The biggest story in the hockey world regarding franchises, leagues and active arenas is the potential colosial restructuring coming of the lower leagues. With the western teams in the NHL understandably wanting teams closer to home base, the whole design of the minor leagues could be in flux. The wheels have somewhat been set in motion this season with the very recent absorption of the 7 CHL teams into the ECHL. Remarkably, this happened right near to the start of the season, but somehow the league re-did the schedule and divisions in a tight timeframe. The ECHL now is a 28 team league, just two short of having a legit AA imprint and partnership with the AHL-NHL. It should be noted that the San Francisco Gulls only lasted a season and a half in the practically empty Cow Palace and replacing them is the Indy Fuel, which will play in a renovated, historic and awesome Fairgrounds Coliseum. Also gone from this season are the Las Vegas Wranglers as they leave Orleans Arena and their idea of putting a new hockey rink on the roof of a casino didn’t exactly work out. From the CHL, there were 10 teams playing last season and with 7 making the move to the ECHL, the other three folded. Two of them are hoping to return next season, but for now the Arizona SunDogs and the Denver Cutthroats go dark, along with their respective arenas on The List. The Family Arena, former home to the defunct St. Charles Chill, will remain thanks to indoor football playing in the facility.
In the AHL, the historic league retains it’s general make-up for at least this year (and for selfish reasons, I hope for much longer), but there are still a few very notable moves. Ironically, the most recent western expansion move did not work out and the Abbotsford franchise folded. That leaves a $66 million, relatively new 7000 seat building tenant-less and unfortunately off The List (with probably a lot of pissed off taxpayers). The Flames affiliate sets up shop in Glens Falls, where the Phantoms have left to be just an hour outside Philly as the brand new PPL Center has been completed in downtown Allentown. Lehigh Valley is a true AAA market with both the AHL and IL baseball now in town. I’ll give it a few years to work the kinks out, but I can not wait to visit the Phantoms and PPL as I now will have AHL hockey just an hour drive from me. In Portland, the lease issue has been settled between the Pirates and the Cumberland County Civic Center. Hockey returned to a near sellout crowd last week and the building has been renamed Cross Insurance Arena, in conjunction with renovations that include premium seating and enhanced concessions. Renovations also finished in another older arena as Binghamton added a new video scoreboard above center ice. This goes with the replacement of every arena seat last year. Their naming rights is a little strange as the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena not only pays homage to the veteran Maines, but it is also a deal with the family owned Maines Paper and Food Service company, which is paying $75,000 a year for Floyd’s name on the building. Lastly, Hamilton sold out and got rid of a pretty good name (Copps Coliseum) for a generic corporate one (FirstOntario Centre).
Down in Juniors, a new arena has opened in the league that I have a long-term plan to see every team play a home game. The OHL’s Niagara IceDogs move into the Meridian Center in Saint Catharine’s. It certainly is a pricey building at $50 million for an arena with just around 5000 seats. Also of note, the Ottawa 67s return to the Ottawa Civic Center as they were forced to depart last season due to renovations for both the arena and the attached stadium that houses this year’s expansion CFL franchise. Annoyingly, both the arena and stadium will be called TD Place.
America’s top junior league featured a few franchise changes as the USHL welcomed the Madison Capitols. Veterans Memorial Coliseum (inside the bigger Alliant Energy Center complex) will host the team and this a homecoming of sorts as the Capitols played in the same league and arena from 1984-1995. In Sioux Falls, the Stampede move into a surprisingly large and state-of-the-art arena given their location and region. With a capacity of 10,450, the Denny Sanford Premier Center not only will host regular hockey, but also may put in a bid to host the First Four games in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Of course this makes absolutely no sense given South Dakota’s remoteness and poor accessibility given travel is a big consideration for those games. Researching this new arena, it was challenging to actually find out about it because the whole thing is a huge complex and it was actually built around the existing Sioux Falls Arena, which will still host events including Augustana College basketball games. That makes Augustana the very rare college, let alone D-II, to have two basketball arenas on The List as their split on-campus home meets capacity requirements.
Wrapping things up at the college level, Rochester Institute of Technology just opened a 4,000-seat building on campus. The Gene Polisseni Center gives a RIT a first-class facility that should be filled with orange many nights. Though they are from my hometown, I can’t quite root for them as I was at plenty of RIT-Oswego (my alma mater) games back when the Tigers were Division III. Given the power of their program and a beautiful facility as well, I’m surprised the Lakers have not followed suit and moved up to the D-I level yet.