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‘Our city needs something like this’: The road to bringing the Memorial Cup back to Kelowna

Among a sea of red pennants hanging from the rafters of Prospera Place, one stands out from the rest, one that the Kelowna Rockets have tried to add another but only fell short of – the 2004 Memorial Cup champions banner.

And a little more than 20 years since they hosted the coveted tournament and set expectations going forward, according to the former WHL commissioner, the Kelowna Rockets announced they placed a bid to host the 2026 edition of the event last week, but to get to this point in the process, there have been plenty of ups and downs.

The Rockets have competed In the prestigious tournament five times, with the 2004 tournament being the sole instance they won the cup, doing so on home ice.

“Well, the first memory certainly goes back to the 2004 Memorial Cup and watching the Rockets win on home ice,” said former WHL Commissioner Ron Robison on a visit to Kelowna in January 2024.

“I don't think anything will ever match that with regard to the memories of the Kelowna Rockets.”

<who> Photo Credit: NowMedia/Corvin Vaski</who> Ron Robison

The tournament was so close to returning to the Okanagan in 2020, but the global pandemic cancelled the event, and many wondered if that meant Kelowna would get the opportunity to host in 2023, the next time the event was to be played at a WHL rink.

Kelowna did not make a bid on the 2023 event, with it instead going to the Kamloops Blazers.

In prior years, the host team was selected by the league they resided in, as was the case when the Rockets won the 2020 bid in 2018, but that had since changed, with the host now being selected by the Canadian Hockey League, and with the changed selection process came new requirements for host arenas, something the Rockets fell short of.

“Ultimately, an agreement with the Rockets, City of Kelowna and the GSL Group could not be reached to make necessary capital improvements to the building,” reads a statement from the team in May 2022.

“As a result, the building did not meet the minimum standards required to host the event by the CHL, and consequently, the Rockets could not proceed with our bid to host the 2023 Memorial Cup.”

The Rockets’ hopes of hosting the event were out of their control, and they needed either the City or the arena’s operator, GSL Group, to invest and make the necessary improvements.

<who> Photo Credit: NowMedia/Corvin Vaski</who> Tom Dyas

Fast forward a little more than two years – and the three parties have a deal that will see the City of Kelowna invest $3.7 million into the building along with a $350,000 grant towards the Memorial Cup bid.

No incremental fees will be required from the City to pay for the upgrades, as the funds will be taken out of an allocation from the 2023 surplus.

“We've been somewhat handcuffed because we had to get over the hump here getting the facility up to the standards, and now that the City is fully committed to help and make sure this happens, it made a lot of sense to move forward and we're excited,” said Bruce Hamilton, Rockets president and GM, last week.

Some of the improvements the arena will see include a new scoreboard, ring lighting, an audio system, a permanent media facility, Zambonis, dressing room restructuring and more is expected to be announced.

“The City of Kelowna as a partner for this bid is committed to investing in the necessary legacy capital improvements to Prospera place to ensure (that) they will comply with both the WHL and the CHL standards for the bid requirements,” said Mayor Tom Dyas last week.

“The improvements will have benefits and impacts beyond the Memorial Cup, as they will prepare the city for the upcoming large-scale events like the 2025 Brier and the 2025 Canadian Country Music Awards.”

GSL’s side of the deal is a little fuzzy, but the mayor said that as the bid progresses, the City and GSL will be able to “itemize their relationship.”

"We are excited about the possibility of welcoming the Memorial Cup back to Kelowna and to showcase our community on a national stage," said Graham Lee, president of GSL Group.

"As owners of Prospera Place, we are committed to providing the best possible venue and support to ensure the success of the event."

<who> Photo Credit: NowMedia/Corvin Vaski</who> Bruce Hamilton

According to Hamilton, the CHL will decide on the host of the 2026 event in December and as of June 17, no other team had publicly announced a bid.

“I think once our bid is made public like it is right now, I think that there will be some people probably decide that they are going to step away also,” explained Hamilton.

“I'm not saying that in arrogance or anything. I think that there (are) a lot of people (who) feel that we deserve to have an opportunity to have this again because of 2020, but it's not a given. You have to earn it.”

Hamilton also explained that the event is substantially bigger than it previously was and that without the City’s help, the club would not be in a position to place a bid.

According to Dyas, the event would bring approximately $15 million in economic activity to the region, “creating more jobs and more opportunities for our residents.”

Not only would the tournament have a strong economic impact, but it would be held when the tourism industry is beginning to pick up speed around the end of May,

“It’s important that we bring in shoulder season type of events,” said Dyas, adding that it is a way to help restaurants and the local economy in case wildfires affect revenues later in the season.

From a team standpoint, the Kelowna Rockets are in a strong position to be a tough competitor by the time the event comes around.

<who> Photo Credit: Steve Dunsmoor/Kelowna Rockets

In 2020, the Rockets had to do a lot of shopping, putting all their eggs in one basket and eventually impacting the team’s performance for some time.

“I want this for the city of Kelowna and we as an organization want it for the city of Kelowna, but we want to try and win again. That's the most important thing,” added Hamilton.

“Covid knocked the heck out of our organization, and now we're excited about we've made it back, we've rebuilt, we're ready to go and were excited about the hockey side of things again.”

This past season, the Rockets made it past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in seven years, eventually falling to the Prince George Cougars.

One name that could potentially headline the event if it were to come to Kelowna would be projected 2024 first-round draft pick Tij Iginla, but he could be well into his NHL journey by that point.

“We set the standard the last time we hosted it, and it's time to do it again,” said Hamilton before adding that the city needs an event like this.

“And we'll even make it bigger and better and make our city proud.”

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