CHL copes with change as teams close shop or bolt for other circuits

2011-10-16T07:00:00Z 2011-10-17T14:58:34Z CHL copes with change as teams close shop or bolt for other circuitsJim Holland Journal staff Rapid City Journal
October 16, 2011 7:00 am  • 

Winning isn't everything in the ever-changing Central Hockey League.

In fact, at times, it doesn't appear to amount to much.

Poised to drop the puck for its 20th season on Oct. 21, the CHL has lost four franchises from last season, including the two teams which reached the championship series.

The Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs were won and done, beating Colorado in the Ray Miron President's Cup finals in May, then announcing in June that the franchise would cease operations.

"It's a non-traditional sport down here. Even though it was a winning program and supposedly meant a lot to a lot of people in the community, I just don't think the community could support it," Bossier-Shreveport owner Tommy Scott said.

On May 31, Colorado confirmed it would not be back either. The Eagles left the CHL to play in the ECHL.

That wasn't all.

After 19 years in the CHL, the Mississippi RiverKings moved to the Southern Professional Hockey League. And the Odessa Jackalopes moved to the North American Hockey League, a Junior league. The Jackalopes had been in the CHL for 12 seasons.

Adding to the tumult was a dispute resulting in the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees in Hidalgo, Texas, reverting to a previous ownership group.

The Bloomington (Ill.) PrairieThunder lost its lease with the U.S. Cellular Center in Bloomington and were replaced with a CHL expansion team, the Bloomington Blaze.

This left the CHL at 14 teams a year after the league entered into an agreement with teams from the International Hockey League to play under the Central Hockey League umbrella, including four surviving IHL franchises in Fort Wayne, Ind., Dayton, Ohio, Quad Cities (Moline, Ill.) Bloomington, Ill., and an expansion team in Evansville, Ind.

The off-season moves are not unprecedented. The CHL has seen the number of participating teams rise and fall in recent years.

Since Rapid City joined the league as an expansion team in 2008-2009, five teams, the Rocky Mountain Rage in Broomfield, Colo., New Mexico Scorpions in Rio Rancho, N.M., Oklahoma City Blazers, Corpus Christi Ice Rays and Amarillo Gorillas have ceased operations or reformed as NAHL junior teams.

Partially offsetting those losses were expansion teams in Independence, Mo., and Allen, Texas, which both began play during the 2009-2010 season.

But this year's changes were the most since the 2001-2002 season, when five teams shuttered, but were replaced by 10 franchises in a merger with the Western Professional Hockey League.

Three of the four teams cited the costs of remaining in the pro ranks as reasons for leaving the league.

Tommy Scott hoped bringing a championship back to northwest Louisiana would boost lagging season ticket sales and corporate sponsorships and help the Mudbugs rebound from a reported $1.5 million in losses over the past two seasons.

He shuttered the team when sales fell short.

"It really wasn't a decision where I even had a choice. There was absolutely no way I could afford this anymore," Scott said. "For our market, the cost of running a team far outweighed the return you were going to get. It wasn't that you planned to make any money. I don't think any team out there, except when they're new and have that new car smell, expects to make a profit. It's just how much can you not lose and keep the losses to a minimum."

The Corpus Christi Ice Rays found themselves in a similar financial fix at the end of the 2009-2010 season, but they found a way to survive, cutting operating costs substantially by rebranding themselves as a Junior team in the North American Hockey League.

"The Ice Rays had no choice but to leave," said their general manager Pat Dunn. "We just couldn't afford minor pro hockey anymore. We enjoyed it. We loved it for 12 years. We just couldn't keep going with it."

Dunn said some of the costs included putting players in apartments during the season that made being a professional franchise costly.

"We had to pay to put players up in apartments. We had to pay for electricity and utilities and furniture rentals, players salaries near a cap of $12,000 per week at that time," Dunn said.

In the NAHL, as in all junior leagues, players are 20 years old and under and do not receive a salary or per diem.

Dunn said the team provides meals during travel and housing costs are mitigated by having the players billet with host families during the season. Travel costs are lower for the team because the majority of the Ice Rays' games are played against opponents from Texas, including other former CHL teams in Amarillo and Odessa, he said.

 


The Eagles exercised an option from a 2007 legal action against the league to leave the CHL after the season. The move deprived the Rush of their primary rival as well as the opponent geographically closest to western South Dakota.

"Colorado leaving hurt us because (now) our closest team is Missouri," Mueller said. "Instead of a five-hour drive, now it's an 11-hour drive."

That means increased travel costs and overall expenses are weighing heavily on the league's surviving teams, Rush principal owner Scott Mueller said.

Depending on the location and the team, expenditures can top $3 million for a squad.

"We're one of the top teams that spend the most. We want to have the good buses and good places for the players to live," Mueller said. "You can't believe the little things that make a difference to a player, whether it's how do you travel, what kind of places do you put us in to stay, especially when they have families. It makes a big difference."

Mueller expects the Rush to spend an estimated $200,000 to transport the team to 33 road games in 2011-2012.

Other costs are going up as well. The player salary cap rose from $10,450 to $11,000 per week for each team for 2011-2012.

Player per diems - daily stipends for meals and other expenses - also rose as part a collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Hockey Players Association.

Mueller said teams need to do a better job of watching their budgets to make ends meet.

"Some of these teams need to look in the mirror a little. They just don't do a good job of running it, unfortunately, whether it's selling tickets or corporate sponsorships or putting the travel together," he said.

 


 

Minor league hockey has seen more than 20 teams fold since 2008.

"The economy has not been kind to the United States in the last several years, and that obviously affects discretionary spending by people, sponsors and partners, from the team level to the league," CHL commissioner Duane Lewis said.

The league is constantly looking at ways of reducing costs while raising revenues, Lewis said.

"It's an ongoing process and a daily process, to say, ‘How can we make this better within the realm of what the owners as a group want?'" Lewis said. "Not every ownership group has the same vision. Some teams spend more money in an effort to make more money."

One positive has emerged from the tumult: Teams are working together more than before.

Mueller said the league's owners and governors, facing the imminent loss of some of its marquee franchises, rallied during a series of meetings as the regular season wound down this spring.

"I think that we stepped up a lot as owners to control a lot of this stuff. (Global Entertainment) owns the league, but now we do have an executive committee. We have some say in things that we never had before," said Mueller, who is joined by owners from the Missouri Mavericks, Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees and Fort Wayne Komets on the executive committee.

"The time we've spent together as teams, owners and general managers in rooms discussing things, the spirit and working together and sharing things has never been higher that I remember," Lewis said. "We're competing on the ice. We're not competing off the ice.

"We're on the same page and saying, ‘How can we make it better so our partners are sitting across the table year after year, and we're not having to say goodbye to somebody?'" he said.

Lewis hopes to announce at least one expansion franchise for the 2012-13season later this year.

"You take some bumps once in a while, and things are cyclical. But these are things that get us excited as a league, and if you ask the owners around the league, they have the same feeling," Lewis said.

Contact Jim Holland at 394-8429 or jim.holland@rapidcityjournal.com

 

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. annthompson
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    annthompson - October 16, 2011 8:22 pm
    DITTO Dogwoman! Well said! : )
  2. Dogwoman
    Report Abuse
    Dogwoman - October 16, 2011 1:13 pm
    Mr. Mueller: I can't thank you enough for everything you have done to bring this team to Rapid City. This has meant so much to so many people. Thank you Thank you Thank you
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