One week after Toledo Storm management announced it was seeking approval from the ECHL to suspend operations for 2005-06, minor league sources say a deal is in the works that could see the Kansas City Outlaws' United Hockey League franchise relocate to the Sports Arena.
The Outlaws are operated by the Franke family, which also owns the UHL's highly successful Fort Wayne Komets.
Fort Wayne is averaging 7,401 per game, Kansas City 2,740.
An attempt to reach a member of the Franke family at the Komets' office last evening was unsuccessful. A message left with Storm and Sports Arena majority owner Tim Gladieux seeking comment was not returned.
The ECHL - of which the Storm has been a member since 1991 - and the UHL are considered to be of Double-A caliber, one step below the American Hockey League and two rungs below the National Hockey League.
The Storm's request to suspend operations will be addressed by the league's board of governors next Tuesday.
"If in fact Toledo is looking for a hockey team and they want to have a league come in, we would be happy to do that," said Richard Brosal, UHL president and chief executive officer. "We would definitely have a strong interest in Toledo."
Asked if the Kansas City franchise would relocate to Toledo, Brosal said, "No comment."
Now in its 14th year, the UHL is operating this season as a 14-team league. It also has clubs in Detroit, Flint, Port Huron, Kalamazoo and Muskegon. With the exception of the Motor City organization, the other cities had franchises in the now-defunct International Hockey League in which various incarnations of Toledo teams played for 37 seasons.
In recent years, the 28-team ECHL has expanded to where it is now a coast-to-coast operation. Toledo's main rival - Peoria - is jumping to the AHL next season and North Division opponent Atlantic City is moving to Stockton, Calif.
Toledo's closest ECHL competition is in Dayton, Wheeling and Johnstown. Averaging 3,566 per contest, Storm management said it was seeking to mothball the franchise because season-ticket sales numbered approximately 750, half of what it says is needed to break even financially.
Having Toledo in the UHL would be attractive to Fort Wayne. The Komets' rivalry with the Toledo Goaldiggers was unparalleled for 12 seasons with fans from both cities regularly making the two-hour drive before Toledo ceased operations in 1986.
"I'd love to see it happen," Brosal said. "But I have to respect the ECHL. Until I know [Toledo's ECHL operation is] done, I'm not going to infringe on the ECHL. I'm here and people know how to get ahold of me."
Sources say that aside from renting the 58-year-old Sports Arena, it's unlikely that Gladieux would be involved with a potential UHL franchise. ECHL bylaws call for a $500,000 exit penalty should existing ownership want to jump leagues. Peoria ownership was assessed that fee when it decided to leave for the AHL.
The ECHL could still be a possibility locally, also.
Gladieux is expected to meet in Toledo today with Chicago businessman Barry Soskin, who founded the Storm in 1991 and sold the franchise to Gladieux and a group of investors in 1998 for more than $2 million.
Soskin said he was contacted by Gladieux two to three weeks ago to discuss the Storm operation. The former owner said he's willing to listen to all possibilities, from serving as a consultant to owning the team and the Sports Arena.
"I think it's going to take a collective effort on everyone's part to make it work," Soskin said yesterday.
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