When the Cranbrook Recreation Complex was conceived and built two years ago, the question of bringing in enough events and entertainment to justify its viability was widely panned.
If we built it, they would come, was the regarded theory of the day.
They came all right, now the question was, could we bring them back?
The Vancouver Canucks touched down last Tuesday and Wednesday amid a storm of publicity and popularity. Billed by the Canucks as a team bonding session before the club’s season-opener in Calgary against the Flames Thursday night, it was clear that the power’s that be within the City of Cranbrook and indeed the entire East Kootenay had ulterior motives for the Canucks.
Landing an exhibition game, rookie camp or even the club’s complete training camp, held over the past few years in Kamloops, in the very near future was not an unattainable goal.
In a one-on-one interview with the Vancouver Canucks President and G.M. Brian Burke last Wednesday, Burke praised the city and region’s support and interest of the Canucks but admitted the aforementioned goals would be tough to realize.
“We try to move training camp around B.C.,” said Burke. “But we have an unofficial, three and a half travel rule (away from Vancouver). There are two reasons for that, one is our research indicates that we don’t sell a sizable amount of tickets outside that radius as people drive in from mostly the Okanagan or come over from the Island. Three and a half hours is really what our research indicates where we sell the bulk of our tickets.”
Cranbrook’s not the only Interior city that’s expressed interest in attracting the Canuck’s month-long training camp. Prince George, Kelowna and Vernon have also expressed notice intent on enticing the NHL squad.
“Problem number two is, the first seven days of our training camp, in the collective bargaining agreement, you’re limited to three hours of activity including travel and we stretch that a bit going to Kelowna or Kamloops. So, it would be hard to bring training camp here, not impossible but difficult.”
Attaining a preseason game wasn’t possible. Four home exhibition games are sold to the Canuck’s season ticket holders as part of their ticket package and the preseason is only a nine game schedule, home and away.
The possibility of a rookie tournament, involving perhaps the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and the Canucks due to the central location of Cranbrook was also broached.
Two similar tournaments, involving Montreal, Florida, Ottawa and Phoenix in Hull, Quebec and Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota, Atlanta and Washington in Traverse City, Michigan have taken place over the past few seasons with some success.
Could such a thing work in Cranbrook? Maybe, but again, in the hard times of the Canadian franchises, money was an issue.
“If we had the money to do something like that, yes we’d look at that,” said Burke. “All three of the Western Canadian teams felt we couldn’t justify the expenditure.”
“They don’t make money with it in Traverse City and they don’t make money with it in Hull,” added Burke “It’s done for purely development purposes and at least one of the teams in Hull this year told me they can’t justify the money next year.”
Team bonding to form a togetherness in time for opening day aside, the benefits of the Canucks visiting our city is obvious. Vancouver does get something in return, although perhaps not in terms of tickets sales.
“I’m not sure there’s a huge advantage economically,” said Burke after the charity breakfast held at the Breakaway restaurant. The sold-out event raised $1400 for the Canuck’s Foundation.
“Our research indicates that outside of a certain radius (around the Lower Mainland), we don’t sell a large number of tickets. But certainly from a T.V. audience standpoint, anywhere you go in B.C. is helpful.”
Even trying to persuade a few changes in NHL allegiances around these parts is a possibility. Of course, the 1500 or so fans that showed up on both mornings to watch the likes of Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden, Todd Bertuzzi et al look like they didn’t need much convincing.
“I know we’ve got some Calgary fans here but we’re going to try and convert them.”
Canuck’s head coach Marc Crawford views the city and it’s winning ways in junior hockey over the past three seasons as something he’s hopeful will rub off on his NHL stars.
“We’ve had a terrific time in Cranbrook,” said Crawford, just before flying to Calgary for the club’s season-opener on Thursday.
“We wanted to come to a place that had a strong hockey feel to it. With the air being a little cooler here in October and us being up in the mountains of the beautiful Kootenays, it’s been terrific.
“There’s a real sense of community pride, not only with the Kootenay ICE but in the entire region and we wanted to feed off of. We specifically chose Cranbrook because they’re the Memorial Cup champions and we wanted to associate ourselves with winning. We want to be around as much a winning attitude and a winning atmosphere as we possibly get to. We’re not above learning from people who are deemed to be below us in terms of NHL vs. the WHL.”
“One of the by-products of coming to a community like Cranbrook is that there’s so much pride in the community and you sense that every place you go. Around the town people talk hockey, they like their team, they’re very proud of the building and they’re proud of the product the WHL presents. I think it’s been really beneficial to our guys, who enjoyed themselves here and spent some high-end, quality days of preparation.”
When it comes time to talk about the on-ice product and the criticism Burke’s received for what has been the perception that the club hasn’t been upgraded over last season’s edition, Burke is adamant.
“They’re mostly in the media and I don’t pay much attention to the media,” said Burke who’s criticism of the media, along with the tirades performed in it, borders on legendary.
“We did make changes to the team from the team that started the season last year. Bringing in Hlavac, bringing in Trevor Linden, bringing in Letowski and Warriner. The team that finished the year is not the team that started the year and we had the best team in the league from Christmas on. We’ve added Sami Salo to replace Scott Lachance and I like our team just fine.”
And the club’s chances in a Western Conference filled with powerhouses such as the defending champions in Detroit, a retooled Dallas Stars squad, San Jose, St. Louis and Colorado? Burke is remarkably frank in his answer.
“We have to beat them. I think we have the personnel to do it and we have to beat them.”