Potential WHL expansion Locations

The Western Hockey League, part of the Canadian Hockey League, is top junior hockey league based in Western Canada and the North Western United States for players 20 years old and under with teams in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. It has been named the WHL since 1978 after previously being known as the WCHL (Western Canadian Hockey League) and before that the CMJHL (Canadian Major Junior Hockey League) when it started back in 1966. It currently has 22 teams with 17 in Canada and 5 in the United States. In the past the league has had teams in a number of cities that currently do not have a franchise, but may still be looked at as potential places for expansion should the league decide it wants to grow, there are also a number of other cities in Western Canada and the North Western United States who have never held a WHL franchise who may also be options for expansion. In this article I will look at the benefits of each location. I will look at 41 different options with 19 being in Canada and 22 in the USA. Some likely, some highly unlikely, and some justifiably laughable at best.

Canadian Options (19)

St. Alberta, Alberta – In the North West corner of the Edmonton Metro Area is St. Albert, a community of 64,645 according to the 2016 municipal census which has the 2,023 seat Go Auto Arena that opened in 2006 and was formerly the home of an AJHL team named the Steel and is currently home to the MacEwan University hockey teams who play in the Alberta College Athletic Conference. It isn’t a highly likely location for a WHL team with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings already in the market, however if the Oil Kings were ever looking for a new home in the Edmonton area it would be an option to consider, although the arena is a little small by WHL standards and if not expandable would likely need to be replaced. The outlook for a WHL team in St. Albert is doubtful, but I would suggest that another AJHL team there wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Grande Prairie, Alberta – The only thing likely holding Grande Prairie back from having a WHL team is their northern location which is 458 km from the next closest WHL team the Edmonton Oil Kings and still 535 km from the leagues most northern team in British Columbia, the Prince George Cougars. The city of Grande Prairie has been growing at a very steady pace for a number of years and according to a municipal census 2015 it had 68,556 living in the area, with 55,032 in the city as of 2011. The population and growth makes in an ideal option for expansion and the 3,228 seat Revolution Place built in 1995 should be a viable home for a WHL team with a few upgrades. Currently home to the AJHL’s Grande Prairie Storm, a team who has seen decent attendance numbers in the past, but recently has seen those numbers slump to closer to 1000 which was still good enough for fifth best attendance in the 16 team league, even with a last place team in 2015-16.  I am very confident the city would draw close to capacity crowds with a WHL team in town. I honestly believe if the WHL gets past its northern proximity Grande Prairie would be an ideal location if not one of the best options for expansion.

Airdrie, Alberta – Located just north of the city of Calgary and part of it’s metro area Airdrie is also one of the fastest growing cities in Canada with a population of 61,842 in it’s direct area according to a 2016 municipal census, with 42.564 in the city during the 2011 census. The city of Calgary already has the NHL’s Calgary Flames and WHL’s Calgary Hitmen playing out of the Scotiabank Saddledome, but if the Hitmen were ever looking to relocate to a suburb of the city, Airdrie would be a viable location if a new arena was built. Currently the Ron Ebbesen Arena which hosts the communities Junior B team only has 460 seats with an additional 150 seats in it’s lounge which isn’t big enough for an AJHL team, let alone a WHL team. If a suitable WHL arena were ever built, it’s feasible a team could someday call Airdrie home, but it’s hard to say if they could co-exist as a second WHL team in the area with the Calgary Hitmen.

Fort Mcmurray, Alberta – Devastated by wildfires in May of 2016, people across the world became more familiar with the Northern Alberta Community of Fort McMurray which is actually classified as a rural service area in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The community located in the middle of the Athabasca Oil Sands boasted a population of 78,382 in the area according to a 2015 census and is also currently home to the AJHL’s Fort McMurray Oil Barons who average just two people shy of having the second best attendance in the AJHL during the 2015-16 season and have regularly been at or near the top of the league for attendance. Casman Arena which has a capacity of 1,937 with 1,537 seated would likely need to be replaced for any consideration of a WHL team. The fact that it’s about 430 km from the next closest WHL team the Edmonton Oil Kings down a very dangerous Highway 63 probably doesn’t bode well for the WHL’s desire to place a team in Fort McMurray either, however with it’s strong population base, if a new arena was built and their where improvements to the highway I wouldn’t see why the city wouldn’t become a viable option for league expansion at some point.

Brooks, Alberta – The city of Brooks is only a little over 100 km west from the next closest WHL team the Medicine Hat Tigers and just under 190 km east of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen making them a very viable location as far as travel goes. The city is a little bit on the smaller side with a 2015 Municipal Census of 14,185 and a regional population of 23,430 according to the 2011 Census, but it would be comparable with the leagues other two smaller centres of Cranbrook, British Columbia and Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The one thing Brooks does have going for it is that their AJHL team the Brooks Bandits have had very solid attendance numbers and drew a 1,394 average to the Centennial Regional Arena which has a capacity of 1,794 seating with an additional 500 standing, for a total capacity of 2,294 and was just built in 2010. The arena already boasts corporate suites and a video scoreboard and if there is room to expand the seating a little bit more it could be a viable WHL arena, but it would end up being the leagues smallest. It has a lot going for it as far as being a viable option except the fact it’s a small market, but at the end of the day I still believe it’s probably not going to be a top option for the WHL to expand to, but will continue to be one of the AJHL’s strongest franchises for years to come.

