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September 1, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

Economy thins ECHL’s ice

Attendance at minor league hockey games is down, and two teams are no more

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KURT HEGRE / THE FRESNO BEE

Fresno Falcons jerseys hang in an empty locker at Selland Arena in Fresno on Dec. 23, the day after it was announced that the first-place team would fold, joining the Augusta Lynx of Georgia.

Supposedly the abbreviation “ECHL,” as in the hockey league in which the Las Vegas Wranglers participate, stands for nothing.

Wranglers

Alex and Steve Silver discuss the Wranglers' upcoming road trip and possible early clinching of a playoff spot.

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A sparse crowd attends an April 12 playoff game between the Las Vegas Wranglers and the Stockton Thunder at the Orleans Arena.

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It used to stand for East Coast Hockey League. But with card-carrying members in Las Vegas, Alaska, Bakersfield and on Victoria Island, off the coast of British Columbia — just to name a few — it didn’t seem right anymore.

But it doesn’t take as long to name the ECHL teams as it did six weeks ago.

As is the case with a lot of minor leagues, franchises in the ECHL have pretty much changed on the fly since the league was formed in 1988. But the league was proud of the fact that during its 20-year existence, one had never folded during the middle of the season.

Then during a three-week period in December, both the Augusta (Ga.) Lynx and Fresno Falcons boarded up their windows and left the ECHL, which operated with a high of 31 teams in 2003, with just 21 heading into 2009. One Web site claims as many as seven of those are struggling to stay afloat.

Now I think I know what ECHL stands for: Economy Creates Havoc League.

Attendance in the ECHL is down about 8 percent overall. But it was down 35 percent in Fresno, where the first-place Falcons averaged 3,284 for their first 16 home games of 2008-09 after averaging 5,035 last year.

“The horrific economy and the resulting decrease in revenue from season tickets, corporate sponsorships and overall attendance has created a situation this year which is not sustainable and we simply cannot continue to operate,” Falcons managing general partner Chris Cummings said in a statement.

Yes, the economy is horrific, Wranglers President Billy Johnson says. But not as horrific as the way the Falcons were managed. Johnson and others claim that poor marketing decisions, such as moving from a state-of-the-art arena back into an old one downtown, are what ultimately cross-checked the Falcons from the top of the Pacific Division standings into mothballs.

Fresno thus becomes the 40th ECHL franchise to fold or relocate, joining such colorfully named organ-i-zations (which is how hockey people refer to them) as the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, the Greenville Grrrowl, the Jacksonville Lizard Kings (Jim Morrison’s favorite team), the Lexington Men O’ War, the Mobile Mysticks, the Pee Dee Pride, six teams with the word “Ice” in their names, and the Macon Whoopee, which, in a perfect world, would be protected by an obscure bankruptcy law.

Instead, a yet-to-be-named team in Toledo will become the ECHL’s 22nd member next year, when the Jamie Farr Arena, or whatever the new building there is going to be called, finally opens. Provided, of course, others don’t fold between now and then.

Johnson said a report that said as many as seven other ECHL teams were foundering was news to him, but added that “in any league, one third (of the franchises) ... aren’t making money, anyway.”

There are 21 teams remaining in the ECHL. One third of 21 is seven.

The missing Lynx and Falcons, say insiders, could hasten a merger between the American Hockey League, the National Hockey League’s top developmental league, and the ECHL, considered a rung down the ladder. Johnson said he wasn’t aware of any discussions along those lines.

But others say a combined minor league hockey circuit may be only a Band-Aid, anyway.

“I don’t care if you’re talking AHL or ECHL, minor pro sports is a struggle and it’s hard work,” Victoria Salmon Kings President Dave Dakers told the Victoria Times Colonist (which is a newspaper, not a person).

Dakers said there are only about six franchises in either league that are truly secure. “It’s standard in minor pro sports that there will be a changeover. It’s not a sign of weakness in the ECHL.”

But when teams fold in the middle of the season and games have to be canceled and rescheduled it creates instability and, in this case, considering the nature of the sport, a feeling of “rinky-dinkness” among fans. I suppose that the home team’s sweater that costs more than $100 at the souvenir stand could become a collector’s item overnight creates a little more value in the purchase but long term, it’s not what you want.

That’s why Johnson has sent a letter to Wranglers season-ticket holders assuring them that if the puck stops here, it’s only because Wranglers goalies John DeCaro or Kevin Lalande are having a good night.

“We’re doing OK,” Johnson said. “But we certainly have our challenges.”

Last season, the Wranglers averaged 4,970 paying customers at the Orleans Arena. This year, they are getting 4,275. That’s a drop of 14 percent. You could make up some of that with the next bobblehead giveaway, but those cost money. So do Rod Blagojevich hockey sweaters, which the Wranglers will wear Jan. 30 on “Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night.”

A recent ESPN.com report said if the recession doesn’t end soon, all professional sports are in for a rude awakening that could result in luxury boxes being phased out, stadium and arena naming rights going away and teams staying where they are because there’s no money to build stadiums and arenas in other cities to woo them. And maybe, just maybe, if the flow of cash trickles down far enough, players will wind up taking second jobs to supplement their incomes — just like the rest of us.

Upon further review, maybe losing the Macon Whoopee among the mothballs isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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