Hockey Close to Return
April 9, 2002
Minor-league hockey is about to make a comeback in Tallahassee.
The Atlantic Coast Hockey League, attempting to rein in costs in an industry plagued by financial upheaval, will be born today. Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Orlando, Fayetteville and Winston-Salem will be announced as the charter members in the start-up league that hopes to ice seven to 12 teams in October.
The ACHL will be Tallahassee's second shot on goal. The Tiger Sharks, who struggled to stay afloat during seven seasons in the East Coast Hockey League, relocated last summer to Macon, Ga. Fan support and corporate sponsorship didn't come close to meeting the expenses. The Tiger Sharks weren't alone. Minor-league hockey, which enjoyed a boom in the early '90s, has suffered in recent seasons, especially in the Southeast. The financial casualties created the opening - and vacant arenas - for the new league.
Tallahassee's yet-to-be-named franchise still needs to finalize a lease agreement with the Civic Center. Executive director Ron Spencer said he was optimistic but cautioned the deal wasn't done yet. "I'm sure everything will get worked out, but that's where we're at," Spencer said. "We're not ready to issue any press releases or statements or anything else at this point other than to say that I'm working on it and it looks good."
The arena's finance committee will consider the proposed lease Wednesday. The Civic Center Authority could vote on the lease April 24.
David Adams, who will own the Tallahassee franchise, said he did not want to comment before the lease was approved, offering only, "I don't expect any problems."
Adams, owner and founder of Integrated Distribution Services Inc., a warehouse and distribution company headquartered in Cape Canaveral, has a background in hockey. The 59-year-old native of Falmouth, Mass., played minor-league hockey with the Knoxville Knights of the old Eastern Hockey League. He has also coached high school hockey in Massachusetts and done scouting work for college and professional teams.
The ACHL's charter cities have all struck out with hockey before. The ECHL's Jacksonville Lizard Kings, who claimed they lost more than $2 million in five seasons, ceased operations two years ago. Fayetteville pulled the plug when the Central Hockey League merged with the Western Professional Hockey League last year. Orlando didn't survive the summer of '01 either. The International Hockey League, once considered on par with the American Hockey League as the next-best thing to the National Hockey League, folded after 56 seasons, snuffing out the 6-year-old Solar Bears. Winston-Salem has had six minor-league franchises since 1973, including an entry in the old Atlantic Coast Hockey League. The lower-tier league lasted from 1981-87 and eventually helped spawn the ECHL. So it's ironic the new ACHL has its roots, at least in part, in the ECHL.
"I have seen teams and leagues fail," said ACHL founder Bill Coffey, who helped get the ECHL running in 1988. "The main thing is you want to put a viable business plan together."
The ACHL believes it has come up with one. A shorter season and smaller payrolls are two of the key elements. The league plans on playing a 60-game schedule, running from late-October to mid-March. The salary cap, barring a change at the league meetings in June, will allow teams to spend up to $6,400 per week on small, 16-man rosters. That's considerably lower than the ECHL, which has a $9,500 salary cap and 20-man rosters. In an attempt to cut more costs, the ACHL has also kicked around the idea of having some players stay with host families.
Coffey said the ACHL will be able to compete with rival leagues for young players.
"We're not that far off for what other teams pay in average," Coffey said. "We just have a shorter season, less games and smaller budgets. I think everybody will be real surprised with how many good hockey players you can get."
Knoxville and Asheville are both expected to leave the United Hockey League for the ACHL. The Knoxville Speed, who averaged just 2,444 in attendance this season, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February. Asheville had even fewer fans go through the turnstiles, ranking 12th in the 14-team league with an average of 2,382.