Once again, a minor-league hockey club within getaway distance has decided to fold its tent.
The New Jersey Devils announced on Wednesday that their ECHL affiliate in Trenton will suspend operations, starting with the 2011-12 season.
A release on the team’s website said the Devils are “restructuring the
organization’s player development system to be more in line with other NHL
The Trenton Devils are the only club in the ECHL, which is the next tier
down from the American Hockey League, which is wholly owned by their NHL
Founded as the Trenton Titans in 1999 as an affiliate of the Philadelphia
Flyers, the Devils assumed control of the team prior to the 2007-08 campaign.
At one time, the Titans were the class of the minors, boasting a solid fan base, excellent players and top-notch organization headed by Brian McKenna — now ECHL commissioner.
However, the rebranding of the franchise into the Devils mold in a region which is very much Flyers country proved to be a lethal move. That, and the fact that the arena’s location is not in the best neighborhood and close to Trenton State Prison (aka home to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter).
At one time last decade, minor-league hockey flourished in the Garden State with the rivalry between the established Titans and upstart Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, but AC left for California in 2005 and now the Trenton franchise is on hold indefinitely.
Reading, your time is now.
It doesn’t take much for an ECHL franchise to cease operations. Bad management or financial troubles usually exacerbate fading attendance in certain areas, especially non-traditional hockey markets.
In the last several years, virtually all the clubs in the league below the Mason-Dixon Line have vanished without a trace because the boom from the NHL’s Sunbelt expansion wasn’t enough to keep up interest.
You’d expect the inevitable in places like Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans, Jackson, Little Rock, Mobile, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Greenville, Greensboro, Augusta, Columbus, Lexington, Macon, Fayetteville, Roanoke, Huntington, Florence, Columbia and even Richmond.
But not Trenton, where hockey as a spectator sport is still alive and kicking with a base of nearly 15 million people within a 70-mile radius.
It’s rare that teams in the ECHL last more than 5-7 years, and the fact that the Trenton club is going away indefinitely after a 12-year stint is troubling.
Not many clubs have survived the indefinite hiatus.
Mississippi went on hold for two years after Katrina literally blew away its home rink, but couldn’t survive as rebuilding efforts took attention away from a diversion generally unknown to the populace. Toledo was able to revamp its entire operations and morph from the Storm to the Walleye, and even Cincinnati resurrected the Cyclones and weathered the storm as the Mighty Ducks drew interest away with Anaheim’s AHL team. Johnstown had the simple decency to slink off into history with no hope of return.
Greenville, tucked way up in the hills of South Carolina, is at it again after the Grrrrowl folded, but who knows how long that will last. They’re still awaiting a new arena for the Pee Dee Pride and the long-rumored Myrtle Beach Thunderboltz are about to reach hockey’s version of Gullah legend.
All of this is to say that it flat-out sucks that alternatives within decent driving distance are being yanked out from under us so quickly. It’s basically the Royals who are just up the road, Wilkes-Barre or Glens Falls to see the Phantoms or (shudder) Wheeling.
Baltimore, which has a long history of AHL teams until the short-lived Bandits left in 1997, can’t get its collective crap in order, to tear down First Mariner Arena and build a whole new facility. It’s been the #1 deterrent to the minors returning there. Who wouldn’t go see the Phantoms 90 minutes away when you can nip over to Fells Point or the Inner Harbor in good weather?
Ed. Note: On Friday evening, the NHL’s Adam Kimelman passed along these nuggets of wisdom from Comcast prez Peter Luukko via Twitter:
(We) would support (an) ECHL team in Trenton – “If there were new ownership in Trenton … we would definitely discuss affiliation…”
“We’d do anything we could to help promote the team and do a lot of cross-promotion between the Flyers … and the Trenton team.”
Luukko also added that the Flyers wouldn’t own the team, but since Comcast-Spectacor manages Trenton arena, they’d help as much as needed promoting it.