Gross Misconduct Hockey Thoughts from a drifter on the hockey landscape

02/08/2010

Report: River Rats Sold – Next Stop: Charlotte

According to WSOC sports anchor Bill Voth, via Twitter, the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL have called a 2:00 p.m. Wednesday press conference to announce that Checkers owner Michael Kahn is purchasing the Albany River Rats.  The plan for Kahn is to relocate the franchise to Charlotte where they will continue to be the farm team for the Carolina Hurricanes.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago when this story broke, the River Rats got very hush-hush about things and made the standard company stand-by comment of, “Nothing to see here… Yet.”  While there’s no comment from the folks in Albany as of now (give it time), this ends the current tenure of the River Rats in Albany.  While there will be other teams looking to relocate or add affiliations, if one is going to move to Albany, it’ll have to be through new ownership.

What should prove interesting in this scenario is what will happen with the Adirondack Phantoms, who will be in Glens Falls again next year, should there not be a local rival to split a massive number of games against each other next season.  The Phantoms have outdrawn the River Rats so far this season even though the Glens Falls Civic Center is a much smaller venue than that of the Times Union Center in Albany.

The fun, Albany point of view on this now is what is the hockey world’s opinion of Albany now? The city has failed with the River Rats both under the “guidance” of the Devils and now with the Hurricanes and the city failed to retain the ECAC Tournament semifinals and finals getting beaten out by the hockey hotbed of Atlantic City, New Jersey in a deal that just managed to keep SMG’s pockets happy.

This year, the NCAA Hockey East Regionals again return to Albany and unless there’s some major local influence or a massive regional fanbase to help draw crowds, attendance is expected to be mediocre at the cavernous facility yet again.  While the folks running Times Union Center has its fingers crossed twice over hoping Cornell, Union and RPI can all make the ECAC final four, it’s likely, although not guaranteed, that only one of those schools could end up in Albany for the NCAAs.  Whether you want to point the finger at apathetic local interest or at terrible marketing on behalf of the ECAC and NCAA, you could win an argument in any way you wanted to as all of it has been piss-poor.

That’s not to say that sports fans in Albany are that fickle, it’s just we’ve all been down that road before and been jerked around for it in Albany and the Rats failure is yet another example of that.  Albany fans have often been blessed with great teams to root for at a low professional or minor league level only to find screwball owners get a little too excited over a good thing.  Take a look at this awful sports history off the top of my head:

It happened in minor league baseball with the Albany-Colonie Yankees who bolted the decrepit Heritage Park for the new confines in Norwich, Connecticut.

It happened in the CBA with the Albany Patroons who thought that moving over to the Knickerbocker Arena out of the Washington Avenue Armory would bring bigger crowds and then overshot their estimates and then caved into local money naming the team after local car dealerships. Yes, the Capital Region Pontiacs are a name that should long live in infamy for how not to win fans over or influence anyone.

It happened in Arena Football as owners Glen Mazula and Joe O’Hara couldn’t find a way to make a championship winning team into a profitable item in spite of drawing great crowds and then giving into the AFL’s demands to fill out NFL markets with AFL teams and settling for an af2 booby prize that failed miserably because fans knew they were getting an inferior product to an already inferior product.

And you can believe it that professional hockey has been down this road already many times before.  Look back at the illustrious history of the Adirondack Red Wings who were chased out of business by the River Rats in the 90s as well as the short-lived tenures Capital District Islanders and Albany Choppers.

These are all teams that have been around in just the past 25 years in Albany, and people wonder why fans of the Capital District are just burnt out and sick of getting jerked around.  What’s even more amazing through all this is that the last man standing is the single-A Tri-City ValleyCats and they play in a stadium named after a convicted local political felon.  Un-friggin-real.

