Two weeks would make all the difference in the world for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
And if the dates for the annual Royal Manitoba Winter Fair were moved up by just 14 days, it could be a win-win-win-win scenario for not only the Wheat Kings, the Keystone Centre, the City of Brandon, and possibly even the Winter Fair itself.
For as long as the Wheat Kings have been in the WHL — 45 years and counting — the team has been forced to play elsewhere in the playoffs during the week-long Winter Fair, this year playing three money-losing games in Winnipeg.
“Most teams in our league now are what we call playoff-dependant (to turn a profit),” WHL commissioner Ron Robison said. “But for Brandon, they will likely lose money on the games in Winnipeg at the end of the day.”
It’s a situation that puts the Wheat Kings at a financial and competitive disadvantage without home ice. It strips the cash-strapped Keystone Centre of three profit-producing playoff games, and keeps the city’s hotels, restaurants, pubs and gas stations from benefiting from visiting teams, league officials, media, family and fans staying in Brandon for up to five days, as the Calgary Hitmen and their entourage have in Winnipeg this week.
So let’s the explore the idea of moving spring break week — always paired with the Winter Fair — up a couple of weeks, which would finally allow the Wheat Kings to play their home games in their home building and thousands of local fans to enjoy playoff hockey.
League minimum standards for seating capacity alone rule out holding games in places like Virden or Dauphin, while the WHL’s playoff schedule is timed to coincide with the OHL and QMJHL leading up to the Memorial Cup in May, which would make moving playoff weeks for three leagues and 63 teams in two countries an unrealistic alternative.
Not that moving Fair Week would be a piece of cake, either. But let’s at least talk about the possibility.
First of all, let’s make one thing crystal clear: The historic Wheat Kings franchise and the prestigious Royal Manitoba Winter Fair are both incredibility important staples of our community, key to our local economy and nationally-known institutions that help put the city on the map. Their continued success is also critical to the financial future of the Keystone Centre, which often struggles to balance the books.
Personally, I enjoy taking the kids to a Wheat Kings game as much as I like to take them to the Winter Fair and watch the SuperDogs while munching on mini-donuts.
The history of both hockey and the fairs date back more than a century in Brandon, with various forms of the Wheat Kings and the Winter Fair sharing first the old Wheat City Arena — built in 1912 — and then the Keystone Centre — built in 1972.
While the Wheat Kings have traditionally started the playoffs in late March, the Winter Fair began as a February event before moving to March and then to early April when it ran for decades — the first Winter Fair held in the Keystone Centre ran from April 2-7. It generally now runs in late March, starting on March 26 this year to coincide with the school spring break to help boost attendance.
So history has shown that spring break week does vary from year to year and if it were to move up by just two weeks, the Winter Fair would likely follow suit, albeit not without some concerns.
“If spring break were changed, we would obviously have to explore it, but it’s certainly not something that we would (consider on our own),” said Karen Oliver, general manager of the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba. “... It’s taken so long to establish ourselves and establish the various pieces of the fair that we’ve got coming together.”
But just how disruptive would it be? A quick look at schedules for major Equine Canada events, the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series and even the SuperDogs show no major conflicting events earlier in the month. In fact, Oliver confirms that the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair is in fact the start of the season for many of the competitors.
“A lot of horses are training in Florida before the fair and they move up here, this is the first indoor show, kind of after they come up from their training in Florida for the winter,” Oliver said.
If that’s the case, why not at least consider moving spring break week — and the Winter Fair — up two weeks?
Now, if the move would result in a large drop in entries and attendance, clearly we would not support the change. A healthy and profitable Winter Fair is vital to the Keystone Centre and the city.
However, if it wouldn’t actually hurt, why not at least explore the idea? Not only would the Keystone Centre, the city and the Wheat Kings benefit, but the Winter Fair might also receive a financial boost from hockey fans who would no longer have to choose between spending limited entertainment dollars on a trip to Winnipeg or a trip to the Fair in the same week.
It should be pointed out that the Brandon Curling Club likely would not support the idea, since it would result in the club finishing up its season — and taking out the ice for space for the Winter Fair — two weeks earlier. Starting curling two weeks earlier seems easy enough, but it would hurt teams preparing for upcoming competitions in March if they no longer had ice available.
In the end, moving spring break week would be a decision for the province’s department of education, although there seems to be nothing to suggest it has to be held in the last week of March.
The fact is, moving spring break week up two weeks would actually align ourselves better with neighboring Ontario, as well as B.C. and Nova Scotia, which all began spring break on March 12.
It would also hook up with a weekend overlap with Quebec and New Brunswick, which start their spring break weeks on March 5. In fact, the only spring break week that Manitoba currently matches is Alberta, and that’s only part of the province since different school districts have different weeks off in that province.
Better aligning ourselves with more provinces could actually be a bonus for families, who could more easily plan visits and vacations — a winter ski trip or a tropical week at the beach — with family members living in other parts of the country. It might also result in a boost in entries and attendance from out-of-province fairgoers.
While he would like to consult with his membership, Brandon Teachers Association president Darren Hardy, for one, would be willing to at least explore the idea.
“There’s no question spring breaks are done at different times across our country and across North America and I don’t think we’re necessarily married to that time,” Hardy said. “From my perspective, we’re open to anything. When a new idea comes along we consider it for its merits ...
“What I am most interested in, from just an observer’s kind of perspective, is what’s the first step in trying to get the process started and who leads that process?”
One would think Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell would be that guy, but he wants other parties to initiate that discussion rather than taking a leadership role.
“In terms of having the discussion, I am open to it, but the champion would obviously have to be from a business venture called the Brandon Wheat Kings or school divisions that would want to move spring breaks,” Caldwell said.
“If the Brandon Wheat Kings organization and the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba are interested in it, I will work with them ... but I haven’t heard from either of those two at this stage,” he added.
Whether one believes it’s a pie-in-the-sky or boneheaded idea or a logical solution to a problem that could wind up benefiting all parties, it’s time we at least had the discussion.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 30, 2012