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Hockey work stoppage doesn't slow down the minor leagues
Icy Road Ahead

Every October, hockey pucks hit the ice in arenas across Texas, a state usually identified with football or rodeo. But this October, the arena that's home to the state's most prestigious hockey team was quiet.

Thanks to a work stoppage by the National Hockey League (NHL), brought on by differences between players and team owners over salaries, the NHL's Dallas Stars remain off their skates.

While owners and players in the league sit down to work out their differences, the American Airlines Center in Dallas, as well as fans of the Stars and the NHL wait for the league's teams to return to work. Exactly how hockey's absence will affect the area's economy remains to be seen, according to the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau (DCVB).

Despite the success of NHL hockey in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including a world championship in 1999 and one of the best attendance records in the league, no economic impact studies have been done to measure how much hockey brings in each season, according to the DCVB. But its absence will have wide-ranging effects.

"Anytime a team's schedule is interrupted, it affects employees, special entertainment districts, DART [Dallas Area Rapid Transit] and other aspects of our economy," said Tara Green, director of sports marketing for the DCVB.

But hockey is still played across the state. Fans continue flocking to minor league arenas in Texas, just as they have done since the 1940s.

Shooting Stars
Minor league hockey first came to Dallas in 1941 when the Dallas Texans played their inaugural season. The team played off and on until 1949. The city then hosted the Dallas Blackhawks from 1967 until 1983, and the Dallas Freeze from 1992 until 1994.

When the NHL's Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, the team brought major-league status to Texas' hockey tradition.

The NHL's presence in Dallas, along with the Stars' success on the ice, has brought fans to Stars' games in numbers ranking the franchise near the top for NHL attendance. Dallas ranked 8th out of 30 NHL teams in the 2003-04 season, averaging more than 18,300 spectators per home game.

In NHL cities with attendance numbers like the Stars, revenue is not a problem, according to Stars President Jim Lites.

"We're a ticket-sales driven industry," he said. "Eighty percent of our revenue revolves around people in the building. Our [television] contracts pale in comparison to the other major sports."

NHL revenue grew from $770 million in 1994 to $2.1 billion in 2004, Lites said, and for every new dollar created, 98 cents has gone to the players.

Recalling the backlash of baseball fans following a work stoppage in the 1990s, Lites said he is concerned about similar reactions from hockey fans.

"Sure there is [a concern]," he said. "...But, we've done a good job, I think, of educating fans as to what the issues are."

As for hockey in the 2004-05 season, that picture remains cloudy.

"There won't be [a season] unless there's a significant change," Lites said. He is optimistic, however. "It's a hiccup, and we'll get through it."

Game on
While hockey fans wait for the major league to return to the ice, Texas' minor league franchises say they are largely unaffected. Joe Dominey, director of broadcasting for the Laredo Bucks, defending champions for the Central Hockey League (CHL), said the Bucks have seen no ill effects of the NHL lockout.

"We're too far away from any NHL markets to really affect us much," he said.

Glen Norman, public relations coordinator for the CHL's Austin Ice Bats agreed.

"For us, it's game on," he said, adding that the sooner NHL players return to the ice, the better. "The NHL is the engine that drives hockey from a national perspective. If they're not playing, there's less talk on the radio and fewer highlights on TV. From that perspective, you'd like to see them playing sooner rather than later."

Nine of the 17 CHL teams call Texas home and Steve Cherwonak, vice president of communications for the CHL, agreed that an NHL season is good for the CHL.

"The bottom line is that we hope they come to a timely resolution because the NHL is good for us," he said. "[Without an NHL season], we may notice a slight jump in attendance, but I don't think there will be a significant increase."

Some regional television exposure also may increase in certain markets around the league, he said.

The popularity of minor league hockey in its home cities in Texas draws crowds regardless, according to Norman. Austin averaged more than 4,100 fans per game in 2003-04, ranking the Ice Bats fourth among Texas franchises behind teams in Laredo, the Rio Grande Valley and Lubbock. He credited the league's expansion philosophy for successful attendance.

"The league has gotten involved in the facility-building business," he said. "Last year, two expansion franchises had new buildings built and then the team was put in. They didn't put in a team where there was a building and hope [the team] survived."

Talent pool
One byproduct of the NHL work stoppage is the number of NHL-caliber players looking for ice time in professional hockey. NHL teams often send some players to minor league teams, usually teams in the American Hockey League (AHL), to get playing time during the season. The parent club can recall those players at any time, according to Norman.

The Houston Aeros of the AHL have benefited from having players from the Stars and the NHL's Minnesota Wild on their early-season roster, according to Aeros President Tom Lynn.

"Here in Houston, the biggest play we've made to our fans [during the work stoppage] is that the quality of players they'll see will be the highest they've seen," he said.

That competition for roster spots should translate into great play on the ice and great entertainment for fans, Dominey said.

"If anything, I think [the lockout] compressed the level of talent all around minor league hockey because more guys are looking for a place to play," he said.

The Aeros are an affiliate of the Wild, but also receive some players from the Stars and were expecting to host at least three players with extensive time in the NHL in 2003-04, Lynn said. Similarly, the AHL's San Antonio Rampage had at least four first-round draft picks on their roster when training camp opened this season, according to Lynn, further boosting the talent pool in the league this year.

The presence of more NHL-caliber talent does have a trickle down effect, said the Bats' Norman, who said Austin will likely receive two or three players who are under contract in the AHL but want to get playing time in Austin.

With the caliber of play expected in both the AHL and CHL this season, the NHL stoppage may, in the end, have little effect on most Texas minor league teams, according to Norman.

"Will there be fans looking for hockey to watch?" he said. "Maybe. But here in Austin, I don't think it will affect us much."

Clint Shields