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Brandon Wheat Kings forced to hit road for entire first round

Calgary Hitmen's Tyler Shattock scores on Brandon Wheat Kings goaltender Jacob De Serres as Colby Robak tries to defend in Brandon, Manitoba on May 19, 2010.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Hockey fans like to think their sport trumps just about everything. Not so in Brandon.

The Brandon Wheat Kings are about to start the first round of the WHL playoffs, but the team's venue, the Keystone Centre, is booked for the annual Royal Manitoba Winter Fair. Thus, the Wheat Kings will journey to Winnipeg's MTS Centre for home dates in the best-of-seven playoff series.

Team owner Kelly McCrimmon said the club was lucky to even get that.

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"We weren't even sure we could play games here," he said Monday, after a press conference in Winnipeg. "We were looking at [playing in]Red Deer or a Lethbridge, teams that have missed the playoffs. And I think that would be really tough on our team."

Clashing with the agriculture fair, which draws more than 117,000 people over six days, is an annual headache for the junior team. The hassle had lessened in past years, when the Wheat Kings finished higher in the standings. Brandon could squeeze in two playoff games at home before the fair started and then travel to the opponent's arena for three games. If the final two games were necessary, they would be scheduled after the fair at the Keystone Centre.

But this year, Brandon finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, meaning it will start the series Thursday against the No. 2 squad, the Calgary Hitmen. The first two games are in Calgary but the next three were slated for right in the middle of the March 26-31 fair.

McCrimmon joked about the possibility of the fair changing its dates to accommodate the hockey team. "I have said in the Brandon papers, it would easier to move Christmas than the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair," he said. "Even if they put the winter fair in winter, that would solve our problems. But they don't hold it in winter, it's in spring every year."

The move to Winnipeg for playoff games is a hit financially, he added. The added costs for travel and renting the MTS Centre are not offset by any additional ticket sales for the larger venue. Brandon played three playoff games at the MTS Centre last year. McCrimmon said ticket sales were decent for the first two but low for the final game.

"All things considered, financially, we're likely better to play in Brandon," he said without quantifying the extra costs. "We play the cards that we're dealt and make the best of it and this is a great alternative for us."

He added that there is one positive: the players will get a lift out of playing in what is now an NHL building, housing the reborn Jets. "It's exciting for the players that are from the [Winnipeg]area and I think even for our players that aren't it's pretty special to play the games here."

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McCrimmon has been involved with the Wheat Kings for more than 20 years, as an owner, one-time head coach and general manager. "It's a good industry. We have a real well-run league," he said, adding the league, which has 22 teams, is constantly fielding inquires about expansion.

WHL commissioner Ron Robison has indicated Winnipeg is one possible location for a new team. McCrimmon declined to speculate.

"There's always interest," he said. "You have to trade off expansion with your player pool. And at the same time, you also have to strategically try to get the best markets in your league."

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