DENVER – A fellow hockey enthusiast told me recently that even when minor league hockey rumors are swirling around, nothing is concrete until it actually happens. Sounds like pretty elementary advice, but it’s a good reminder to stay grounded in an age where misinformation and hot takes often rule the roost on social media.
After news broke Monday morning about the Vegas Golden Knights’ desire to purchase and relocate an AHL franchise to Nevada, conjecture abounded as to which team VGK had the chance of acquiring. With that said, let’s take a deeper dive into which AHL club could be soaking up the desert sun as soon as next season.
(NOT THE) CHICAGO WOLVES
Let’s get this out of the way: the Wolves are not (repeat: NOT) going to be purchased by the Golden Knights and moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. The 25-year history between the IHL and AHL, four championships, steady attendance figures, and a solid ownership group have stabilized the Wolves at Allstate Arena in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. Plus, when Chairman Don Levin told the Chicago-Sun Times on Saturday that there is “no scenario at all” where Chicago will be Vegas’ AHL affiliate next season, it put a definite answer to the presumptuous notion that the Wolves would be purchased by the Golden Knights.
Rockford’s name was floated on Monday by the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a potential candidate for relocation. The Review-Journal also reported that the team was owned by the City of Rockford, and that their affiliation agreement with the Chicago Blackhawks runs through the 2021-22 season.
The IceHogs are currently 26th in league attendance, averaging 3,657 people per game. This is a 1,357-person drop (just over a 26% decrease over five seasons) from the 5,014 per game average Rockford boasted in 2015-16. Out of the bottom 11 of 12 teams in AHL attendance, Rockford is the only one that isn’t owned by an NHL team or ownership group.
Rockford is also the only team in the AHL owned by someone other than an NHL franchise, business investor group, or outside sports entity. In 2016, the Rockford Register Star reported that the City of Rockford pays the Blackhawks $900,000 a year for affiliate rights. The steady attendance decline would be an acceptable reason for the city to sell the team and not risk hemorrhaging local government funds to try and keep the IceHogs afloat.
Located just a three-minute walk from American Hockey League Headquarters, an AHL presence in south central Massachusetts was in jeopardy when the Springfield Falcons were sold and moved to Tucson to become the Roadrunners in May 2016. With the city at risk of being without AHL hockey for the first time since the 1940s, a 29-member investor group bought and relocated the Portland Pirates franchise two weeks after the Falcons move to keep the 70-plus year streak going.
Attendance has never been a problem in the club’s three plus seasons either, with Springfield averaging just under five thousand per game (4,969). The 5,142 average the Thunderbirds carry in 2019-20 is slightly under the league average for the AHL this season (5,431). In spite of the stable attendance numbers, Springfield has hovered around .500 and haven’t made the postseason since the Falcons were in town (2013-14), earning a playoff berth just three times since 2000.
So why would the Thunderbirds be on the radar to get sold? The 29 businesspeople owning the team is a unique happening in the AHL, and without a smaller ownership group, the possibility of selling the team could increase with a majority vote among those 29. The lack of postseason appearances, high number of AHL franchises in market since 1936 (eight!), and a long-distance affiliation with the Florida Panthers (1,400 miles, or a 3.25 hour flight) could all be contributing factors to sell as well. The latter could be a moot point, however, as the Chicago Wolves have already stated they “don’t know who (they’ll) be affiliated with” next year, leaving the Wolves the only option for the Panthers for an AHL affiliation next season (with 1,374 miles and a three-hour flight between the two).
THE OTHER NINE OPTIONS
Chicago, Rockford, and Springfield are only three of the 12 non-NHL owned AHL clubs. Here’s the abridged reasons why these clubs aren’t front-runners to be purchased by Vegas.
|TEAM||OWNER(S)||CURRENT NHL AFFILIATE||LEASE AGREEMENT||WHY VEGAS WON’T BUY|
|Cleveland Monsters||Dan Gilbert||Columbus Blue Jackets||“Multi-Year Agreement” Signed in 2019||Newly renovated home arena, close proximity of affiliation|
|Colorado Eagles||Colorado Eagles Professional Hockey LLC||Colorado Avalanche||Signed through 2027-28||Long-term lease, close proximity of affiliation|
|Grand Rapids Griffins||Dan DeVos||Detroit Red Wings||Signed through 2021-22||Consistently high attendance figures, close proximity of affiliation|
|Hershey Bears||Hershey Bears Hockey Club||Washington Capitals||Signed through 2019-20||Founded in 1938, 9000+ attendance average for 14 seasons|
|Lehigh Valley Phantoms||Jim and Rob Brooks||Philadelphia Flyers||Unknown (Affiliate since 1996-97)||Long-standing affiliation, 7,000+ attendance average|
|Milwaukee Admirals||Harris Turer Group||Nashville Predators||Signed through 2021-22||Founded in 1977 in IHL, 19-year affiliate of Nashville|
|Providence Bruins||H. Larue Renfroe||Boston Bruins||Signed through 2028-29||Long-term lease, 8,000+ attendance average over past eight years|
|San Antonio Rampage||Spurs Sports & Entertainment||St. Louis Blues||Signed through 2022-23||Above average attendance, Spurs ownership group|
|Syracuse Crunch||Howard Dolgon||Tampa Bay Lightning||Signed through 2022-23 (with options)||25+ years in market, flourishing affiliation with Tampa Bay|
C.C. Hawkley is the AHL Editor and Colorado Eagles correspondent for The Sin Bin, previously covering the Idaho Steelheads from 2017 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter, and don’t forget to also follow The Sin Bin on Twitter and Facebook for all additional AHL, ECHL, and SPHL minor league hockey coverage!