Dawson Creek/Fort St. John, British Columbia – The city of Dawson Creek only had 11,583 residents according to the 2011 Census, so the idea of having a WHL team play there might sound a little crazy, but what the city does have going for them is a WHL calibre arena in the Encana Events Centre which has a seating capacity of 4,500 and 27 Luxury Suites and was opened in the spring of 2008, and the fact that it is very close to a large population base with a population of 133,295 within a 150km radius of the arena. The city of Fort St. John, B.C. is only 75 km North and has a population of about 21,000 in the city and 26,380 in its region as of a 2015 Census, while Grande Prairie is about 130km away. I think the only chance a WHL team ever lands in Dawson Creek would be if they had regional support from Fort St. John as they may draw a little bit from Grande Prairie, but I don’t think it would be enough. I do honestly think though that if a WHL team was placed in Grande Prairie it would strengthen the feasibility of having a team in Dawson Creek as it’s 404km from the WHL’s Prince George Cougars and it would create a nice road trip loop for teams travelling between Prince George, Dawson Creek and Grande Prairie. The North Peace Arena in Fort St. John is a bit dated, but does hold 1550 seated, and a total of 2000 including standing room, so it could be used for the occasional home game if a WHL team in Dawson Creek was looking to help draw fans down to the Encana Events Centre from Fort St. John. It might be a bit of a stretch for this all to come to fruition, but it sure is a shame to have a nice arena up in Dawson Creek without a high quality hockey team as a tenant, although it does host it’s fair share of concerts and actually was home to a North American Hockey League team named the Dawson Creek Rage for two seasons from 2010-2012. If the WHL doesn’t make it to Dawson Creek I think it would be a good expansion spot for the AJHL even though it’s in BC.

New Westminster, British Columbia – Part of Metro Vancouver, the city of New Westminster was home to a WHL franchise on two separate occasions, we’ll take a look to see if a third kick at the can is realistic. New Westminster hosted the first Bruins team from 1971 to 1981 and the second team from 1983-1988. The first team is currently now the Kamloops Blazers, while the second franchise is currently the Tri-City Americans. The Bruins had played in the Queen’s Park Arena which was built in 1930 and had 3,500 seat, but would likely be out of date by today’s league standards and would likely need significant improvements, or the team would need a new arena built. The city has a population of 65,976 according to the 2011 census, but being adjacent to Burnaby and the city of Vancouver it has a huge population base to draw from. I don’t know if the league would have interest in putting another WHL team in the Vancouver market, since the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks are already there as well as the WHL’s Vancouver Giants who ironically now play in the suburb of Langley, which is further away from the city of Vancouver than New Westminster. I think it might be more realistic to see New Westminster as a potential relocation option if the Giants ever want to return closer to the city of Vancouver, but without a new arena, I am doubtful it would happen.

Chilliwack, British Columbia – Much like New Westminster the city of Chilliwack once had a WHL team named the Bruins playing in their city, this team eventually became the Victoria Royals, but prior to that they played at the 5,386 seat Prospera Centre from 2006-2011 with annual attendance averages between 3260 and 4533 over that time, which put them as a middle of the pack team as far as league attendance went. The reason for the teams move out of Chilliwack had little to do with their modest success in the market, but more to do with the new ownership groups desire to relocate the team to Victoria. The city of Chilliwack would be a very strong candidate for another WHL team in the future as it is located just outside the Vancouver Metro area in the Fraser Valley Regional District and has a city population of 77,936 according to the 2011 census, making competition with the Vancouver Giants a little less of an issue, although where the Giants now play in Langley is only about 57km away. Having 2,476,145 people in the Vancouver Metro makes multiple WHL teams in the market less of an issue than other smaller cities that also have NHL teams like Edmonton and Calgary. Chilliwack is currently home to the Chiefs of the BCHL who were second in league attendance during the 2015-16 season drawing an average of 2,454 fans. Although the WHL left only five years ago, Chilliwack would have to be considered a strong candidate if the league were to expand.

Abbotsford, British Columbia – Like Chilliwack, Abbotsford is also part of the Fraser Valley Regional District which had a total population of 277,593 according to the 2011 Census, with 133,497 of those residents residing in Abbotsford. The Abbotsford Centre a 7,046 seat arena opened in just 2009 was the former home to the Abbotsford Heat, the AHL affiliate to the NHL’s Calgary Flames from 2009-2014, at the time the team was the western most in the AHL and drew poor attendance by AHL standards averaging between 3007 and 3897 during their time in the league and the affiliate was eventually moved. Part of the issue with attendance is believed to be the fact that the Flames where trying to establish a minor league fan bases in a market filled predominantly by Canucks fans, which obviously didn’t work well. I feel a WHL team in Abbotsford would flourish and it may even be a better option than Chilliwack. If the Vancouver Giants had a desire to move another 35km down the road from their current home arena in Langley it would probably work out just fine. If the league decided to add a team in Abbotsford and still have the Giants playing in Langley I feel it would still be something that would work out with the heavy population in the Vancouver area. I think Abbotsford has to be a very strong candidate for a WHL team considering they don’t even have a major tenant in the Abbotsford Centre to compete with for a lease, which should also make the city of Abbotsford motivated to get a tenant.

