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Published: Wednesday, 10/10/2012

WALLEYE SEASON PREVIEW

New teams added for ECHL's 25th season

BY JON SICOTTE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Brian McKenna Brian McKenna
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The 25th season of hockey in the ECHL will be highlighted by the addition of a few familiar team names to minor league hockey fans along with an early influx of talent from the higher levels of hockey due to the lockout of NHL players.

The addition of the Fort Wayne Komets and Evansville IceMen from the Central Hockey League along with expansion squads in Orlando and San Francisco will boost the league's total number of clubs to 23.

The Komets are one of the longest-running minor league franchises in the country, beginning play under that nickname in 1952.

"With the exception of a few teams in the American [Hockey] League, Fort Wayne has more history and tradition and success than any team in minor league hockey," said ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna, who in his 11th season as head of the league.

READ MORE: 2012-13 Walleye Season Preview

The revival of a Fort Wayne-Toledo rivalry will be reignited with the addition of the Komets. Fort Wayne faced Toledo teams -- Mercurys, Blades, and Goaldiggers, -- in the former International Hockey League from 1952 -86.

"It's a credit to their fans and organization, and what they have done there over the years," McKenna said of the Komets. "Having a new member with that sort of stability is good for us."

Evansville, which spent the last two seasons in the CHL, was formerly the Muskegon Fury franchise, which played in the IHL from 1992-2008.

"We are impressed with the progress in the business operation in Evansville," McKenna said. "You put those two together [Evansville and Fort Wayne] and there is a track record for success in drawing fans and they are strong additions."

The San Francisco Bulls and Orlando Solar Bears will be expansion franchises with the Bulls playing in the Western Conference and the Solar Bears playing in the Eastern.

This is the reincarnation of the Solar Bear name. The Orlando squad played in the IHL from 1995-2001, winning three conference championships and one Turner Cup.

It will be a whole new game for the San Francisco franchise, which will play its home games at the Cow Palace -- the former home of the San Jose Sharks.

"There is hockey history in the area," McKenna said of the Bay area. "The Cow Palace is an iconic landmark and there is familiarity there.

"It's going to be difficult to get media coverage and notoriety in the market but they have done a good job in the last few months to get into the community to build their brand. They do have a bigger challenge there as opposed to Orlando where there is a familiarity with the Solar Bear name that had success in the 90's."

With the NHL lockout continuing, young and talented players that would latch on to NHL teams are going to take up spots on AHL rosters, meaning a trickle-down effect will take place to start the season as the ECHL will have a boost in talent that normally would be playing at a higher level.

McKenna said that most teams would see some sort of boost, but he doesn't expect the lockout to affect the overall aspect of the ECHL in the long run.

McKenna added that last season showed "modest growth" on the business side among the 19 teams that remain from last season.

The Chicago Express folded in its inaugural season after averaging 2,508 fans per game. The league average was 4,282.

"Our numbers were up from a revenue point of view," McKenna said. "The teams in the league have worked across the board this past summer and we are cautiously optimistic about the coming season."

The Eastern Conference fifth-seeded Florida Everblades defeated the Western Conference's third-seeded Las Vegas Wranglers in the Kelly Cup playoffs to capture the league title. Both knocked off the top-seeded teams -- Elmira and Alaska, respectively -- to get to the finals.

"We had a very competitive season on the ice both in the regular season and playoffs as well," McKenna said. "The quality of play was second to none."

Although no solid plans are in the works -- most plans do not materialize until the mid-season meetings -- the ECHL is always open to looking to expand if the opportunity is right.

"We are [looking]," McKenna said. "We have ongoing conversation and expressions of interests in various markets from time to time, but right now we do not have any thing firm for '13-14."

Two locations do remain in the forefront for the ECHL as the Columbia Inferno is still temporarily suspended while looking for a new arena and Reno is still trying to secure finances and a place to play.

The Columbia franchise voluntarily suspended operations after the 2007-08 season while looking to build its own arena.

That project is still in limbo.

"There hasn't been a lot of actual approval or financing going on or a building coming out of the ground," McKenna said. "There's a lot of work going on in the background.

"We are not optimistic they will be playing in '13-14 but they will update us during the mid-season meeting in January," he said.

The same issues are holding back Reno with getting a team on the ice in the ECHL, a problem ongoing for a decade.

"With the economy and the way it is, it's very hard to get funding for sports facilities and that's been the trouble with both of those sports markets, and it's totally understandable," McKenna said.

Contact Jon Sicotte: jsicotte@toledoblade.com.



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