CORALVILLE – In a year filled with bad tricks, two new treats have come our way.
One is Xtream Arena, a 5,100-seat arena here in the Iowa River Landing mixed-use development just off I-80. The arena has been shown off to the public for the first time this week. It is nice. OK, that’s an understatement. It’s a beauty.
People will want to come to events here for a while to see the arena if nothing else. A year from now, they’ll come for the purpose of seeing professional hockey, and that’s the other treat.
The ECHL – formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League before it went all the way to the West Coast – is coming to town. Next September, the Iowa City/Coralville/Corridor/Eastern Iowa Somethings will have a snappier name than that, and will be part of an established organization connected with the National Hockey League.
Fly-by-night, this league isn’t. All but one of the ECHL’s 26 teams – ranging from Newfoundland to south Florida to Texas to Idaho – had NHL affiliations last season. The Coralville club will have one, too. That will be announced in time, but signs point to it being with the Minnesota Wild.
This is pro hockey, players who have advanced from junior and college hockey, who have been drafted by NHL teams and assigned to the ECHL to learn how to play the professional game. Many go back and forth between the “Class AA” ECHL and “Class AAA” American Hockey League, where Minnesota’s Iowa Wild affiliate in Des Moines resides.
According to the ECHL, 678 players have gone from its league to the NHL. In the NHL’s 2020 playoffs, 91 of the players had spent time in the ECHL including 14 who were there at some point in the 2019-20 season.
Pro minor-league teams and leagues have reputations for blowing in and out of towns quickly, but the ECHL is 32 years old, and 18 of its franchises have been in operation for over 20 years.
The league’s markets vary from major-league metro areas without NHL teams like Indianapolis and Atlanta, and smaller markets who are among league attendance leaders like Fort Wayne, Ind. (8,090 fans per game) and Toledo, Ohio (7,723).
Ten teams averaged over 4,778 fans per game last season. I was at a lively ECHL game in Orlando last Dec. 26 that had 8,384. That’s the Orlando Solar Bears, by the way. You need a catchy name. Just ask the Toledo Walleye and Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
The chairman of Deacon Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the Coralville franchise, knows that. His Newfoundland Growlers of St. John’s, Newfoundland won the ECHL championship two years ago in its first season as a league member.
“I think the citizens will be very encouraged by the brand of hockey,” Dean MacDonald said Thursday at the news conference introducing the franchise to Iowa City/Coralville.
MacDonald is a businessman, not a hobbyist. He said the administrative end of the franchise will employ 10 to 15 people, and the hockey operations end of it will be about the same size.
“This is kind of a sports-crazy area,” MacDonald said, “which is kind of exciting and fun. It just has a real cool vibe about it. It’s a very youthful city.”
The marketing must start immediately. A year isn’t much time to launch a sports franchise. It needs an identity and a presence, pronto. It needs to get pushed into the consciousness of a university community as well as neighboring areas like Cedar Rapids, where the junior hockey RoughRiders are entrenched.
Obviously, it would help if COVID-19 were gone with the wind a year from now. If so, a new, fun team in a new, sleek building in a new, flourishing complex with dining and drinking options should have an even better chance of success than a two-man advantage on a power play.
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Hockey Night in Coralville. Another reason to wish the calendar would hurry up and flip from 2020 to 2021.
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