Standout forward Zach Benson is part of the Winnipeg Ice franchise that is relocating to Wenatchee. (Erica Perreaux photo)

Standout forward Zach Benson is part of the Winnipeg Ice franchise that is relocating to Wenatchee. (Erica Perreaux photo)

Silvertips chief says addition of Wenatchee ‘good for the division’

Chief operating officer Zoran Rajcic reacts to the surprising news of Winnipeg’s move to Wenatchee and the U.S. Division.

Zoran Rajcic was anticipating a long Tuesday night as the WHL attempted to redo a 2023-24 schedule that had been all but completed.

Indeed, the Everett Silvertips’ chief operating officer was caught by surprise just like everyone else by last week’s news that the U.S. Division was expanding.

Last Friday the WHL announced that the Winnipeg Ice had been sold and were relocating to Washington to become the Wenatchee Wild, along with a corresponding switch from the East Division to the U.S. Division. Therefore, for the first time since Everett entered the league as an expansion franchise in 2003, the division will have something other than five teams.

Thus Rajcic’s anticipated long night, as the U.S. Division teams attempted to re-jig their schedules to accommodate five division rivals rather than four.

“I found out on Thursday night when I got a version of the schedule that said this is what we needed to do, if the vote passed on Friday,” Rajcic said. “I had no inclination before.

“I was a little bit surprised because of the fact that Wenatchee had a good thing going with what they had,” Rajcic added. “But it’s going to be good for the division and good for the conference.”

The Ice leaving Winnipeg was not a surprise. When the Ice were sold and relocated from Cranbrook, B.C., to Winnipeg in 2019, it was with the understanding that the new ownership group would build a WHL-specific arena to house the team. But no progress was made in getting a new facility off the ground, and rumors swirled throughout the 2022-23 season about the franchise’s future.

However, while the Ice moving was not a surprise, Wenatchee was not among the expected destinations. With a population of approximately 35,000, Wenatchee becomes one of the smallest markets in the WHL. And while Wenatchee has had a junior hockey team named the Wild since the 4,300-capacity Town Toyota Center opened in 2008, the team seemed entrenched in the BCHL, where it had been a successful member since joining the league in 2015. With the WHL coming to town, Wenatchee will no longer operate in the BCHL.

By joining the WHL’s U.S. Division, the Wild will have more natural rivals than it had in the BCHL, where it was the only team based south of the border.

“We experienced it the first year, people can relate with where places like Spokane are,” Rajcic said. “When you throw Prince George out there people have no idea where that is. I believe it should help, them being right in the center of the state. They’re two hours from us — it’s straight up Hewitt Avenue and onto the Trestle to Wenatchee — and they’re two hours from Spokane. I think it will impact our travel in a positive way, and there’s an opportunity to build a good rivalry because of the proximity.”

One way the Tips will be affected is in how often it plays each of its division rivals. In past years Everett has typically faced Seattle and Portland 10 times a season and Spokane and Tri-City eight times. This season those numbers will be reduced, with the Tips facing Wenatchee, Seattle and Portland eight times, while facing Spokane and Tri-City six times. The swap of conferences also gives the Western Conference 11 teams, and the odd number means that there will be some prime weekend dates where one team doesn’t have a dance partner.

The additional Western Conference team also means Everett will have a slightly harder time keeping its playoff streak alive. The Tips qualified for the postseason in every season of franchise history in which playoffs were played. Now there will be three teams in the conference who miss out on the postseason instead of two.

“It’s always been our objective as an organization to make the playoffs,” Rajcic said. “This will put a little more pressure on the hockey operations staff to accomplish that goal. But we’re not looking at eighth place, we’re always looking for a top-four spot year-in and year-out. We still feel confident in our hockey operations to build a strong, competitive team, and adding another team (to the Western Conference) doesn’t affect our thinking.”

So what kind of team can Everett expect to face? The Ice had tremendous success while they were in Winnipeg, winning the Scotty Munro Trophy for the league’s best regular season record each of the past two seasons. Among the high-profile players expected to return this season are first-round NHL draft picks Matthew Savoie and Connor Geekie, as well as Zach Benson, who is expected to be a high first-round pick in next week’s NHL draft. However, the Wild also inherited a team that severely depleted its draft resources while loading up for unsuccessful championship runs each of the past two seasons. How the organization chooses to navigate the situation will play a large role in how competitive Wenatchee is, both in the upcoming season and beyond.

But overall Rajcic is looking forward to the Wild joining the division.

“They’ve developed a decent hockey market in Wenatchee,” Rajcic said. “We have a lot to gain from it, it’s a new rivalry with a close-proximity partner.

“It’s way better for us than if they moved to Walla Walla, that’s for sure.”

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