OKLAHOMA CITY - Pro hockey will return to Oklahoma City starting next season - and at a higher level.
Representatives of Prodigal Hockey LLC and the NHL's Edmonton Oilers said Tuesday that Oklahoma City will be the home of the Oilers' American Hockey League franchise, which has been dormant since 2005. The Oilers will let their affiliation agreement with an AHL team in Springfield, Mass., expire at the end of this season.
The AHL unanimously approved the Oilers' plan on Monday.
The announcement culminated more than a year and a half of negotiations between Prodigal Hockey and the Oilers. The new team, which will play at the downtown Cox Convention Center, does not yet have a nickname. Prodigal Hockey president Bob Funk Jr. said the team's fans will have input in that area.
"We want to maintain our ties to Oklahoma City in terms of the hockey history," Funk said. "This has been a great hockey town since the 1960s and we want to maintain that connection, but at the same time, we want to separate ourselves as a new brand of hockey."
Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini said the Oilers wanted their top minor-league affiliate to be located closer than the East Coast "for the operational part of it" and that they've always thought Oklahoma City might be a good location.
"We were looking for a place with rich hockey history and success," Tambellini said.
Oklahoma City hasn't had an upper-level minor league hockey franchise since the Oklahoma City Stars folded in 1982. The Oklahoma City Blazers brought pro hockey back to the state's largest city in 1992, playing in the Central Hockey League.
The Blazers consistently ranked in the top 10 in attendance among North American minor league hockey franchises, leading the CHL in that category every year. Last season, the Blazers averaged 6,508 fans for 32 home games, but they folded last summer, citing "substantial losses" during the recession.
Funk is also president of Express Sports, which operated the Blazers.
"People have always recognized that we had great attendance and a had a great hockey following," Funk said.
Funk said it's up to the Oilers what role, if any, popular Blazers coach Doug Sauter might have with the AHL team. Tambellini praised Sauter as "a great hockey man" and said he's looking forward to speaking with Sauter about his interest in working with the new team.
The lease agreement at the convention centre includes a five-year lease and two, three-year renewal terms at the option of Prodigal Hockey. The team would play 40 regular-season home games.
As part of the lease agreement, the city will pay for about US$4.5 million in improvements to the convention centre, which opened in 1972. That money will pay for an ice plant and mechanical room, and other upgrades.