Though they never faced off head-to-head, the Worcester Sharks and Oklahoma City Barons are going to be linked in this unfortunate incident. As there are many changes in the AHL, mostly with teams moving out west– there are a lot of moving parts for the markets that the AHL is abandoning. Granted, for the majority of the markets, they will go to the ECHL; but for Worcester and Oklahoma City, they will be silent for all intents and purposes for at least next season. Neither team will be replaced by an ECHL team for next season (as far as we know) and for two cities that have an extensive minor league history– though there are pauses in when teams came in went.
For Worcester, the Sharks took over in the 2006-07 season; moving from Cleveland, a full year after the IceCats moved to Peoria to become the AHL Rivermen. While the IceCats saw declining attendance, which may have led to their demise, the Sharks were a bit more consistent; even though they never averaged above 4,602 in a season to the IceCats peak of 6,800 in 1996-97. It’s very possible that it was a middling attendance due to the Sharks missing the playoffs five of the nine seasons they were in Worcester. That said, they had a lot of prospects come through the DCU Center doors and move up to the NHL like Thomas Greiss, Tommy Wingels, Jonathan Cheechoo, Justin Braun, and Logan Couture to name a few who spend a decent amount of time in Worcester and made it as regulars in the NHL. With a bulk of the teams in the Northeast still, the Worcester area seems like a solid destination, even though it could be trouble in getting a proper deal to run out of the DCU Center. The questions for that is whether or not there will be some kind of connections to the people. For the IceCats, the Blues were at least somewhat closer for fans to track once they left– the Sharks were across the country and three time zones away. Not saying that was why the fans couldn’t relate or connect– because the team wasn’t the best at times; but it could be a reason why many didn’t pay mind to the newest tenant in the Worcester hockey landscape.
In Oklahoma City, it’s a market that the AHL was unfamiliar with, but with the success of the Oklahoma City Blazers in the Central Hockey League, it was a tough act to follow for the Barons; who, like the Sharks, came in a year after the previous team had left/disbanded. While the heyday may have been over for the Blazers, the legacy of two CHL championships in the modern incarnation of the league is something that fans would remember, not to mention the fans turning out in droves each year– only the first and last seasons dipping under the 8,000 per game average mark and two seasons of over 10,000 per home game. Whether it be just the disgust of not being able to work something out with the Blazers or just many more options in entertainment with the NBA’s Thunder coming into town and other thing popping up in OKC; the Barons couldn’t connect that well with the general public; peaking at only 4,155 in their first year in OKC for average attendance. Even in the lockout shortened NHL season which saw Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins suiting up for the team. Despite having their own stalwarts of Brad Hunt, Anton Lander, and Oscar Klefbom— there didn’t seem to be much connection outside of the die-hards for the Barons.
But would you consider these markets any kind of failure in terms of hockey?? For Worcester– most likely you can chalk up the fans not caring to the lack of winning and lack of action the team was able to provide. When you only make the playoff four times in the nine year term and only once in the last five years– that’s something that won’t make people run to the box office. In OKC, the bitterness of the Blazers leaving could be a thing that left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans there. While I don’t know the demographics and I’m sure someone much closer to the situation than I may attest, it just seemed that with the inclusion of a pro sports team in the NBA and the heritage of the Blazers falling by the wayside; the people didn’t seem as apt to want to go to hockey games over anything else out there.
That all said, these areas could be very viable markets in the future; with OKC being the front runner. With the ECHL being in the central part of the US, it could very well make them a possibility for expansion next season if something doesn’t develop at the 11th hour (which is something that is past from my sources). The Prodigal LLC group seems very eager to have hockey in OKC and under the right conditions could make it successful. There’s a solid fan base there and getting back into a league with instilled geographical rivalries like the Wichita Thunder and Tulsa Oilers; it wouldn’t make sense to leave that market dormant for too long.
Worcester could be more of a harder sell. While they are in prime area for travel in the AHL corridor; many of the teams that want that close distance already have it, especially with all the NHL squad in close distance already having established AHL teams. The ECHL could be a destination,
but Elmira and Reading would be the closest teams– which would be a big haul regardless (Thanks to Shane for pointing out that Manchester and Adirondack would be in the ECHL and closer than Elmira).Not only that, but finding ownership to put a team back in the area could cause some concern as well.
Overall, you have to hate it for the dedicated fan bases in each area. While sports are a business, the people do suffer when things move away; even if for a year. In both these markets, it was only a year buffer; but it seemed like they couldn’t recover all that well– circumstances being a player in that equation, too. That said, with the right management groups and the right location, these markets could thrive whether it be in the same league or in the ECHL– which still has two expansion sites available before they cap out at their 30-team limit.