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The Future of Hockey in Indianapolis: Could Indy Be A Potential NHL City?

February 2, 2010

Before I begin I just want to send a huge thank you to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy for linking to my post yesterday. The amount of hits we’ve received in the last two days has been incredible and I hope that those that enjoyed the piece yesterday will stick around as regular readers.

Yesterday I came across a study that was conducted that discussed the largest markets in both Canada and the United States in regard to professional sports cities.  It focused mainly on the potential for expansion in the five major leagues in North America (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS) and what markets currently with teams were overextended beyond their means.

Indy scored where I figured they would, able to support two teams with a little bit of a struggle, but could not take on another team. For most that live in the city or the surrounding area this is not a huge shock, but I thought the possibilities of getting an NHL team mixed with a general outlook towards hockey’s future in the city would be something worth writing about.

It’s obvious that we can’t handle an NHL team. At least not with the current situation in the state capital. Honestly, the only foreseeable way I could see this happening would be if the Pacers moved (god forbid) and a team moved into Conseco Fieldhouse after some minor adjustments were made to the arena. Although it is much more likely that another NBA team would just occupy the venue which is constantly rated as one of the best arenas in the league.

Just to humor the scenario I proposed, there would have to be some tweaks done to the Fieldhouse as the current seating arrangement would not work. For those not from Indy, when our USHL team plays an occasional game at the arena this is what we have to deal with:As one can tell, this would not work for an NHL franchise. This doesn’t even include the fact that this configuration would only seat 14,400. In order for this to work the retractable sections would have to be switched out for ones that accommodated a rink and the concrete foundations of sections 8-13 would need to go in place of a retractable substitute.

Besides the fact that the city of Indianapolis at this point in time cannot not be a three team city, there is no suitable venue for an NHL team to play in. One other fact that kills this dream is the current issues that the Pacers, the main tenants of Conseco Fieldhouse, are having with the Capitol Improvement Board or CIB. The CIB runs all of the arenas and stadiums in downtown Indy. The Pacers are having another down year and have apparently been losing money due to their lease with the city. I fear that if there was an NHL team to take up residence in the stadium, they would suffer a similar fate.

Although in the interest of fairness, I did find someone that disagrees with me.

Alright so the NHL, for at least the immediate future, is out of reach. What about minor league hockey?

Althouh the city is already serviced by the USHL’s Indiana Ice and they currently rank 2nd in league attendance behind Lincoln, many hockey fans that I’ve talked to in the area desire a return to semi-pro hockey instead of the developmental USHL.

The AHL seems to be out of the question unless someone was willing to stick a team full-time in Conseco Fieldhouse, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I don’t see that happening. The 8,200 seat Pepsi Coliseum may work as a venue, but I believe there would need to be a decent amount of renovation done to the arena to make it a desirable venue for an AHL franchise. Although there always seems to be a rumor going around that when IUPUI decides to build a basketball arena that it would also include plans to accommodate a hockey team. It seems like a long shot, but a man can dream can’t he?

The next league to consider would be the ECHL, which I think would be a great fit for Indianapolis. This franchise would probably fit in the North Division which would create natural rivalries with Cincinnati, Toledo and Kalamazoo. My only concern would be if Pepsi Coliseum would meet the league’s standards, but based around some of the research I’ve done, it seems like the arena would meet the criteria.

Midwestern hockey fans may approve of the next league, which tries to recapture the nostalgia of the old International Hockey League, but the current IHL scares me. Rumors spring up quite often that Indy is going to join this struggling seven team league. Last summer a group tried to bring an IHL team to Indianapolis, but failed when the state government stated they’d prefer to keep the USHL Ice instead. As annoyed as this made me it was a godsend as this group then went to Dayton and formed the Gems, a team which then went bankrupt.

If the IHL can prove it is a stable league then I’m all for it, otherwise I’ll keep the USHL team.

Now this brings us to the USHL. Indy is the home of the defending Clark Cup champions and one of the higher attended teams in the league. While some criticize the league for various reasons, this blog has defended the skill level of the USHL before and has used stats to back it up. I find the quality of play to be on par with NCAA Division I hockey. This of course makes sense since most of these kids go on to play in the NCAA with some form of scholarship.

I have no qualms with developmental hockey, but I honestly believe that Indianapolis should have a pro team of some sort. The Ice will be here through next season, then after that anything could happen. The city seems comfortable with the current arrangement, but that doesn’t mean chances of moving up in leagues is dead either. If memory serves, Ice owner Paul Skjodt claimed that if Indy proved to have a strong hockey market we would return to the pro ranks. I think Indy has proved sufficiently that we have a market for hockey here.

Yet Skjodt shouldn’t be thought of as a bad guy, in fact, he should be thought of as a hockey hero in this city. In a time when we’ve seen the closing of two local rinks, Skjodt has taken it upon himself to build a new facility that will help promote youth hockey. I suppose it is at this point that every hockey fan in the city must ask themselves, is having a developmental team worth it if it means that the game will grow in Indy? Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too, but if we had to choose, isn’t this the better option?

Also Indiana is the crossroads of America, the entire country is within a day and a half of us and we’re surrounded by hockey. Here are just some of the options for hockey fans in Indy looking for a pro hockey fix:

A-Level: Evansville (AAHL)

AA-Level: Fort Wayne (IHL), Toledo (ECHL), Cincinnati (ECHL), Dayton (IHL), Kalamazoo (ECHL), Flint (IHL)

AHL: Milwaukee, Chicago, Grand Rapids

NHL: Chicago, Columbus, Detroit

So in closing, there are possibilities of moving up at a later date, but for now Indianapolis has the USHL Ice and an owner dedicated to building up the sport in this city. I think we’re pretty fortunate honestly. Indy is the 12th largest city in the country that’s located in the passionate hockey region known as the Midwest. It’s only a matter of time before we get a pro franchise.

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