Posted by: Feldman
Dust off those old Rochester Mustangs T-shirts and jerseys. You may need them again in a couple of years.
Or maybe not. (But it still would be cool to dust them off and wear them.)
The USHL may be on its way back to Rochester. In 2 or 3 years. Or maybe not. There is an owernship group in place and ready to bring the league back to town, if all of the details can be worked out. The team would almost certainly be an expansion team and probably would start play in the 2017-18 season.
I have not yet been able to get anyone from the United States Hockey League, the Mayo Civic Center or the ownership group, on the phone. I left messages this afternoon for USHL commissioner Bob Fallen, as well as Mayo Civic Center Executive Director Donna Drews, and two of the men who are likely heading up or heavily involved in the ownership group. I haven't heard back from any of them, but it's only been about nine hours, so let's give them a little time, eh?
Why call Drews at the MCC? Well, because, from everything I'm hearing, the owners want to place a potential franchise in downtown, which would obviously mean playing in Taylor Arena.
The problem: Taylor Arena isn't fit to hold ice right now. No refrigeration system is in place. That said, if one is going to be installed, now would be the time, with the giant renovation project already underway at the Civic Center. (Personally, I wouldn't at all mind walking across the street from the P-B a couple of dozen times a winter to watch USHL hockey). Perhaps that means the ownership group would pay for the cooling system?
What about the Rochester Rec Center, you ask? The Rec Center is an awesome place to watch hockey. The view from the loft is the best spot in town to watch a game. However, with the growth -- both in terms of number of teams and in terms of recognition as a ultra-talented league -- of the USHL, I'd guess the league is looking to place teams in arenas that seat more than the 2,600 or so that the Rec Center can hold. But selling out the Rec Center would mean more attendance than a couple of USHL teams with roughly 3,000-seat buildings that don't sell out on a nightly basis.
Almost all of the arenas that house USHL teams seat at least 3,500, many of them seat 5,000-plus. The smallest arenas in the league are the Chicago Steel's rink, Edge Ice Arena (3,000 capacity), and the Mystique Ice Center, home of the Dubuque Fighting Saints (3,079). The Madison Capitols' Alliant Energy Center Coliseum (10,231) and the brand new Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls (10,678) are the biggest in the league.
The Mayo Civic Center's Taylor Arena lists a seating capacity of 5,200 for concerts and 7,200 for festival-seating events. At 5,200 it would be right about in the middle of the league's arenas as far as seating capacity.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Again, nothing is set in stone yet, as far as I know. From what I understand, though, it's gone beyond the "it would be cool to bring the USHL back to Roch, we should put a team together" stage. One of the potential owners even took a trip to Omaha to see the Lancers' new rink back in late May and, I'm assuming, to talk with ownership there about what all it takes to operate a franchise in the country's top junior hockey league.
Lots of reasons. Sure, detractors could point to the failure of Rochester's last USHL franchise. The Mustangs folded after the 2001-02 season, partly due to dwindling attendance, but more so, I'm told, because of ownership who had some financial issues, primarily not paying bills.
I remember at one point when I first started on the hockey beat here, probably 2005 or 2006, talking to Rochester Ice Hawks owner Doc Fatis about some of the obstacles they faced when moving their team here from LeSeuer. There was still a lot of skepticism and distrust from the business community toward junior hockey teams. The Ice Hawks have done a remarkable job of building that trust in their product on and off the ice. And if the ownership of this new USHL team would involve the people I'm told it will, there will be a built-in level of trust and familiarity within the community.
So, back to, why Rochester?
The whole Destination Medical Center plan probably helps. If the city is truly going to double in size in the next two decades, a USHL team here would go from drawing on an immediate population of 110,000 to one of more than 200,000, as well as drawing fans from surrounding communities.
As the league stands right now, there are 17 teams. Here is a look at the league's footprint. Fold it in half and Rochester would be almost right on the crease in the fold. A new team here could be placed in either conference, going east or west to play most of its games.
Fallen has said in the past that keeping travel time down as much as possible is one priority. Rochester is less than 400 miles from 12 of the 17 current USHL teams, and only 405 from another (Lincoln, Neb.). Roughly half (eight) of the league's teams are within 275 miles.
Fallen talked at length about USHL expansion during this interview with The Pipeline radio show out of Edmonton back in late May. (Here's a link to that interview; skip ahead to the 5:45 mark, then the 7:45 mark to hear him talk about what the league is looking for in an expansion market).
If you don't want to listen to the whole thing, here's some of what he had to say, while talking about the Indiana Ice re-joining the league in 2016-17:
"We're working on a couple things right now that would add potentially two additional teams for '17-'18."
"We are approached quite frequently (by) folks who are looking to get teams in the United States Hockey League. We've tried to focus on identifying the right markets that fit our business model. I'm a believer that the market has to be first in terms of having a building that's sustainable and having a lease that's right for the footprint of our league, and making sure we're not asking these young men to be on buses for 15, 16, 20 hours for road trips. We're trying to keep things into the midwest, upper midwest, just to, you know, kind of fit in to our business model."
"I really think you'll be looking at something that fits right in our geographic business model. We've been approached by a number of folks about moving east and it's such a huge market out there for hockey and yet they also have tons of Division I college, pro, and minor pro (teams). We're just concerned that the travel would be too taxing.
"Right now, Youngstown (Ohio) is our eastern-most team. To ask kids to get on a bus and go from Sioux Falls or Sioux City to Youngstown, you're looking at a 10- 12- or 14-hour trip, so we're trying not to go much further than that right now."
Read into Fallen's comments what you will, but Rochester seems to check off a lot of boxes on the league's wish list. That said, as mentioned above, the arena -- the lack of a refrigeration system in it -- could be a sticking point that's too tough to overcome.
Other markets of interest
Fallen addressed the question of adding teams out east, and his comments seem to indicate that markets such as Buffalo, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would not be in the running for a USHL team, though the league will hold a preseason mini-showcase in Pittsburgh this fall (Sept. 18-19), with four teams playing games there over two days. Perhaps that's intended more for young players to see what the USHL is all about.
Even if the league intends to add two more teams for the '17-'18 season, there are other markets that could be very attractive.
Where else could the league expand? I have a few ideas, let me know if I'm missing some obvious places in the Midwest or if you think I'm off-base on these. I'm just spitballing:
* Kansas City. K.C. has been mentioned often when NHL expansion or relocation talks come up, though it always seems to get shuffled aside in favor of Seattle, Las Vegas, Quebec City, etc. It has been home to pro teams in the past and is currently the home of the Kansas City Jr. Mavs program (formerly Russell Stover). K.C. also is a very easy drive to the USHL's teams in Iowa and Nebraska.
* Dayton, Ohio. Dayton would make a lot of sense in a possible division with Youngstown, the Michigan teams and even the Indiana Ice when they return in 2016-17. Hara Arena isn't shiny and new, but it seats 5,500, which falls right in line with what the USHL is looking for. The community has had pro hockey teams in the past, including the Dayton Gems of the CHL and the Dayton Bombers of the ECHL. The Bombers stuck around for about a dozen years, which could mean the USHL would find some success there.
* Eau Claire, Wis. I don't know what their arenas hold, seating-wise, but Eau Claire is a big enough city (roughly 65,000-70,000 population) and it pumps out some really talented high school players on a yearly basis, with Memorial High School always competing for trips to state and titles. Again, I don't know what Hobbs Ice Center holds, as far as seating capacity, perhaps it's not big enough, but Eau Claire would be another strong geographical fit.
That's all I have for now. I'll keep efforting the major players in this deal and be back with more when I can get some confirmations of what the conversations to date have consisted of.