Penticton, British Columbia – There are lots of reasons why the WHL may consider Penticton to be a desirable location for a future WHL Franchise. The city of Penticton has a population of 32,877, but has 42,361 in it’s metro area both according to the 2011 census so it’s not a big market, but not really a super small one either. They also do also have a WHL sized arena, the South Okanagan Events Centre which opened in 2008 also seats 4,701 which is a very good size for a WHL team. They currently have a very successful BCHL team the Penticton Vees who’s 2015-16 attendance average of 2448 put them only 6 spectators on average away from the second best average in the league. It is very close to the city of Kelowna with only 63km between the South Okanagan Events Centre and Prospera Place home of the Kelowna Rockets, which some may consider as a bad thing, but I see it as a great opportunity to form a strong WHL rivalry and have full houses in both rinks anytime the teams play each other. It also makes for very easy travel for other WHL teams being able to play one night in Kelowna and one in Penticton, during a B.C. road trip. I see a team in Penticton as a real possibility for the WHL down the road and wouldn’t be surprised at all if it eventually happens.

Nanaimo, British Columbia – With Victoria having a WHL team on Vancouver island, the next most likely option for a team on the island would have to be Nanaimo a city with a population of 83,811 and metro area of 98,021 according to the 2011 census. Nanaimo is currently home to the BCHL’s Clippers who have been in Nanaimo since 1972 and play out of the Frank Crane Arena a 3,000 seat arena which would likely have to either see some major upgrades to bring a WHL team into the city, but there was talk in 2015 of a new 5000 seat arena being built with a WHL team in mind. ($80 Million redevelopment plan includes a WHL team in Nanaimo, CHEK News, June 13, 2015) The Clippers attendance during the 2015-16 season was fifth in the 17 team BCHL with an average of 1344 fans per game. It would likely increase quite a bit with a WHL team and a new arena. The WHL may see the benefit in having a second team on the island since a team will be crossing the ferry over to Victoria to play the Royals anyway and it would be nice if they had another WHL team to play on the island on back to back nights. It would also help create a strong geographical rivalry on the island with the Royals. Nanaimo was home to a WHL team for one season in the past when the Billing Bighorns relocated there for the 1982-83 season and played as the Nanaimo Islanders before relocating to New Westminster to become the Bruins the following season. The WHL commissioner Ron Robison has also been quoted as saying that Nanaimo is a market of interest to them. (Nanaimo’s new arena proposal draws WHL’s attention, Times Colonist, June 17, 2015)

Winnipeg, Manitoba – With the biggest city in Manitona boasting a population of 671,551 and metro of 730,018 according to the the 2011 Census already being home to the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and the AHL’s Manitoba Moose I am guessing any aspirations of getting a WHL team in the Winnipeg market are going to be a little more doubtful than they once were as I really don’t see the market being suitable for a WHL team also, especially with the Junior A MJHL’s Winnipeg Blues already in the MTS Ice Plex a 1,350 seat arena also used by the Jets and Moose as a practice and training facility. The MTS Centre would be an ideal location for a WHL team to share a rink with an NHL team if the Jets ever decide to move the AHL Moose to another market, but with that being doubtful the 15,294 seat arena is likely to stay home to the Jets and Moose for years to come. A NHL-WHL situation like the Flames/Hitmen in Calgary and Oilers/Oil Kings in Edmonton, just isn’t in the cards for Winnipeg at this time.

Portage la Prairie, Manitoba – Located 126 km east of Brandon and 85 km west of Winnipeg, Portage la Priarie is a community of 12,996 in the city according to the 2011 Census, with another 20,494 in the region according to the 2006 census. Portage Credit Union Centre Arena has a seating capacity of 1,675 plus standing room for an additional 300, giving it a total Capacity of 1,975 which is still a little small for WHL standards, but the fact that the arena was just opened in 2010 makes it a little bit more of an appealing option. I believe it’s doubtful the league looks at Portage la Prairie as a viable option unless the cities population increases, but it does have the fact that it’s a close geographical rival for Brandon and would also be another stop on road trips for teams heading to the far east of the league. I am sure they will stay home to the MJHL’s Portage Terriers a team founded in 1942 for years to come though instead of getting an WHL team.

Yorkton, Saskatchewan – 187 km from Regina and 285 km from Brandon a team in Yorkton would offer another Eastern team in the WHL, but I am pretty sure it wouldn’t be one of the first places the league would look. Population wise Yorkton is very comparable to a place like Swift Current. As of the 2011 Census it had a population of 15,669 in the city and 18,238 in the area. Yorkton is currently home to the Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and has been since 1972. The team has always been near the top of the SJHL in attendance, although they leagues attendance average has been unimpressive this season.  The Terriers play out of the 1,483 seat Farrell Agencies Arena, which is well below WHL standards and very unlikely to be able to be upgraded to WHL standards either. A new WHL sized arena in a smaller centre like Yorkton is highly unlikely, so I wouldn’t anticipate it being considered as a WHL home anytime soon.

