Professional hockey will return to the i wireless Center in Moline for a 16th season after Club 9 Sports of Chicago purchased the Quad-City Mallards on Friday afternoon.
The team will return to the Class AA Central Hockey League, where it debuted a year ago under the direction of first-year owner Eric Karls before the Canadian millionaire abruptly shut down the team a month ago.
Club 9, a multi-faceted sports marketing and consulting and management firm, completed the negotiated buyout from Karls late Friday afternoon.
“We literally just signed the documents this evening,” Jon Pritchett, the group’s CEO and operating partner, said Friday night. “It’s an asset-purchase agreement.”
Club 9 becomes the fourth owner of a Quad-City pro hockey team in the past four years. Karls succeeded Chris Lencheski, who was recruited to resurrect the Double-A Mallards after Dennis Voss and his Quad-Cities Sports Ventures Group folded the American Hockey League Flames after two costly seasons.
Despite the turnover, Pritchett believes hockey in the Quad-Cities can work.
“There’s a long history of success and a good fan base,” Pritchett said of the market. “It’s not going to be a short-term fix. It’s going to take some consistency. We understand the numbers and economics. Sometimes it’s an expensive start. We know that it’s going to be more than a three- or four-year process.”
Howard Cornfield, who built the Mallards into a Double-A juggernaut on the ice and at the gate from 1997 through 2001, said he hopes Club 9 can make the team a success.
Attendance averages topped 7,600 for five straight years but dropped annually from an all-time high of 8,646 in 1998 to a record low of 2,812 last year.
But Club 9, which was a contender to assume Mallards ownership last year before being outbid by Karls, comes in with sports experience and eyes wide open, Cornfield said.
“They have experience in hockey and they should know what they are getting into,” he said. “They know it has to be run correctly here and they are good businessmen. None of the challenges of this market should be a surprise to them.
“I think Eric came in with good intentions, but he came in as a fan,” Cornfield said of Karls.
The new group already has been involved with player personnel decisions and is believed to have submitted a list of protected players from last year’s Mallards roster ahead of Friday’s start to the league’s annual summer meetings.
“Our plan is to, as soon as we can get mobilized, get staff back in place and get a coach hired,” Pritchett said. “We plan on coming in next week and really get our feet on the ground and meet with people. You can’t run a minor-league business or any business remotely. You have to be involved. We want to be there as much as we can and we are going to know what’s going on on a daily basis.”
The new owners and coach are expected to introduced at a midweek news conference. Frank Anzalone, who has coached the Mallards for the past two seasons, is among a handful of candidates, Pritchett said.
“We haven’t made a final decision on a coach,” Pritchett said. “We are talking with some coaches and are expecting to make a decision soon as early as end of the weekend or the first part of next week.”
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The Chicago-based Club 9 group includes former NBA general manager Carl Scheer, a familiar name in Quad-City minor-league sports circles, among its partners.
The organization formerly owned the ECHL Greenville Grrrowl. It has helped develop arenas in five communities, and its partners have held positions with 11 major and minor league teams.
Scott Mullen, executive director of the i wireless Center, said Club 9 will assume the final three years of an existing lease with the Moline arena.
“Anything can happen in minor league sports, but I don’t think anybody would be jumping in and spending this kind of money if the plan wasn’t to do it for long term and to turn things around,” Mullen said. “How effective they are while they’re here will determine how long they stay.”
Club 9 Sports is a consortium consisting of Prometheus Capital Partners LLC, a Chicago investment bank headed by managing partner John Prutch; Tobacco Road Capitalists, a management and consulting firm; and ScheerSports Inc., a sports management and marketing firm founded in 1991 by Scheer.
Scheer, who is listed as a senior adviser, has an extensive sports background that has crossed paths with the Quad-City minor league sports scene on a couple of levels.
The former general manager of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Charlotte Bobcats, also was an early front-office force in the American Basketball Association.
Scheer was commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association when the Quad-City Thunder joined the league in February of 1987, but left before they tipped off in November of that year.
He also was a founding partner of the arenafootball2 Carolina Rhinos when the Quad-City Steamwheelers were winning the league’s first two titles in 2000 and 2001.