BOISE, Idaho – In 2014, the ECHL had seven teams in its Pacific Division: the Alaska Aces, Bakersfield Condors, Colorado Eagles, Idaho Steelheads, Ontario Reign, Stockton Thunder, and Utah Grizzlies. Of those seven teams, only two markets still consist of an ECHL squad. The AHL commenced a westward expansion in 2015, giving the three ex-ECHL California markets franchises in the American League. And, with Alaska suspending operations in 2017 and Colorado moving to the AHL in 2018, Idaho and Utah are geographically stranded as the two westernmost ECHL teams for the 2018-19 season.
In mid-July, the Idaho Steelheads released an interview with ECHL Commissioner-elect Ryan Crelin that covered the topic of westward expansion for the former East Coast Hockey League:
“We’ve had a western presence for about 15 years now with the folding of the WCHL. We have a commitment to the West and some great members in the West. Hockey has been very stable in Idaho and in our other western markets as well,” Crelin said. “As we do look to that stable expansion and growth, I think another team in the West would be ideal. That’s something we’re going to be targeting, but as you know it doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t look at a map and say ‘let’s put a hockey team there’. There needs to be the right building, market, ownership, and management. That will come together, but it just takes time.”
With Commissioner-elect Crelin also stating his commitment to the west in an interview on The Sin Bin’s Hockey Talk Podcast, let’s take a look at some possible western markets the ECHL could expand to in the next few years.
6. RENO, NEVADA
Current Arena Possibility: Reno Events Center (Opened in 2005, Capacity: 7,000)
Minor League Hockey History: The Reno Renegades were one of the founding members of the West Coast Hockey League (WCHL) back in 1995. After two seasons under the Renegades moniker, the team changed their name to the Reno Rage for the 1997-98 season. Unfortunately, the name change didn’t swing the tide success-wise, as the club was swept in the first round of two of their three seasons before folding in 1998. The Renegades/Rage played in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center (built in 1965).
Why They’ll Get a Team: With the Vegas Golden Knights bursting onto the NHL scene in 2017-18, it would make geographical sense to have an AHL or ECHL team residing in The Silver State as well. While the 7,000-seat Reno Events Center might not be optimal for an AHL club, it definitely has ample room to host an ECHL team. In 2016, the Reno City Council (in conjunction with the Reno Puck Club), initially approved a ten-year working agreement to get and solidify an ECHL team in Reno by the Fall of 2018 and beyond.
Why They Won’t: The Fall of 2018 is right around the corner…and Reno still doesn’t have a team. It also doesn’t bode well that Reno was taken off of the ECHL.com “Future Markets” webpage back in 2016. The Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor’s Authority (RSCVA) isn’t interested in running the Reno Events Center, with their licensing agreement with the Reno Puck Club expiring in June 2017. Funding for the Events Center has apparently hit a snag, as well. Mayor Hillary Schieve acknowledged that negotiations have stalled, but remains optimistic about bringing minor league hockey back to “The Biggest Little City in the World”.
5. COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO
Current Arena Possibility: Broadmoor World Arena (Opened in 1998; Capacity: 7,750)
Minor League Hockey History: The Alaska Gold Kings became an inaugural member of the WCHL when the league formed in 1995, but moved to Colorado Springs to become the Colorado Gold Kings in 1998. The Gold Kings reached the first round of the WCHL playoffs in 1998-99 and 2001-02, while reaching round number two in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. However, even with moderate success in the WCHL, the Gold Kings folded after the 2001-02 season. The NCAA Division-I Colorado College Tigers shared the World Arena for all four years of the Gold Kings’ existence, ultimately dividing fans’ attention and spelling doom for minor league hockey in the Springs.
Why They’ll Get an ECHL Team: The Tigers just received word on July 25 that they will be getting a brand new, 3,000-seat arena on the Colorado College campus (pending city approval). CC alum Ed Robson donated $8 million towards the facility, and the arena seems to be much more a reality after a total of $28 million of the $39 million has now been raised since Robson’s initial donation in 2016. With Colorado College vacating the Broadmoor World Arena in a few years, the possibility of an ECHL club occupying the building (and two practice rinks in the Ice Hall next door) is much more likely than in years past. The Colorado Avalanche may also chomp at the bit to have their ECHL affiliate in Colorado Springs rather than in Utah with the Grizzlies; a hockey pipeline up Interstate 25 could be very appealing with the NHL’s Avalanche in Denver and AHL’s Colorado Eagles in Loveland.
