Ron Robison said it feels like yesterday the Kelowna Rockets “set a new standard for the Memorial Cup” as host and winner of the 2004 event.
The Western Hockey League commissioner met with local media on Wednesday at the conclusion of the WHL’s annual general meetings here.
When asked if owners discussed the WHL’s recent frustrations at the national championship tournament, Robison said he’s confident Kelowna is the team to break the losing skid.
“Our hope is, we’re going to have two WHL teams in the final,” Robison said. “If you look at the track record of the Rockets, there’s no question they’re going to be a strong, very competitive host.”
Not since the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2014 has a WHL team won a national championship.
Worse still, WHL champions have lost 14 straight tournament games (although WHL teams as hosts have done better) dating back to 2015.
Kelowna will host the 2020 Memorial Cup next May.
There were no significant rule or schedule changes coming out of the AGM, but there was some tinkering to conference alignment.
With the Kootenay Ice moving to Winnipeg from Cranbrook this fall, it leaves the WHL’s Eastern Conference with two, six-team divisions and the West with two, five-team groups.
Swift Current will join the Central Division from the East. Although it takes the Broncos away from their provincial rivals, it puts the southwestern Saskatchewan franchise nearer to geographic foes such as the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“That’s necessary to accommodate Winnipeg moving into the East Division,” the commissioner said.
Before last season, the WHL reduced its schedule to 68 games from 72. Robison called it an unqualified success that will remain for the foreseeable future.
This season, more than 70% of WHL games were played on weekends.
Having more free days during the week allows players to improve their on-ice skills with additional practice time and reduced travel, but also gives them more time in the classroom.
“It was a great move,” Robison said. “We need time for schooling, we need time for recovery. More time in practice time, more time to work on their games, generally, skill-wise, throughout the course of a season.”
The WHL is also celebrating this year the 25th anniversary of its bursary program.
Since 1994, the WHL has handed out 6,000 scholarships worth more than $25 million to graduating players.
The program is funded by the 22 teams and helped 405 players this past season alone with tuition, books and fees.
The league is also trumpeting a $10-million investment into arena upgrades for next season.
All WHL barns will see the installation of new NHL-licensed acrylic rinkboard systems, improved video scoreboards and upgraded lighting standards. The improvements are to address player safety and improve the fan experience.
About the only subject Robison did not want to talk about was a lawsuit brought against the CHL by former players. They’re accusing Canada’s junior hockey teams of benefitting from players, and are demanding to be treated as employees. They’re asking for pay equal to minimum wage and/or overtime.
“I really can’t comment at this point,” he said. “That matter is being handled by legal counsel. During the proceedings, we’re not in any position to make public comment.”