WHL tries to explain Bruins move

The announcement has been made and it is now official.

The Chilliwack Bruins are no more.

The Western Hockey League and Victoria’s RG Properties held a joint news conference in Victoria this morning, all smiles as they talked about the return of major junior hockey to B.C.’s capital city.

An hour later, the league sent out a not-too-comforting press-release explaining their decision to rip a team out of a viable market that they were excited to get into just five years ago.

“In February of 2009, as part of its strategic plan, the Western Hockey League board of governors made a decision to actively pursue securing a franchise for the Victoria market,” the release read. “At that time, the WHL board of governors were advised that should a franchise become available for sale, the WHL may elect to relocate the club to Victoria. Although expanding the league beyond 22 teams was not ruled out, the preference was to relocate an existing team.”

The league claims expansion was kept off the table, with a desire to avoid diluting the talent level and keep the WHL competitive with the Ontario (OHL) and Quebec (QMJHL) leagues.

The press release then set about pointing the finger of blame at the American Hockey League and Bruins co-owners Moray Keith and Jim Bond.

“Since 2006, the year the Chilliwack Bruins began operations, the geographical market has changed dramatically,” it said. “With new arenas in Abbotsford and Langley and the arrival of the American Hockey League in Abbotsford, it became obvious to the Bruins ownership group that the franchise needed to be restructured from a medium size model to a small market size model.”

Keith and Bond own and run Prospera Centre under the Chiefs Development Group banner, and the claim is that they refused to renegotiate a lease that would mirror those held by other small-market privately owned WHL teams.

“On Jan. 13 of this year, the Chilliwack Bruins Limited Partnership (consisting of co-owners Brian Burke, Glen Sather, Darryl Porter, Keith and Bond) held a meeting of their ownership group and agreed with the WHL to sell its franchise for the purpose of relocating the club to Victoria,” the release continued. “Provided the terms of the sale met the conditions by the Chilliwack Bruins Limited Partnership, the partners agreed no other offers would be considered. The sale would be subject to board of governors approval and all parties associated with the transaction were bound by a confidentiality agreement.”

That statement flies in the face of public statements by Keith that he and Bond had tendered an offer to buy the Bruins and keep them in Chilliwack.

“We cannot stress enough that we feel terrible for all our loyal fans, our business staff, sponsors, volunteers and billet families,” said Bruins president Darryl Porter. “The loyalty showed to us by all of these groups was tremendous. We do believe that Chilliwack is a strong WHL small market location but only with the proper lease agreement in place. Over a two year period we repeatedly requested this support from both the Chiefs Development Group and the City of Chilliwack. Our pleas were rejected.”

With many local fans still clinging to the hope that another franchise will relocate to Chilliwack, WHL commissioner Ron Robison added one final thought.

“We believe that under the right conditions Chilliwack can be a viable WHL market,” he said. “We intend to give full consideration to returning should relocation occur in the future.”