As we stumble down the rabbit hole of a West Coast AHL division (or subdivision or something), fans of the Oklahoma City Barons continue to mop the floor with tears of sorrow for how the traditionally successful minor league hockey market in the center of the US has gone down the drain. We’ve discussed at length (and in various forms) about why the Barons failed at seizing a foothold in the sports landscape in OKC, and we have discussed how a managing ownership has flattened hockey’s existence. Those things will continue to be debated for years to come.
In the meantime, the reality is that AHL hockey is probably leaving Oklahoma City, and the immediate future of hockey in this city is a fuzzy image.
There has been great discussion by the Edmonton Oilers (over the 5 year term) that has indicated that the NHL parent club was very fond of OKC. The location. The fans. The city in general. All things that seemed positive for the NHL owners and managers of the storied organization. That will likely pave the way for future teams to land here. But will the AHL ever return?
The likelihood that the AHL returns to Oklahoma City is slim to none. As the going mantra seems to be “stay close, go far” for minor league affiliations, suddenly the South West seems too far away. That means that the third tier of hockey, the new-fangled ECHL, becomes the likeliest of candidates to land across the sweeping plains.
I’m not fond of moving a step backwards. That is just me. I’ve really enjoyed AHL hockey, and the connectivity it has directly with the NHL. To lose that, even just in one tier of the tower, sort of bothers me. Nonetheless, I enjoy hockey, and will continue to do so in the city that I love so much.
There seems to be a growing rumor that perhaps the Edmonton Oilers, whom will place their AHL franchise in Bakersfield as soon as this summer, will elect to place the ECHL franchise in OKC. Thus flip-flopping affiliate locations. This makes sense on paper, but there are some leaky holes in this belief.
First, you still need a local manager. Prodigal is out of the question as they have given up (for now) on minor league hockey. The Oilers could indeed run things locally as they own their ECHL franchise, but that seems like a tough sell. Regardless, someone with ties to OKC would have to manage the team, and it will be hard to court someone in to that position given the “tough sell” that hockey has become in Oklahoma City.
Second, the ECHL would have to approve the entrance of a new team. They would welcome this with open arms as it places another destination point in the mid-South to form a good partnership with teams in Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma (Tulsa). The AHL Board of Governors will likely approve the West Coast AHL conference as soon as this Sunday, and don’t think for a minute that the ECHL won’t quickly look to expand. In the end the ECHL would need to approve expansion, and by golly they would.
Third, an ECHL team would have to sign a long-term arena lease in OKC. One of the reasons that Prodigal bowed out was that they wanted a shortened lease with the city while the Cox Center begged for a long term tenant. In more specific terms – Prodigal wanted one, two or three year lease (after having tossed tons of money into the Barons), the city wanted more like eight to ten. That’s a big gap. The city might waffle just a bit on the term if the investment is good for them. Meaning they receive a guaranteed profit and a portion of concessions, etc. Any way you slice it, a deal will need to be made that benefits the city first, the team second.
Fourth, you are going to have to convince OKC that hockey still matters. Although not a dollar and cents type of concept, this might be the greatest hurdle to overcome. Many in this city are asking the question, “Well, if people won’t show up for AHL games, why would they show up for ECHL games?” And that’s a fantastic question to be asked. The answer to that question is a bit convoluted. Oklahoma City isn’t too hung up on whether hockey is tier two or three or beer league, it is about connectivity, access to the team, and a genuine love for the city. All things that were clearly absent in the last two seasons of AHL hockey. The divide between fan, team, and communication of both being important was vast. So let me stop, turn back towards the original statement because if you are reading this I don’t have to convince you that A) Prodigal didn’t finish well and B) hockey can work in OKC. In the end, whether it is the city, the people, the decision-makers, or the marketers, you are going to have to figure out a way to sell hockey again regardless of the league.
I have done my best to think through the process of “swapping” AHL for ECHL, and YOU can probably name a few more. My personal feelings are quite simple. I am really going to miss the AHL. As a league it had its problems, but what league doesn’t? A lot of the things that I really liked were a direct result of my love for the NHL. The connection the two have is important, exciting, and actually created a greater boundary of hockey appreciation that I wasn’t prepared to experience. I will certainly miss the “here today, NHL tomorrow” thought process that players and GM’s go through, and that won’t be as tangible with the ECHL in town.
Yet still, hockey is a good sport, and an even better sport when viewed live. Given the right management, the right marketing, and the right timing, I think that the ECHL can succeed. But will it be worth the investment? For some it is a hearty YES for me it is a LET’S WAIT AND SEE.
What are your feelings on this topic? Share them in the comments.