ECHL targeting new and old markets

Something strange is afoot at the Circle K of professional hockey.

A head-hunting firm trying to sniff out markets for minor league teams now as the ECHL and AHL realigned to better serve parent clubs and NHL expansion being on the horizon.

The end game is to have one affiliate in each league to one NHL club. Right now the ECHL has 28 teams.

In July, the Tampa Bay Lightning are no longer a shared affiliate of the Florida Everblades, leaving it without an affiliation—at least they haven’t announced  new one yet after getting dumped so late in the summer. That move made sense in the long-term considering the Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos owns German Arena and the club.  The vote was part of a larger philosophy of ending shared clubs, according to the Naples Daily News. I still don’t understand why it wasn’t better coordinated to find the Bolts another affiliate.

In the meantime, Reno, Nev., is listed as the only future market on the ECHL’s website, but that didn’t stop the CHL merge and AHL relegations, which suddenly became future markets in some scenarios.

Reno and Las Vegas were supposed to return to play this season, but that doesn’t look possible.

A group called Hat Trick Consultants is trying its best, though, to find some suitable homes for ECHL teams.

Eastern Shore Hockey 

One of those markets were pursued before, in Salisbury, Md. A viability study is being conducted for a 6,200-seat arena with a 500-seat practice rink in Worcester County, Md., with the idea of having an ECHL hockey team as the primary tenant, according to The Daily Times.

The company behind this pitch is Hat Trick Consultants. The Dallas-based firm is tooting its horn that it’s looking for markets to build rinks in for AHL and ECHL teams, especially with Las Vegas and Quebec City needing affiliates if they are awarded NHL clubs.

The newspaper outlined the history of ECHL bids in Salisbury before, and outside of the arena portion, an ice rink is needed for that area. Salisbury is big enough for a nice-sized minor league baseball stadium for the Delmarva Shorebirds and is home to Salisbury University. The Ice Gulls have to travel to play its ACHA games at a rink in Delaware. The closest ice rink in Maryland is in Easton, Md., about an hour away. That rink is only open seasonally and as anyone from Maryland knows, that’s not the best route to go with Ocean City beach traffic. So instead they head up an hour into Delaware.

Salisbury sounds great, right? Well, that city is in Wicomico County. Worcester County is known for Ocean City—obviously a summer destination.

Hockey blog The Sin Bin spoke to Mike Barack, president of Hat Trick, about how this all plays out:

“We approached Worcester County with not only the arena plan and the idea for a team, but also development around that area,” says Barack. “Ocean City, Maryland is one of the biggest tourist spots in the United States and it could utilized much better with a new facility in the region to go along with the development plan we have put forth, as well.”

Though, with the tight cap on memberships and some geographical hurdles, where would some of these markets look at location-wise?

“We believe that the ECHL would be geographically ideal for these markets,” Barack states, “But we aren’t going to focus solely on that. These markets could be used as relocation spots for the AHL, SPHL, even USHL (Tier-1 US Junior Hockey).”

Ocean City is only Maryland’s second largest city during the summer, when you can enjoy the beach, the swimming and the ponies down the road in Assateague and Chincoteague. Restaurants significantly cut back while some close during the coldest months of the year.

I’ve never been in Ocean City in the winter, and I don’t know if I ever would want to be by the Atlantic in the freezing cold. Ocean City is filled with restaurants and bars–both chain and local mom-and-pop places–amusement parks and putt-putt courses built for warm weather. There’s not a huge jobs center, whether it’s an office complex or factory, to support year-round jobs that could provide the income to see enough of these games, despite the cheap ticket prices.

The same families that fill OC during the summer aren’t going to come back during the winter because thousands of folks drive several hours from across Maryland just to get to the beach and will be there for a weekend or more. You’re not going to get someone to come after work from Annapolis on a Wednesday night to watch goon hockey.

Being close to Ocean City doesn’t cut it during those months. You’re asking a lot of people to drive a ways away to get to this arena, even if it’s placed at the western edge of the county near Salisbury.

It ought to be in Salisbury, in Wicomico County, but the city already has an arena that could seat 4,100 for hockey, but because the public arena is not allowed by the county to sell alcohol, no pro team will want to go there. The ECHL tried before but the county would not change its laws.

Salisbury has about 30,000 people in it plus 8,600 college students at Salisbury University, making it a better population base. Ocean City’s year-round, non-seasonal population? About 7,000. That’s less than the number of students enrolled at SU.

Think about it this way—not only do you need enough people to support watching these games in the 6,200-seat arena, but that practice rink is likely going to be a public rink for adult hockey leagues, figure skating and public skate similar to how other ECHL arenas do. You’re going to need the population, income and interest to support two rinks.

