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Oregon Ducks Hockey Has NCAA Aspirations

With ASU’s upstart NCAA team being the talk of college hockey, their fellow PAC-12 schools are taking notice, and some hope to emulate their overnight success.  The University of Oregon’s club team is working diligently to position themselves alongside ASU and other big name schools in NCAA hockey.

Saskatchewan native Rylee Orr was back in North America after his previous professional contract wrapped up in Europe, and started looking at coaching vacancies.  When he noticed U of O’s posting, he recognized the potential the school has based on his own club hockey career at Utah State. “I saw ASU cruising up [the club hockey rankings] on their way to NCAA, and had always expected Oregon to do the same, so I applied for the job, got it, and moved to Eugene.”  He talked to his friend and former teammate Cooper Limb about bringing him on board as an Assistant Coach, and suddenly the team had a new core of coaches aligned with their GM Sam Rosenberg’s vision of elevating the Oregon Ducks to NCAA D-1. Currently currently in the American College Hockey Association (ACHA), they are in the ACHA’s D-2, competing in the PAC-8, which is made up of club teams from PAC-12 schools as well as other universities in the region.  

“Right away, our goal was to win the PAC-8 and make it to the regional tournament, and we achieved that goal.  Next season will be at the [ACHA] D-2 level with some [ACHA] D-1 opponents, with the same goal of the regional tournament and nationals, and we’re hoping to go [ACHA] D-1 the following year,” explained Orr.  

“D-1 is more expensive; more travel is involved.  Qualifying for the D-1 national tournament requires 16 games against D-1 opponents.”  Schools like Arizona, UNLV, Utah, Colorado and Colorado State are the closest teams at that level, so scheduling grueling double and triple-headers over long weekends will be part of the grind.  

The higher level is well worth the effort; when ASU elevated their club team, they had just won a national championship in ACHA D-1.  This allowed for as smooth of a transition as possible when you go from collecting fees from players (on top of tuition) to offering full-ride athletic scholarships.  Penn State was in the same situation when they elevated their program earlier this decade.

Some of the built-in advantages the Ducks possess also drew Orr to the position.  “The Oregon Ducks brand…it’s recognized nationwide and in Canada. That makes recruiting easier,” he stated.  “The winter weather is also nicer than most hockey schools.” The current roster has six skaters from Alberta, and the team has scouts helping with recruiting in British Columbia as well.  Beyond that, the local rink in Eugene is invaluable to the team. Orr boasted, “We’re the only PAC-8 school with our own locker rooms.” The rink also provides a built-in opponent with the Eugene Generals, a local junior hockey team.  Because club hockey scheduling allows for some freedom and creativity, the friendly “home vs. home” matches bring out fans of both teams and showcase the hockey atmosphere Eugene is capable of drawing.

Chatting with the coaches made it clear that they are devoted to the cause.  “I’ve got all my eggs in this basket; I’m giving it my all,” Orr intimated. His efforts were recognized this season when he was named the PAC-8’s Coach of the Year.

Limb is also doing whatever it takes to make this opportunity work, holding down two jobs in order to have the flexibility required to travel on the weekends during the winter, when the elements are more likely to cause delays.  “It was snowing a lot in Lake Tahoe during the PAC-8 tournament, so on our trip back, we went only 12 miles in 3 hours,” Limb recalled.

Limb doubles as the team’s trainer, creating the workouts for their sessions at the gym.  They are currently able to reserve a section for themselves at set times, and hope to add a reserved weight room slot in the future, utilizing the school’s legendary athletic infrastructure.  One of the major advantages in prospect development NCAA hockey has over Major Juniors is spending more time strength-training at the gym, and the Ducks are positioning themselves to have that aspect covered.

An important mantra of sports is that success begets success, and the team’s successful season is resulting in newfound exposure in the modern era.  Broadcasting their games on Youtube allows engagement with Ducks faithful that enjoy hockey. Their jersey looking so darn good helps; ESPN’s resident college hockey aficionado John Buccigross wore it for a broadcast, and NHL on NBC heaped praise on the jersey when sharing it on Twitter.  Hockey itself is still a niche sport in the region, and getting new fans to attend games is the first step to getting them interested in both Ducks hockey and the sport in general.  Their success is poised to snowball from there.

Their resurgence has the coaches preparing to start a booster club in the near future.  “We’re willing to grind this out and do it the hard way,” Limb remarked about their fundraising.  While much of the speculation around Ducks hockey elevating to the NCAA is because of the school’s relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight, that’s not the only way to build a team.  Accumulating donations towards an endowment can have a snowball effect, attracting bigger donors as the endowment grows over time.

With a dedicated staff building on their success, Ducks hockey is ready to take off.  Make sure to become a fan and booster now before the bandwagon starts filling!

PAC-12 Hockey: Not If, But When

With the recent success of Arizona State University’s NCAA hockey team (as well as University of Oregon’s club hockey team), it’s time for an in-depth look at the potential for PAC-12 hockey.

