The Prince George Cougars have been sold to local businessman Greg Pocock and a group of investors that includes NHL players and former Cougars Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis, say several sources close to the team.
Pocock is the owner of Prince George Hydromechanical, an industrial cleaning services contractor, and is co-owner of Forest Power Sports, a Prince George-based recreational vehicle dealership.
The local sources, who requested anonymity, say the team was purchased for close to $7 million, while longtime owner Rick Brodsky had been asking for $8 million. With a tentative deal now in place, it still has to receive approval from the WHL head office and be passed by the league's board of directors.
Neither Pocock nor Brodsky returned calls to The Citizen on Sunday.
The Cougars have been the subject of rumours they would be moved to Nanaimo or Winnipeg. But Nanaimo lacks a WHL-sized arena, and now it appears Winnipeg will be the home of the Kootenay Ice next season.
Sources say the new ownership group plans to keep the team based in Prince George for at least the next two seasons. If the Cougars continue to lose money, the team will likely be moved to another city.
According to one source the Cougars stand to lose $650,000 this season, based on an operating budget of $1.8 million. One factor that could weigh against the club's recovery back to a profitable operation is low game attendance.
Through 33 home games this season, the Cougars have averaged just 1,688 spectators per game, 29.1 per cent of the rink's 5,967 capacity. That's by far the worst attendance in the 22-team WHL. The next worst on that list, Swift Current, averages 2,111, which is 73.3 per cent of capacity.
Under the 10-year sliding-scale lease the Cougars signed with the city in January 2010, the city takes between two and five per cent of ticket sales and suite revenues when attendance is low, but the city will receive as much as 30 per cent of those revenues if CN Centre is sold out. The team does not get concession revenues.
Brodsky has owned the Cougars franchise since 1992, when it was based in Victoria. He moved the team to Prince George in 1994 and the Cougars played their first season at the 1,800-seat Coliseum. In 1995, the Cougars took over as the prime tenants of what was the Prince George Multiplex (now CN Centre) and over the next five seasons the team built a fan following that was the envy of the WHL. For four consecutive seasons the Cougars built a season ticket base of 4,500 and drew capacity crowds of 5,700 for their games. The Cougars were one of the most profitable franchises in the league, thanks to a loyal fanbase.
But after years of consecutive losing seasons, attendance has steadily plummeted.
By comparison, the Kelowna Rockets have averaged 5,121 in 32 games, 85.2 per cent of capacity at Prospera Place, sixth best in the WHL. Calgary leads the league with an average of 8,072. Across the league, attendance is down from last season in every WHL city except Portland.
The Cranbrook-based Ice franchise, while one of the most successful on the ice, has also been losing money for several years. Kootenay averages 2,212 fans per game, third-worst in the league.
This is the 20th season for the Cougars in Prince George. In only five of those 20 seasons have the Cougars won more games than they've lost. In six of the past 10 years the Cats have missed the playoffs and they are dangerously close to missing out again this season for what would be a third consecutive season. Years of the team not living up to expectations have taken an obvious toll on the turnstiles.
The Cougars are the most geographically isolated team in the 22-team WHL. Their closest opponent is a six-hour bus rode away in Kamloops, which makes the team's travel costs among the league's highest.