It’s almost as though it’s out of Slap Shot, a last-place minor pro team in the northeast plays out the season amid news the team will be sold to new owners in the sunbelt. Except there are no Hanson Brothers and no Federal League championship for one of the most iconic cities in the history of the American League. It could, however, face the same fate as the fictional Charlestown Chiefs.
It’s hard to believe that Springfield, Mass., could be without an AHL presence for the first time in 60 years and that one of the charter members of the league could be out of the loop starting next season. But that has come one step closer to reality with the news that the Arizona Coyotes, a team that couldn’t even support itself a couple of years ago, now ‘hones’ the Springfield Falcons, with plans to move the team to Tucson as early as 2016-17. The Coyotes announced Tuesday they had signed a purchase agreement with Falcons owner Charlie Pompea and hope to move into the Tucson Convention Center next season.
It’s not a travesty, but it is sad news, indeed. With the exception of a couple of years in the early 1950s and two years during World War II, there has been an AHL team in Springfield since before there was an AHL. The Springfield Indians began playing in 1926 in the Can-Am Hockey League, which was the precursor to the AHL. The city has been home to the Calder Cup seven times, most recently winning back-to-back titles in 1990 and ’91. It has produced hundreds of players who have gone on to play in the NHL, including Hall of Fame goalies Chuck Rayner and Billy Smith and defenseman Earl Seibert. The Springfield Indians were owned and coached for years by the notorious Eddie Shore and are as big a part of the AHL fabric as the Calder Cup itself. How synonymous is Springfield with the AHL? Well consider that the league’s head offices are located there.
Face it, when you think of the AHL, places such as Springfield, Hershey and Rochester come to mind, not Toronto, San Diego and Bakersfield. But with the Falcons struggling mightily at the gate and the league moving westward, it seemed to be a fait accompli.
“I’m not as surprised that they’re moving as much as I’m surprised they’ve been around this long,” said Ron Chimelis, a writer and columnist for the Springfield Republican who has covered the team in the past and has been going to games for more than four decades. “There have been a lot of close calls in the past, but it was almost like the boy who cried wolf. People didn’t believe it would happen this time, but it was not a false alarm.”
The Falcons have fallen on hard times and this season were the second-worst team in the league. At one point, they went nine straight years missing the playoffs, which is almost an impossible feat at that level. They have a season-ticket base of fewer than 500, which is worst in the league and in a season in which the AHL broke a league attendance record, the Falcons drew just over 3,100 a game at the MassMutual Arena. Even for their last home game after word got out that the team would likely move, the Falcons drew just 2,679 for a game against the Portland Pirates.
“People who live here have these memories of them packing the place in the 1970s, but the truth is, it’s been a mid-level market that hasn’t been able to draw more that 3,500 to 3,700 fans,” Chimelis said. “I’ve been talking to groups like the Rotary Club for 20 years and the questions are never about hockey. They’re always about the business side and whether or not the team was going to survive.”
Teams in the northeast were once lynchpins for the league, but have fallen on hard times of late. Providence and Hershey are still very solid, but others have lagged. The league has lost franchises in Adirondack, Worcester, Manchester, Norfolk, and now Springfield. There is still hope that the arena in Tucson might not be ready to host the AHL next season, which would make the Falcons a lame duck, but also give them a year to find an affiliation with another NHL team. There’s also the possibility that the ECHL could fill the void in Springfield.
But that’s a step down from the hockey people are used to there. The AHL has become a pretty transient league over the years, with franchises changing hands and moving on almost a yearly basis, so there is hope that perhaps the league can come back to Springfield. But the attendance numbers speak for themselves. Springfield may have once been a thriving minor pro hockey town, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
“When I was a kid, you tried to find someone with a driver’s license to drive you to the game,” Chimelis said. “But you can only live on memories for so long.”