A few years ago, Arizona State came out of seemingly nowhere and announced their decision to elevate their club hockey team to the NCAA.  Lacking a conference affiliation while hosting games at a rink with minimal capacity, they were expected to flounder for a while before being taken seriously.  Almost immediately, though, they started attracting talented recruits and fielding a competitive team. They are a virtual lock to make the NCAA tournament this season in only their 3rd full year as a D-1 program (their first season included club and D-3 opponents).  During the press conference for the announcement, they stated their expectation for other PAC-12 schools to follow suit. Later in this article, the hockey situation of all PAC-12 schools will be examined individually, but first, a quick synopsis of some factors in college hockey expanding westward.

$$$$

For a university to add NCAA hockey, the biggest hurdle is money.  Costs include scholarships, equipment, an arena, an endowment for operating expenses, staff wages, and travel for competition as well as recruiting.  Arizona State was able to do it with ~$30 million; Penn State required $100 million. For perspective, Minnesota State University-Moorhead tried to raise $35 million earlier this decade to build a D-1 program, but came up short in fundraising efforts, so the $30-35 million range is a reasonable target.

Arena

Skipping the arena aspect is tempting for potential teams looking to cut costs, but an on-campus arena is crucial for student engagement in college hockey.  Large, empty buildings are not conducive to an exciting atmosphere, so an ideal rink would seat between 3,000 and 6,000, based on campus enrollment size and the surrounding metro population.  There are obviously exceptions, but even in hockey-mad Minnesota, the Golden Gophers are struggling to fill in half of their 10,000 seats this season. Location is also a bigger factor than most observers realize.  Before the University of Nebraska-Omaha recently unveiled Baxter Arena on campus, their off-campus rink at a pro-size facility in downtown Omaha was cited as a knock against them by rivals schools in recruiting. Side note: Vancouver, WA native Riley Alferd is a Senior at UNO, starting his college career the year Baxter opened.  That said, UNO’s use of off-campus rinks in the nearly 20 years prior to the new facility shows there are multiple paths to D-1 hockey; no two teams will follow the same blueprint.

California’s Hockey Boom

With hockey’s explosion in California over the past twenty years, we are seeing more and more recruits coming from both SoCal and the Bay Area.  Beau Bennett, Rocco Grimaldi and Emerson Etem are just some of the blue chip prospects to get drafted in the first or second round out of California in the past decade.  Bennett even tweeted (tongue-in-cheek of course) his “commitment” to ASU immediately after they announced their elevated status. Another California native, Cam York, is expected to get picked in the first round in this summer’s upcoming draft.

Other California natives have found success at the NCAA level in recent years despite not being drafted in the NHL, including Patrick Khorodorenko, Trevor Moore, Austin Ortega, and Will Johnson.  Beyond NCAA, the Portland Winterhawks’ roster included some Californians lately, including Chase De Leo and Miles Koules, and their decision to forgo the NCAA may have stemmed from a desire to stay on the west coast.  All of these skilled players point to a potential goldmine for ASU in the near future, and enough local talent for multiple PAC-12 teams.

Title 9

Another decision to factor in when considering college hockey is the impact it has on Title 9, which requires equal athletic opportunities for each gender.  Adding women’s hockey may not be the best option; University of North Dakota recently cut their women’s program for budget reasons.  Women’s lacrosse and field hockey are less expensive alternatives, and with women’s teams in each sport already existing out west, the infrastructure is more supportive.

Club Hockey

The two most recent additions to NCAA hockey, ASU and Penn State, were both successful at the ACHA D-1 level before transitioning to NCAA.  Only a few of the PAC-12 schools are currently at that level; the PAC-8 conference is ACHA D-2.  Aspiring to ACHA D-1 is an important step on the road to NCAA hockey.

Now, without further ado, here are capsules for all remaining PAC-12 teams (in no specific order):

Colorado

The Buffaloes are not mentioned often when college hockey expansion is discussed, but they are definitely a ‘sleeper’ candidate to add a team.  Currently in ACHA D-1, only Arizona and UNLV have a current roster better situated for the move. They also have a rink on campus in their student recreation center that could be used indefinitely for practice, as well as for the short term while the spectator arena is built/renovated.  With a major airport and three current NCAA D-1 programs in the vicinity (Colorado College, Air Force Academy and University of Denver), their travel costs would be lower than for other PAC-12 schools as well. Boulder could realistically be the home of the NCAA’s next hockey out west. If/when that happens, expect Colorado State to perform due diligence as well; CU vs. CSU is a top rivalry in club hockey.

Utah

After their recent addition of men’s lacrosse, Utah is more likely to focus on the recent addition to their athletic department than explore adding more programs.  Much like how Arizona State added hockey, an affluent parent of a player on the club team donating the necessary funds is how they moved up to NCAA status. Their club team competes at ACHA’s D-1 level, but there are no arenas near campus to allow an easy transition to NCAA.

