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2009-12-22 at 16:17

A good sign

Leith Dunick, tbnewswatch.com
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Keith McCullough grew up playing hockey at Fort William Gardens, but it’s been awhile since he’s been back to his old stomping grounds.

Upon his return on Tuesday, McCullough saw at least one thing he liked, a sign hanging above a merchandise kiosk, welcoming fans to Howler’s Lane.

The words struck a chord with the 35-year-old entrepreneur, in the midst of a $140-million deal to buy the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes and on record as saying he’d eventually like to move the team’s American Hockey League franchise to his hometown Thunder Bay.

If it happens, the sign may just provide the AHL team’s identity.

"The nickname for the Coyotes is the Howlers. So there’s a lot of railway tracks that have already been set in place with some level of serendipity, I suppose," McCullough said, laughing.

Joined at the Gardens on Tuesday by Ice Edge Holdings Inc. CEO Anthony LeBlanc, McCullough said the pair is more convinced than ever that a professional team could work in Thunder Bay, if the pieces fall into place.

They plan to do whatever they can to make sure they do.

"You’re going to miss 100 per cent of the shots that you don’t take, and I think that we’re going to take that shot if it’s there, if the city provides an opportunity for us to have an economic situation that makes money, both for the organization and for the city, we’re definitely going to be there taking that shot," McCullough said.

While some might criticize the idea, pointing to the failures of the Thunder Bay Senators and Thunder Hawks, low minor pro teams that made a mark, but soon disappeared, McCullough said an AHL team faces a completely different sort of circumstances than teams in the Colonial Hockey League face.

Certainly they want to make a profit, but they’re not looking to break the bank.

"Anthony and I didn’t get into this to make a lot of money," he said. "I think at this stage of our career, we want to have a business that we agree to in principle and execute that business in a way that we’d be very proud once we’re done with it.

"At the end of the day, to be happy you have to make some level of money. This is not a not-for-profit organization, but we want to win. I think you can win and make a little bit of money and that’s really our goal," McCullough said.

The partners have looked at recent Deloitte & Touche study on the feasibility of brining AHL or major junior hockey to Thunder Bay and a comparative study on multiplexes built across Canada and the United States over the past decade or two.

LeBlanc, who initially said an AHL team could conceivably be playing out of Fort William Gardens as early as next season, if the city approves a new arena, backed off that statement slightly on Tuesday, saying it may take a little more time.

"The reality is there are an awful lot of steps that have to happen before that would be a reality," LeBlanc said, his mother Iris, who still lives in the city, standing a few feet away in the lobby of the 58-year-old Gardens.

"First off the AHL franchise that is currently associated with the Coyotes does have a contract with the Coyotes, which I believe goes for another two years. So we obviously have to honour that. And that is a very strong franchise down in San Antonio," LeBlanc said.

As he’s said all along, the plan is to buy another existing franchise and transfer it to Thunder Bay, though like the NHL deal, the transaction would have to be approved by the AHL’s board of governors.

The biggest objection, LeBlanc said, would be the travel, though it’s not nearly as worrisome as it would have been a decade or two ago, when the league was centred on the eastern half of the continent.

"The AHL definitely has some advantages, with respect that now there are teams in Winnipeg and down in the north central United States. So I don’t think its as much of a challenge as it would have been when we were looking at the Ontario Hockey League.

"But there’s no question that I believe travel would be the No. 1 concern."

The league, he added, has not ruled out teams that appear to be isolated, approving its westernmost franchise this season.

"The newest team to join the AHL is out in British Columbia, so you do have teams from B.C. all the way across to the eastern United States and down to Texas. Air travel is a part of the league right now, but as a potential owner, it’s an expensive part of the league as well," LeBlanc said.

The entrepreneurs said they have been working with a ballpark figure of about 4,500 fans a game needed to make the AHL venture worthwhile. The Lakehead University Thunderwolves, the No. 1 drawing hockey team in the city, average in the neighbourhood of 3,100 fans a game.

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Comments

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thepawn says:
Too bad their buried your story in Sports Leith. It's an informative read.

12/23/2009 12:09:00 AM
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