The Brandon Wheat Kings have been forced to stickhandle around the issue for years, the only team in the WHL forced to play money-losing playoff games away from home.
There may be no easy solution to the problem, but at long last the Wheat Kings and the Provincial Exhibition are actually going to sit down and at least discuss the possibility and ramifications of moving the dates for the annual Royal Manitoba Winter Fair up just two weeks to allow first-round playoff games to be played here.
Simply put, there’s no harm in at least talking about a solution that could turn into a win-win-win situation for the Wheat Kings, the Keystone Centre and even the Fair itself.
“We’re respectful of the Provincial Exhibition and the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair and what it means for the city of Brandon … and I guess at the same time, (losing playoff games) does affect the Keystone negatively as well and it affects our organization negatively, certainly, and our fans,” said Wheat Kings owner/general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who signed a new five-year lease with the Keystone Centre last week. “And we just want to discuss with the Provincial Exhibition if there are options.”
To her credit, Provincial Exhibition general manager Karen Oliver says she is sympathetic to the Wheat Kings’ situation and while she makes no promises, she is willing to discuss the issue.
“I said we would be glad to sit down with him,” Oliver said. “… I did see in the (lease) announcement that the Keystone Centre had been able to accommodate him somewhat with some sort of relief based on his needs to move the playoffs (out of town) and I was appreciative of that. And whether there is something more that we can do, I guess we would certainly look at that.”
For his part, Keystone Centre general manager Neil Thomson would love to see a solution.
“We’re certainly open to it,” Thomson said. “We think obviously there’s lots of challenges, but yeah, you’re absolutely right, if it could be done in such a way that accommodates the Fair people … and accommodates the Wheat Kings, yeah, in the ideal world, that would work out well for us.”
For the Wheat Kings, the issue is clear: Being forced out of their home building in the first round of the playoffs puts the team at a huge competitive and financial disadvantage and doesn’t allow the club’s growing fanbase the opportunity to watch their team at the most exciting time of the year.
For the Keystone Centre, losing those first-round playoff dates means losing tens of thousands of dollars in profit that the cash-strapped building badly needs, while the city’s restaurants, hotels, pubs and gas stations also lose out on the spinoff financial benefits of playing games in Brandon.
“We lost a lot of money this year in the playoffs at a time of year where most teams in the Western Hockey League are looking to make money,” McCrimmon said. “Secondly, there is the disadvantage that it puts you at relative to your opponent ... And in our case this year, we were 24 days between home games … and for a lot of people by the time we get back to Brandon, we’re out of sight, out of mind.”
Once again, let’s be absolutely clear about this: If changing the dates for the Winter Fair drastically hurt attendance, entries and profits, we would not support the move. The Wheat Kings and the Winter Fair are two nationally-known institutions that are vital to the fabric of our community and critical to the financial future of the Keystone Centre.
Making this plan work would require moving school spring break week up two weeks as well, since children and families are key to the Fair’s success. Competitors and exhibitors would also need a couple years’ advance notice to allow people to plan ahead, but would it really be all that disruptive?
When it comes to Equine Canada competitions, the North American Six-Horse Hitch Classic Series and even the SuperDogs schedule, there are no other major conflicting events that wouldn’t allow the Winter Fair to change dates.
So what is stopping the province from bumping up spring break? Not much.
Spring break in Manitoba has fluctuated from as early as March 22 to as late as April 7 over the years and moving it up to the second week of March would actually prove to be a huge benefit for families, whether they are Wheat King or Fair fans or not.
Currently, Manitoba’s spring break week only aligns with half of Alberta.
Moving up two weeks would align our province with Ontario, B.C. and Nova Scotia, while also overlapping weekends with Quebec and New Brunswick. That would allow families to visit and vacation together and could prove a boost for Fair attendance, with out-of-province fairgoers returning home for the week.
Brandon West MLA Reg Helwer and Brandon Teachers Association president Darren Hardy have both previously expressed their support for discussing the idea, while Brandon School Division Supt. Donna Michaels confirmed Thursday she would also be willing to talk about it.
“We would have to look at what it meant for the organization of our instructional year,” she said. “… (But) I have worked in other provinces and I have had other times for spring breaks, so it’s of interest. Certainly we would be open to talking about it, but as I say, we take our direction from the provincial government.”
Which brings us to Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell.
It’s time for Caldwell to take an active part in these discussions and show some leadership on this issue with the ruling NDP.