Four years after trying to join the B.C. Hockey League, the Wenatchee Wild are in for the 2015-16 season.
The Wild were officially introduced Monday as the league’s 17th franchise at a media conference held in the central Washington city. The expansion fees are believed to be $1.2 million, meaning each established club will receive $75,000.
“The BCHL is gaining a strong franchise in the Wenatchee Wild and we value the passion and professionalism they bring to our league,” said BCHL commissioner John Grisdale.
“The Wild will quickly develop rivalries with our existing franchises and I believe they will be a big draw in opposing buildings.”
Wenatchee is situated in north-central Washington and is the largest city and county seat of Chelan County. The population within the city limits in 2010 was 31,925.
Duncan Wray, who is the BCHL chairman of the board, accompanied Grisdale to Wenatchee.
“They are so keen and so happy to be in the BCHL,” said Wray, who also heads the franchise committee. “I did a head count at the rink and there were at least 160 people there, including about 10, 12 members of the press. I was blown away by the interest.”
“They had a luncheon outside with pulled pork sandwiches and we answered questions for about two and a half hours. The biggest concern from the fans was, ‘Whaddya mean there’s no fighting?’ When we told them you were ejected for one fight, they weren’t too happy about that either.”
The BCHL voted several months ago to accept Wenatchee, but had to wait for final approval from parent hockey bodies like Hockey Canada.
The Wild had been a member the North American Hockey League (NAHL) since the 2008-09 season. They have had a winning record in each of their seven seasons of existence and this past season, they had six players on their roster committed to NCAA Div. I programs.
Playing out of the gorgeous 4,300-seat Town Toyota Center, complete with luxury boxes, the team averaged about 3,000 fans with the average adult ticket $20.
Head coach/GM Bliss Littler, a native of Minot, N.D., is entering his 22nd year as a Junior hockey coach, and is the winningest coach in USA Hockey history.
“We could not be more excited or humbled to be joining the BCHL,” said Littler. “Knowing the history and reputation of the league, be it sending players to play NCAA Division I hockey, NHL draft picks or the professionalism of the member teams and league have, we look forward to being a good league member on and off the ice.”
As a U.S.-based club, the Wild will be allowed to roster a maximum of four Canadian players. They had two Canadians last year when they finished 14th in the 24-team NAHL.
“Bliss is well-known in hockey circles and is a really nice guy,” said Wray. “He has coached in the USHL and was coach of Team USA in the World Hockey Challenge and all our coaches know him and like him.”
David White, owner of a fruit distribution company in Fresno, is the Wild owner.
He moved the team to Wenatchee in 2013 after running the Fresno Monsters of the NAHL.
Wray was involved in Wenatchee’s failed attempt to join the BCHL in 2012 under different ownership.
The Wild become the first U.S.-based franchise in the BCHL since the Bellingham Ice Hawks, who operated from 1990 to 1995.
“They will play in the Mainland Division for this year and then we will evaluate things next year,” said Wray “It was actually Prince George’s choice to stay in the Mainland.”
Geographically, the closest BCHL cities to Wenatchee are Surrey, Langley, Coquitlam and Chilliwack — all about four-hour drives (depending on border waits).
Prince George is a 12-hour drive from Wenatchee. While that may seem like a grind, it’s actually a short hop compared to some of the Wild’s road trips in the NAHL, where the Wild competed in the South Division with six teams in Texas. Their closest divisional rival was 2,750 kilometres away in Topeka, Kan.
The BCHL begin their three-day annual general meetings Thursday in Victoria.