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Monday, November 13, 2006

Blackhawks, IceHogs to affiliate?

The big news in local hockey occurred off the ice. Rockford MetroCentre officials confirmed to the Rockford Register Star they concluded discussions with the Chicago Blackhawks to purchase the Rockford IceHogs United Hockey League team and affiliate it with the Blackhawks starting in the 2007-8 season.

A news conference today is expected to confirm the proposal, which would include a $20 million renovation of the downtown venue paid for by bonds. Officials of the MetroCentre told the Register Star that if the plans for the renovation of the MetroCentre are not approved, they would be coming up with a five year shut down plan for the 27-year-old arena.

The story notes that $3 million would be needed to purchase an American Hockey League franchise. There are currently 27 teams in the AHL, and according to the league, the league is limiting the number of franchises to 30, that is one for each team to affiliate with a NHL team. There is a dormant franchise in Cincinnati that is moving to Canada and a franchise that is expected to start in Cleveland, leaving just one franchise that is not planned or active.

MetroCentre officials would have to deal with the higher costs to affiliate, annually, with the AHL, the increased travel expenses, as the UHL is a "bus" league, whereas many AHL games are a flight away, and the increase in players salaries. The Quad City Mallards of Moline, Illinois, had considered affiliating with the AHL prior to the end of last season, but decided to remain in the UHL due to the financial considerations.
MetroCentre officials were optimistic in news reports of attracting the additional fans required to pay for the team to change affiliation.

For the deal to conclude, the MetroCentre would also need to conclude a deal with the owners of the IceHogs to purchase the team. The front office staff is expected to remain. The affiliation with the Blackhawks would be for ten years.

The Blackhawks are currently affiliated with the Norfolk (Virginia) Admirals. Their prospects play primarily along the East Coast. The affiliation would be a boon to the Blackhawks, as they would enjoy greater economy when moving their prospects between the leagues, as well as have greater opportunities to see prospect development. The movement would also benefit Hawks fans who could see their prospects with a short trip to Rockford. The new affiliation would have the IceHogs play the Chicago Wolves, Milwaukee Admirals and Peoria Rivermen, among other rivals.

The UHL includes teams in Bloomington, Rockford, Moline, Hoffman Estates, Illinois; Michigan, Indiana and New York. The AHL includes teams in Milwaukee, Omaha, Des Moines, Peoria, Rosemont, Illinois and Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.

The AHL is considered the only AAA level league in North America. Most AHL players are considered NHL material, with between a third and two-thirds of a bench likely to be called up in a season.

The UHL is considered a low AA level hockey league. It has some very successful teams, but has also struggled in the last season with indictments of owners in Connecticut and closings of affiliations in Virginia, Missouri and New York.

In other hockey news, the Chicago Wolves ended their circus road trip string of victories with a 7-3 loss to the Rochester (New York) Americans last night. Clarke MacArthur of the Americans scored a hat trick. Darren Haydar and Jason Krog each extended their streaks of points to 14 games each. Earlier in the weekend, the Wolves had put away the Syracuse (New York) Crunch 7-2, marking the eighth straight road win of the season.

Don Levin, the owner of the Wolves has said he is in contact with Tribune Co. as a prospective buyer of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs, which are packaged with WGN television, would need to be broken out if Levin purchased them, he said, as he is not interested in running a broadcasting company. The Chicago Sun-Times estimated the value of the Cubs alone at over $500 million in an article last week.

And the Madison Avenue hockey club ended its string of eight losses with a 3-1 home victory over the St. Louis Blues Thursday and a 1-0 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday. The team is 6-9-1 for the season. The wins lift the Hawks above both the Blue Jackets and the Blues in the standings.

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