City, Keystone Centre, and Wheat Kings All Excited For New Partnership
Article Courtesy Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun
The Brandon Wheat Kings and the Keystone Centre have potentially extended their lease for another 10 years in a partnership spanning more than five decades.
The Western Hockey League team announced Wednesday afternoon they have signed a five-year lease with the facility, with another five-year mutual option tacked on to the end if both parties are happy. No financial terms were released.
“It’s a great feeling,” Wheat Kings owner and governor Jared Jacobson said. “I can’t thank (Keystone Centre vice-president of sales and assistant general manager) Connie Lawrence and (director of finance) Chris Cels enough for helping with the negotiations and working together with us, and letting everybody understand how their business works.
“I think a lot of transparency was given to each other, and it’s nice to be able to just focus on business after that and be done. It’s great having a home.”
The Wheat Kings played their first game in the facility on Oct. 14, 1972, thumping the visiting Winnipeg Jets 13-1 in front of 5,032 spectators.
“We want to see the Wheat Kings succeed,” Lawrence said.
“Absolutely. The city wants to see the Wheat Kings succeed. We’re very fortunate to have a WHL team in the city of Brandon for the size we are. I would hate to see that go anywhere.
“We’re fortunate to have them in the building. This is the home of the Wheat Kings and we want that to remain.”
Wheat Kings general manager and head coach Marty Murray, who played with the Wheat Kings three decades ago, said it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
The Keystone Centre was a big part of the Lyleton product’s path to the National Hockey League.
“When you say Brandon Wheat Kings, you talk about the Keystone or Westoba now,” Murray said.
“They go together, and I couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else … It’s the pride and passion and the history of this arena, that’s what the Wheat Kings are.
“If you look around the hallway and the locker room, a lot of really good things have happened over the last 50-plus years.”
The new deal will see some major improvements.
• New seats will be installed that are wider, reducing capacity by 300 to 500. They will replace seats that came out of the old Winnipeg Arena and were installed prior to the Memorial Cup in 2010.
• Air conditioning and dehumidification will be added for the first time.
• The bathrooms will be upgraded, with a focus on accessibility.
The seats will be installed next summer when the facility has some down time, with the bathrooms targeted in 2025.
Current city councillor and Bruce Luebke serves as the Keystone Centre’s chairperson. He is pleased how things turn out.
“I give a lot of credit to our management team at the Keystone Centre and the team to work through a new lease agreement and come up with something that is agreeable and fair for both sides,” Luebke said. “I think we’re always pleased to have a lease agreement with the Wheat Kings in place. They are definitely one of our primary tenants at the Keystone Centre, so to have them in the fold for the near future is very important for us.”
The two sides started the talks about a year ago, revisiting the old agreement to see what worked and what didn’t. Most of the heavy lifting on the agreement was completed in the last six months.
Jacobson said it was important for both sides to establish the intent of the negotiations and then to find a way to make it work for everyone.
“Both parties have to feel good about it for it to be successful,” Jacobson said. “That was a good thing. The intent of the lease was to make sure everybody protected the revenues they need to operate and find ways to grow revenues together. That was mutual because with the way things are going, everybody needs to create more revenue to pay the bills.”
Interestingly, one of the three major changes will actually reduce the revenue stream, as the seats are widened from 16 inches to 21.
The building’s current seating capacity is 5,102. Except for long playoffs runs like in 2015 and 2016, the extra seats, which will be equipped with drink holders, might only be needed a couple of times per season. It won’t affect the number of standing room tickets.
Still, Jacobson it’s said a major victory for everyone because it will make the fan experience a better one.
“Since day one, it’s been a huge thought for us,” Jacobson said. “Not only are these seats from other arenas in the past, they’re getting to the end of their lifespan. Just for the experience and the culture of the arena too, having black seats matching our team colours will be so nice to have that different feel.
“We’ll lose a few seats because of the size, but I think it will be great for the intimacy of the arena.”
“When we hit playoffs, definitely we can have that sellout but 95 per cent of the time, I think 4,500 to the 4,600 mark is actually a better selling point for everybody,” she said. “It makes it look fuller for anything we do.”
If there’s an underappreciated part of the deal, it has to be the addition of dehumidification and air conditioning in the building. On Sept. 24, 2016, the building became so foggy during Brandon’s home opener against the Moose Jaw Warriors that the players were removed from the ice for safety reasons.
The game was ultimately finished in February, but it’s the kind of unusual incident that can stain a reputation.
“The Keystone has been branded a Fog Bowl arena,” Lawrence said. “We don’t want that to happen, and once it settles in, you can’t remove it. You just can’t. I think this opens up a brand new avenue for us to go down.”
Lawrence notes that will allow the facility to hold summer events such as Professional Bull Riders, which would be impossible in the past on a hot day in the summer with 4,000 people in the stands. An unspoken part of the deal between the WHL franchise and a 51-year-old rink is the condition of the building.
Lawrence said the Keystone maintenance staff and engineers have done a terrific job over the last five decades keeping the building in good shape, and that shows.
“It is structurally sound, which is why we’re not replacing it,” Lawrence said. “For a 50-year-old building, it is still in relatively good shape. We do have challenges — I’m not going to say we don’t — but we always find a way to work around those challenges.”
The two sides have had a good working relationship all along.
Not long after Jacobson bought the team from Kelly McCrimmon in September 2020 in the teeth of the pandemic, the team and the building were able to capitalize on the quiet period by installing much safer new boards and glass to meet a WHL mandate.
Luebke notes the upcoming upgrades and the installation of the new video score clock are other examples of the facility building for the future.
“It shows a commitment on the Keystone Centre’s part and certainly from the board of directors’ part to try to upgrade the facility and maintain the facility to a level that is appropriate for a Western Hockey League team.”
Jacobson acknowledged the building serves a lot more than just his team, and the new lease had to reflect that fact.
“This facility is not only for the Wheat Kings or Brandon, it’s a provincial building or even people from across Canada coming to the Winter Fair,” Jacobson said. “Everybody will enjoy this.”
Luebke served as the Wheat Kings broadcaster for more than two decades and now is involved with the Keystone Centre, so he has seen things from both sides of the equation. He said the facility is well aware the Wheat Kings help bring other events to the Keystone Centre with their high visibility.
“We recognize the importance the Wheat Kings have for our facility,” Luebke said. “I think this lease agreement also shows the Wheat Kings understand how important it is to be a good partner with the Keystone Centre.”
Lawrence said it’s nice to have the deal done with one of their primary tenants. She appreciates that it was an amicable experience that will benefit both parties.
“It was a great feeling,” Lawrence said. “We went back and forth, and I don’t think there was ever harsh words. Did we disagree? Of course, we’re in negotiations. But I think we came to a really good understanding and also built a really good partnership.
“Going forward, I see that flourishing and growing.”