Oregon

Frequently cited in message boards discussing college hockey expansion due to its relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight, the Ducks are a hockey program on the rise after winning the PAC-8 club hockey championship this year, earning a berth in the regional tournament.  Due to the proximity to Portland, the Ducks’ potential for NCAA hockey will be discussed at length in an article of its own in the near future.  The coaches were more than willing to chat about the transition for the article, and they are fully committed to the cause.  Eugene is on its way to becoming a new hockey hotbed.

Oregon State

With the closest rink to Corvallis located in Eugene, the Beavers have never had a club hockey team.  They are currently the least likely of the PAC-12 schools to ever field a hockey team in the NCAA, barring a generous and unexpected gift to the school.

Stanford

Between their massive endowment, academic reputation and aristocratic alumni, there isn’t a school anywhere that could build a competitive team quicker.  Plenty of people affiliated with the school have the ability to create a team with the stroke of a pen. Their club team is known to practice at the private home ice rink of billionaire alumni Scott McNealy, a lifelong hockey fan.  Should they add a team, he will undoubtedly be involved.

USC

Located near downtown Los Angeles, people would expect them to be able to use the Staples Center for a rink, but given that three pro teams already occupy it, that’s not feasible.  The club team has played rivalry games against UCLA there, but their current home ice is in Anaheim, 30 miles away from campus through LA’s notorious traffic. With a legendary alumni network and numerous wealthy graduates and boosters, it’s entirely possible there’s someone willing to put the money down for them to start up.  They are rumored to have considered and possibly already utilized the NHL’s feasibility study grants, provided by the league to assist universities explore the possibility of adding college hockey.

UCLA

The Bruin’s home ice is in Burbank, 20 miles away from their campus.  While their rivalry games against USC at the Staples Center are a hit, they would need the same financial windfall as the rest of the schools, and given the University of California’s budget issues, it may be poorly received by the community to put college athletics before academics at a public institute.

Arizona

The Wildcats are undoubtedly jealous of their biggest rival’s success in hockey, knowing that U of A also possesses the “party school” atmosphere and envious weather that makes ASU so appealing.  Their ACHA team is a perennial contender at the D-1 level, and they already sell a good amount of tickets at the Tucson Convention Center, a 6,800 seat arena only 2 miles from their campus. The arena is shared with the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, resulting in far better amenities available to their club team than anywhere else out west.  Their transition would be less expensive and likely smoother than any other PAC-12 team at this point.

Washington

Much like how UNLV hockey wasn’t on anybody’s radar until the Golden Knights came to town, Seattle’s expansion franchise has suddenly flooded UW’s club team with attention.  Both the KeyArena and the proposed practice facility are within five miles of campus, so should elevating the University’s program be even an afterthought to the expansion team, the locations are feasible if not ideal.  It’s also not unrealistic to think that with the amount of capital floating around Seattle these days that someone would be willing to build a rink on campus. Hockey fever has gripped Seattle, so keep an eye on their program over the next few years.

Washington State

Despite the proximity to Canada, Pullman is not exactly a hockey town.  The only rink in the area is across the border in Idaho, closer to the University of Idaho than to Wazzu.  They are another longshot; consistently fielding a team is the first step.

Cal

Considering their Athletic Department’s finances after the debacle surrounding their new football stadium, it is hard to imagine Cal getting NCAA hockey anytime soon, which is unfortunate as it would be an easy school for recruiting given its stature in the world.  The nearest rink to Berkeley is in downtown Oakland, which is a quick BART ride away, but with no prospects for a new sheet anywhere near campus, they are yet another longshot.

*BONUS* UNLV

Despite not being a part of the PAC-12, UNLV is vocally working towards going D-1 in the near future, and would be a natural fit for the conference.  With some club team funding provided by the Englestad family (the same benefactors who provided $100 million for the University of North Dakota’s fabled rink), as well as support from the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights (including their own locker rooms at the Knights’ practice facility), they could be the second team out west to go D-1.  They only recently joined ACHA’s D-1, and are already a top team at that level.  As a conference affiliate, they would be helpful in getting the PAC-12 to the six members threshold for the accompanying auto-bid into the NCAA tournament.

 


 

After all of the wild speculation in this article, here’s a guess at what the PAC-12 hockey conference will start with whenever it launches:

Arizona State

Colorado

Oregon

UNLV

USC

Arizona

Make sure to tune in March 29th/30th for the Sun Devils’ first NCAA tournament appearance.  If you’re reading this, you probably have a good reason to be rooting for them! As for the Ducks, their first game in the ACHA West Regional tournament is March 1st.  Stay tuned for the aforementioned in-depth article about University of Oregon hockey as well.  Playoff hockey season is here, comrades!

Does Portland Possess the “3 Pillars” of a Successful NHL Franchise?

During Seattle’s recent acceptance into the NHL, a sound byte from the league mentioned the three pillars of a successful franchise:  solid ownership, robust fan support, and a modern arena. This article will discuss where Portland stands in all three facets.

