In just 24 hours, the make-up of the Central Hockey League changed drastically, but the league's immediate future appears to remain secure.
Both the Denver Cutthroats and Arizona Sundogs ceased operations Wednesday, with financial issues at the forefront as the Sundogs cited "slower than expected off-season revenue" in a release on the team's website. No such statement was issued by the Cutthroats, but a statement released by the league stated that the team would look to secure additional investors.
The two teams joined the first-year expansion St. Charles Chill — who ceased operations on May 2 — as the CHL lost three teams in the offseason.
Both Arizona and Denver expressed their desire to return for the 2015-16 season, but the departures leave the CHL with just seven teams and the season scheduled to start Oct. 24.
While no league officials could be reached for comment, the CHL has maintained that there will be a 2014-15 season and that the current schedule is being revised. Quad-City Mallards team president Bob McNamara said he is in talks with other franchises about having an exhibition game and that he expects to receive a draft of the revised schedule today and for a completed schedule to be released early next week.
McNamara also expressed his confidence in the security of the Central Hockey League's future.
"Despite the fact we’ve seen some contraction over the last couple of days, we feel strongly about being a member of the Central Hockey League and we’re preparing for this season with the CHL," he said.
With the seven remaining teams averaging more than 4,300 fans last season, McNamara's confidence appears warranted. However, the security of the league can still be called into question.
When the CHL started back up in 1992, it was a six-team league but grew into what seemed to be a stable 17-team league in 2003. It enjoyed some sustained success, but after the 2010-11 season, the numbers fell drastically, leaving the league now with just one more team than it had 22 years ago.
Part of the problem was due to expanding to an overly sports-saturated market. Denver, for example, has four major league franchises, including an NHL team, the Colorado Avalanche. In their two years in the league, the Cutthroats averaged 2,384 fans per game, worst among teams in that span and only averaged 1,787 fans per game in a season that saw them finish second in the league and make it to the Ray Miron Presidents' Cup finals before losing to Allen Americans in five games.
"There’s so many things happening in Denver, they get no media coverage because there’s so many professional sports," Mallards coach Terry Ruskowski said. "Nobody knew who the Cutthroats were because of that situation. They were very successful and they never got the recognition they deserved."
Arizona also drew poorly, just more than 2,500 over the last five years, but Ruskowski suspects the cost of travel — Denver and Wichita were the only two teams within 1,000 miles of Prescott Valley — may have been too much.
Whatever the reasons, the reality is that two teams have folded, meaning that players and staff suddenly find themselves without jobs. While players are already being signed — reigning MVP Garett Bembridge signed with Missouri hours after Denver folded — the front office staff may not be so lucky.
"What are the coaches ... general managers ... people in the front office going to do?" Ruskowski said. "It’s too late to find another job. It’s bad, bad timing. If you're going to do this, at least do it early enough for people to find jobs."
The question remains about the future of the league beyond the 2014-15 season. The CHL had designs to expand by two teams before the start of this season but now appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Two weeks ago, player agent Darryl Wolski tweeted that the league was in talks to merge with the ECHL, a report that has yet to be confirmed by either league.
Whatever the future, McNamara is confident the Mallards, who were on the brink of collapse just two years ago before he and new owner Jordan Melville stabilized the franchise, will remain a staple in the Quad-Cities sports scene.
"It’s no secret over the next couple of years the landscape of minor league hockey may change," McNamara said. "We feel we’re well positioned to be part of the framework of minor league hockey over the next several years and into the foreseeable future."