By David Skolnick
Mahoning Valley Phantoms will leave the arena — and possibly the Valley.
YOUNGSTOWN — The possibility of a hockey team’s playing its home games at the Chevrolet Centre next season is remote.
Bruce Zoldan, owner of the Mahoning Valley Phantoms team that plays at the center, said he’s only interested in fielding a team for the 2009-10 season from the United States Hockey League.
And Zoldan says it’s only a 50-50 chance he’ll own a team from the USHL, the highest junior hockey league in the United States. Also, it would be up to the city, which owns the center, to determine if it wants another season of junior hockey. It might not.
“We want to keep hockey in the building” next season, but not if a team can’t attract a fan base, said Eric Ryan, the center’s executive director.
Hockey has been the main tenant at the center since it opened in October 2005.
Ryan said he’s uncertain if junior hockey — played by those between the ages of 16 and 20 —is a good fit for the center compared to minor league hockey — played by professionals of various skill levels depending on the quality of the league.
The Phantoms of the North American Hockey League, a junior league, have not been a success at the center during its lone season there. The team won’t return to the center for a second season, Zoldan said.
It also looks as though the Phantoms will no longer exist in its current form after this season. The team’s last regular season home game at the center is March 26. The team has qualified for the league’s postseason.
The team is averaging about 1,000 fans a game at the center. Before the season, Zoldan had expected about 2,500 per game.
Some of the problems, he said, were poor weather on game days, too many weekday games, and not having enough time to sell season tickets before league play began.
“It fell far short of my projections,” Zoldan said about attendance.
The Phantoms signed a one-year deal with the city after the Youngstown SteelHounds, a minor league team that played home games for three seasons at the center, was kicked out of the Central Hockey League on June 2, 2008, over a financial dispute. During its last year at the center, the SteelHounds, which lost money over its three seasons, averaged more than 3,000 fans a game.
Zoldan said he doesn’t expect the Phantoms to play in the NAHL next season, and if the team somehow remains in the league, it would probably relocate to Michigan, Illinois, Indiana or Wisconsin.
The increase in travel costs for the Phantoms to stay in the NAHL makes a move from this area necessary, Zoldan said.
Zoldan said he wants to own a USHL team, named the Phantoms but with different players, that would call the Chevrolet Centre home next season.
It costs about $750,000 to buy a USHL team, he said. A USHL team’s annual operating expenses are about $1 million, he said.
The Phantoms’ annual operation expenses are about $600,000 to $700,000, Zoldan said.
Based on his experience, Zoldan said a USHL team has the best chance for making money, attracting a following and being successful in Youngstown.
Zoldan said he’ll have a final decision on his future involvement in hockey in Youngstown sometime this week.
After Zoldan makes his proposal, the city will take another week or so to make a decision on hockey at the center for next season, Ryan said.
Ryan said he’s had several discussions with others about bringing a team to the center, but nothing is final.
There are other hockey possibilities, Zoldan and Ryan said, including the ECHL, a high-level minor league with each team having a National Hockey League affiliation, or the Ontario Hockey League, a top Canadian-based junior hockey league with a team in Erie, Pa.
Joining the ECHL, formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, or the OHL would mean no hockey team calling the center home next season, they said. That’s because the leagues want teams to spend at least a year marketing and selling season tickets before coming to a new area, they said.
Zoldan said he’s not very interested in bringing an ECHL team to Youngstown. There are a number of ECHL teams having financial problems and looking to move, Zoldan said. It’s unlikely that bringing one of those struggling teams to Youngstown would reverse their financial condition, Zoldan said.
There’s also a greater expense with an ECHL team than one in the USHL, he said.
The ECHL franchise fee is about $1.5 million to $2 million with annual operating costs between $1.8 million and $2.2 million, Zoldan said.
Zoldan and Ryan had conversations with owners of ECHL teams, most notably the Wheeling [W. Va.] Nailers about playing in Youngstown next season. But the discussions broke off last month after The Vindicator reported they were occurring.
Ryan won’t rule out an ECHL team playing at the center during the 2010-11 season, even without Zoldan’s involvement.
Having local ownership is “important,” but it’s “not absolutely necessary,” Ryan said.
No team calling the center home next season wouldn’t mean no hockey there, Ryan said.
“We’d do everything to fill the schedule and get exhibition games” with leagues, he said. “We’d go out and book as many [hockey] events. We’d have hockey, but it wouldn’t be 20 to 30 games” in 2009-2010.
The center’s had discussions with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL to play exhibition games at the facility, Ryan said. Neither team has committed to playing in Youngstown.