Ownership

For the last 20+ years since Portland was first graced with an NHL-caliber arena, an NHL team would only be able to happen with Paul Allen on board.  This was cemented even further when he purchased the Moda Center (then known as the Rose Garden) a decade ago. He was never interested in paying full price for a team, but was supposedly willing to buy a relocated team at a discount should the right opportunity present itself.  Both the Penguins and Coyotes had close calls where their team was saved from relocation to Portland by one of hockey’s superstars (Lemieux and Gretzky, respectively). When Allen passed away in October, the future of his estate appeared to be tied up for the foreseeable future; his sister is the main recipient.  Known for her philanthropy, she’s shown little interest in sports. His teams (he also owned the Seattle Seahawks) are operated under the umbrella of Vulcan Inc., which includes his other businesses and charitable foundations. What will happen with his estate is not clear, but with the Trail Blazers having a contract with the Moda Center (and the city of Portland) through 2025, their future is not in doubt for the near future.

What does this mean for NHL in Portland?  Well, the Winterhawks have a billionaire owner in Bill Gallacher that is familiar with the Moda Center and Vulcan Inc.’s sports division.  He has yet to publicly state anything about NHL in Seattle, and he is also waiting to see whether or not his Minimum Wage Bill exempting Winterhawks players will clear the Oregon State Senate on its second attempt.  Should it not pass, the team will have no choice but to depart, as they wouldn’t be able to operate under the same compensation rules as other teams in their league. They could conceivably be re-purposed as a minor league affiliate of the Seattle franchise; whether or not they could keep their moniker in that situation is difficult to predict given the already speculative nature of the topic.  Franchises in the AHL (the minor league) are worth in the $5-10 million range, so barely pennies on the dollar compared to an NHL franchise. Should the worst-case scenario of the Winterhawks not passing their bill as well as no teams look to relocate to Portland, the AHL would be the logical step for Gallacher.

It’s likely that if the bill doesn’t pass he will work with Vulcan (and/or others) to explore the possibility of bringing an NHL team here.  How receptive the league is will be the X factor. Being considered for relocated franchises in the past means Portland is on their map, just not as desired as Seattle and Houston.  The lack of expansion inquiries from Portland over the years has undoubtedly not impressed the league either. Still, Vulcan Sports CEO Chris McGowan has experience as the COO of AEG, which owns the LA Kings.  Should he and Gallacher join forces, the league would be confident in their ability to run a team.

Fan Support

Fan support is not a question in Portland when it comes to attendance; everyone in the city has heard someone cite the 13,000 person waitlist for Timbers season tickets, or how the Blazers hold the record for the longest sellout streak in professional sports.  That said, corporate dollars and television contracts are unfortunately more important in the eyes of the league, and less favorable in Portland than other cities. While per capita income and discretionary dollars are at all time highs, the metro population is only 2.5 million (not projected to cross 3 million until the 2030’s), and may be considered Seattle territory in terms of TV deals, so it wouldn’t be seen as nearly as lucrative of a city like Houston.  A borderline irrational desire for TV eyeballs is one of the main reasons the league continues to subsidize Arizona’s losses. It’s also tough to find corporate dollars in Portland compared to many other cities. A case could be made that Portland currently lacks sponsorship saturation (at the moment) with only two major level teams, but that may not be the case if MLB comes here. No real numbers or serious owners are known yet, however, so the MLB is far from guaranteed at this point.  If anything, it should galvanize potential NHL owners to beat them to the punch.

Arena

Portland already has a suitable arena, so a team could relocate here tomorrow.  It’s also not going to suffer the issues facing Ottawa, Florida and Arizona where the building is neither centrally located nor well-served by mass transit.  The Rose Quarter is the epicenter of light rail in Portland, with every route except the newly-minted Orange line stopping right outside. It’s also located where two major interstate roads intersect, allowing ease of dispersion when crowds depart games.

Moda Center was built to meet NHL specifications, but would now be the 8th oldest building in the league.  While there were over a dozen arenas built around the same time, the league may not look as warmly upon it as they would have a decade ago.  The last renovations took place in 2007, so it is likely due again sometime soon. The fact that hockey is already played in the building should indicate that the building would be adequate for the foreseeable future, though.  Bottom line, having the Moda Center is a major advantage for the NHL’s potential in Portland, and is a generation away from being considered a hindrance.

The Team Itself

It’s no secret the NHL owners want a team in Houston, and with Arizona moving to the Central division, most prognosticating hockey fans expect the Coyotes to wind up in Texas in the next few years.  Still, it’s possible the owners decide 33 teams in the league is acceptable, and nudge Houston in the direction of expansion instead. Given the Golden Knights’ success in their first year, the expansion draft looks more appealing than a relocated team.  Meanwhile, the league gets another $650 million or more on its books if they are an expansion team, so it’s not a done deal that the Coyotes will move to Houston. An expansion team in Houston would allow Arizona (or wherever the franchise is located) to be the 9th member of whatever division makes the most sense.   

