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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time goes so slowly when you're a hockey team with a 1-goal lead in the last minute of a game.
But when you're starting up a professional hockey franchise and it's only about six months until your maiden season begins, the days and weeks fly by.
Coralville's new team in the ECHL hits the Xtream Arena ice in October. It's without a name, logo, team colors, coach, players — details like that. Those things will come quickly this spring. What the franchise did to take a big step forward this week was hire a team president who is the definition of been there/done that.
If you were to enter a market that has never had pro hockey before, who better to put in charge than someone who not only has successfully gotten a previous ECHL franchise off the ground, but who was commissioner of the league for 16 years?
That's Brian McKenna, who has been brought in as team president to take care of the business end of things for Iowa ECHL and help introduced the league to this region.
McKenna was Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL's Ottawa Senators and was general manager and executive vice president of an American Hockey League team, but made the ECHL his home in 1999 when he was president/GM of the Trenton (N.J.) Titans. From there, he was the ECHL's commissioner from 2002 to 2018.
'I visited Coralville three, 3 1/2 years ago,' McKenna said. 'I got a really good feeling about the people and the vibe here, the vision for Iowa River Landing, the arena. It just looked like a fun opportunity, very appealing.'
The league has been stable, to say the least. It began in 1988 as a regional league, and now has 25 teams, with Coralville and two others entering this fall. The league is stretched from Utah to Florida to Newfoundland. Fifty-six players on opening-day NHL rosters this season had played in the ECHL.
It is considered the Class AA league of the NHL. Its teams have NHL affiliations. Coralville is an affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, as is the Iowa Wild of the AHL in Des Moines.
Franchises are in major markets like Orlando, Atlanta and Indianapolis, and in smaller ones like Kalamazoo, Rapid City and Boise. Fourteen franchises have played through the pandemic, while 11 suspended operations for one season.
Asked for a nutshell description of the ECHL to the unaware public, McKenna said 'Fun.'
'Fast, physical, great entertainment. We're promoting family entertainment, family fun.'
That starts with a new 5,000-seat arena in the Iowa River Landing District that is sleek.
'It's one level with all 5,000 seats on top of the action,' McKenna said. 'The surrounding area is great for the pregame and postgame. It presents a great opportunity for us to present ECHL hockey.'
Launching anything during the pandemic is tough, but ECHL Iowa may ultimately get a bounce from it because people will be enthused about going to live sports again as it becomes safer. Thursday, the Iowa football team announced it would hold two practices open to the public at Kinnick Stadium, and the guess here is that they'll be better attended than they would have been normally.
Speaking of the Hawkeyes, it's going to be unusual to see a sports business in Coralville-Iowa City that isn't under the UI's umbrella.
'We see ourselves as complementary, a little sister to University of Iowa sports,' McKenna said. 'We want to carve a niche and be a fun outing for people, and market it that way.'
You've got to have a name, you've got to have a look, you've got to have an identity. It's coming, it's coming.
'Hopefully in the next 30 to 40 days,' said McKenna. 'We'll roll out the name and brand and introduce that to the area.
'It's always exciting to me, bringing a new entertainment product to a new market, something from scratch.'
October is coming.
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