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CHL finds new life

Laredo Bucks owner Glenn Hart’s Big 12-Central Hockey League analogy is complete.

One of the league’s elite teams, the Colorado Eagles, has left for greener pastures (a la Nebraska), several of the league’s extra baggage teams have been shed to lighten the load (a la Colorado) and, most impressively, the CHL has endured in a stunning display of strength.

“For the first time since the (Western Professional Hockey League) merger in 2002, this is the strongest group we’ve ever gone forward with,” Hart said of the league’s new 14-team membership.

It’s a story of passion for a game overcoming personal differences and financial hardship.

Back from the brink

“Even as late as heading into that April 26 (CHL owners) meeting, I thought (the league) was done,” Hart said.

It was one of three owners meetings in the span of four weeks during which the future of the CHL appeared to be doomed.

The latest Hail Mary attempt to save the conference, the creation of a single-A hockey league under the CHL’s umbrella, had been abandoned at a previous owners meeting on April 10.

As many as seven teams approached April 26 thinking they were about to say goodbye to the league forever.

Yet, rather than a funeral, the meeting signaled the league’s rebirth.

“There was an idea sent out by email before the meeting that involved some revenue sharing techniques to redirect some money to the lower producing teams in an effort to keep the league together,” Hart said. “As I looked at that proposal, I thought, ‘That’s all fine and dandy, it would work, but there’s no way, based on prior behavior, they would vote it in.’”

To Hart’s pleasant surprise, he was wrong.

“I was literally shocked,” he said. “I distinctly remember them going around the table and saying, ‘If these things are all in place, what will you do?’ That was the moment I said ‘We’re in.’

“Pretty much from that point forward, it’s been everybody working toward putting those things in place. From April 26 on, I knew we would be back.”

Finishing touches

April 26 might be the day the CHL turned its fortunes around, but June 11 was the day everyone involved could finally let out their breath.

It was the second day of the league’s annual summer meetings, and what a doozy it was.

“The owners locked themselves away for (what was supposed to be a) three-hour meeting and ended up taking an entire day,” said Bucks general manager Nicole Kupaks.

Heading into the weekend’s meetings, Kupaks was still far from certain what would emerge.
“I was just a little apprehensive,” she said. “It’s really easy to go into these meetings forgetting about your financial struggles of the previous year because of your optimism for the future, it’s easy to fall into old habits and not look at the bottom line.”

Kupaks’ concerns about the league’s future eventually proved unfounded, as everything was addressed.

“I think we’ve got a good start right now,” Kupaks said. “We’ve laid all the ideas out. Things will come up during the season.

We have another governors meeting in September to focus on the game itself to make it more exciting for the fans; I think it’s just going to be a work in progress.”

A majority of the changes voted on by the league’s governors and owners are still awaiting the approval of the Professional Hockey Players Association, but questions about the league’s future membership, at least, have been answered.

The new look

While the Bucks survived the offseason trials, not every team was so lucky.

Mississippi, Bossier-Shreveport and Odessa have all left the league due to financial hardship.

Colorado also left to find a new home in the East Coast Hockey League.

Yet it was almost worse.

Quad City was ready to receive its last rites and the Rio Grande Valley front office was collecting unemployment as recently as last week before both were resurrected.

“The league office was involved in trying to facilitate what would happen in both of those situations,” Hart said.

Not quite divine intervention, though it may have felt so for employees who said a miracle was their only salvation.

As for the teams that weren’t saved, Kupaks said it was time to prune the tree.
“Sometimes you have to shake the tree to get the bad leaves off,” she said. “Not saying anyone’s bad, but sometimes you need to shake things up to see how they lay.”
Hart agreed the lost weight is good for the conference.

“One of the places a league can get into trouble is if they try to take care of everybody,” he said. “Some of them are just beyond help. I think once decisions are made that a couple of people probably need to go, then it gets a lot easier after that.”

Fourteen teams remain, divided into a pair of seven-team conferences.

Eight teams will advance to the postseason at the end of the year.

Future stability

Bucks head coach Serge Dube, who referred to his experience at the league meetings as two of the most educational days of his life, said he thinks the adopted changes to the league won’t hurt its ability to put a quality product on the ice.

“It will still be very competitive, and more so now because, with four less teams, there’s an extra 80 players looking for jobs,” he said. “That will make the league that much stronger because your bottom-end guys will have a tough time finding a job this year.

“It will elevate the caliber of play in the (CHL).”

There have already been some adjustments to the deals announced by Hart on May 16 to hold the league together, but nothing of the deal-breaking variety.

One of the primary changes was the ditching of the discussed luxury tax in favor of a different model of revenue sharing based on attendance numbers.

Another positive adjustment made is an easing of the rules in place that allow former teams to return to the league.

“One of the things that fans may not realize is that most all of the people who own these teams, this is not their primary business,” Hart said. “So what happens in an economic downturn is your golden goose suffers to the point where you cannot afford to operate a team at a loss. It’s not a matter of ‘want to,’ it’s a matter of ‘can you.’

“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we get some of these teams back in the next year or two.”

In addition to better conference stability, recent changes will also increase the Bucks’ stability.

“Under the old setup, for us to have had a chance to break even (financially), we’d have to return to our attendance from four to five years ago,” Hart said. “Under the new setup, all we need is to make (attendance what it was) the season before last to make it.

“We still have to have an increase in attendance from last season to be able to continue on, but it’s much less than it was under the old setup.”

It’s exactly the kind of outcome Hart was hoping for all along.

“It was looking like it was going to be a very tough decision and it worked out for everyone” he said. “All the people associated with the team, the coaches, the staff, fans … everybody’s pretty ecstatic right now.”

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