yankee hockey

THE LOWER DEPTHS

Posted in echl, stockton thunder, This Weeks Questions by yankhockey on December 29, 2008

I went to my second ECHL game on Saturday (Stockton Thunder remember?), and it was as uneventful as ever. These are games to go to because they cost less then $25 for good seats. Don’t get me wrong, I do cheer for the home team, but watching them constantly lose, and they do constantly lose, doesn’t have the same emotionally draining aspect that I get from paying attention to the NHL. The friend who went with me asked at one point if we had a team in Sacramento if I’d start buying tickets for those games and leave the Thunder behind… uh, yeah. The Thunder lost to the Victoria Salmon Kings 4-1 in a completely listless game. The worst part is that I think, because of his blank white mask, that the Victoria goaltender must have just been called up from some even more minor league.  These guys never fail to remind you that they aren’t good enough for the NHL. If you’re lucky you get a few guys who are good enough for AHL, but unfortunately they quickly get called up. Still, it’s fun to watch, and it’s not like I spent half of my savings to get seats.

The only significant event Satuday was it was the first time I heard that the Fresno Falcons (another Central Valley ECHL team) had folded. It officially happened on the 22nd, but since I rarely spent my time listening to ECHL news I hadn’t been aware of it.

I was very surprised… not that an ECHL has folded because that happens all the time, but because it had happened in the middle of the season to one of the most tenured team in the league. The Fresno Falcons have been playing hockey since 1947! They’ve been in a lot of different leagues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some years in between there where they may not have played for any leagues, but they’ve still existed for 61 years. That any hockey team, let alone a minor league one, has lasted that long in a city as hot and, well, awful as Fresno is as big as of a surprise as they sudden folding.

This must be causing league officials a little bit of panic. Upon checking the tickets I have for games later in the year I found one against the Falcons. They aren’t even half way through the season, so there’s going to be a lot of shuffling they’ll have to do, and quickly. With organizations like the NHL there are sure to be safe guards against this type of thing, perhaps insurance to make sure that a team could at least make it through the rest of the season, and they’re likely to be able to take over management for a team until an owner can be found. But in a place like the ECHL there is very little room for error. The owner of the Falcons, who also owns the minor league baseball and soccer teams in Fresno, anticipated a $500,0o0 loss if the team played out the season, not much for a pro team, but quite a bit when that represents a quarter of the teams worth.

There are more important issues at hand then those faced by the league, there are the issues faced by the players. There is no severance package when your team folds. More significantly, many of the players are foreign born and here on work visas, which means no unemployment, and not a lot of rights. These guys were here to play hockey, and they figured they’d at least be playing hockey until April. They have bills, they have debt, and they have families to feed. They don’t have a lot of opportunity to make money, they’re hockey players, it’s probably not so easy for them to go to the Walmart for work. The league has said that they are now considered free agents, but the teams in the ECHL are already full. Sure, there are some players who may be exceptional enough to get a contract, but there are more then just a few guys on a team, and many of these guys will not have the chance to get another playing job.

This whole situation is another reason why the NHL puts out a better product; you can trust that it will be there. There was that year when the strike destroyed the entire season, and it was awful, but you knew it would be back. The NHL is just too important, and too loved, to be gone forever. I was just thinking the other day about players like Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, and Mike Modano have all spent time playing on teams that don’t exist anymore, but they didn’t disappear from the league entirely. But now the Fresno Falcons are gone, possibly forever, and that makes it harder to believe in any minor league team. The Thunder do ok, the arena only holds like 9,000 people and they probably average about 5,000 tickets sold per game this year. The thing is, they always are losers, and their home record is dismal. Eventually, the curiosity of hockey in Stockton California will wear off and I might lose my minor league team. Well, maybe I’ll be lucky and they’ll move to Sacramento. I’d say that I might be lucky and the Falcons would move here, but we don’t have an arena for them to play in, so until that happens (read: never) I have to hope that the only hockey I don’t have to drive two hours to see stays put.

THIS WEEK’S QUESTIONS:

Will Mats Sundin’s arrival in Vancouver this week inspire the Canucks to win some games? Who will finally beat Chicago? Who will finally beat the Caps at home? Is Ovechkin poised to take over the lead in goals? With Brassard out, who’s the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year? Who’s going to leave Ottawa with the IIHF World Junior crown?

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