The annual offseason uncertainty surrounding the minor-league hockey landscape has gotten a head start this year.
Change — both confirmed and rumored — is in the air as the Central Hockey League and the ECHL launch their conference championship playoff rounds this week.
CHL owners convened in Dallas for at least the second time in a month Monday and Tuesday to discuss a 2011-2012 season that so far is certain only to be missing an Odessa franchise headed for the United States Hockey League.
Uncertain, however, are the futures of as many as a half-dozen of the remaining 17 teams, perhaps including two of what had been the league’s most stable outfits in Loveland, Colo., and Fort Wayne, Ind.
Each has been ticketed for the ECHL on rumor-mongering message boards.
And while ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna on Thursday said the league is close to finalizing a 19- or 20-team schedule that will bring aboard an expansion team in Chicago and may or may not include a team returning to or replacing to Victoria, B.C., he twice stopped short of categorically refuting the potential addition of either Colorado or Fort Wayne.
“We are not party to anything that might be going on in other leagues right now and we want to keep the ECHL clear of any of that sort of speculation at all,” he said.
Asked if that meant the league would not be absorbing the Colorado Eagles in 2011-2012, he said: “I’m not making comments about any teams in any leagues other than the ECHL at all.”
Dennis Hextall, who remains under contract as commissioner of the five International Hockey League franchises that entered into a two-year partnership with the CHL a year ago, said he has heard Colorado already might be included on a tentative ECHL schedule for next year.
“I heard that, but I can’t verify it,” he said.
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Jim Jensen, the Eagles’ original marketing director and a business partner of the team’s majority owner, said he has heard “not a peep” of such a move, however.
A Colorado exit could force the Rapid City Rush, who will play the Eagles in a best-of-7 Turner Conference final starting today, to evaluate its future in a league where its closest opponent would be 715 miles away.
In flux as well might be the two Berry Conference finalists in Bossier-Shreveport, La., and Allen, Texas. Each could be part of rumored mass defection of the CHL’s southern sector.
Meanwhile, the 2011-2012 CHL status of the Bloomington PrairieThunder, whose current ownership was served an IRS tax lien last month, also is up in the air.
CHL commissioner Duane Lewis, Fort Wayne Komets president Michael Franke, Quad-City Mallards owner Eric Karls and Mallards CEO Bill Davidson did not respond to Thursday voicemail messages.
Mallards president Chris Presson said the Q-C crew will be part of the CHL next season.
“I would expect things will be status quo,” he said. “There may be some expansion, there may be some contraction, but Quad-Cities will be here regardless.”
Hextall said expansion groups he met with last winter in Flint, Mich., and St. Charles, Mo., won’t be joining the CHL before the 2012-2013 season and predicted answers regarding the future shape of the CHL won’t come anytime soon.
“I think until the playoffs are over, you’re not going to hear much,” he said.