The AHL To ECHL Flip, Can It (And Should It) Work In Oklahoma City?

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.

32 comments on “The AHL To ECHL Flip, Can It (And Should It) Work In Oklahoma City?”

  1. Two things, first one relevant to this discussion. Even if it is not AHL level hockey it can still be great. I used to live in Calgary and had season tickets to the whl Hitmen. This is more then one level down from the nhl but still provided a great hockey experience. second, are the Barons using Marincin on the right or left side?
    Thanks for doing a great job covering the barons.

  2. I have no doubt it would work here, given the instantly-recognizable rivals in Tulsa and Wichita. There is still a lot of interest in that, even if it’s not quite the CHL of old.

    I’d rather have AHL too(and even moreso NHL), but ECHL isn’t that big of a step down, and players at that level are more approachable – might also see a cut in ticket prices.

    1. The return to the rivalry of the Central League is HUGE in this discussion. Folks may not have warmed to Adirondack or Charlotte, but bringing back those rivalries would be absolutely fantastic. We are also going to find out pretty quickly the size of the population of CHL Blazers fans that might be interested in an ECHL team with ties to the former league they loved. I’m anxious to see how many come out of the woodwork.

  3. I hope you guys can pull it off. We couldn’t, because Les Alexander doesn’t want another team competing in the Toyota Center during the winter. At least in the older barn you don’t have to worry about “stuff” like that. Trust me, you DO NOT want an NA3HL team which is all we have now. It just isn’t worth it.

    Perhaps an ECHL team in OKC as well as Allen could lead to an ECHL team in Sugar Land or Pearland, but a new arena would be needed. I don’t see the AHL returning to metro Houston except via NHL expansion (or maybe – – as a LONG shot – – Calgary). In either case, it also means a new suburban arena.

  4. I hate this for y’all, Neal. Losing an AHL team in Charlotte would be devastating. Fortunately, our future seems secure with a nearby NHL parent club and a 10 year lease at a “new” building. Even tough Charlotte is on an island, much like OKC, they’ve made it work despite a rough travel schedule that requires flights to all cities except Norfolk (and since they will be making an exit, there will be no teams in driving distance for the Checkers).

    I’m anxious to see how everything falls into place, and hope for the best for OKC and a future franchise!

    1. Thank you for empathizing with us. Charlotte continues to get the short end of the stick being in the east and playing against the west. Definitely a team that has a very complicated schedule.

    2. Congrats on the long term lease! Hope to get over there this fall to check out your city for retirement. Seems to have all the basics I’m looking for, including significantly cooler weather than Houston and SNOW (and hockey!).

  5. I too do not like to take a step back from AHL to ECHL, but at least it’s some pro hockey, right? And the familiarity of Tulsa and Wichita should help bring in old Blazers fans. My only real issue, and what k believe to be a big hurdle, would be the venue. I wish we could get a rink like they have in Cedar Park. Something less than 8k to make it seem more intimate when the crowds are less than stellar. Immediate solution would be to tarp off the upper bowl at the Cox, and create some sort of ticket system in the lower bowl. Obviously, the Cox CC ushers would need to monitor people poaching seats, but that could be remedied easily. The other solution is updating the State Fairgrounds, which, I believe needs a new ice-making unit, among other upgrades. The least attractive option, if it came down to it, would be using the west rink at Arctic Edge. Seating could be increased, and a few moderate upgrades woukd certainly be made.

  6. Marketing — Personally, and many disagree – they should have spent money on:
    Families, families, families and kids
    You go to Texas at Austin and I have been several times and the FIRST thing you notice is that “you see many families” — You hammer home the value of the product as a family night out. The kids ‘get hooked” and want to come back and back. Yes you need to market —
    1) billboards a few the first few seasons then I didn’t’ see any for the last two for sure… People “see that” and it is subliminal but it works.
    2) A few targeted front or page 2 sports section ads in the Oklahoman before two or three game weekends versus – nothing
    3) Kids / family magazines – saturate with “the value and the deal — yea — Thunder is Big BUT there are still a lot of families who can’t get the Thunder ticket but their parents would say — lets go see the hockey game!