Arizona isn’t the only team that could move; Ottawa and Florida are suffering the same fate as Arizona (Ottawa admittedly less pronounced attendance-wise but with exponentially more fan resentment towards to owner) due to their arenas all being located in the suburbs rather than near the city center.  All were poorly conceived from the start; suburbs are notorious for issues with transit as well as evening traffic already heading in their direction as opposed to clear roads to the city center. Side note: driving the 110 in the opposite direction of Los Angeles’ notorious rush hour to a few games at the Staples Center was an eye-opening experience for me in this regard.  Calgary and Ottawa need new rinks to stay viable; Florida needs fans to attend, period.  

Calgary’s mayor took a hard stance against the Flames’ owner saying any new arena or remodel needs to 100% privately funded, which irked Gary Bettman so much he contributed funds to the campaign of the mayor’s opponent in the last election.  Their best bet for a new arena was shot down when the city voted against an Olympic bid, and we all know Bettman has no qualms about abandoning a Canadian market, as ridiculous as it sounds. On that same token, Ottawa isn’t as meaningful to Portland, because nearby Quebec City would be their destination.  Florida is a bit of a wild card, though. They could go to Quebec City, or could come out west to allow Nashville to move to the Eastern Conference. Regardless of where they could move, their attendance is atrocious and the franchise is not sustainable.

The league is about to cry “poverty” during the next labor negotiations, so look for the Players Association to pile on about the league subsidizing the Coyotes and the Panthers.  This should put pressure on the league to move one or both of them for the 2021 season after the hopefully brief play stoppage currently projected for the start of the 2020 season.  The stars could align for one of them to move to Portland; if Houston goes the expansion route, Portland is the de facto front-runner to land them.

—————-

Seattle’s NHL expansion team has hockey fans in Portland both casual and hardcore itching for one here as well.  A little more patience is required to see how ownership shakes out, but we’ll know by the middle of 2019 (at the latest) if the Winterhawks are going to stay.  Given that TSN (the Canadian ESPN equivalent) and The Hockey News were the only major outlets to cover the Minimum Wage Bill after our local media dropped the ball, keep an eye on them as well as NHL PDX’s Twitter feed to stay up to date.  This could be the calm before the storm…

Local Rinks Update

Portland’s hockey community continues to be under-served in terms of public sheets of ice, and the metro area almost lost one of the three sheets this past summer when Mountain View Ice Arena’s closure was halted at the eleventh hour.  Between that and the anticipated opening of a two sheet facility in Beaverton, the community’s future is up in the air. This post will discuss the current situation regarding all of the individual rinks in the area.

Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District

Over two years ago, the Winterhawks announced their intention to open a new dual sheet arena at the Howard M. Terpenning Recreation Complex in Beaverton, located near the Nike campus.  It was described as a public-private relationship, with operations managed by the Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District. As recently as early 2018, it was slated for a late 2019 opening date.  Shovels have yet to break ground, though, and the rejection of the Winterhawks’ Minimum Wage Bill by the Oregon State Senate cast some doubt over the project. Financing is also an issue, as naming rights remain for sale for the arena, suggesting a lack of private donations.  Interestingly, THPRD sent lobbyists to Salem to support the Winterhawks’ Bill, and the Park and Rec Director is (supposedly) a hockey parent, so they have some skin in the game as well.

The most assuring bit of news regarding the facility over the past few months was a job posting on THPRD’s website for a facility technician that included ice rink maintenance in the description.  Should the Minimum Wage Bill not pass in the 2019 Oregon Legislative Assembly, meaning the Winterhawks do not receive their exemption, the arena likely would not come to fruition quite as planned. That said, the project would be easily continued by private investors (including any pro team that were to materialize in Portland), so the Winterhawks aren’t as essential to the arena’s development as one might infer.

Winterhawks Skating Center

With crowded locker rooms and a facility showing its age, many of Portland’s transplants have an unfavorable first impression of this arena.  Located next to the campus of Jesuit High School, it made sense for the school to purchase the rink a few years ago. The quality of the ice itself has improved recently, and the leaky roof is no longer a nuisance.  It seems every year when it shuts down in July for annual maintenance there are whispers about whether or not it will re-open, but it remains resilient and an important cornerstone of Portland’s hockey community.

The ice time at WSC is devoted mostly to the Jr. Winterhawks youth program, and the relatively central location (compared to the other rinks) is an upside for hockey parents.  Across the street is the PDX Sportscenter, where the Jr. Winterhawks perform their dryland training. Love it or hate it, WSC is here to stay and remains vital to Portland’s youth hockey program.  Despite granting all available peak hours to youth hockey, every year the Jr. Winterhawks have to turn down potential players due to the lack of ice time. This issue is exacerbated by the Jr. Winterhawks no longer being able to use the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland due to the prohibitively high cost of ice time at the venue.

Sherwood Ice Arena

Located southwest of Portland in the exurb of Sherwood, the region’s nicest facility is where Portland’s adult hockey community is best served.  With 9 different leagues serving almost 60 teams complimented by strict oversight to ensure parity, adult players convene from all over the region to get their hockey fix.  While they provide some ice time to the Jr. Winterhawks, it is clear that the adult program is the priority. This may harm the potential for growth of the sport in Oregon, but it’s hard to justify slaughtering a cash cow when trying to turn a profit.  