Leagues at a lower level, including juniors, would call for fewer seats, naturally, but I feel like you would need an even more hockey hungry market for the type of junior team to be successful if you’re dedicating 4,000 to 6,000 seats to it.

Tier 1 is the top U.S. junior league. The city with the smallest population in the league has 58,000 people (Dubuqe, Iowa). Most of the remaining cities are 100,000-plus and 200,000-plus.

Tier 2 junior, the NAHL, has teams like the Johnstown Tomahawks where the Pennsylvania town has about 20,000 people but also has Altoona and Ebensburg close by to support the team and arena. This would be more in line of what could be on the Eastern Shore, but not if it’s in Berlin or OC.

I’m somewhat concerned that this is just an exercise in seeing what community can provide maximum tax breaks for the arena they want. It could all be a ruse for leverage against another city where they legitimately want a team but are facing issues (cough, cough, Fenton, Mo.)

What makes Maryland different is that our state has the Maryland Stadium Authority, which receives a chunk of steady funding from Maryland Lotto. That’s a larger pot of money to tap thanks to being a state-level arena-specific funding source. You don’t find that everywhere.ECHL logo

Other locations

Sin Bin also pointed to Hat Trick’s pitch at a sweet looking arena in Fenton, Mo., for ECHL that would seat the same as the Maryland rink. Fenton is a suburb of Saint Louis and has a major interstate going through it, so yeah.

Land of the former Chrysler plant is part of the proposal, but it’s also been bandied about for a St. Louis Rams stadium, another team trying to fleece cities for a taxpayer funded stadium. I just can’t see how you could have ECHL teams in St. Louis, Orlando, Charleston, Norfolk and … Ocean City, Md.

Too bad you can’t see my shocked face because the financing is questionable now for the Fenton ECHL arena because Hat Trick wants the city to own the $45 million arena and its group can run the arena, taking in the profits. Fenton is not a neighborhood of St. Louis–it is a 4,400-resident municipality, which is why local leaders are concerned, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mayor Mike Polizzi said he did not want the city to have the responsibility of owning the arena, because many of them fail financially.

”They’re talking about 25-year bonds,” and the arena might fail before then, Polizzi said after the meeting. “It’s a major risk and burden for the city.”

“We’re a city of 4,400 including the children,” Polizzi said. “We can’t take on a project of this magnitude.”

If you ever wanted to know the equivalent of a minor league version of an Arizona Coyotes/Glendale business relationship, you found it.

In other news, Casper, Wyo., also has an arena that is finishing up expected to be used for a CHL team before the league merged with the ECHL.

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Fantasy Hockey Broadcast Talent for MLBAM’s NHL Network

When news spread that MLBTV will oversee the NHLNetwork in the U.S., faithful viewers (and former ones) felt like this war of attrition of trying to find watchable programming was over.

MLBTV managed to pluck some of the best from ESPN, NBC and other properties whether full-time or part-time. Here’s a sampling of the major personalities from MLBTV:

  • Peter Gammons
  • Bob Costas
  • Harold Reynolds
  • Brian Kenny

And plenty of impressive former major leaguers including Hall-of-Famers Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, recent retiree Ryan Dempster and rising regional media stars including Kelly Nash, who covered the Tampa Bay Lightning for Fox’s Sun Sports.

The NFL Network, though managed by that league, has a solid talent line-up, too, including a local D.C. favorite of mine Dan Hellie.

The NHL Network’s line-up, at least what is officially listed, is small. That’s to be expected when you essentially have two shows. NHL Live, a simulcast radio show, and On The Fly, or whatever they decided to call the running highlights show.

Most of them are part-time and appear on other networks probably more than they do here. Former NHL2Night host Bill Pidto does work for MSG; Kathryn Tappen does plenty of work for NBCSN; Barry Melrose still has some ties to ESPN but has a much larger role at NHL.com and NHL Network and Kevin Weekes is always on.

Keep those guys and gals and build upon that.

After TSN lost the majority of its NHL games we see Craig Button on here a lot more, and more guest appearances by Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger.

It might be a little challenging now that NBCSN is plucking both TSN and ComcastSportsNet talent like Brian Boucher. And don’t bet on Jay and Dan leaving FoxSports1 so soon—or at all.

Whether full-time or part-time, who would else I like to see on the new NHL Network?

John Buccigross. Hockey fans have clamored to unleash Bucci’s Overtime Challenge but without the salary budget and production values, it was a pipe dream for the old variations of NHL Network to do this. Would he leave the Worldwide Leader like Rich Eisen, Peter Gammons, Brian Kelly, Dan Patrick and others?

