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Published: Thursday, 10/13/2011

ECHL adds Chicago and Colorado

Additions give league 20 teams

BY JON SICOTTE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

With two new franchises this season and one more on the horizon, the stability of the ECHL is viable and strong, according to league commissioner Brian McKenna.

"We are excited where we are now," said McKenna, in his 10th year at the ECHL helm.

The addition of the expansion Chicago Express to the Eastern Conference and the movement of the Colorado Eagles from the Central Hockey League to the ECHL's Western Conference has raised the total of franchises in the league to 20. Yet, McKenna and the league have already announced that the San Francisco Bulls have been added to start play in October, 2012 with "preliminary discussion to other markets as well," to make the number of franchises even to help with scheduling purposes.

"We are cautiously optimistic about some growth for the league, but we also want to make it clear that this is going to be deliberate," he said. "We are not going to expand for expansion sake. We want to make sure we have qualified ownership groups with a good business plan, and enough leeway to do a successful startup before we approve any additional markets."

Brian McKenna Brian McKenna
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Even with expansion as a goal, the league is still working on keeping a solid fan base in each city, which leads to the most innovative coming away with the most success in drawing fans.

"Generally teams have been having to work harder to keep fans coming out," McKenna said. "Maintaining season ticket bases has been difficult, but we have seen growth in walk-up sales and group sales across the league, which is encouraging.

"Fans are still coming even in a tough economy."

Walleye 2011-12 Season Preview

Although the ECHL is about hockey first, McKenna knows that in a down economy, entertainment value is a main point, especially to families with children.

"It's not only important to have a quality product on the ice, but it's also all about great promotions and what people demand for a night of entertainment," he said. "Good food, a spacious, clean facility, and great service inside along with an easy commute to their homes.

"We are mindful of that and are trying to deliver that as well."

McKenna praised the Walleye franchise, beginning its third season, as one of the teams that is on top of all those goals along with being very active in sharing ideas at both the front office and marketing level.

"[Walleye president and general manager] Joe Napoli and his entire team have done a great job," he said. "They understand the market and the entertainment value they need to deliver.

"They have very quickly moved to the upper echelon of the ECHL in terms of the job they do and the professionalism that they have. They are able to keep their fan base entertained, and they have been interactive with the community. They have been a terrific addition, and we see nothing but positives on the horizon for the Walleye."

Contact Jon Sicotte at jsicotte@theblade.com.



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