The arena was very clearly built with room to expand; a large grass field the size and shape of an ice sheet lies between the parking lot and the east end of the building.  The city of Sherwood is concerned with parking capacity issues, so that will require attention before it allows development of a second sheet. Curiously, a Mexican restaurant is located on the far end of the parking lot, but cars never seem to be parked there by patrons.  How it remains in business is a mystery, but should it close down or be bought out, bulldozing it would alleviate some of the parking concerns.

Mountain View Ice Arena

Just north of Portland in Vancouver, Washington, Mountain View was nearly closed earlier this year by its owner, City Bible, in order to make room for their school’s expansion.  When some zoning issues stalled City Bible’s development plans, the facility operators offered to buy the arena in order to keep it open. They were given a year to come up with the $4 million purchase price, and a lack of pleas for assistance is a good sign that they are on track.  As the closest arena for much of Portland’s east side, the rink serves just as large of a segment of the local hockey community as Sherwood and WSC.

Castle Rock, Washington

Roughly an hour north of downtown Portland and an hour and a half south of Olympia (both assuming no traffic), Castle Rock is a small community of roughly 2,000 residents between Portland and Seattle on I-5.  Over a year ago, Greg Meakin, the original developer of Bremerton Ice Center in the Puget Sound, set his sights on Castle Rock as the location for his second arena project in Washington. Having relinquished his interest in Bremerton Ice Center only a year after opening it in 2003, he wants to own an arena again after learning some painful lessons from the process the first time around.  He envisions a two sheet facility supplemented by outdoor fields for football and baseball. While the community of Castle Rock isn’t large enough to fill the two sheets (and various fields) on its own, the intent is to host tournaments as often as possible to bring travel teams from Portland, Seattle and Canada to town. Meakin was recently hospitalized, but is now discharged and hopefully back to work on this complex.

The Pavilion

While not in the Portland metro, the success of the recently-christened ice rink at The Pavilion in Bend is worth noting.  Paid for with mostly public funding and opened in 2015, the rink is a rousing success with demand exceeding expectations. There is room for growth as well; because the rink is not yet fully enclosed, the season is short and somewhat dependent on the weather.  While it demonstrates that Oregon taxpayers are willing to pay for ice rinks, the downside to public funding is the city blocked further inquiries into building privately-funded sheets that would compete with the public site.

Portland’s hockey community experienced some highs and lows over the past few years with announced openings and closings of rinks, but the status quo held out for the time being.  We need more sheets of ice, which it appears is being addressed. Even if the Winterhawks back out of the Tualatin Hills facility, the groundwork is laid for another private entity to take their place.  As usual, cautious optimism is the best approach.

NHL to Seattle; AHL to Portland?

Portland’s beloved junior hockey team, the Winterhawks, threatened to relocate or cease operations without a minimum wage exemption for their players.  House Bill 4093, calling for just that, was recently denied by the Oregon State Senate in unceremonious fashion. Meanwhile, Seattle is a few years away from getting an NHL team in a renovated KeyArena, and their NHL team will need a nearby minor league (AHL) affiliate.  Portland could kill two birds with one stone by attracting Seattle’s AHL affiliate: fill the potential void left by the Winterhawks’ anticipated departure, and get the Veterans Memorial Coliseum the modernizing it needs.

Private investors saw the potential for pro hockey in Seattle, and the same group could be incentivized to do the same in Portland.  The Winterhawks consistently have the highest attendance of any American junior hockey team, drawing crowds that would be considered successful in the AHL.  Ticket prices would not increase much, if at all, but the level of play would be noticeably higher, appealing to more spectators. Beyond the likelihood of financial success in Portland, it would attract the fans from Portland to follow the parent club in Seattle.  

How can we get Oak View Group, the conglomerate behind the KeyArena renovation, to do the same here?  Tax breaks on the arena’s revenue (rather than subsidies like the Moda Center received) were all they required in Seattle to commit $600 million to the building, on top of the $650 expansion fee for the team.  Meanwhile, estimates to modernize the Coliseum ranges from $30-60 million, paling in comparison. Offering the same breaks is not only reasonable, but a good deal for the city of Portland. It would save the city the upwards of six figures it loses every year on keeping the building in operation.  Our civic leaders should explore this option to revitalize a building on the National Register of Historic Places using private investment.

Between the lack of a press box and the outdated seats, restrooms, concourse, plumbing, etc., it is clear the Coliseum needs work.  The juxtaposition between the Moda Center next door and the Coliseum is striking; modernizing the latter would make the Rose Quarter a truly world-class entertainment district.  Based on the ongoing construction of Portland State University’s Viking Pavilion, the political will to update sports venues appears to be in place in Portland. The building cost $52 million to build on a campus with a $73 million endowment, and required nearly $25 million in state bonds.  In comparison, this makes the Coliseum update seem even more like a no-brainer.