Lloydminster, Saskatchewan/Alberta – The city of Lloydminster isn’t a huge centre, but does have a decent population base and would be far from the smallest centre in the WHL if it were to land a team. With a city population of 27,804 according to the 2011 census and an area population of 31,377 according to their 2015 municipal census it fits the description of a smaller WHL population base. It’s also logistically viable being pretty close to the halfway point between two other WHL franchises in Edmonton and Saskatoon. The city is currently home to AJHL’s Lloydminster Bobcats who last season were only behind the Brooks Bandits for AJHL attendance with an average of 1222. Not anywhere near what would be needed attendance wise for a WHL team, but still a respectable number for a lower tier league. The 1700 seat Centennial Civic Centre built in 1967 would be a bit small and outdated to host a WHL team, but if the oil and gas industry picks up again in the area and there is a desire to build a new state of the art arena I could see Lloydminster being a viable expansion option for the WHL at some point.

North Battleford, Saskatchewan – The Battlefords North Stars have been the top drawing SJHL team so far during the 2016-17 season, but that number is only marginally over 800 fans per game. The team does also have one of the stronger attendance histories of SJHL teams as well, and although their arena the Civic Centre isn’t exactly up to WHL standards it does at least have 2500 seats, even though the building that was opened in 1962. North Battleford is also a bigger centre than the leagues smallest market of Swift Current with 19,216 people in the Battleford area as of the 2011 Census. Logistically it’s not a bad fit either as it’s on the Yellowhead highway and is just a short drive to two other WHL cities in Saskatoon 141 km away and Prince Albert 211 km away. The realistic possibility of a new WHL standard arena and the WHL looking to go to another small market like North Battleford is highly unlikely though.

Whitehorse, Yukon – The isolated North Western community has a population of 27,889 in the area and is home to the Takhini Arena a 1534 seat arena which hosts their local senior men’s team. The arena is a little small for WHL standards and the location is a bit further than desired for travel, but it’s feasible that if a junior hockey league was ever formed in Alaska I think Whitehorse would be a viable option to have a team in that league which the arena would be likely fine for. As for every getting a WHL team, it’s very unlikely it’s ever truly considered.

Yellowknife, North West Territories – Another isolated Northern community with a population of 19,234 in the area is home to the the Ed Jesky Arena with a capacity of 930 seated. The arena again is way too small for WHL standards and the city much like Whitehorse is too isolated to consider sending junior hockey players all they way up there to play. It would be interested to see if they ever have a junior team entered into a Northern Alberta League, although they are still quite a driving distance, even though Northern Alberta is one area their minor hockey league teams will travel several hours to play. It’s too far east to be considered a decent travel distance either for any teams in Alaska if there ever was expansion or a new junior league formed out there.

Thunder Bay, Ontario – Okay, I’ll be honest I don’t see the WHL ever expanding this far east, but I don’t ever see the OHL likely expanding that far West either. Thunder Bay is 925 km from the Brandon Wheat Kings the next closest WHL franchise and is still 708 km from the next closest OHL franchise the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. So even though Thunder Bay has a strong population of 108,359 in the city as of the 2011 census and another 121,596 in the area it’s literally in the middle of no where as far as the WHL and OHL are concerned. They do currently have a team in the Superior International Junior Hockey League a Canadian Junior A league a step below both the WHL and OHL that has teams in Ontario, Minnesota and Wisconsin. That team the Thunder Bay North Stars play out of the Fort Williams Gardens which seats 4,680 and was built in 1951 and renovated in 1995. The arena is also host to a CIS team the Lakehead Thunderwolves that plays against Ontario Universities. If the city can host a University hockey team, maybe an OHL team might not be a complete stretch, I still see that as doubtful, but a WHL team I’d have to say not a chance.

American Options (22)

Billings, Montana – The city of Billings was home to a WHL team named the Bighorns from 1977-1982 after the Calgary Centennials Franchise had moved there. This team is the current day Tri-City Americans who have been there since 1988 after making stops in Nanaimo and New Westminister. In the teams five seasons in Billings it produced 23 NHL Alumni which included Andy Moog, Gord Kluzak, Mark Lamb, Dave Barr, Pokey Reddick, Bob Rouse, Rocky Trottier, Randy Moller, Murray Brumwell, Rod Buskas, Lindsay Carson, Pat Conacher, Ray Cote, Mike Eagles, Brian Ford, Bruce Holloway, Jim McGeough, Jim McTaggart, Don Nachbaur, Harvie Pocza, Mike Toal,  Leigh Verstraete, and Mike Zanier. In 360 regular season games the team compiled a record of 164 wins, 172 losses and 24 ties. Billings is still home to the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark which hosted the Bighorns when they were in town. The arena underwent $27 million in renovations in 2010-11 so it has had some updating done and boasts a capacity of 8,700 for hockey which would make it the seventh biggest arena used in the WHL. Seating Map for Hockey at MetraPark Arena. The city of Billing is also the largest city in the State of Montana with populations of 109,059 for the City, 114,773 Urban and 166,885 in the Metro. Billings is currently home to the Bulls of the North American 3 Hockey League which is a lower tier American Junior A league. The team plays in the smaller 550 seat Centennial Ice Arena and regularly sells out after previously playing at Metrapark until their lease wasn’t renewed. The Bulls have produced two NHL alumni so far in Chris Holt (2 NHL Games) and Brian Lee (209 NHL Games). I have no doubt in my mind that the city of Billings would support a WHL franchise with at the very least 3000 or more fans to their games at Metra Park, but I think the biggest knock against expanding there is the distance to other WHL franchises, with the closest team being the Swift Current Broncos who are 354 miles or 570 kilometres to the North and the closest American team the Spokane Chiefs beings 542 Miles away or 872 kilometres. I think if the WHL is looking at Montana as an expansion option, their best bet would be to put teams in Billings as well as other Montana cities to create a road trip loop for teams travelling through the state.

