WHL commish eyes new rivalries

JASON HILLS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

The Western Hockey League couldn't be stronger right now, and the Edmonton Oil Kings will only boost it's strength, according to league commissioner Rob Robison.

When Robison took over as WHL boss in 2000, the league was on the verge of gaining the Vancouver Giants as an expansion franchise. At that point the WHL was expanding to a 19th team.

By the 2003-04 season the Everett Silvertips joined the league, and last season the Chilliwack Bruins came on board. Just over 15 months ago, the WHL awarded Edmonton a franchise.

Robison admits there were some questions in recent years whether or not the league could handle expanding, but with the growth of over the past half decade, the WHL has clearly shown it was possible.

"We have no plans to expand any further. We feel where we are at right now is the perfect number of teams with 12 in the Eastern Conference and 10 in the Western Conference," said Robison.

"When I came into the league I was focused on how we could realign ourselves and create big rivalries in our divisions and I think we've done that."

The Central Division is arguably the toughest and strongest division not only in the WHL, but in the entire Canadian Hockey League. With Edmonton joining the division, Robison is excited about what kind of rivalries could be built.

"Consistently over the last 10 years this division has been our most competitive, and I don't think we could have a more ideal six-team division," added Robison.

"With the natural rivalry with Calgary and with the rest of the division being so tight, there are going to be some real great battles with these teams for year's to come."

The WHL has been a big powerhouse amongst their major junior rivals since the turn of the century.

The Red Deer Rebels won the Memorial Cup in 2001. The Kootenay Ice won in 2002. The Kelowna Rockets won in 2004, and the Giants won it last season.

The WHL has also been well represented at the past three World Junior Championships and at the recent Canada-Russia Super Series.

"That is really our bench- mark of how competitive we are at the national level, but the key to our success is we have a great development system at the minor hockey level and these franchises have raised the bar compared to what it was 20 years ago," said Robison.

One reason the WHL has been able to expand in such a short time is the success the expansion franchises have been able to achieve.

Vancouver reached the pinnacle winning the Memorial Cup last spring. Everett made it all the way to the WHL final in the team's first year. Chilliwack also achieved success, making it to the playoffs last season.

"One of the best things we have done over the past few years is come up with a very successful expansion franchise formula," said Robison.

"We feel the Oil Kings franchise is the last piece to that puzzle. In the next few years it will be one of our major success stories."


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