It’s entirely possible there are already gears in motion to bring pro hockey to Portland; Seattle had a wildly successful season ticket drive a few weeks ago that suggests there is far more demand in the region than anyone expected.  It’s also entirely possible the Winterhawks will either find a way to get the bill passed, or are bluffing about no longer operating in Portland. We should still consider incentivizing the remodel of the Coliseum given the opportunity.  Pro hockey is finally coming (back) to the American Northwest; hopefully Portland doesn’t get left behind. 

 

(cover photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Why NHL in Seattle is good for hockey in Portland

The recent progress towards the NHL expanding to Seattle has hockey fans in the Pacific Northwest excited.  Many in Portland can’t help but wonder “Why not us?” knowing that there is already an NHL-ready arena in town.  For a myriad of reasons, the NHL has always preferred Seattle to Portland (more per-capita disposable income, proximity to Vancouver, desirable corporate sponsors, etc.).  Even so, here’s why Seattle getting an NHL team is still good for hockey in Portland:

1) Seattle will need an AHL team

After the great AHL migration to California in 2015, almost all west coast teams now enjoy the convenience of having their farm team nearby.  Only Las Vegas and Vancouver don’t have their AHL affiliate within a short drive or quick flight, and neither are expected to remain that way for long.  Seattle will undoubtedly start looking for a location for their farm team, and Portland has a lot to offer in terms of existing infrastructure, potential fanbase, and ease of transportation between the two cities.  This topic will be revisited in a blog post devoted solely to why Portland makes the most sense for Seattle’s affiliate, so stay tuned.

2) Paul Allen might start seriously pursuing an NHL team

When the season ticket drive took place on March 1st, reality blew expectations out of the water.  10,000 fans put their money where their fandom is in the first 12 minutes, and they eventually received 25,000 deposits within two hours before capping it at 33,000 the next day.  The amount that went to corporations, scalpers or brokers is impossible to determine, but considering how impressed hockey pundits were with Vegas receiving 5,000 deposits in 48 hours, the drive was an undeniable success.  

Clearly the demand for pro hockey in the Pacific Northwest is high, but Paul Allen has only occasionally feigned interest in bringing it to Portland, worried it would hurt Trail Blazers’ ticket sales.  This shows how incredibly wrong he was about its potential.  Will this make him rethink pursuing an NHL team in Portland?  He’s been mum so far, but it’s only a matter of time until an interviewer brings it up to him.  Hint hint, local media…

3) Hockey fans in Portland can see an NHL game much more easily than before

Due to the lack of pro hockey in Portland, transplants make up a disproportionate amount of the local fans of the sport.  Those that moved here with a favorite team from home, or were born into a family with deep roots supporting a team will soon be able to visit nearby Seattle to see their favorite team when they play against Seattle, rather than taking a flight elsewhere or crossing the border to British Columbia.

4) Boon to youth hockey in the region

Fans aren’t the only ones in the local hockey community isolated from the game in Portland.  Travel teams for the Junior Winterhawks (i.e. the local youth hockey organization) often have to fly across the country, or drive up to British Columbia for tournaments.  An NHL team in Seattle will drastically elevate the level of competition in Seattle, the state of Washington, and the entire region.  The greater the competition, the more opportunities there are for player development locally.  More teams in Seattle willing to travel to Portland and shorter (and therefore less expensive) commutes to tournaments for local teams is important for youth hockey, which is notorious for prohibitively high costs.  More interest in the sport locally also allows for more access to second-hand gear for potential skaters.  More skaters also allows for more appropriate classifications of ability levels; players start at different ages and learn the game at difference paces.  Some will play year-round from the first time they strap on skates; others will pick it up in their teens as a casual activity in the winter.  Keeping the costs down and making the sport accessible to all income levels and commitment levels is best for everyone.  

5) Expanded media coverage of hockey

The local media in Portland covers both the Seattle Mariners and the Seattle Seahawks since there are no competing teams from Portland.  More hockey coverage will boost the sport’s visibility in the area, and the higher level of play (compared to the Winterhawks) could create fans out of people who gave it a try and weren’t engaged by the pace of the game in the WHL.  Recently, a local TV channel in Seattle started showing Canucks games to “familiarize Seattle with their newest rival”, capitalizing on the recent frenzy of hockey news.  It’s only a matter of time until KGW, Root Sports and/or NBC Sports Northwest are broadcasting Seattle’s games in Portland.

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Hindsight is 20/20, and rather than bemoan what could have been, we need to consider this a step in the right direction.  Will Paul Allen or another potential owner decide to capitalize on the potential for pro hockey in Portland?  The more vocal we are in our desire, the more likely it becomes.  Spread the word, comrades!

After PK80 Invitational, is the Frozen Four next?