Great Falls, Montana – Great Falls is another city who once had a WHL franchise but for only part of one season in 1979-80 playing 28 games and only winning two before folding and relocating to Spokane the following season where they ended up ceasing operations. The team had previously moved to Great Falls from Edmonton where it had a previous version of the Oil Kings, who a season prior to that where the Flin Flon Bombers, one of the leagues original franchises. The WHL’s Great Falls Americans played in the Four Seasons Arena which was opened just prior to the 1979 season and had a hockey capacity of 4,146, It however is no longer used for ice hockey. In their short time in the WHL the Americans did boast two future NHLers in Dave Barr and Ken Daneyko. Great Falls is currently home to a North American 3 Hockey League team also named the Americans who play out of the 1500 seat Great Falls IcePlex. Their would likely need to be a new arena constructed or quite a few upgrades to the Four Seasons Arena for the WHL to consider putting a franchise back in this Montana city after such a ill fated first attempt back in 1979. I feel a Great Falls team even though geographically closer to a lot more WHL teams than a place like Billings would need another Montana franchise to help generate interest and help create a road trip loop for the other teams travelling to play in Montana. The closest Canadian team isn’t too far with the Lethbridge Hurricanes only 187 miles or 301 kilometres away and the closest American team the Spokane Chiefs is a 364 mile or 586 kilometre drive.  The city of Great Falls has a population of 59,351 with a Metro of 82,384. It wouldn’t be a bad location for a WHL team if an acceptable arena was in place and the fan support and community interest was there.

Missoula, Montana – The city of Missoula has never had an WHL franchise, but out of the three biggest cities in Montana it may offer the best geographical location, as it’s only 197 miles or 317 kilometres from the closest American team the Spokane Chiefs and 252 miles or 406 kilometres from the closest Canadian team the Kootenay Ice. Travel to Great Falls if there was also a team there would be the closest at 168 miles or 271 kilometres, with Billings still being a bit of travel at 343 miles or 552 kilometres. The city of Missoula is the second biggest in Montana with 69,821 in the city and 112,684 in the Metro. The city is currently home to the Missoula Mauler a member of the Western State Hockey League a Junior B league and play out of the Glacier Ice Rink with a capacity of 1200 which was opened in 1996. For a WHL team to survive in Missoula a bigger arena would need to be built as the Glacier Ice Rink is smaller to small for WHL hockey and the Dahlberg Arena where the University of Montana Grizzlies Basketball team plays which boast a 7,321 seat capacity doesn’t appear to my knowledge have ever been used as an ice arena, nor would it be likely able to be converted into one. The best bet to get a new facility may be to see if the dated Dahlberg Arena built in 1953 would be due for replacement with a dual purpose facility, however it did undergo a $14.7 million renovation in 1999, but that’s already 17 years ago. Missoula may be one of the more appealing Montana options for the WHL and may even survive without another Montana team if a new facility was built and the city supported the team.

Bozeman, Montana – The fourth biggest city in Montana with 41,660 in the city and the third biggest Metro with 97,398 is another viable expansion option for the WHL.  It currently is home to the Bozeman Icedogs of the North American 3 Hockey League who play out of the Haynes Pavilion which holds 1200, which is too small to host a WHL team, however the Valley Ice Garden the previous home of the Icedogs has a capacity of 3500 and was built in 1996 which could very well be considered an acceptable WHL sized venue, with likely some upgrades needed. Bozeman is located geographically between Billings and Missoula, so if WHL teams were placed in both those markets it would increase the viability of a team in Bozeman. The city has supported various Icedogs teams since 1996, so the fact that they are one of the few cities in the State with a presumably viable WHL arena and 144 mile or 232 kilometre drive from Billings bodes well for putting a team in Bozeman if the WHL decides Billings is also a desirable option. Another team in Missoula would put three Montana teams all along Highway 90 which leads to Spokane making the idea of Montana expansion maybe less far fetched than one would think.

