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March 30, 2006

The Next Great Hockey Town, OK?
Despite recent denials about NHL relocation, sources say franchises are already in talks with Oklahoma City.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Brad Lund had predicted the future, but no one was willing to believe him. 

Lund is the Chief Operating Officer of Express Sports, which owns the Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League. 

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The Blazers, established in 1992, have been one of the most successful minor league hockey franchises in the U.S., having averaged around 8,500 fans per game over the last two seasons. 

He said he long considered OKC "the premiere special event sports market" in America, having successfully hosted and supported everything from NCAA regionals to golf majors to the Davis Cup. 

He knew Oklahoma City was a sports town hungry for a professional franchise. 

Enter the National Basketball Association's Hornets, relocated from New Orleans after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Lund took one look at the team's business plan, which featured an aggressive ticket sales approach that offered both premium seating downstairs and "minor league" prices in the upper levels, and knew what the future held. 

"I thought they'd sell out every game," he said. 

They nearly have. The Hornets went from 30th in the NBA in attendance in 2004-05 to 11th this season, averaging over 18,000 per game. 

The support from fans, corporate partners and media turned Oklahoma City from a temporary location to what the NBA claims will be the next permanent home for a team. 

Commissioner David Stern said that although the league doesn't plan to expand (at least in the United States), should a struggling franchise seek to relocate, "I can say without reservation that Oklahoma City is now at the top of the list."

What pains Lund is that had the timing been right, all of these spoils could have gone to the National Hockey League, instead. 

"If they had only beaten the Hornets to the punch," he said. "But the NHL is aware of what's happening here. I would be shocked if a handful of NHL markets didn't become very intrigued about this city."

Both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have said this season that the league "has no current intention of either relocating an existing franchise or adding an expansion franchise." 

But sources with knowledge of the situation claim that the league is "already involved" in laying the groundwork for a potential team-relocation to Oklahoma City in the near future. 

One source said individual franchises, rather than the league, are sending out the most serious feelers.

"They're not stupid. They know they have to do it quietly," the source said.

Lund said he wasn't sure if there was anything in the works with an NHL team relocating to Oklahoma City, but speculated that the NHL's interest could spike if the Hornets permanently relocate back to New Orleans after next season — one in which they'll split time between OKC and the Big Easy. 

"They would fill a lot of seats, be the big fish," Lund said of an NHL franchise replacing the Hornets. "It's no different than what the Trailblazers did in Portland or the Jazz did in Utah or the Spurs did in San Antonio."

Oklahoma City was a finalist in the last round of NHL expansion in 1997, eliminated with Houston when Columbus was awarded what would become the Blue Jackets. 

To paraphrase The Buggles, video killed the OKC star — the city is the 45th largest television market in the nation, and at the time that was a deal-killer for the NHL. 

But that was before the lockout, before OLN, before what amounts to a public access television deal with NBC. The new CBA demanded the sort of "cost certainty" that puts less emphasis on the vitality of local media revenue. 

In Oklahoma City's case, there may be enough outside of television money to make the venture profitable. 

The Hornets are playing in an arena that's practically rent-free, and Lund estimated that the team could be generating $800,000 a night in revenue. When it came to bringing the displaced team to the Ford Center, Oklahoma City proved it was willing to land a pro franchise by any means necessary; guaranteeing that if the team failed to earn $40 million this season, it would make up the financial shortfall by up to $10 million. Now that's Katrina relief!

The Hornets are garnering multiple pages in local newspapers, eclipsed only by Sooners college football in total coverage. Anonymous players on a borrowed team have become household names overnight, including Hornets rookie guard Chris Paul, easily the most popular athlete in the city. Rabid fans and local businesses purchased 10,000 season tickets to the Hornets in 10 days. The knock on the market has been its median household income, which is just under $35,000. But the city has the second-lowest cost of living of any major U.S. city. 

"Factor in cost of living, and the disposable income isn't much different than Kansas City, Denver or Dallas," said Lund.

The real question about the market in the eyes of the hockey media elite will inevitably center on the fans themselves, considering the results of the league's southern expansion. Nashville, Atlanta, Carolina and Phoenix are all in the bottom ten in NHL attendance, and their fans have been consistently ridiculed both for apathy and for their hockey learning curves. 

The Oklahoma City fan base isn't filled with rubes who think icing is something found inside a Twinkie. Minor league hockey has been a part of the city from 1965-77, and now since 1992 in the form of the Blazers, who have won nine regular-season division titles and a pair of CHL titles. (The Blazers open the 2006 CHL playoffs on the road against Colorado on April 1.) 

Sure, the majority of the fans will need the same "Hockey 101" treatment implemented in non-traditional markets — but they've already proven they're willing to learn.

Lund argues that any gaps in hockey knowledge are bridged by enthusiasm. The Blazers don't draw 10,000 fans a night any longer, but the numbers haven't declined dramatically despite seismic shifts in the popularity in minor league hockey that have seen the extinction of several clubs, including the once-dominant IceGators in Louisiana. 

And then there's the real exciting aspect of the market's potential: geographic rivalries. 

Know how I became a hockey fan? Going to games with my father. But not just any games — rivalry games, between the New York hockey powers and Patrick Division invaders from Philly and Washington. 

The intensity on the ice is only trumped by the electricity in the stands; there were nights in the arena when I thought my father would have to take me under his arm and charge through a gauntlet of taunting Flyers fans just to get to the car after the game. 

Lund said a team in Oklahoma City immediately creates a vital rival for the Dallas Stars, whose tickets-sold have always been much larger than actual fans in the building and whose place in the local sports pecking order continues to perilously drop. 

He recalled a game early in the Blazers' existence that exemplified what a division rivalry could bring to a NHL franchise.

"It was Oklahoma City vs. Tulsa," he said. "There were no free hot dogs, no free beer. We drew 13,400 fans into our arena and had to turn away another 3,000. I'll never forget that night."

If the next NHL city is indeed in Middle America — some continue to argue the merits of Las Vegas, Portland, a return to Hartford or Winnipeg, or even a second team in Toronto — Oklahoma City isn't alone as a suitor. 

Houston, perhaps San Antonio, could be in the market for a team. The biggest geographic adversary in courting a franchise may be Kansas City, which has an 18,500-seat arena opening in the downtown area in 2007, with well over 75-percent of its luxury boxes sold as of Fall 2005, according to the Kansas City Star. 

Kemper Arena drew 12,686 fans for an exhibition game between St. Louis and Nashville last year. 

The city also has a potential ownership group in the Anschutz Entertainment Group, current owner of the Los Angeles Kings. In fact, Kings President and NHL executive board member Tim Leiweke told the Star last year that one current franchise could easily relocate to Kansas City.

"If Pittsburgh doesn't have an arena deal done a year from now, they're gone," he said. "The Pittsburgh Penguins can be the Kansas City Penguins, no question about it. [The team here] will sell out every ticket in advance, end of story. That team will be a huge instant home run here."

Lund said a team like the Penguins — and a player like Sidney Crosby — would be an instant success in Oklahoma City, as well. 

"If you took a poll, very few people would know who he was on the street [at the beginning]," said Lund. "But it wouldn't take more than a few weeks to have a cult following for him, like what happened with Chris Paul."

Lund said having a superstar on whatever franchise comes to Oklahoma City isn't a prerequisite for success. 

"I believe 85-percent of the attendees at a Hornets game are going for a night out and could give a rip about who's playing for Seattle or Portland," he said. "In hockey, the game itself — without superstars — is what will draw."

Now, it's just a matter of which NHL franchise will choose to saddle up and ride to Oklahoma.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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