Friday, 15 April 2011

Concerns For The AHL Teams

With all the latest talk about the potential move of the Phoenix Coyotes back to Winnipeg for the Manitoba capital's second kick at the NHL, there seems to be one team that is continually being lost in the shuffle when it comes to this potential move. The AHL's Manitoba Moose is one of the flagship franchises in the AHL circuit, consistently putting up excellent attendance figures while being one of the most stable franchises in the league despite the long distance they are from most AHL outposts. What happens to this franchise if the Coyotes move to Winnipeg? Where do they end up in terms of a new city? Does Vancouver continue its affiliation with the Moose if they move further away?

Look, those of you who think the Coyotes should move back to Winnipeg, I applaud you. From everything we've seen happen in the desert, it sounds as though there really is only one option for the Coyotes once this season ends, and it starts and ends with moving vans. Until those vans hit the road, though, I am not going to be rushing out to slap down three years of cold, hard cash for season tickets if True North Sports and Entertainment asks me for it. Until the trucks are rolling north, I'm not putting the cart before the horse in this situation.

That being said, there must be plans in place to move the Moose if the NHL finally pulls the plug on Phoenix. AHL Commissioner David Andrews, who made news yesterday on this blog with his "reduced games" announcement, was answering questions on CKWX radio in Vancouver when the question about what to do about the Moose if Phoenix moves to Winnipeg came up. Andrews wasted little time in explaining the AHL's stance.

"We are preparing for the possibility that Phoenix could end up in Winnipeg," Andrews said. "We have contingency plans relative to our own divisional and conference alignments and schedule.

"The middle of May is kind of the drop-dead date for us in terms of preparations for the following year. We do have a couple of strong possibilities, couple of markets that really are interested in having an AHL franchise, so the potential is there to activate Manitoba's AHL club somewhere else if need be."
It sounds as though the AHL has been ready for some time when it comes to this Phoenix-Winnipeg saga coming to an end. I commend them for their preparedness, but it remains to be seen what happens if the Desert Dogs can survive the opening round against Detroit and move past that "middle of May" date that Mr. Andrews set as the drop-dead date.

The question really isn't about the Coyotes, though. If, or perhaps more appropriately "when", the Coyotes move back to Winnipeg, to where do the Moose relocate? What cities are represented by these "couple of markets" in Mr. Andrews' comments?

First, we should probably check out a map of AHL franchises. As you can see, Manitoba is kind of on its own way out in the middle of Canada. Milwaukee might be the closest team to them, and they play in a completely different division. If you look out on the west coast, you'll see the Abbotsford Heat all by their lonesome. Western Canada is a lonely place, it seems, but there may be a couple of places the Moose can relocate to above the 49th parallel.

Places that would make the Vancouver Canucks happy would have to include Chilliwack, Nanaimo, or even Tacoma, Washington. All three of those cities are in Vancouver's backyard, and each of them has their respective pros and cons. Chilliwack is, of course, a stone's throw from Abbotsford, so the rivalry between the Moose and Heat would ratchet up a few notches if the Moose were to relocate to Chilliwack. Nanaimo is on the island, but isn't very far away from Abbotsford either, so that's also an option.

Tacoma, while not being a Canadian city, is a very attractive option as it finds itself just down the highway from both Seattle and Olympia. The Tacoma Dome is an interesting hockey venue as it is "the world's largest arena with a wooden dome in terms of total volume and seating capacity", according to Wikipedia. The WHL's Tacoma Rockets played there from 1991-95, and the WCHL's Tacoma Sabercats were the last hockey tenants as they played there from 1997-2002. The only question is whether the people of Tacoma want the AHL.

If moving to the west coast is too big of a leap for the Moose to make due to travel costs and logistics, perhaps they could look down the highway to the east. Thunder Bay has twice hosted the Manitoba Moose in preseason games: in 2002 against the St. John's Maple Leafs, and again in 2003 against the Toronto Roadrunners. While Fort William Gardens is quite small in terms of its maximum seating at 3351, the city of Thunder Bay has investigated getting a new state-of-the-art arena for its community, and there is talk of replacing the Fort William Gardens in 2013. Perhaps the arrival of the AHL can push that forward.

