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Ben Smith

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Komets
vs. Bloomington
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Radio: 1380 AM

Muskegon’s departure a blow to IHL

I’ll take Michael Franke at his word today, and his word today is: It is what it is.

You say a franchise with half a century of weight behind it is pulling the ripcord on professional hockey?

“I feel badly for the pro hockey fans of Muskegon,” says Franke, Komets president and head of the IHL’s Board of Governors. “But it is what is.”

The Muskegon Lumberjacks are now the Muskegon We’re-Outta-Heres, and how you spin that positive is beyond me. The best team in the IHL right now, and its third-best draw, is leaving the IHL. A city with a 50-year tradition of pro hockey no longer sees pro hockey as sustainable, at least as it exists in the IHL.

That’s two of the most venerable hockey markets in the Midwest taking a powder on the IHL in two seasons. Kalamazoo jumped to the ECHL at the end of last year, and the Lumberjacks announced Monday they’ll be joining the junior USHL at the end of this season.

This is no way to build stability, assuming that’s possible at this level. And it’s no consolation to say that, well, you know, things are tough all over. Even if they are.

“It’s not exactly what you want or whatever, but it’s part of the economy now,” Franke said Monday night from the league meetings in Detroit. “We’re in the middle of the poorest economic conditions in the Midwest. Michigan is a very, very tough state right now.”

And, yes, 50 years of tradition will lose every time when you’re laid off and the choice comes down to hockey or rent. Everyone gets that. Everyone gets, too, that shaky financials have always been as much a part of the IHL as bus rides – going back to the 1950s, when Ken Ullyot dug deep to keep the league afloat just as the Frankes are rumored to be doing now.

“The bottom line is, there’s a lot of change going on in this business right now,” Franke says. “In most all minor league sports outside of minor league baseball, it’s very, very difficult. I mean, I can pretty much on two hands tell you the franchises that are doing well. It just ain’t happening.”

Problem is, “ain’t happening” is happening bigger in the IHL. The ECHL, to which Kalamazoo jumped, has 20 teams, and 13 are drawing more than 4,000 fans per game. The triple-A American Hockey League, meanwhile, has the best-drawing team in minor league hockey (Hershey, Pa., at 9,137 per game) and an average attendance of 4,794.

The IHL? Among its seven teams, only the Komets (8,080) are averaging more than 4,000 fans. Only two teams are averaging more than 3,000. Three of the seven are drawing fewer than 2,000.

And, sure, you’re talking bigger markets for the most part in the ECHL and AHL, so it’s not really a fair comparison. But the point is, in a league struggling to draw, losing a 50-year-old franchise that draws 2,835 per is a major, and perhaps crippling, blow.

Franke, of course, doesn’t see it that way, and good for him. He says it’s a shame, but the league will press on. In fact, he says, league officials this week entertained several presentations from prospective new franchises.

Hopefully the ownership groups for those prospective franchises are more flush than in Dayton, where the original owners weren’t viable. Otherwise, the cycle will repeat itself in a league more vulnerable than most because of its demographics and yet-to-evolve structure as a true developmental league.

“We’ve known this day was dawning for probably the last two years,” Franke said Monday. “It’s unfortunate, but just like anything, you’ve got to move on.”

Assuming you can.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by e-mail at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the “Ben Smith” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net.

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