stampede Corral having been demolished, the Calgary Hitmen moved to the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex, on the territory of the Tsuut'ina First Nation to the southwest of the city. Both teams would resume playing at their usual homes in 2021, but in 2022 the Flames moved their AHL affiliate to the Saddledome, relegating the Hitmen from second to third in the city's pecking order. It remains to be seen if the Hitmen can survive, but for the 2022-23 season the team will be splitting their season between the Saddledome and the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex.

The sad saga of the Winnipeg Ice was finally brought to a close in the 2023 off-season, when the team was sold to the ownership of a BCHL team in Wenatchee, Washington. The franchise is now playing at Town Toyota Center as the Wenatchee Wild.

The WHL has come a long way from its rebellious beginnings. For the thirty years between 1980 and 2010 they were unquestionably the strongest junior league of the three, and a direct pipeline to the NHL. The league has regressed a little in the past decade, and it's been a while since one could unequivocally say that the Dub was the best of the best in Canada, but Bill Hunter's dream succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. The modern WHL is a stable and strong major junior hockey league that is acres ahead of the four former provincial junior leagues it usurped.

1966-71 | 1971-88 | 1988-Present

Copyright © WHL Arena Guide, 2002-23.
All rights reserved.
Last Revised: September 27, 2023