Following the success of the PK80 college basketball tournament, Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan stated “there is no question that more of these events will happen again in the future.”  He touted the economic impact, the reputation of teams participating, and national exposure on ESPN as what made it successful.  Based on these criteria, bidding on hosting the Frozen Four for NCAA hockey should be on his radar for another potential future event.

Earlier in 2017, the NCAA announced the host sites for the Frozen Four for 2019-2022.  Going to familiar sites in hockey-saturated towns, many college fans were disappointed it wasn’t located in new, exciting locales.  With recent Frozen Fours in non-traditional hockey cities like Anaheim and Tampa Bay, the loyal fans who consider attending every year hoped for an excuse to experience another venue and community.  With an NHL-ready arena, the necessary infrastructure, and a thriving tourism industry, Portland would be well received by the NCAA and the fans alike.

Host Institution

The bid process requires a host institution, but not necessarily a current college hockey team.  During the last bid cycle, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) bid to host the tournament in St. Louis.  While the bid was not accepted, it wasn’t a first time bid for the city; St. Louis previously hosted the Frozen Four in 2007 and the Frozen Four qualifying regional tournament in 2011, both hosted by conferences rather than schools.  In 2009, meanwhile, the Frozen Four in Washington D.C. was hosted by Navy, who do not sponsor college hockey.  This allows for a number of potential hosts.

When Arizona State University announced they were going to sponsor college hockey, it was implied in their press conference that other PAC-12 schools intend to sponsor NCAA hockey down the road, so the PAC-12 as a conference could be enticed to host the event.  Alternatively, the University of Oregon could use it to generate interest in elevating their own college hockey program to the NCAA level.

Even though the bid doesn’t need to come from a current program or conference, the rink is the closest NHL-sized arena (on US soil) to the two college hockey programs in Alaska.  Interestingly, two executives at Moda Health (the sponsor for the Moda Center) recently endowed a hockey scholarship at University of Alaska, so there could be a potential backing from the arena’s namesake.  Their largest rival, University of Alaska-Anchorage, already hosted a Frozen Four (1999 in Anaheim), so it isn’t as farfetched as one might initially believe.

Logistics

The Frozen Four deliberately does not coincide with Final Four, since the latter is one of the biggest viewing attractions for the NCAA.  It also takes place before the NBA and NHL playoffs begin, allowing for arenas to plan for it years in advance.  Playoffs for the WHL begin in late March, but the Winterhawks already play most of their playoff matches the the VMC rather than Moda Center.  On the flipside, with the Winterhawks already making hockey a regular tenant at the Moda Center, no additional installations at the arena would be necessary.

As is frequently mentioned on this blog, the Moda Center is well served by infrastructure, including six different light rail options.  The large plaza outside of the Moda Center would also be a boon for hosting, with more than enough space for a beer garden, live music, hockey mini-games, and other fan attractions.  

Tourism

Access to outdoor recreation, a world-class restaurant scene, and a reputation for some of the country’s best beer and wine have made Portland a popular tourist destination.  With mild summers that showcase the flora made possible by the rainy winters, Portland’s tourism season hasn’t quite picked up when the Frozen Four rolls around every year.  That said, rainy season is generally from November through February, so the possibility of rain isn’t as high as one might expect.  With less tourists in April than the high season of June through August, the nearly 20k attendees would not have a problem finding a place to stay or making a dining reservation.  Moda Center is also close to a number of areas popular with tourists and locals alike, including North Williams, East Burnside, and the Pearl District.  

Why hasn’t this already happened?

College hockey is very much a regional niche sport, and there isn’t currently a team anywhere near Portland.  That didn’t prevent Alaska-Anchorage from hosting in Anaheim, or both Alabama-Huntsville and University of Wisconsin from hosting the Frozen Four in Tampa on separate occasions over the past decade.  Non-traditional sites require both a host bold enough to take a risk, and the NCAA to step outside of its comfort zone.  The Frozen Four is always well attended, and with the exception of their misguided attempt to host it at a football field in Detroit, the event has a track record of sell outs.  

Nitty Gritty

For the 2015 through 2018 Frozen Four bids, the NCAA staked claim to the first $2.5 million in revenue, then allows the host to remunerate operating costs which is estimated between $350k-$500k.  After that, the remaining revenue is split 80/20.  Their description doesn’t say who gets which portion, but it’s safe to assume the NCAA favors itself in that equation, while also compensating the host school.

Other Benefits

Beyond the economic impact of tourism, the event’s corporate sponsors often donate skates and other equipment, an immediate boost to the youth hockey community.  Also, with both Nike and Adidas having branches of their brands involved in the sport, it will allow them to showcase their products to the world from the vicinity of their headquarters.  Portland’s hockey community has surprisingly little engagement with these local brands, so this event could bolster their relationship.

What Needs To Happen?

Bidding for the next round of Frozen Fours won’t take place for a few more years; the sites were selected through 2022.  Prosper Portland, the Rose Quarter, and any other boards or commissions that would be involved in the bid have plenty of time to collaborate and prepare a bid.  The question is more the willingness.  With PK80’s success, however, we should strike while the iron is hot.