Unless new investors are found, there will not be professional hockey in Toledo. After 14 seasons, the Toledo Storm announced yesterday that it has made a formal request to the ECHL to suspend operations for 2005-06.
The request will be considered by the league's board of governors during a conference call on April 12. Its approval is expected.
Faced with increased ECHL operational costs and dwindling attendance and revenue streams at the 58-year-old Toledo Sports Arena, it is believed that the team, whose majority owner Tim Gladieux also owns the Sports Arena, has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars since he purchased the franchise from founder Barry Soskin in November, 1998, for more than $2 million.
"The teams that are successful in this league are in modern buildings with the amenities like club seats and restaurants," Mr. Gladieux said from his home in Florida last night. "They're able to sell more tickets and sponsorships.
"If you can't sell the tickets, you're destined to lose money year after year. We don't see a light at the end of the tunnel until Toledo has a new building, and we don't want to continue to underwrite the losses year after year."
Mr. Gladieux said team officials are holding discussions with several parties who have expressed an interest in investing in or leasing the team. The club may withdraw its request if it can secure additional investors.
Regardless of what happens with the investors, a statement from team officials said that the Storm, which after last evening's 5-3 loss to Dayton is one point out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division, will finish the 2004-05 campaign.
"Our biggest problem has been a dwindling season-ticket base," Storm Vice President and General Manager Mike Miller said.
Mr. Miller said the franchise, which won Riley Cup playoff championships in 1993 and 1994, sold as many as 1,700 season tickets at one point during the 1990s. The number of subscribers this season is approximately 750, half of what Mr. Miller said is needed for the team to succeed.
Mayor Jack Ford said last night that he would be willing to work with the team and develop a group of citizens interested in hockey to help identify the 750 new season ticketholders the team says it needs.
"If it'll help, I'll buy the first of the 750," he said. "All we have to do now is identify the other 749."
The Storm ranks 17th out of 28 ECHL teams in attendance, with an average of 3,553 people in a facility that seats 5,330. That is down more than 200 from last season and markedly off Toledo's best average: 4,960 per game in 1998-99.
The team hoped for an attendance boost from hockey-starved fans - especially from the Detroit area - who were looking for a fix from the labor dispute that has resulted in the cancellation of the NHL season. But Mr. Miller said the lockout actually hurt Toledo.
"We hated to see the labor problems, but every minor league general manager was probably salivating because we thought it would be an instant boost to our gate," Mr. Miller said. "I changed my tune. Without the Red Wings on TV every night, without a game on ESPN every night, I think the lockout hurt attendance.
"Out of sight, out of mind," he added.
Mr. Miller said the team did look at marketing its product in Detroit but found it to be cost-prohibitive.
"We discussed with just about every electronic media outlet and even with some companies to place billboards in Detroit," Mr. Miller said. "I don't think cost-wise, for the amount of people that I could have drawn in, I don't think it was worth the expenditure."
"I don't think that was our problem, though. If we've got to rely every year on the NHL not playing, that we're going to draw from the Detroit area, I think that just basically tells you that we have a problem here in Toledo," he said.
Fans yesterday were not aware of the decision, with a few catching word as the news leaked out.
"I'm surprised, but not shocked," said former fan club president Rita Strange. "Attendance hasn't been very good. It's going to be hard not having hockey."
The city was without the sport for five seasons following the demise of the International Hockey League's Goaldiggers in 1986. Mr. Soskin, a Chicago businessman, secured an expansion franchise to begin operation in 1991.
At the time, ECHL budgets were $700,000. They are now in the range of $2 million.
"I really draw a parallel to what we saw happen in this city before," Mr. Miller said. "That was the Mud Hens' playing at the Lucas County Recreation Center and their season-ticket base dwindled for years. Look what happened when they got the new ballpark."
Mayor Ford said that building a new arena could help the team because it would increase interest, partly because people would want to see the new facility.
Mr. Miller informed the team of the pending suspension following last night's game.
"We're going to worry about moving forward and getting this team into the playoffs," Storm coach Nick Vitucci said. "We let the powers that be worry about what might come next season."
Blade staff writer Elizabeth A. Shack contributed to this report.
Contact Dan Saevig at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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