Helena, Montana – Helena is home to 29,596 in the city and 76,850 in their Metro. It’s home to the Helena Bighorns of the North American 3 Hockey League who play out of the Helena Ice Arena which is a 1600 seat facility. The team is actually owned by Oren Koules a former WHL players and former owner of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning who’s son Miles Koules split the 2014-15 season between the Medicine Hat Tigers and Portland Winterhawks, not to mention the fact the Oren is also very well known for creating and producing the Saw movie franchise and for also producing the television series Two and Half Men. So I firmly believe if Mr. Koules wanted to expand the hockey market into Montana and get a WHL team in Helena, there would be no issues with financial backing and it could probably get done as long as a WHL standard arena was built. Considering Helena is central to all the other Montana markets I believe this makes it a very viable location if expansion into Montana was desired by the WHL.

Butte, Montana – Butte is home to 33,854 with very few more in their Metro at 34,523. It is home to the Butte Cobras of the Western States Hockey League (Jr. B) who play at the Butte Community Arena which has a capacity of only 700. Butte would be a long shot to be considered for a team and would need a new arena. The only reason I see it as an option to be listed is if there is other expansion into Montana as it’s in between Bozeman and Missoula and just south of Helena. Realistically though it’s very unlikely the WHL ever considers Butte.

Boise, Idaho – If the East Coast Hockey Leagues Idaho Steelheads ever decide to leave Boise, Idaho it could be considered another option for WHL expansion although it’s debatable whether it’s getting a little far south as it’s 1091 miles or 1756 kilometres from the northernmost WHL team the Prince George Cougars and still 287 miles or 462 kilometres from the closest WHL team the Tri-Cities Americans. The city of Boise does have 216,282 residents and a Metro of 664,422 when including the five surrounding counties. Boise also is home to the 5002 seat CenturyLink Arena Boise which opened in 1997. The Steelheads have drawn annual average crowds between 3905 and 4513 since 2003 so they have had steady support. I think the only way a team is considered here is if the Steelheads do in fact move and the added travel to get there isn’t a concern for the other Western League teams. I believe further expansion into Montana would also increase the likelihood of a team being viable in Boise.

Bend, Oregon – A little more central in the State the city of Bend is about 162 miles or 261 km south east of Portland and still 242 miles or 389 km south west of the next closest WHL franchise the Tri-City Americans. It did have 76,639 residents during the 2010 census and an estimated 81,236 as of a 2015 estimate with 165,954 in the area so it’s not a bad size. It however does not appear to have much in the way of hockey in the city, and it doesn’t have anything that would resemble a WHL arena, combined with how far south it is, it’s not a place I see the WHL likely ever going.

Medford, Oregon – A city with 77,677 and a metro of 208,545. The city is currently home to the Southern Oregon Spartans of the Western States Hockey League (Jr. B) who play out of the RRRink which only holds about 600 people, but is always close to capacity for Spartans games. The city would definitely need a new arena to be considered a viable option. The city itself is 274 miles or 441 kilometre drive south of Portland so it is stretching the WHL a little further south if it considers expansion. I do see it as a alright option from some aspects, but logistically going further south and the fact there are numerous other options that are a little more attractive make it a doubtful location for the league to expand.

Eugene, Oregon – Located 111 miles or 179 km south of Portland the next closest WHL market, Eugene would be the leagues furthest southern team if it were to expand there. It is a decent sized centre with 156,185 in the city as of the 2010 Census and 163,460 estimated in 2015 to go with a surrounding area of 362,895. It is also the home to the NCAA’s fairly well known Oregon Ducks Football and Basketball teams. The Ducks basketball team play out of the 12,364 seat Matthew Knight Arena, which was just opened in 2011 and unfortunately does not appear to be designed to be used as a hockey arena. The local junior hockey team in the city is the Eugene Generals of the USPHL tier 3 division which play out of the 2,700 seat Lane Events Center which is still a little on the smaller side for WHL hockey, but could be used temporarily if a new arena was constructed.  I don’t see Eugene as a terrible location for expansion with a new arena in place, I would say there are still better options available and I just don’t know if the WHL would want to go south of Portland either.

Salem, Oregon – A little bit close to Portland, the city of Salem is only 47 miles or 76 km south of the next closest WHL franchise the Winterhawks and much like Eugene it is a decent sized market with 154,637 in the city during the 2010 census and an estimated 164,549 estimated in 2016. The area population is even more attractive with a population of 400,408. Being as close as it is to Portland I am not sure how viable it would be to put a team in Salem and as far as a place to host the team, there really doesn’t appear to be a WHL calibre arena available, nor does it appear to have a strong hockey following at this time either. I would say unless the city of Portland someday gets an NHL team and they want to relocate the WHL team to a close city like Salem instead of keeping it in Portland, there probably isn’t much of a chance the league would go there.

Bellingham, Washington – Bellingham is only 24 miles or 39 km south of the Canadian border, and very close to the Vancouver market, yet still 98 miles north of Everett the next closest WHL market after Vancouver. The city of Bellingham has a decent population base in the city with 80,885 according to the 2010 US Census and 85,146 during a 2015 estimate. The surrounding area boast 212,284, so the size for a WHL team is there and logistically it’s in not a bad spot either. The city has been home to the Bellingham Blazers of the Western States Hockey League a tier two league since 2012. The Blazers play out of the Bellingham Sportsplex which I am unsure of the seating capacity, but from pictures I can guarantee it is far from adequate by WHL standards, so a new arena would definitely have to be built for the city to be considered a viable WHL option. I’d see Bellignham as a long shot to get a team as I don’t know if the community would ever have the desire to build a WHL quality arena.