    4) They need to then advertise to those who come to the game! The last 3 game home-stand which saw a Fri, Sat and Sun…. I watched how many times they advertised on the Big board or talked about the Sun – family game – and it was just a couple of times. You watch the away games of the Barons on AHL live and you will see time out breaks promo on the other teams big screens numerous times — self promoting their promotions! My Gosh – take a page out of Ringling Brothers — you need to bark and create excitement and a reason for people to jump on the bandwagon! Yes, they should just because of the PRODUCT — BUT……. They need a hook!
    All that said, this is to attract the masses that aren’t necessarily hockey fans or understand the sport – it takes time. The other night the trivia question asked for two fans was …name two teams in the west conf of the AHL — neither could!!!! Oh my – that speaks volumes. I can almost assure you if we get the chance at the eCHL and I sure hope Edmonton would encourage that for OKC — more fans will connect with the OKC team “(put in name here… I would vote for Blazers again if possible)… (oh by the way I also would like to still call our grand place the Myriad) because they would get the Tulsa Turnpike rivalry and Wichita and the Dallas metro team…

    But only time will tell. — meanwhile – what a team we have and have had for 5 years! What a thrill for hockey fans!
    I just watched Nelli and Edmonton come back against Washington the other day and tonight the Barons went into Charlotte and took care of business…..OKC is KNOWN across these AHL towns for their hockey team! Too bad we can’t get an average of 4,000 to the games! If we get another team we can only hope the management focuses on the families, focuses on the kids – advertises in the right places!

  7. Great piece, Neal! You know I am encouraged by the ECHL’s desire to move into OKC primarily due to its proximity to Tulsa, Wichita and Allen, but the question will be can they find a team and organization who fits into OKC. As for dropping down a tier to ECHL hockey, I’ve been watching it all season long so far and while I do recognize that there are differences, I’ve not been disappointed at all by ECHL hockey. I was surprised by that! But you are right about the AHL’s immediate connection to the NHL. I will miss that. Greatly.

  8. Travel and the AHL attendance record will kill any chance OKC getting a ECHL team, hockey cannot compete with B ball in OKC.
    When Simpson was sign, he said he prefer to play the RD, not a fan and pairing him with Marincin hasn’t been the smartest of ideas. To slow for my liking, seems to have a problem getting back into the play, faster players blow past him on the outside. Has played better of late, but that has been do to the play of partners. No shot, poor skating, and not the toughest player on the block, other than being related to the old boys club cannot understand why he was signed.

    1. You actually solve the travel problem by joining ECHL (Kansas, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma all currently with teams). Attendance is another monster, but again, with a fresh approach to the market (and a better expectation of attendance), it might work.

    2. The ECHL President is VERY interested in OKC (I’ve heard him personally state this fact), primarily due to OKC’s location in the middle of the ECHL’s Central Division teams: Allen, TX, Wichita, KS and Tulsa, OK, and its long rivalry history with two of these teams while in the old CHL league.

  9. Great article with one exception – the Cox Center &/or the City pushing for an 8-10 year deal is factually inaccurate. The Cox/the City was not part of the discussions between Prodigal and Edmonton. This is unfortunate. Hockey, at this level, failed in OKC because Prodigal failed hockey in OKC.

      1. Yes. The City had nothing to do with it. They were not involved at all in the negotiations. It is unfortunate because (speculating here) had they or Cox been included in the conversation there may have been a different outcome.

        1. Okay, then I must be missing something. With the arena lease ending, are you saying Prodigal didn’t attempt to secure a short-term lease? if so, I’m not privy to that information. You must know something I don’t know. Your original statement claiming “factually incorrect” information is based on facts that I know and have heard. What happens behind the scenes that aren’t publicly established I can’t comment on (because I just don’t know).

  10. The city, chamer, visitor bearu should be HEaVILY this is why we pay taxes and their salaries
    To loose hockey is a stain on this city ability to be a major city with major business attraction
    Any investor and any thinking long term knows this

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