Keith willing to pay to keep Bruins in Chilliwack

Bruins minority owner Moray Keith says he and fellow co-owner Jim Bond are committed to the Western Hockey League in Chilliwack, and they are willing and able to match any offers for the Chilliwack Bruins.

Addressing the whirlwind of rumours that have surrounded the Western Hockey League franchise over the past few weeks, Keith said ownership groups are constantly approached by those wanting to invest in, and potentially relocate, major junior franchises.

“It’s only proper that our partners would take a look at whatever offers are out there,” Keith explained. “What we’ve simply said is that if there is an offer and the majority want to sell, then Mr. Bond and I are willing buyers and we will certainly compete at whatever price. Currently, we’re willing to pay substantially more than anything else that’s out there, even from a conjectural point of view.”

Keith and Bond control 25 per cent of the ownership stake in the Bruins, while also controlling Prospera Centre under the banner of the Chiefs Management Group. Porter, along with Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and New York Rangers GM Glen Sather, make up the remaining 75 per cent.

It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to sense differing opinions among the Bruins owners. In a pure technical sense, majority would rule if Bond and Keith were turned down by the other three, and there wouldn’t be much they could do.

“In the end the decision to sell the team or not sell the team, it’s a situation that rests with the majority, and I would say it would be very difficult,” Keith said when asked if he and Bond had any veto power over an accepted out-of-town offer. “But these gentlemen are my partners and my friends and I would hope that they would work with us. Now if someone comes along with an offer that’s way out-of-whack, something that we couldn’t match, then we would be understanding. But that’s not the case at this point in time.”  

Disagreements in business are one thing, but Keith took issue with a report issued by Vancouver radio station CKWN 980 earlier this week that publically suggested he wanted Porter dismissed from his duties as managing partner of the team.

The original word used in the article before it was edited was ‘fired.’

“That’s not the way I work,” he said. “It’s no secret that we’re not terribly happy at all with where Chilliwack has gone, what has happened with the team and the way it’s gone in the community. But I prefer to keep comments and management decisions within our management room. Frankly, I’ve always asked for accountability within our group, and I think the five owners in our group all share the same desire to have good hockey. Some of our shareholders have lost come confidence in the Chilliwack marketplace, but I believe we have an obligation to the city of Chilliwack to try our best to have a WHL team in town.”

The CWKN 980 article and several others have suggested, with little tangible evidence, that the sale of the Bruins to Victoria interests is a done deal. The most commonly mentioned name is that of real-estate mogul Graham Lee, whose development projects included Victoria’s Save On Foods Memorial Centre.

“I’m not one of the managing partners, but I am an investing partner and at this point in time I’m not aware of a deal that is signed or completed in any way, shape or form,” Keith said. “I know that my partners are having conversations and they’re exploring all the situations that are out there, but I wouldn’t say it’s a completed deal by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of rumours get blown out of proportion, and there`s still a very good chance that our ownership group will turn around and say, `You know what? We’ve looked at the offers and we’re not prepared to sell the team,’” 

Obviously, Keith and Bond’s interests go beyond simply saving WHL hockey for Chilliwack. Should the Bruins leave, they would have a vacant building to fill. According to the public-private partnership agreement with the City of Chilliwack, Chiefs Development Group (Keith, Bond, Pat Quinn and Andrew Saxton) owns Prospera Centre for another two decades.

“I hate to speculate on what would go on down the road,” Keith said when asked about plan B. “We believe there needs to be hockey in Chilliwack. We ran a very successful BCHL team out of there, and   I guess we would probably look at a BCHL team. Maybe another hockey property. Maybe expansion with the WHL, but I really think we’re a long ways away from that. The one thing I’ve heard is ECHL, but I haven’t had a single discussion with anyone from that league.”

Keith is aware of the WHL’s desire to eventually get into Victoria, a desire that is fanning the flames in Chilliwack. He regards it as a practical move by a league that wants to head off westward incursions by the minor-pro American Hockey League. Chilliwack’s landscape certainly changed dramatically when the AHL moved into Abbotsford with the Heat. 

“But I happen to believe the more hockey in the Lower Mainland the better, and if hockey didn’t work beside pro teams that you wouldn’t see the Vancouver Giants being so successful,” Keith commented. “Ron Toigo (Giants co-owner) and his people have done a great job putting the WHL on the map in the Lower Mainland, and Ron was certainly one of the people who helped us put a WHL team in Chilliwack. Not everyone would agree with me. But I think that, no matter what team is down the road from Chilliwack, we can be successful as long we get involved in the community and get our players into the community and put a good hard-working product on the ice.”

Keith cited B.C. Lions owner David Braley as his ownership ideal, a man who considers himself a caretaker first and foremost.

“He feels he has the honour of managing and running the Lions for the fans and the community,” Keith elaborated. “I believe it’s the same in Chilliwack where we have to realize that the team belongs to the community and not to an ownership group. I just have the pleasure of funding it and looking after it for a while, and we’d love to have some local ownership helping us with that, because I think that’s important. When we ran the junior A team in Chilliwack, we were the highest drawing junior A team in Canada, and a lot of that is about how involved we were in the community.”

Whether there are people in Chilliwack willing to buy in remains to be seen, but Keith says he is unwavering in his belief that it can work. One name that surfaces quite often is that of current Langley Chiefs coach Harvey Smyl, a man who is revered in Chilliwack but declined to get involved with the WHL team five years ago.

“One of the things we do with Harvey which is different from a lot of coaching situations is that we pay him his bonuses based on how many young people he sends on to school or a higher level of hockey,” Keith said. “He’s not paid based on wins, and consequently, every two years he pretty much decimates his team sending young players off to college. This year we had over $1-million in scholarships heading out from the Langley Chiefs, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing. If I can support a club that loses a little bit of money but sends out that much in scholarships, I’m pretty happy with that. So, we certainly would look in some way, shape or form to have Harvey involved in whatever we’re doing if we have the opportunity to proceed in Chilliwack.”

The timeline for everything to sort itself out is uncertain, although the likelihood is sooner rather than later.

Keith admits he and Bond need a few things to go their way, but he remains confident that the process will eventually work out in a way that leaves the Chilliwack hockey fan happy.

“Everything is up in the air, but our intention is keep WHL hockey here,” Keith said. “We believe in the market, and Jim and I aren’t going to abandon it.”