Tacoma, Washington – From 1991 to 1995 Tacoma was home to the Rockets before they moved to Kelowna. During that time they played in the Tacoma Dome a decent sized multipurpose venue which had some bad sight lines for hockey and really wasn’t ideal for it the way it was set up, even though it had about 17,000 seats. Realistically if the arena would have been more hockey specific I have a feeling the Rockets probably wouldn’t have left. With the Seattle Thunderbirds now playing in Kent, Washington which is basically right in between Seattle and Tacoma and about a 20 mile or 32 km drive either way I realistically don’t see the point for another team in the market as it already also has a team in Everett, Washington, which is just under 30 miles north of Seattle. The city of Tacoma does boast a solid population base of 198,397 according to the 2010 Census and has an estimate of 207,948 according to a 2015 estimate making it a good market size for the WHL. I guess it’s not totally unreasonable to think that the 4.46 million people in the Seattle area couldn’t support a third WHL team, but I just don’t see this one happening unless it was a relocation of the Thunderbirds in the distant future if the NHL ever comes to the city.

Yakima, Washington – Another city in Washington state with a decent population base with 91,067 as of the 2010 Census and 93,701 as of a 2015 estimate, it also has 248.830 in the area. The city is located near two other WHL franchises, being 84 miles or 134 km west of the Tri-City Americans and 140 miles or 225 km east of the Seattle Thunderbirds. The biggest downfall appears to be that there doesn’t look to be much in the way of hockey in the city and there would need to be an ice plant installed in the Yakima SunDome which seats 6,159 for Basketball or a new arena built if it isn’t viable for hockey or up to WHL standards. At this point Yakima is a very doubtful expansion location.

Wenatchee, Washington – As the only American team in the British Columbia Hockey League Wenatchee may very well be looking to win over the idea of the WHL expanding there. Location is on their side as they are in a fairly central location in the State of Washington being 123 miles or 198 km East of the Everett Silvertips, 131 mile or 210 km north from the Tri-City Americans, 145 miles or 233 km east from the Seattle Thunderbirds, and 170 miles or 274 km west from the Spokane Chiefs. They could be looked at by the WHL as a solid location for teams to stop during their American road trip. The other thing Wenatchee has going for them is their arena, the Town Toyota Centre which was just opened in 2008 and has seating for 4,300 making it a decent size for a WHL franchise. The one downfall is the population of Wenatchee isn’t exactly huge at 31,925 according to the 2010 census and 33,636 during a 2015 estimate. It does however have 67,227 in the area so it’s not a super small market by any means. I think those concerns can probably be put to rest a little by the strong attendance they are getting in the BCHL where they led the league with a 2924 average during the 2015-16 Seasons and still sit in the leagues top three so far this season with an average of 2279. Those numbers would be sure to increase with higher calibre hockey. I think this is one US market that if they continue to be a strong market for the BCHL, it will only be a matter of time before the WHL strongly considers it as a viable location for a team.

Minot, North Dakota – Not too far south of where the Manitoba-Saskatchewan and US border meet is where Minot is located. It’s actually only 53 miles or 85 km from the closest border crossing. The city is 166 miles or 267 km from the Brandon Wheat Kings and 245 miles  or 394 km from the Regina Pats the two closest current WHL franchises. Minot had a population of 40,888 during the 2010 Census and appear to be growing fairly quick with the 2015 population estimate up to 49,450, with the area population from the 2010 census at 77,959. The city was home to an Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team from 1987-1997 named the American and then the Top Guns and are currently home to the Minot Minotauros of the NAHL who currently play out of the Maysa Arena a 1,800 seat arena opened in 2000, after moving from the All Seasons Arena which also hosted the SJHL clubs and seats 3,900, but is a little dated and would likely need upgrades or replacement to host a WHL team. The city is also home to a NCAA division two team, the Minot State Beavers. If the city either upgrades their current arena or built a new one and the city continues to grow I could see Minot being a viable place for the WHL to expand East. I however really don’t see it as a highly likely scenario though unless multiple teams were put into North Dakota or Montana as well.

Bismark, North Dakota – The second most populated centre in North Dakota, Bismark is a place the WHL may consider if they ever set up multiple teams in North Dakota. The city as of the 2010 census had 61.272 and has grown rapidly with a population estimate in 2015 of 71,167. The surrounding area had a population of 129,517 as of the 2010 census. Bismark is 254 miles or 409 km from the Brandon Wheat Kings and 110 miles or 117 km south of Minot, another possible expansion location. Bismark is currently home to the Bobcats a NAHL team that plays out of the V.F.W. Sports Center which seats 1,289 and a capacity of 1,400 with standing room.  The teams attendance has been strong over the year, but if there was ever a desire to land a WHL team they would need a viable arena. Bismark would only be a consideration if the WHL sets out to put multiple teams in North Dakota or Montana.

