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Light Still Flickering for Hockey in Cincinnati Next Season

by Chris Meiman
June 7, 2005 - American Hockey League (AHL) - Cincinnati RailRaiders

While two of stronger franchises of the American Hockey League, Philadelphia and Chicago, fight for the Calder Cup, the league itself is bracing itself for a summer of significant transition. The announcement of that the Edmonton Road Runners will not play next season brings to three the number of teams that will not be back. That, combined with the continuing uncertainty surrounding the NHL lockout means that answers won’t be right around the corner. Minor leagues are known for their instability, despite the efforts of league officials to maintain team identities. 13 of the 28 AHL teams that started the 2004-2005 season have been affected by these changes, some minor and some major. That doesn’t even cover the two new teams coming into the league and two teams are moving, Worcester, will move to Peoria, Illinois and Saint John's will move to Toronto. Three teams have announced that they do not intend to field teams in the AHL next season; Cincinnati, Utah, and Edmonton. Each of these has caused ripples that have yet to really settle.

Cincinnati’s absence was the most expected as the season wore down. The grand musical chairs game of affiliation changes began just as the season was ending and the Cincinnati franchise was left without a chair. Once the Colorado Avalanche revealed that they will not support a full AHL next season and moved their operations out of Hershey, Pennsylvania, the game was on. Colorado will share the Lowell franchise with Carolina. Carolina had shared with Calgary, but the Flames will stock a full team in Omaha. Washington took advantage of the situation to move its affiliate out of Portland, Maine and to Hershey for geographical reasons. Portland then began its search for a new affiliate, which it found relatively quickly. The problem is that the new NHL team's current affiliate was still in the playoffs. An announcement was postponed until that team was eliminated and the speculation began. It soon centered on Cincinnati and before long it became the worst kept secret in hockey. Days after the Ducks were eliminated; Anaheim and Portland announced a new 5 year agreement. Cincinnati, owners their own AHL franchise, scrambled to find a new home, but eventually filed for a voluntary suspension pending finding a new affiliate, vowing to be back in 2006-2007.

That would have been the end of the story for Cincinnati hockey had two other AHL teams unexpectedly file similar motions. The Utah Grizzlies, farm team of the Phoenix Coyotes, shocked the AHL and the Phoenix organization when it announced it would not play in the upcoming AHL season. The Grizzlies later announced that it would move down in class to the East Coast Hockey League, where more teams played in Western North American than the AHL. This left Phoenix in a bind and potentially with a lawsuit against the owners of the Grizzlies as there was a year left on their agreement. It looked for a time that Phoenix would swing a deal with the Florida Panthers to buy their half of the San Antonio Rampage while Florida would move its players to Orlando. The move makes sense for both franchises, but talks have stalled partially because the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA own half of the Rampage and are still playing in the NBA Finals. Resolution of this could come very quickly once the Spurs season is over, but who knows what that resolution will be. If Phoenix can not move its entire team to San Antonio, it may become likely that they will disperse their players over several teams. The Houston Aeros were being used by both the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars, but the Stars have set up their own affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa. Moving some of Phoenix's players into Houston would make the most geographic sense after San Antonio. Dallas also had players in Hamilton, Ontario, who were also affiliated with Montreal. Most other AHL cities have primary affiliate agreements with NHL clubs, so options beyond that are limited.

It might be a good sign for fans of the NHL that the Edmonton Oilers are going to focus on the NHL in Edmonton this year. AHL fans are less than pleased because the Edmonton Road Runners were 3rd this past season in attendance. Also it appears that Oiler brass might have misled the Edmonton hockey public by claiming that the Road Runners were not a one year tenant. The franchise has been in trouble though before. The Road Runners were based in Toronto the year before, but defaulted on rent and were tossed out of the arena and previously the Oilers had shared the Hamilton Bulldogs with the Montreal Canadiens. Dallas moved some of its players into Hamilton for last season, but again is putting all of its players in Iowa. The Oilers say they have 20 players to relocate and that may be too many for Hamilton to accommodate with Montreal's presence. The Oilers have also looked at Houston's vacancy as a possibility.

One other club having problems with their NHL partner is Cleveland, who is in danger of losing its AHL team after next season and perhaps sooner. The Barons were 25th out of 28 teams in attendance and the parent club San Jose Sharks are listening to offers about relocating the franchise. It does seem likely that the Barons will return for one more season before the Sharks begin really shopping their AHL franchise. Columbus, among many other teams, will have their agreements up after next season and might be willing to move their operations. Columbus inherited Syracuse upon entering the league, and even though all sides say they are happy with the arrangement, Blue Jacket brass have expressed at least some interest in the idea of a minor league team being closer to home. Columbus has made a public commitment to hockey in Ohio and their ECHL affiliate is in Dayton.

While it seems very likely that Cincinnati will have a new AHL team for the 2006-2007 season, there is still a chance the Cincinnati Gardens could have hockey as early as this fall. If Phoenix's deal with Florida falls through, that leaves two full teams stranded for the upcoming season. One possibility for Phoenix and Edmonton is to split their affiliates as outlined; Phoenix with Houston, Edmonton with Hamilton, and then send the rest of their players to Cincinnati for the upcoming season. That would likely be a one year deal as all parties would want a more stable situation going forward. Of course, the Panthers and Coyotes could work out their trade so that another new team would come into the league in Orlando. Edmonton could then split between Hamilton and Houston or move to a different city all together. The best long-term answer for Cincinnati hockey is an easy one. Cincinnati needs Columbus to move its team to the Gardens, resurrect the Stingers name, and lock in a long-term agreement.

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