The biggest thing about Thunder Bay is that it wouldn't change the alignment in the AHL whatsoever, and the travel costs will remain about the same for the team as they were in Winnipeg. While the population of Thunder Bay is about 1/7th of Winnipeg, the city would probably outdraw some of the lower-ranked team in attendance by simply being the city's biggest pro sports team ever. Much in the same fashion that Hershey supports the Bears, Thunder Bay could take to their AHL franchise in much the same fashion.

Thunder Bay, Chilliwack, Nanaimo, and Tacoma are decent choice in my view. There are larger markets that the AHL could move into, though, and these have to be considered as well.

Kansas City and Vancouver already have had a relationship in the past when the Canucks were affiliated with the IHL's Kansas City Blades. Besides being a very large market, Kansas City also has that brand-new arena we keep hearing about whenever someone mentions the New York Islanders moving. While the Moose wouldn't be the first option when it comes to entertainment dollars, if the franchise was run properly, the AHL could work very nicely in Kansas City.

Omaha, Nebraska had a team as recently as 2007 when the Calgary Flames had their AHL affiliate playing out of Omaha. The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights weren't the greatest of draws in the AHL, and the Flames ultimately decided to move the team after the low attendance numbers forced their hand. Again, if the franchise was run properly and the community involvement from the team was there, I believe that the Moose could work very well in a city like Omaha.

If a team is leaving Phoenix, there is an open market there for another team to fill the void. Phoenix isn't a very far jump from Vancouver, so the affiliation might be good for both towns. Again, the issue is how this team is run and the support it would receive in Phoenix. If people aren't showing up in Phoenix for NHL games, why would they show up for AHL games? I'm sure the AHL would take this into consideration when looking at new homes for the Moose franchise. Could it work in Phoenix? In theory, yes. But that's all we're dealing with, and the evidence right now says it would not work in the long term.

An interesting suggestion came from a co-worker when he suggested the cities of Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota. Fargo is double the population size of Thunder Bay, and they have a gorgeous hockey facility in the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Of course, Ralph Engelstad Arena is home to the NCAA's Sioux hockey team, so there might be some logistics to work out between the two teams, but Fargo's travel distance to other AHL markets would be comparable or less than what it is in Winnipeg. The fans in these cities support the Sioux very well, and I direct everyone to Nathan's comments!

The one thing that I think should be considered is that the USHL's Fargo Force play out of Fargo, so something will need to be done to reach an agreement for an AHL franchise to move. But for all the cross-border shopping that happens, I'm quite certain that a few Winnipeggers would attend a Fargo Moose game if they were in town for the weekend.

Overall, I believe there are some very good markets for the AHL to look at if the Moose are indeed on the move. I think a Canadian market would be best, but a northern US market would have no foreseeable faults either. What say you, readers? If the Moose were given the option to move, would one of the cities above be their best choice? Is there another place I should have considered? Have your say in the comments!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Captain Canuck said...

I guess I'm not really understanding why the Moose are gone of the Jets return. Calgary has no problem selling out the Flames and the Hitmen of the WHL. Granted Calgary is bigger, but I don't see why the support wouldn't be there for both.

Teebz said...

All of the Jets supporters refuse to support the Moose as it is, and I'm pretty sure that the Jets don't want the Moose taking any of their revenue.

Winnipeg cannot support two pro hockey teams in any way. The money in the city just isn't there.

Nathan said...

The Fargo suggestion is interesting, but a small clarification is in order.

Ralph Engelstad Arena (the finest hockey arena in North America) is actually in Grand Forks, ND, which has a population of about 55,000. With the success and popularity of the Sioux hockey team here, I'm not sure it would work.

Fargo is about 70 miles south of Grand Forks, and it has a population of about 100,000. They recently built a new hockey facility, the Scheels Arena ( that seats about 5,000. They currently house a USHL team, the Fargo Force. While there would be some logistics to figure with scheduling of the two teams, it could be a viable home for the Moose, and they would certainly draw from Grand Forks and Winnipeg as well.