Why They Won’t: There hasn’t been an investment group interested in bringing minor league hockey to the Pikes Peak region since the Gold Kings folded. With Colorado Springs more of a college hockey town (with both Colorado College and Air Force), investors might be hesitant to give minor league hockey another try along the southern Front Range.
4. BILLINGS, MONTANA
Current Arena Possibility: Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark (Opened in 1975, Renovated in 2010-11; Capacity: 8,700)
Minor League Hockey History: Not much. Billings has been home to more junior hockey teams than semi-professional, with the Billings Bighorns of the WHL (1977-1982) and the Billings Bulls of the AWHL and NAHL (1993-2006). The only semi-pro hockey team to grace “The Metra” was the Montana Magic of the Central Professional Hockey League, who lasted one unimpressive season before folding (1983-1984).
Why They’ll Get an ECHL Team: Billings is the largest city in Montana, with over 100,000 people in the city limits and a metro area of 170,000. That population is on par with the likes of Independence, MO; Manchester, NH; and North Charleston, SC (all current ECHL markets). ECHL Communications Director Joe Babik confirmed in March that he “has been in contact with a group that has expressed interest in bringing ECHL hockey to Billings…provided the necessary upgrades can be made at the arena.” Local hockey coach Kyle McGlone, an integral part in the effort to bring a pro hockey franchise to Billings, also stated that the Rimrock Auto Arena meets the minimum seating capacity requirement set forth by the league.
Why They Won’t: In May, the MetraPark Advisory Board’s ad hoc hockey feasibility committee told everyone hoping to get semi-pro hockey in Billings to hold their horses. Their findings concluded that there are many hurdles to clear before Billings becomes an ECHL city: cost, venue availability, and market viability being the three major reasons for caution. Upgrading outdated ice-making machinery requires the cement floor to be destroyed and re-poured, normally taking 35 to 45 days and costing upwards of $3 million. The possibility of contaminated soil underneath the arena is also a concern, and that issue would have to be studied further before an upgrade is made. Sponsorships will also be a challenge, with estimates at $250,000 to be collected while the arena is being upgraded. Being the main concert venue of Billings, Rimrock Auto Arena might run into weekend booking issues with their proposed hockey club. An initial season ticket drive of at least 1,500 tickets would need to take place, and with the Billings Bulls (NA3HL) going dormant last season, big questions remain as to whether an ECHL club would succeed in Montana.
3. ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
Current Arena Possibility: Santa Ana Star Center (Built in 2006; Capacity: 6,000)
Minor League Hockey History: The New Mexico Scorpions were active in the Western Professional Hockey League (WPHL) from 1996 until the league merged with the Central Hockey League (CHL) in 2001. They were the only team located outside of Texas and Louisiana during their five-year run in the WPHL, playing at the Tingley Coliseum until 2005. The team suspended operations in 2005-06 while the new Rio Rancho Events Center (renamed the Santa Ana Star Center in 2006) was completed, then played in the CHL until folding in 2009.
Why They’ll Get an ECHL Team: Just like how the Vegas Golden Knights could benefit from a nearby ECHL team, the AHL’s Tuscon Roadrunners would most likely appreciate having their lower-tiered affiliate a mere 465 miles away in Rio Rancho (their current affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, are a distant 2,300 miles away). Andi Duroux of Mile High Hockey hypothesized New Mexico entering the ECHL fold back in 2015, citing that a “lack of advertising and questionable management” led to the Scorpions downfall in the CHL. With a metro area closing in on 910,000 as of 2016, the Albuquerque area could more than support an ECHL squad given the right circumstances.
