Tuesday, 17 May 2016

No Gators In The Swamp

The Louisiana IceGators probably aren't a well-known team across Canada or through the northern United States, but they have had a solid history of hockey in the state of Louisiana. Beginning as an ECHL team from 1995-2005, the team was brought back to life in 2009 as a member of the Southern Professional Hockey League by entrepreneur Danny Smith. If the IceGators name rings a bell, you might remember that Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Scott Darling played a short time there before getting his shot in the NHL.

So you might be asking why HBIC is writing about an SPHL team that has yet to win a championship and has only seen one player graduate to the NHL? Well, the IceGators have decided to close up shop for one season while their home, the Cajundome, undergoes renovations.

Minor-hockey teams have done this before, but this move by the IceGators is a little peculiar. While I completely understand the idea of renovations to an arena that houses the Louisiana–Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns men's basketball program and is an NCAA men's basketball tournament site, having an SPHL team take a full season off makes no sense. Here me out on this one.

The Cajundome holds 11,433 fans for hockey. The IceGators averaged 2109 fans last season, and peaked in the 2013-14 season at 2372 fans. I don't fault the IceGators for playing in a venue like the Cajundome which is a great arena. I do fault them, however, for calling the season off when they barely fill 20% of the Cajundome on average. Can they not find another hockey rink in the Lafayette area that can hold 2500-or-so people for this season?

The Ragin' Cajuns women's basketball team plays the majority of their games out of Blackham Coliseum, a place where the SPHL IceGators once called home. When the team was brought back, they played their first season in the SPHL at Blackham Coliseum in 2009-10. The Coliseum holds 5500 people for most events which would be more than suitable based on the number of fans the IceGators attract.

So why can't they play at Blackham Coliseum for one season while the renovations take place?

Well, it turns out that the IceGators DID explore those options. According to Luke Johnson of The Advocate, the option were pretty limiting when it came to the bottom line according to IceGators GM Louis Dumont.
"Dumont said the IceGators exhausted all nearby options to keep the 2016-17 season alive. He said the team considered playing a heavy portion of the early schedule on the road, though he said that meant the organization would likely lose out on six to eight Friday and Saturday night games — which he called the team's 'bread and butter.'

"The IceGators also considered at least three other sites, including Blackham Coliseum and arenas in Lake Charles and Baton Rouge, but none provided a solid alternative.

"'Baton Rouge was maybe an option for the first part of the year, but the cost of having the games over there and splitting our season-ticket money and sponsorship, it would've been pretty difficult to split and play a third of the season over there, then come over here,' Dumont said. 'Blackham Coliseum has a lot more on its schedule than people think or know of. So converting to hockey would've been a daunting task.'"
The decision to suspend operations for one year was made pretty easily once these options were played out, and the decision was reached quickly.

"Doing all the legwork and seeing what our options were, what it would cost and actually putting down the numbers, we knew probably at the end of the calendar year of 2015 that we were more than likely going to have to think about suspending operations," Dumont told Johnson on Monday. "Once the season was over is when the true, hard decision was made."

The key in all of this was getting approval to suspend the IceGators' membership in the SPHL for the upcoming season while the $22 million renovation of the Cajundome went on until mid-December.

"If we would dissolve, we would lose our affiliation, wouldn't be able to come back the next year, wouldn’t be able to even sell our organization if we needed to sell it and move somewhere else," Dumont said. "We would've lost all those options."

There's your reason for there being no IceGators in The Frozen Swamp this season. By suspending operations after exhausting all other options, they are able to resume play in 2017-18 in the SPHL without missing a beat. While the SPHL loses a key member for one season, the renovation will hopefully ensure greater viability for the IceGators moving forward.

In the end, good business sense may save a franchise by keeping it off the ice for a season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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