Would I like to see a better run AHL team in Albany?  Sure, but buyer better beware because the fans of this area are wise to all the tricks and gimmicks meant to sell people on anything.  Folks are burned out and fed up of being treated like a marketing class pet project.  Besides, what the college teams at RPI and Union are doing this year in hockey (and Siena in basketball) is proving that long-standing local ties and a damn good product can pay off and be exciting – just don’t shoot for the moon to make a few more bucks or treat the fans like suckers.

01/21/2010

Minor League Hockey: Circle Of Life (Update)

Filed under: AHL,Albany River Rats,Anaheim Ducks,Carolina Hurricanes — Joe Yerdon @ 7:56 PM

Well here’s a bit of news courtesy of Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer via Twitter.

Canes will have AHL team in Charlotte next year. No official confirmation yet but it’s a go.

I wonder if anyone at the Times Union Center in Albany was made aware of this because right now the Albany River Rats are the minor league home of the Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s funny how the minor league hockey cycle works though.  Last year I wrote about how the then Philadelphia Phantoms were moving back to the Capital District area of New York and discussed how the Adirondack Red Wings were essentially run out of town by the Albany River Rats.  Fast forward to now and the River Rats agreement with the Hurricanes was coming to an end and now it appears that the River Rats for the mean time will be unaffiliated and are now in danger of existing past this season.

This isn’t meant to say the River Rats are a tremendous success in Albany. They aren’t.  The River Rats have consistently been one of the poorest draws in the AHL and are right there again this year averaging less than 3,500 fans per game in an arena that, for minor league hockey purposes, holds about 9,000.  That attendance number is what you can expect to see at a 3/4 filled RPI hockey game or a Fire Marshall breaking things up and evacuating the building situation at Messa Rink for a Union game.

Obviously this move for the Hurricanes makes sense because it brings their minor league operations near by and paying to fly guys all over the place out of Albany is pretty expensive, despite the fact that Albany’s airport is “international.”

So what do the River Rats do now?  The first thing  to do would be to call the Anaheim Ducks.

The Ducks lost their affiliate after last season, the infamous Iowa Chops, after the owners in Iowa fell out of favor with the Ducks over money squabbles.  Go figure.  This year, Ducks prospects have been shared all over the AHL in an effort to keep their players playing and in shape.  Obviously the major issue here for the Ducks (and for Albany) is the geography.  Anaheim and Albany are quite a distance from each other although Albany is closer to Anaheim than Portland, Maine – a former home for the Ducks.

The upside for the Ducks is that, like the Chops, the River Rats is an extremely unique moniker with oodles of marketing capability, none of which any of the brain trust in Albany has ever been effectively been able to use.  Perhaps with a little help and swagger from folks in southern California, the ad wizards in Albany can figure out what the hell to do with hockey.  It’s either that or give up the market completely to the Adirondack Phantoms who actually seem to care about hockey.  The Phantoms averaging 4,303 per game in the tightly packed Glens Falls Civic Center (capacity: 4,800).

Whatever the solution is for the River Rats, the time to act is now.  It’s unknown as yet what the Ducks’ plans are for an AHL team next year and Albany would offer them a ready-made situation to make things work.  That is, unless, the folks in Albany are just willing to let hockey walk away just like they did with the ECAC Tournament.  There’s surely going to be plenty of other turnover in the AHL during the off-season, but this situation with the River Rats and the city of Charlotte is one that’s come out of nowhere.

UPDATE (1/22/10):

The Times Union’s Pete Dougherty has gotten on the case and done some sniffing around to find out what’s up with the River Rats and he may have gotten down to it, and the news isn’t good for Albany minor league hockey fans.  According to a report he’s found (the same “report” I found mind you), the River Rats are going to be sold.

Garen Szablewski, president and CEO of the River Rats, said that owner Walter Robb is “looking at number of different options in terms of affiliations and future of the franchise,” but he is unaware that any deal has been struck.

It reads like Pete Dougherty is taking as many leaps of faith as the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander is taking in guessing what the next move will be in saying that Rats owner Walter Robb will sell off to someone that will move the team out of town, but it’s not like that hasn’t happened to Albany once before (hello Albany Firebirds).

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