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Published: Friday, 4/1/2005

Judson pulls for Storm

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Rick Judson played on the first Storm team back in 1991-92.

Unless additional funding is found, he might also have the distinction of skating for the last.

Wednesday's announcement that the Toledo franchise is seeking approval from the ECHL's board of governors to suspend operations for 2005-06 after 14 seasons of operation caught Judson - the Storm's all-time leader in points, goals and assists - off-guard.

"I'm very surprised," said Judson, who along with the rest of the team was informed of the organization's request after Wednesday's 5-3 home loss to Dayton. "I never even considered that to be a possibility. The people that own the team do what they have to do. We have other things to worry about."

With six games left in the regular season, the Storm is one point out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division, currently held by Peoria.

"I don't think it will affect the players at all," Judson said. "Players go different places every year as it is. Guys like it here, but every year after the season is over, guys are looking at other places to play."

Judson's comment was echoed by his teammates.

"That's business," goaltender Scott Fankhouser said. "I didn't know that the team was losing money like that. But there's no change. We still have to finish off the year and make the playoffs. [If the suspension request holds], all of these players are free agents and if they have a good end of the year, a lot of teams are going to want them. That's even more incentive for us to play well."

Said winger Nick Parillo: "We just have to focus on the playoffs. We're just putting it in the back of our minds. We're leaving it in the front office. That's what the coaches told us and that's what we're going to do."

In nine years with the franchise, Judson has seen the glory days of Storm hockey back when the 5,330-seat Sports Arena was filled to near capacity. Now, he's seeing the downside.

"The first few years we had some good teams, some entertaining teams," Judson said. "There were a lot of fights and you never knew what was going to happen in the games. Even in the first half of those early years we didn't draw particularly well because of other sports but, like then, we've been drawing well lately."

Wednesday's game was attended by an announced crowd of 4,018. Toledo's average attendance of 3,567 after 33 games this season ranks 17th in the 28-team league.

Club officials said the decision to request the suspension was made because season-ticket sales, which have averaged 750, are half of what is required to make things work financially in a 58-year-old building that does not have modern amenities such as luxury suites or restaurants.

As well, operational costs for ECHL teams have risen since Judson's first season. Along with an improved caliber of play, budgets have jumped from the $500,000 range to as high as more than $2 million, although the amount varies from market to market.

Despite the announcement, Judson thinks there will be pro hockey in Toledo next season, although he won't be playing.

"I think someone will definitely step up," said Judson, 35, who has acknowledged that he will retire at the end of this season. "It's been successful, it's been a stable franchise with a good fan base. It's not like it's a city where they don't support the team and they're losing year after year and drawing 1,500 people.

"There's no reason not to spark interest for someone to step up."



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