Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Winging it

After nearly three decades of minor league and semi professional hockey at the Glens Falls Civic Center, the ice has finally thawed. What was once an oasis of hockey –a one-year stop off for many who went on to professional fame –has now become a dumping ground for the Mullet, also known as Adirondack Frostbite Owner Barry Melrose, and the city’s Common Council.

As is usual with any pissing match between a private business interest and a government entity, the number-one looser is the public itself. In this case, it’s the faithful Adirondack hockey fan base, which has strangely offered continual support for the languishing United Hockey League franchise that Melrose has foisted up as a real hockey team.

For 20 years, the Adirondack Red Wings –the former American Hockey League affiliate for the Detroit Red Wings now located in Grand Rapids, Mich. –drew fans out to the civic center, sometimes in droves. Even when the Wings weren’t winning, fans could revel in the thought that they were watching players destined for a future in the National Hockey League.

Then in 1999, amid dipping attendance and a market that was steadily diminished by the successful Albany River Rats, Detroit moved their minor league affiliate to a larger market. Enter the hapless Icehawks. True hockey aficionados never bought into the team for one simple reason: they were a ragged bunch of has-beens, wash-ups, and beaten-favorites without as much as a prayer to make the big leagues.

After four solid seasons of heinous hockey, the Mullet, himself a former championship coach with the Wings, decided he could reinvigorate the civic center by slapping a new coat of paint on the UHL team and giving it a spiffy name. In perhaps his wisest move as owner, he hired back several former Wing players to perhaps draw some of the devoted fans from years past, which seemed to work all right until one hung himself.

Not surprisingly, the team went belly up this month. Melrose said the city’s unwillingness to lower rent at the civic center quashed a deal arranged with another soon-to-be-defunctUHL team called the Danbury Trashers(see above photo), which offered Glens Falls the deluxe all-inclusive package, complete with ties to the mafia. But after the deal fell through, the Mullet decided he’d rather see the civic center “go dark” than dump another boatload of cash into his flailing team. So long and thanks for the fish, Frostbite.

And while this might sound like a mere footnote in another pathetic chapter of Capital Region professional hockey, the civic center and the city itself could face some rough times ahead if the nosedive of the last seven years isn’t corrected in a hurry.

City leaders need to realize the civic center needs hockey, or another major draw to keep the lights on. If it’s going to be hockey, then it should be a competitive team that has more than tacit links to the NHL. After all, there aren’t too many self-respecting hockey fans that are willing to pay $15 to watch a hapless collection of 30-something former junior hockey standouts. There are plenty of beer leagues for that, and they don’t cost a dime to watch.

Truth is, there's a market for hockey in the great Adirondack north and in the Capital Region. One solution is to court a minor league franchise to be billed as a competing organization with the nearby River Rats, and then work a public relations campaign to augment that rivalry. But like many endeavors in today’s world, it would take a future vision and regional planning to tap the market; two things that both the Mullet and the common council leaders apparently lack.

In the mean time, it’s the fans and local businesses that get the proverbial screwing in this deal, much like they did when the Wings didn’t re-up seven years ago. Amid this developing calamity, city leaders are assuring there will be some sort of replacement or plan to fill the void left by the Frostbite. This is despite there being only three short months until a sports franchise would ordinarily be pulling revenue, which is a sparse amount of time for them to be winging it.

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