Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Duluth Clydesdales Franchise Revoked

Sad news for the local hockey community, as the Duluth Clydesdales have had their franchise revoked.

The third year franchise has been playing in the Superior International Junior Hockey League, a conglomerate based in Canada but with three Minnesota teams. The other Minnesota franchises are based on the Iron Range and in Cloquet.

Here is the league's official statement, circulated to media Tuesday night.

The Superior International Junior Hockey League announced Tuesday that the SIJHL board of governors has voted to revoke the Duluth Clydesdales member franchise, effective immediately.

The SIJHL Board made the decision based on a number of determining factors, including Duluth not being able to ice enough players on a consistent basis for the remainder of the season.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that this step has been taken, but we must take into account that with the Clydesdales having postponed or forfeited a number of games already and an uncertainty of whether they would be able to have enough players on a consistent basis moving forward, it is in the best interest of player safety and the league as a whole that this decision has been made,” stated SIJHL President/Commissioner Ron Whitehead.

“Duluth is a great hockey market and the success of our two other Minnesota-based organizations this season bodes well for the league,” added Whitehead. “We certainly look forward to working with the people in Duluth in an effort to reestablish a franchise there in the not too distant future.”

Despite this decision the league is looking forward to the remainder of the regular season and upcoming playoffs.

“Certainly we’ve had a couple setbacks this season, but we’ve also had some major positives as well,” offered Whitehead.

“The Minnesota Wilderness is currently the No. 2 team overall in the entire CJHL; the Minnesota Iron Rangers have done a great job getting things turned around there while Dryden, Fort Frances and Thunder Bay remain ultra-competitive with each member group having solid ownership, management and coaching staffs in place.”

An announcement on the remaining games in the regular season that were to have involved Duluth will be made once that is finalized.

Clydesdales owner and GM Butch Williams sent a statement to me Tuesday night.

We just received official confirmation of the league's decision to revoke our franchise. Needless to say we're disappointed the league made the decision they did, as we had a dedicated group of players and staff ready to finish out the final month and a half. We're still investigating different paths, first and foremost is an appeal of the decision. Another option we're seriously considering is playing an independent schedule the rest of the season, possibly involving a mix of nearby junior teams from the MnJHL, NA3HL, NAHL, and NOJHL. At any rate, we do not intend for the Clydesdales to have played their final game. Over the spring and summer, we'll be seriously considering all options for the Clydesdales to compete within in 2013-14 and the foreseeable future.

It's a franchise that hasn't done terribly well on the ice, and its had issues keeping players around. Unlike at least some other SIJHL teams, the Clydesdales charge players a fee -- around $5,000, I've heard -- to be on the team (the amount is pro-rated based on how many games are played). It doesn't take a genius to figure out that someone would really have to want to be on this team to play that amount, if it's indeed true that there are other teams that don't charge.

Beyond that, the Clydesdales have found it isn't terribly easy to draw fans to junior hockey games in this market. Just ask the Minnesota Wilderness, one of the top teams in the Canadian junior system, but one that isn't exactly ripping the turnstiles out of the floor at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet.

(A quick search through their schedule shows the Wilderness struggle to get even 500 fans to a home game, despite a stellar record and ranking among the top teams in Canada-based leagues.)

There are a multitude of issues here, issues that go beyond whether a franchise is well-run, successful on the ice, or doing well in terms of sponsors. Do well there, and the other stuff doesn't matter as much.

For starters, look at the market. Want to draw hockey fans to junior hockey games in the Duluth area? Well, you want the same dollars that people are already shelling out to see UMD, UWS, St. Scholastica, any of the area high school teams, or to go to watch their kids, their friends' kids, or their kids' kids playing youth hockey.

Another problem: What night of the week are you going to play? Youth hockey teams play just about any day they can get ice; high school games are typically Tuesdays, Thursdays, and/or Saturdays; college teams play on Friday and Saturday.

You're going to have to compete against someone. Who's it going to be? They all have drawbacks. UMD plays at a level you can never approach. UWS and St. Scholastica would be good destinations for most of your players (and those programs aren't drawing terribly well these days, so folks aren't paying in large numbers to see current Division III players, much less future Division III players). High school hockey is steeped in tradition in Minnesota communities, and asking people to pick your product over that is probably poisonous.

It's a tough sell on the already-tight dollars of the hockey zealots in this area, many of whom already spend four to five nights a week at a rink watching games. Oh, and a bunch of them play hockey, too.

The argument I used to get on the radio was that junior hockey works in places like Omaha that aren't known for hockey.

Yeah, it does. Works in Sioux Falls and Sioux City, too, even though those aren't hockey-mad areas.

But that's part of why it works. They have population to draw from, and they don't need to bring in 6,000 people a night to succeed. Those 6,000 people aren't going to see that level of hockey anywhere else, so it's a sellable commodity.

In Duluth, Cloquet, or the Iron Range, the same can't be said. The SIJHL is not a league known for producing gobs of Division I players, the way the USHL does in the States. It's not as high a level of hockey, and it's taking place in an area where the people who like to spend money on hockey have already spent it.

It also helps the folks in Omaha or Siouxland that they don't need local players to field a successful operation. People are more territorial here. They aren't as tolerant of a team filled with outsiders trying to take their dollar. Just ask UMD. When that program wasn't successful and didn't have local players, attendance wasn't as good.

Oh, and as much as I hate to say it, if you're going to try to make a junior hockey franchise work here, you probably have to have beer available at home games. No one else can around here, and it might make the product unique in a different way. It makes a difference in other cities, for sure.

If someone wants to try to make a junior team work in this area, it has to be heavily-marketed. It has to have plenty of local flavor, and it probably has to be in a league where the players are Division I caliber.

Until then, it is destined -- unfortunately -- to struggle or -- worse yet -- completely fail.

1 comment:

midway tailgater said...

A good summary Bruce and the reasons you listed for why it won't work in the Twin Ports are also the reasons I have my doubts about the NAHL coming to Richfield next season. One only has to go back to 2000 and see how the Twin Cities Vulcans had to relocate to Neb.

Is this league under the jurisdiction of USA Hockey? If it is, I have a tough time fathoming teams not charging their players to play if they are indeed a Tier 3 team. If they don't, they're basically paying them to play. If it isn't then yes, tough to convince the players to pony up $5000 to play Tier 3 quality hockey.