We can only hope. His hockey contributions have lessened on ESPN.com over the years and his column shifted more to Cawlidge Hawkey than the pros—necessary to grow the sport more in the U.S., but it would help if ESPN broadcast more than the Frozen Four.

My gut on this one tells me he won’t come. He writes about his youngest boy Jack often as he shares his empathy and sympathy for all the sacrifices hockey parents make and unless Jack is ready for a billet home and make hockey is dream, I don’t see Bucci making the move unless he feels it will be nothing but a positive for his family—especially one with a teenager. (His oldest, Brett, has graduated from Miami University of Ohio.)

And if you ever read his column he wrote for USA Hockey magazine in 2010, you’d understand he takes pride in being more than the hockey guy. (And don’t call him the hockey guy.):

You see, I have always viewed hockey as an equal part of the ENTIRE American sports family. As a child, I hummed the music of NFL Films in my head while playing football next to my house and dreaming of becoming an NFL running back. I shot my Nerf basketball in the house with the CBS basketball theme in my head (“You’ll see the best of basketball on CBS.”), and I played whiffle ball every day the weather permitted.

There’s a lot more to that column, and you should read every word.

—Pierre LeBrun. Another ESPN guy (kinda), he’s all on the digital side only at ESPN.com and otherwise puts his time in at TSN where he’s kind of in no-man’s land with the rest of the hockey guys.

He’s a great scribe and a great TV personality and is in the upper halos of hockey journalists with scoops and breaking news. Just be sure that the network has a one Pierre only rule and don’t let McGuire in.

—Bob McKenzie. This would have to be in a part-time to featured correspondent role unless he’s really ready for a change. Not only is his insider information well sought after for pro hockey, his junior hockey knowledge is just as incredible. Unless the U.S. NHL Network bleeds over to Canada with the same production, I don’t see McKenzie heading South of the Border full-time.

You could argue it’s like stealing a Canadian institution, but when your network doesn’t have NHL rights anymore, you have to keep your options open. And he’s done that so far with regular NBCSN appearances.

—James Duthie. He brings wit, knows how to balance being newsy and humorous and is more loose than Bucci on-air. He likes to free wheel and improv a bit, to the point where you’re not sure if that’s Duthie or Ed Helms.

—Daryl Reaugh. A gem in Dallas who wants to transition to play-by-play, he deserves the national spotlightRazor is the best at turning phrases on-air. To me, he is the best color commentator out there, especially his early work on NHL ’99.

—Randy Hahn. When the San Jose Sharks needed change in the organization, they should have toyed with the roster more. Instead the broadcasting partners decided not to re-up another video game voice. He’s doing Edmonton Oilers broadcasts, but this guy. Oh this guy is an honest one.

—Alan May. Alan May has been the strongest addition to CSN Washington’s revamped pre-game and post-game talent, even filling in as a man between the benches during broadcasts. He’s honest, he’s quick and has great analysis of how the game’s played. When GM George McPhee was fired from the Caps, May pretty much let the door hit his ass on the way out.[Scrub to 1:00]

—Rick DiPietro. DP made the wise choice to retire after his comeback bid wasn’t meant to be, and through his unlucky streak of injuries he kept his sense of humor. That served him well when he became a radio host on ESPN New York’s “Hahn & Humpty.” Hopefully the network’s internal censors aren’t too harsh and let him spin a yarn on air, like this doozie about Bill Guerin scolding him for pissing in a shower.

Bill Lindsay. When Fox Sports Florida brought back Denis Potvin, it displaced Bill Lindsay to a smaller role either in studio more or when they could, place him between the benches where he was more valuable than ever. Bill both thinks and speaks clearly—both in his choice of words and his sound. That voice of his can self project like no other.

Greg Wyshynski. There’s no way he would give up Puck Daddy on Yahoo for the NHL Network because you’d likely face more editorial restrictions. But as a contributor with a regular segment or his own 30-minute off-beat show would do wonders for the network. He can continue to promote his Yahoo role and give us a different flavor of hockey news without working entirely for “the man.” Hey, if DC 101’s Elliott Segal can tone it down for segments for Capitals Red Line, Wyshynski would have no problem. He’s been nowhere near the lovable absurdity of Elliott In The Morning, but for hockey’s vanilla atmosphere it’s edgy in those circles.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Chris Osgood
  • Ray Ferraro

If you notice, there’s a challenge in finding former star forwards not named Jeremy Roenick who want to work in TV for hockey. A lot of the dynamic personalities make their home with Sportsnet and CBC (Don Cherry, Glenn Healey) that could create great TV.

But this list building upon the existing NHL Network staff would at least be a good start.