Friday, 18 May 2012

One Express Hockey Year

Having enjoyed myself on my extended roadtrip thus far, HBIC wants to use today to look at some of the lesser known teams that the cities I'm visiting have called home. While the Chicago Blackhawks are one of the Original Six teams, Chicago is home to another professional team in the AHL's Chicago Wolves, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. But there was another professional league that called Chicago home for less than one year when the ECHL granted a franchise to Chicago - the Chicago Express. How did this team start? What happened during its existence? Where is it now? We'll answer all of these questions below.

While the Wolves and Blackhawks have certainly found a niche in the city of Chicago, there always was a less expensive option for fans. Whether it was the All-American Hockey League with the Chi-Town Shooters or the United States Hockey League with the Chicago Steel, there has always been a lower-tier team in the Chicago area for fans to see if the AHL and NHL were a little out of the price range. Thanks to Craig Drecktrah, a successful manufacturing engineer, the ECHL would join the two higher-tiered leagues in Chicago for the 2011-12 season!

Craig Drecktrah found a love for hockey after seeing a Milwaukee Admirals game during his formative years in the Wisconsin city. He fell in love with the minor-league game, but his career took over his life as he found success as an engineer. However, Drecktrah actually got his start as a hockey owner as a part-owner of the United Hockey League's Rockford IceHogs.

With local ownership, Drecktrah turned the IceHogs into the model franchise for the UHL as the team's popularity grew in the community. The team was highly profitable for Drecktrah, and the team was also very successful, culminating a 2006-07 Colonial Cup Championship in seven games over the Kalamazoo K-Wings! With the team enjoying its success and Drecktrah reaping the rewards, the city of Rockford decided to step up and purchase the IceHogs from Drecktrah with hopes of gaining an AHL franchise.

After Drecktrah sold the franchise to MetroCentre of Rockford, Drecktrah focused on remaining as an owner in the UHL when he purchased the Chicago Hounds franchise. The Hounds would play out of the 9400-seat Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, a western suburb of Chicago near Schaumburg. The agreement with the Sears Centre was anything but good. The Hounds found themselves subject to cancellations at any time of games, the lease rates negotiated were less than reasonable, and the ice conditions were abhorrent. In fact, the first Hounds game scheduled to be played was actually cancelled due to the ice conditions over an hour and a half after the game was scheduled to start! That's not how you win over fans by any means.

On June 6, 2007, the Hounds decided to stop operations after Drecktrah was unable to negotiate a reasonable lease with the Sears Centre. Again, the options made available by the Sears Centre were brutal. They wanted the Hounds to play all their home games on weekdays, and they wanted to jack up the price of the lease threefold! And with the cessation of operations, Craig Drecktrah walked away from the UHL as a viable league.

Drecktrah didn't disappear, though. In the summer of 2010, Drecktrah announced that he was bringing an ECHL franchise to the Chicago area. He would officially fold the UHL Chicago Hounds and focus on landing an ECHL team at the Sears Centre. At the ECHL's annual Board of Governors Meeting in June 2010, the league officially granted a franchise to Drecktrah on his second attempt. Drecktrah had applied one year earlier as well, but the ECHL was not yet ready to incorporate a Chicago-based team at that time as they looked to expand westward. With the suburb of Hoffman Estates fully behind the application to the ECHL and having recently taken ownership of the Sears Centre, the Chicago ECHL franchise was rolling!

With Drecktrah officially in the ECHL fold, he went to work on hiring competent and successful businesspeople to run his franchise. His first hiring was Wade Welsh as President and General Manager, formerly of the Kalamazoo K-Wings. Steve Martinson was hired to be the team’s first head coach and Director of Hockey Operations, formerly of the Rockford IceHogs. Drecktrah also hired Ray Kincaid as Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Operations, formerly of the Chicago Shamrox professional lacrosse team. Kincaid's experiences in dealing with the Sears Centre as the Shamrox's Director of Operations made him a good choice for arena-tenant discussions.

While it's hard to fathom that a successful team would have problems, it seemed the Express did. The Express played very good hockey and had some solid talent on their roster, but they lacked one key ingredient in their success: fans. The Express drew a league-low 2508 fans per game on average, and routinely found themselves playing in front of hundreds of fans instead of thousands. Without fan support of a team, the economics will catch up to the franchise very, very quickly.

However, the lack of fans in the stands didn't hurt the Express in the standings. They finished second in the North Division with a 34-26-8-4 record for 80 points, and missed the playoffs due to having less wins than the 80-point Reading Royals. Needless to say, the first season for the Express was a success on the ice despite missing the playoffs as the team showed it was going to be competitive despite nobody watching.

Individually, there were some standouts on the Express roster. Tyler Donati was the leading scoring with 14 goals and 47 assists in just 46 games - a fantastic total for the undrafted right-winger and former Elmira Jackal. Pierre-Luc Faubert, another former Jackal, finished second in scoring with 19 goals and 25 assists in 72 games. Maxime Gratchev, the 106th-overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Islanders, finished third in scoring with 15 goals and 27 assists in just 46 games. Goaltender Peter Mannino, who appeared with the Jets last season, was the busiest goaltender for the Express after playing in just 22 games. His record was 10-8-2-2 with a 3.15 GAA and a .899 save percentage. However, Rob Madore, the former University of Vermont goaltender, was the best goaltender of note for the Express at 8-3-1-0 with a 2.41 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Individually, there were some excellent showings for the Express.

Unfortunately, there was bad news looming on the horizon. On April 6, 2012, it was announced that the Chicago Express would cease operations after the season ended as it was suffering from lack of support and poor attendance. Again, the Express were the lowest-drawing team in the ECHL in a city that would certainly rank as one with the highest population, so it is disappointing that the Express couldn't make a go of it for more than one year.

The Chicago Express: a one-year team in the ECHL that almost saw them make the playoffs. While the attendance was poor, it seemed the franchise was set for future success. Sometimes, though, dreams require solid financial backing, and it appeared that the Chicago ECHL franchise wasn't willing to put up financial losses in exchange for on-ice success. Even when that success was only seen by a couple of hundred fans per night.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great blog. It's nice to see someone talking about my home town. When I was a kid I used to go with my dad to see the Hawks and Wolves play. This last year when I heard ECHL was coming to Chicago I had to make a special trip home to take my dad to see how the ECHL works. I think there were maybe 800 people at the game so tickets by the glass were easy to get. I was sad to hear in April their parent club, the Columbus Blue Jackets weren't going to support the team anymore because of attendance. Of course what good decision has ever come out of the Columbus organization? I guess I have to continue to be a fan of the Quad City Mallards and of course the Norfolk Admirals (no I'm not a bandwagon fan).

Again, great blog... Rabbi out!