Why They Won’t: It’s not a well-kept secret that the Santa Ana Star Center is off the beaten path from the population center in Albuquerque. The building was brought to fruition by an entertainment company and was so poorly managed, the city fired and sued Global Entertainment for financial losses in 2009. The news of an indoor arena soccer team playing their home games at the Center (starting in December of 2018) puts a further damper on minor-league hockey plans out of that venue. If the Land of Enchantment were to get awarded an ECHL franchise, a downtown arena would much more beneficial than an arena out in the sticks. Expo New Mexico would like to replace the aging Tingley Coliseum, which was built in 1957 and hosted the WPHL’s Scorpions from 1996 to 2005. Until that occurs, it seems a scant possibility for an ECHL club to pop up in the southwest desert.
2. OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
Current Arena Possibilities: Chesapeake Energy Arena (Built in 2002; Capacity: 15,152) or Cox Convention Center (Built in 1972, Renovated in 2010; Capacity: 13,399)
Minor League Hockey History: Minus a ten-year gap between 1982 and 1992 and a year off between franchises in the 70’s, minor league hockey has been a part of OKC’s pro sports fabric since the mid-60’s. Playing in the original Central (Professional) Hockey League from 1965 to 1977, the Oklahoma City Blazers won two championships in their first two years as a club (1966 and 1967). The Oklahoma City Stars took the Blazers place in the old CHL from 1978 to 1982. The Blazers name was resurrected for an Oklahoma City franchise (and a new iteration of the CHL) in 1992, bearing the fruit of two championships in 1996 and 2001. When the team folded in 2009, the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers created an AHL franchise dubbed the Oklahoma City Barons in 2010. The Barons played in OKC until 2015, when the AHL westward expansion led Edmonton to transplant the franchise in Bakersfield, California.
Why They’ll Get an ECHL Team: The AHL level of hockey just seemed too much for the Barons attendance-wise, but their five-year average of 3,595 people per game would fit the average attendance expectations of the ECHL. The “Turner Turnpike” Rivalry between Tulsa and Oklahoma City stems from their fierce battles in the Central Hockey League, with both clubs coming in as founding members of the new CHL in 1992. As construction has begun on a new convention center in downtown Oklahoma City, the idea of a hockey team occupying the older Cox Convention Center could be more on the table than in the past.
Why They Won’t: An unnamed ECHL franchise looked at OKC for a potential move back in 2016 and found a lack of available dates at both Chesapeake Energy Arena and the Cox Center. Oklahoma City also hosts an NBA G-League basketball team (as of 2014) in the previously Barons-occupied Cox Center; the NBA’s Thunder also owns the building, as well. Even though it has the updated ice-making machinery from when the Barons were tenants, the future of the Cox Center itself may be in jeopardy with replacement on the horizon. Such arena uncertainty leaves an ECHL hockey club in limbo for Oklahoma City.
1. THE FINAL VERDICT
As stated throughout the market breakdowns, major factors for landing a franchise rest on three major things: securing an investor group, a suitable arena, and no conflict with concerts/events/co-tenants at said arena.
All those things in mind, my opinion is there won’t be a new ECHL team west of the Mississippi for another two or three years. Colorado Springs looks most desirable, with their arena situation, potential affiliates, and hockey-rich market all factoring in the city’s favor. Reno and Oklahoma City would have to have their teams play in convention centers, which puts up red flags in regards to availability and potential rink setup issues. Albuquerque and Billings both have potential hockey arenas currently being used as their market’s main concert and event venues, a scheduling issue if I’ve ever seen one.
If any of the other four markets are going to join Colorado Springs in the next ten years, I would have to say Billings and OKC would be lucrative, if not just for the potential rivalries that could come from it. A Billings-Rapid City rivalry would be akin to Idaho-Utah in distance, and I’ve already highlighted OKC-Tulsa and their past in the CHL. If that’s the case, a theoretical seven-team Mountain Division could consist of Billings, Colorado Springs, Idaho, Oklahoma City, Rapid City, Tulsa, and Utah (with Allen and Wichita being interchangeable with the Oklahoma teams for divisional alignment). If all five potential ECHL markets were awarded teams, Oklahoma City could shift over to the Central Division to make room for the other four teams joining Idaho, Rapid City, and Utah in the Mountain Division.