Express fans woke up to today the shocking, albeit perhaps not too surprising news that their team is no more via press release:
“The Chicago Express have announced today that they are withdrawing from the ECHL, effectively ending the Chicago Express organization immediately. ‘Although the Chicago Express are ceasing operations, on behalf of the staff and players, I would like to extend our sincere gratitude and appreciation for all the support we received from the Village of Hoffman Estates, Global Spectrum, our business and community partners, our corporate sponsors, and especially, our fans,’ said team owner Craig Drecktrah. ‘I would also like to thank our ECHL partners, and wish good luck to those teams participating in the 2012 Kelly Cup Playoffs.'”
One may wonder how this could happen. The simple answer is, money. The Express was last in the ECHL this season in attendance, averaging just 2,508 people a game. In contrast, the Blackhawks’ ECHL affiliate, the Toledo Walleye, was second in the league, averaging 6,252 for a yearly attendance of 225,060. Additionally, the Sears Centre’s financials are rumored to be doing very poorly – could they have demanded a large cut or taken too much out of a struggling team? We’ll probably never know. The fact remains that four professional sports teams (Chicago Shamrox [lacrosse], Chicago Storm, [soccer], Chicago Hounds [Craig Drecktrah’s previous foray into hockey with the now defunct UHL], the Express) have now come and gone in the Sears Centre’s short existence. In fact, according to the Hounds’ Wikipedia page, “Hounds owner Craig Drecktrah ceased the team’s operations, saying his inability to negotiate a reasonable lease with the Sears Centre brought him to this decision. Drecktrah said the Sears Centre wanted him to take mostly weekdays, leaving the more desirable weekend dates for the other tenants. He also said the building management wanted to triple the cost of his lease.” It makes you wonder if the same situation happened again. Still, one does not get into hockey ownership to make a quick buck, especially at the minor league level. Heck, even the Blackhawks claim they’re still in the red – which I find hard to believe, but whatever. Personally, I would have liked the team to give it one more year to see if attendance and the fan base improved – this area is a saturated market with the Hawks, Wolves and IceHogs all in close proximity. Perhaps another season could have strengthened the fan base, especially with the team so close to making the playoffs this past season. But we don’t know the financials, and for all we know, the team and ECHL lost their shirts in the Express.
Where does this leave the ECHL? The league is adding two new teams for the 2012-13 season, the San Francisco Bulls and Orlando Solar Bears. While NHL/AHL affiliations will shuffle again, no team should be without an ECHL affiliation. The Solar Bears will take the Express’ place in the Eastern Conference, and I’d bet the Wheeling Nailers will rejoin the North Division – they were moved to the Atlantic when the Express joined the league. As for the players – as per the ECHL, “all Chicago players on ECHL contracts are hereby deemed unrestricted free agents effective immediately.” The few players on the team under contract to the Blue Jackets will move with their affiliation. The younger players on the Express will find themselves on another ECHL team next season, most likely one of the two new franchises. I feel badly for the veterans on the Express, like Captain Nathan Lutz. Perhaps this was their last chance playing professional hockey. I sincerely hope not.
I am very sad for those within the Express organization who are now unemployed. I hope they all find jobs in other sports organizations in the very near future. But the folks I am most sad for? The fans. Especially the kids who may not have ever had an opportunity to see a professional hockey game live before the Express came to town. Hopefully the team being taken right out from under their noses doesn’t sour them on the sport of hockey or they lose interest in it. Because as the late Whitney Houston said, “I believe the children are our future.” Or something like that.
As for me, I’m going through the seven stages of grief – is there a pissy/emo stage, because I’m living there right now. I’m sure I’ll hang around RoD in some capacity. Even if it is just getting Kat her coffee and folding her laundry.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES EXPRESS!