Bucks: Journey to the end

The Laredo Bucks announced Tuesday that they have ceased operations after a 10-year run in the Gateway City.

“The decision to cease operations was an extremely difficult (one) for the ownership group,” minority owner and team founder Glenn Hart wrote in a news release. “This is one of the hardest decisions we have ever had to make.

“We made every effort to avoid this outcome, but in our current position we thought this was the proper decision. We would like to thank the loyal support of our corporate partners and season ticket holders over the past 10 years.”

The release cited dwindling attendance figures as the primary culprit behind the Bucks’ demise, but general manager Nicole Kupaks made clear the organization wasn’t blaming its fans.

“The economic downturn didn’t help at all,” she said. “Several things aimed in that direction, and they all came together, and unfortunately the fallout is we had to cease operations.”

Slow collapse

A cloud was first cast over the Bucks’ future a year ago when poor finances had the franchise looking at cheaper league alternatives.

The team ended up sticking with the Central Hockey League but, in an effort to stay afloat, made a number of self-described “drastic” cost-cutting measures, such as releasing Terry Ruskowski, the popular original head coach and general manager.

Financial losses were reduced, but it was too little, too late, to save the franchise.

“I think we made some progress over the (previous) two years,” Hart said. “We succeeded in cutting expenses, and things were heading in a better direction, but as far as I’m concerned — and I don’t want to speak for (majority owner) Gustavo (Hernandez) — I lost quite a lot of money over the last few years, so it was enough for me.”

Calls to Hernandez were unreturned as of Tuesday night. Hart said his business partner and friend was “very emotional” about the demise of the franchise in which he purchased a majority share in November.

“I think he believed he could come in and his passion would rub off and prevail and everything would be fine,” Hart said. “So I think he’s disappointed for sure.”

Hart said Hernandez made the decision to call it quits “three or four” weeks ago, but the ownership group had continued searching for ways to keep the franchise alive right up to Monday night.

“We had some conversations with some different folks over the last several weeks that were almost teasers of an 11th-hour solution, none of which ever materialized,” Hart said. “That’s why we remained quiet. We were hopeful someone or some name would step up and change the situation, but it never happened.”

Lots of red

According to a city official, as of Tuesday, the Bucks had an outstanding balance of roughly $230,000 owed to SMG, an arena management firm that handles the LEA on behalf of the city.

LEA General Manager Xavier Villalon, an SMG employee, declined to confirm the $230,000 figure but said outstanding balances were typical at the end of a professional sports season.

Despite the Bucks folding, Villalon said he expects the outstanding balance to be paid in full today.

“The city is sorry to see them go; the city wanted to see them remain,” Laredo City Manager Carlos Villarreal said. “There was a substantial amount (owed). Ultimately, it’s a business decision that they had to make.”

As news of the Bucks’ closure spread, a rumor emerged that the city had forced them out.

“It’s absolutely false,” Villalon said. “The facts speak for themselves. Anyone commenting anything of that sort isn’t paying attention to what occurred. The contract was negotiated favorably for both (the Bucks and the LEA) last year. It was basically set where we were giving them the best opportunity to make a successful year.

“The fan base will dictate everything. Dictate concerts, shows, dictate tenants. That is the underlying factor that will determine the success of any tenant or event that comes through here.”

Hart laughed at the speculation that the city played a role in closing the Bucks.

“The city has done a wonderful job helping us out in every way they could to try to make this work,” he said. “I have fond feelings for all the people we dealt within the city government, from the beginning to (now).”

CHL or bust

When the Bucks’ future was thrown into question last year, the franchise explored moving to another league or joining the junior hockey ranks to cut costs and stay alive.

No such moves were seriously considered this time, said Kupaks, the team’s general manager.

“We were going to stay pro at the level we were at,” she said. “It was obvious after last year the community wasn’t embracing the junior idea, so we were going to stay pro or not play. Either first class all the way or (bust).”

Kupaks said the franchise wants to make sure closure is “done the right way.” The team is reimbursing season ticket holders for any purchases made toward the 2012-13 season.

Ticket holders can call Kupaks or Executive Vice President Jennifer Beckelhymer at 956-718-BUCK (2825) to get their refund.

Things to come

Although the Bucks are closing their doors to business, the team’s ownership group continues to retain its CHL license as a dormant franchise.

Hart said the ownership group will attempt to sell its CHL licensing agreement.

The group is composed mostly of Hernandez, himself and three other minority owners whose cumulative share of the program is less than 10 percent.

“I believe it is the intention of the ownership group to relocate to another city,” he said. “There’s been names tossed around, but there’s no decision for sure.”

The team might officially move to another city, but Hart said such a move would only be a procedural step toward selling the franchise to its new community.

Although the Bucks are leaving, Hart said his company, Laredo Energy, will continue to be the name sponsor of the Laredo Energy Arena.

In the meantime, Hart is hanging up his spurs in the world of professional sports ownership.

“At the end of the day, I can walk away with my head held high,” he said. “We accomplished some great things.”

(LMT staff reporter Andrew Kreighbaum contributed to this report)

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