The Albany River Rats have officially announced that they will be moving to Charlotte, North Carolina next season. The new team will take the name of the current ECHL team located in Charlotte, the Checkers. The move locates them closer to their NHL affiliate, the Carolina Hurricanes.
There are a few things to know here from our perspective. First, since the River Rats were and are the biggest rival to the Adirondack Phantoms, the move will seriously effect the Flyers farm club. At the same time, the Albany area might not be without AHL hockey for too long.
What [the sale of the team] doesn't mean is that AHL hockey in Albany is history. [Rats owner] Mr. Robb retains the Albany River Rats name, infrastructure and staff in this deal.
Bob Belger, General Manager of the Times Union Center and [River Rats President Garen Szablewski] have been working on a number of different opportunities to bring an AHL team to Albany for next season. We continue to be optimistic that one of these opportunites will come to fruition and that we will soon be able to announce the details of a new team for the 2010-11 season. It is even possible that a new team could continue to use the Albany River Rats name.
This could simply be ownership trying to make sure that people turn out for the remainder of the season, but it also could be the truth. Are there options out there?
Belber has been working the phone ever since he learned that his building could be without a hockey tenant, which fills 40 regular-season home dates per season.
He mentioned two specific scenarios he is working on, but declined to mention the teams he has negotiated with.
"In one case, there's an AHL team or franchise that's actually owned by an NHL team," Belber said, "where the preference in their part would be to sell the team to a local owner and keep the affiliation with the NHL parent team. In another case, there's a situation where one of the AHL owners is interested in just relocating the franchise and not having a local owner."
Belber had plans to meet with the latter group in the afternoon.
Among the teams rumored to be looking elsewhere are the Hartford WolfPack, owned by the New York Rangers, and Lowell Devils. The New Jersey Devils were affiliated with the River Rats for the first 13 years of the AHL's team's existence.
"We've had some very positive discussions," Belber said. "A proposal was sent to us (Monday). About a half hour after receiving the proposal, I got a call, saying they wanted to come over (Tuesday). I'm as optimistic as you could possibly be, knowing that I have a very interested AHL owner that is connected, in my opinion, with one of the best NHL teams in the Northeast."
So, it's very possible that the AHL could be back in Albany next year. Phantoms co-owner Rob Brooks certainly hopes so. Here's what he had to say in an interview with Tim McManus of the Glens Falls Post-Star last week.
We don’t want them to go. And we hope they don’t. That’s not our call. When they’re in the building, it’s electric. There’s a lot of people, it’s packed. We’ve also scheduled those nights as our big nights to sell groups for, too. So actually, I don’t know if it’s that big of a difference because we’ve sold a lot of groups. Maybe it’s about five, 600 extra on those nights walkup from Albany.
In the AHL world, 500-600 walk up tickets makes a difference. There is the possibility that, if Albany is without a team next season, diehard fans could travel the extra hour north to Glens Falls for Phantoms games. For a bit of a local example, when the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies left town in 2005, many fans adopted the Phantoms in Philadelphia as a place to spend their hockey dollars. It could very well be a similar situation up in New York.
Long term, though, a strong rivalry with a team in Albany is a major player in hockey succeeding in Glens Falls. The current incarnation of hockey there isn't expected to last longer than the next couple of years, as the ownership is on record saying that the ultimate goal is to get an arena built in Allentown, PA.
But the Brooks' aren't forgetting about Glens Falls, nor are they 'using' the hockey-loving community up there. Their job there, as they see it, is to prove to another ownership group that the AHL can be successful in the town, so that when they finally do move to Allentown, another team is ready to jump in.
From that same interview with the Post-Star:
There’s always a hope [to start construction in Allentown soon], but right now it doesn’t seem as critical to us because (Glens Falls) is a nice fit for us right now. There’s a good feeling and we have work to do. We were going to go dark and just wait (for Allentown). We definitely didn’t want to come to a place and pull out. That’s not us. That’s not what we want to do.
But when we were approached [by the folks in Glens Falls] to say, ‘Hey, help us try and get a team back.’ Then it seemed OK to us. We’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to try and do everything we can, so we can feel good about it, about setting the stage and make it work long-term. That’s what we’re doing today, it’s what we did this year, it’s what we’ll do tomorrow, the year after. That’s our goal –- so if the day ever came where we had to go, the table is set. I think that’s what’s going to make us feel good – making sure the AHL is here for a long time.
The Phantoms are, long term, likely going to be in Allentown, so in that sense, it doesn't matter to us in the Philadelphia area whether or not hockey succeeds in Glens Falls once the Phantoms are no longer there.
For now, though, if the Allentown arena plans continue to stall and the building doesn't get up before the current Phantoms' lease at the Glens Falls Civic Center expires following the 2011/12 season, we could be affected. As Brooks said above, they thought about 'going dark' and waiting for Allentown before making the decision to go to Glens Falls.
If the Phantoms are without a lease in Glens Falls and are not at least breaking even, it's safe to at least speculate that the Brooks' could pull out of town and go dark until the Allentown arena is built. That means the Flyers wouldn't have an AHL affiliate while the Phantoms are dormant, and that situation would be a lot less than ideal. In this sense, it's crucial to us that the Phantoms succeed in Glens Falls at least in the short-term.
Hopefully, Albany leaving the area doesn't adversely effect the franchise too much.