The Charlotte Checkers, the local minor league hockey club, held a news conference Wednesday to announce that team owner Michael Kahn, a local businessman, has bought the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats of the American Hockey League. The River Rats will move to Charlotte and play in the AHL this fall under the Checkers’ nickname.
I did some reporting at the news conference for the Albany Times Union, where the story is obviously a little different from the upbeat story here of moving up the minor league hockey ladder. The Checkers have been members of the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League), two rungs below the National Hockey League, since 1993.
The River Rats began play in the AHL, the highest minor league in North American hockey, that same year. But the team has been plagued by financial problems and low attendance in recent years, ranking 26th out of the 29 teams at 3,517 fans per game. The Checkers, by contrast, are sixth in the 20-team ECHL, averaging 5,233 fans at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
The River Rats have been the AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL for the last four years, and the Hurricanes have been interested for some time in having their top minor league players a little closer to Raleigh for easier call-ups and more up-close observation.
“We like the idea of our affiliate being a couple of hours’ drive away,” said Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, pictured here talking to the media at the news conference. “There’s one flight out of Albany every day that our players could get to make it to Raleigh, and it would arrive here barely in time for a player to make it to the arena.”
The affiliation agreement was set to expire at the end of this season and Rutherford said the uncertainty of the River Rats’ situation contributed to the Hurricanes interest in the sale.
“We wanted an affiliate in Charlotte, but to have an affiliate, you have to have a franchise,” Rutherford said. “We didn’t know whether it would be Albany’s or someone else’s.”
Checkers owner Michael Kahn said the attraction was mutual. “If it had been Nashville or Atlanta that was interested, I don’t know that I would have jumped so readily,” he said.
The loser in all of this, of course, is the city of Albany. Team owner Walter Robb, an 81-year-old former corporate VP for General Electric, couldn’t sustain any more financial losses. He wasn’t at the news conference.
“You can only pour money into things for so long,” Rutherford said. “I’m sure Dr. Robb hung on for as long as he could.”
And comments at the end of this post in the Times Union’s hockey blog indicated that, rather than being angry at Robb, fans were grateful that he stuck with the city as long as he did.
So Charlotte fans get to await news about coaches, players, ticket prices, uniform colors and everything else associated with a new team. And Albany fans wonder whether they will have a team to root for next season. Several other AHL franchises’ affiliation agreements are up or are considering moves, according to the ever-active hockey grapevine.
Possible candidates for relocation include the Hartford WolfPack, which ironically is the AHL affiliate of the current Charlotte Checkers. That Checkers team will be sold within a month, Kahn said at the press conference — making room for a new era to begin.