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Wheeling, Johnstown holding on in ECHL

| Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Professional sports teams aren't supposed to just quit playing in the middle of the season.

So when not one but two teams from the ECHL — the Augusta (Ga.) Lynx and the Fresno Falcons — folded within three weeks of each other in December, it sent shockwaves through the rest of the league (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League).

"I think it hurt our league's reputation a little bit," said Jim Brooks, who along with his brother, Rob, owns the Wheeling Nailers, AA-level affiliate of the Penguins. "We need to take strides as a league to makes sure this doesn't happen again. Obviously the economy caused part of it, but if you commit to playing that season, you'd better finish it."

Brooks knows it's not always an easy task, making a minor-league team in a small market work. But for now, Wheeling and Johnstown, the region's two ECHL teams, are safe.

"Johnstown and Wheeling are two of our traditional ECHL markets," ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. "There's a long history of hockey in Johnstown, and they're the only remaining team in the ECHL from the original five still playing in the same city and the same building. What Johnstown and Wheeling have meant to the foundations of our league, we certainly want to make sure we do everything we can to make sure they endure."

Until recently, it looked like Johnstown might be the next team to go after lengthy arena lease renewal talks.

Chiefs general manager Bill Bredin said the intention was always to play next season, although he did at times have doubts.

He called it a "complex situation" in which Cambria County — which owns the historic War Memorial Arena — is still looking for a new third-party manager or management company to run the building. Once that is in place, they can begin negotiating a long-term lease, ideally a 10-year agreement, Bredin said.

"That stability is something our organization has been lacking for quite some time," Bredin said. "I'm confident that if we can secure a long-term lease that our fans would definitely get behind that and we'd see more support."

Johnstown, which joined the league in 1988, averaged 2,212 in attendance last year, lowest in the league. Wheeling, which started in 1991, averaged 2,923 (capacity approximately 5,000), fourth-lowest in the league. ECHL average attendance was 4,258 in 2008-09.

Brooks said that the league does have cost-certainly measures in place to help teams, especially those in small markets, survive. They include a salary cap and a process for pooling together to buy resources.

"But it is tough," he said. "The economy today is tough."

In addition to the Augusta and Fresno teams folding mid-season, the Phoenix Road Runners announced they were done when the season ended. Two other teams — the Dayton Bombers, Wheeling's rival, and the Mississippi Sea Wolves — will not play in 2009-10 while they attempt to restructure.

That puts the ECHL at 19 active teams next season, and the loss of teams means that Wheeling and Johnstown will have to travel to the south more next season.

But it's not all bad news.

Toledo returns next season after a two-year hiatus with a new $8 million facility and the same owners and operators as the group that runs baseball's Class AAA Toledo Mud Hens, and McKenna is hoping to one day be able to expand the league again.

"Our goal is to come out of this — whether it's 12 or 18 months down the road — with a strong group of teams and owners," McKenna said. "We gradually hope to add some new markets, particularly in the south."

Additional Information:

Ticket info ...

Good seats are available for minor-league hockey action only a few miles away with the Wheeling Nailers and Johnstown Chiefs .

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