Pro hockey returns to OKC
OKLAHOMA CITY — With Tuesday's announcement of a new American Hockey League franchise, the OU hockey team stopped being Oklahoma City's top puckmasters.
Which is just fine by the Sooners' general manager, Larry Donovan.
"I think it will be a great thing," said Donovan, who is also an assistant coach for the OU team. "Because there will be more hockey in the paper with the the city following [the AHL team]. It will create more of a hockey atmosphere. People will want to know what else is going on hockey-wise, and I think it will be good for us."
In fact, Donovan said the seven months between the closing of the Oklahoma City Blazers and Tuesday's announcement has hurt general interest in hockey in central Oklahoma.
"With the Blazers gone, it's not in the paper as much and people kind of forget about it. I think the more you have, the better off it is for everybody."
Donovan's Sooners still practice and play home games at Blazers Ice Centre in Oklahoma City, which is one of the most visible remnants of the former Central Hockey League franchise.
The Blazers sparked an interest in junior hockey when the franchise, along with the CHL, relaunched in 1992, Donovan said. That interest allowed children to choose hockey as an athletic and competitive outlet.
One of those children is Donovan's son, Matt, who now a freshman playing NCAA Division 1 hockey at Denver University [OU plays in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, a league comprised of non-varsity squads]. Before joining the Pioneers in Denver, however, the NHL's New York Islanders drafted Matt in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft, and still hold his professional rights.
Which means, when Matt is finished with his college career, there's a good chance the Islanders will assign him to their own AHL franchise, which may come through for a night against Oklahoma City's as-yet-unnamed AHL team.
"That would be pretty cool," Larry said. "I'd be a pretty proud dad if that happened."
That's one of the advantages of having a direct link to an NHL team, said Rick Olczyk, assistant general manager of the Edmonton Oilers.
He equated an AHL franchise to Triple-A baseball, where players are one step away from the top club in the system, and move up and down on a regular basis.
"These are your future stars that people are going to be seeing today," he said.
Those future stars are currently in Springfield, Mass., playing for the AHL's Falcons. The Oilers' farm agreement with the team in Springfield ends when the current AHL season wraps up in June.
Edmonton held the rights to restart a dormant AHL franchise, and chose to do so with an Oklahoma City ownership group called Prodigal Hockey, owned by Bob Funk Jr.
The Falcons will likely remain an active AHL franchise with a different farm connection, said Josh Evans, director of communications for Prodigal. He said the AHL and NHL each would like to have 30 teams in each league, and the new Oklahoma City team is the 30th AHL franchise.
Prodigal will host a contest to suggest names for the new team, but the winning moniker may not end up on the sweaters of the players. Funk said the management teams at Prodigal and Edmonton will consider that winner, along with other names.
And Oklahoma City hockey fans wanting to keep the Blazers' nickname for the new squad may be disappointed.
"Oklahoma [City has] been a great hockey town since the '60s, and we want to maintain that connection," Funk said. "But, at the same time, we want to separate ourselves as the new brand of hockey within Oklahoma City."
Season tickets for the new AHL team are on sale now. Former Blazers' season ticket holders will have a priority position to buy tickets until March 12 at the same price they paid for their 2008-2009 Blazers tickets. Information is available by calling 232-4625 or by visiting prodigalhockey.com
The OU hockey team will be in Edmond to play Central Oklahoma 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19. The teams will move to Blazers Ice Centre Feb. 20 for a 6:30 p.m. rematch.
Sources: prodigalhockey.com, ouhockey.com