Grand Forks, North Dakota – The third most populous place in North Dakota is Grand Forks with 52,838 during the 2010 census and 57,011 according to a 2015 estimate the area also is home to 102,449 people. Grand Forks already has a NCAA team with the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks playing out of the Ralph Engelstad Arena an 11,643 seat arena opened in 2001, which hosted the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship in 2005. The NCAA team has a number of NHL alumni, with the most notable being Hall of Famer Ed Belfour and current NHL standouts T.J. Oshie, Zach Parise, and Jonathan Toews. The building is very much a WHL quality arena, although it does have international sized ice, however Grand Forks is getting very far into the the south east corner of North Dakota and the next closest WHL team the Brandon Wheat Kings are 255 miles or 410 km away. The way I look at it is that if the NCAA team and a WHL team could co-exist and the WHL expanded into North Dakota with multiple teams Grand Forks would be a must, but unless that comes to fruition I don’t see the WHL expanding there.

Fargo, North Dakota – Fargo is the largest city in North Dakota with 105,549 in the city as of the 2010 Census, an estimate of 118,523 as of 2015 and an area population of 233,836. It is already home to a tier one Junior Hockey team named the Fargo Force which makes the likelihood of the WHL expanding here doubtful, since players for the Force remain eligible for NCAA hockey where as WHL players do not, and even though the USHL is a step down in talent from the WHL, it’s not as much as some may think. The Force play out of Sheels Arena a 5,000 seat arena opened in 2008 that would probably still need some upgrades if it was to ever be a WHL arena. The only way I could see a WHL club here is if the USHL team was no longer there and the WHL had multiple teams in North Dakota, as Fargo is 332 miles or 534 km to the closest WHL team in Brandon, Manitoba.

Anchorage, Alaska – Okay, I know what you are thinking Alaska, you can’t be serious. And for the most part I’m not, but still want to look at the viability if you forget about the fact that it’s 2751 km away from the next closest WHL team the Prince George Cougars. Anchorage is home to 291,926 people as of the 2010 census and grew to 298,695 according to the 2015 estimate. The area had a 2010 census population of 396,142 which is a very decent size. They are already currently home to the East Coast Hockey League’s Alaska Aces which is a little ironic because they are about as far from the East Coast as you are going to get. The Aces have been there since 1989 playing out of the Sullivan Arena which has 6,290 seats and room for 6,490 with standing room and also is international sized ice. The arena opened in 1983 and saw renovations in 2015. It’s also home to the Alaska Anchorage Sea Wolves NCAA division one hockey team. Even if it was closer to the other WHL cities I think an ECHL and NCAA division one team is probably already enough hockey for Anchorage, although I think it may not be a bad spot for the WHL to consider having a showcase game if they ever wanted to spark some interest in the league in Alaska.

Fairbanks, Alaska – Still looking at Alaska here and even though it’s a little closer to the Prince George Cougars at 2565 km away, it’s very doubtful ever a place of consideration, but to humour us, lets see what it has to offer. As the second biggest city in Alaska, Fairbanks had a population of 32,070 as of the 2010 census and an area population of 97,581 which still isn’t massive by WHL standards. Surprisingly enough though there is an NCAA division one hockey team the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nannoks that play out of the 4,595 seat Carlson Center than opened in 1990 and is also international sized ice. The arena could be a viable stop if the WHL ever decided to do an Alaska tour. The city is also home to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs a tier two junior team in the NAHL that has been active in various leagues since 1997. The Ice Dogs play in the Big Dipper Ice Arena an 1,857 seat, 2,242 with standing room capacity arena that was built in 1968. Between the two teams there is more than enough hockey entertainment for the city of Fairbanks and it’s really never going to be a viable WHL option either.

Juneau, Alaska – Well we have already established that Alaska isn’t going to happen for the WHL, but we’ll still look at what intrigue Juneau may have, if any. It is the third biggest centre in Alaska at 32,167 as of the 2010 Census and  would be a very small market by WHL standards if they were even close enough to consider. Ironically enough they are a closer drive to the WHL’s Prince George Cougars at 1863 km than the distance for the Cougars to travel to the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, but only by a whopping 19 km. That being said, I am pretty sure a person would rather travel the road to Brandon from Prince George than to Juneau during the winter months. The city of Juneau has a University but does not have any competitive athletic teams. It also does not appear to have any competitive hockey teams. From what I could find it has the Treadwell Ice Arena, which appears to be a small community rink with limited seating. So, although a little closer to the WHL markets than other Alaskan cities, Juneau really doesn’t have anything going for it at this point that would make it viable a team in the WHL or any other competitive league at this point.

2 thoughts on “Potential WHL expansion Locations

  1. Vernon is 50kms from Kelowna and 100kms from Kamloops, great for traveling teams and great for 2 natural geographical rivals. Vernon Vipers of the BCHL have won the Royal Bank Cup (national jr A championship) 4 times in the past 20 yrs (no other team has won it more than twice). Vernon has a metro population of 60,000 plus, small but larger than Penticton and several others cities with existing teams.

  2. Great write-up! I believe Coeur d’ Alene Idaho would be a great addition to the US Division and Penticton would rule the BC Division!!! Fun stuff.

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