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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