CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After more than a year of trying, the Carolina Hurricanes are getting their wish: their top minor-league affiliate is coming to North Carolina.
Michael Kahn, owner of Charlotte’s ECHL team, announced Wednesday that he’s purchased the Albany River Rats and will move the money-losing American Hockey League club from upstate New York for next season.
They’ll be called the Charlotte Checkers – the same name the lower-tier ECHL team has had – and play in the downtown Time Warner Cable Arena.
“When we looked at our vision of hockey in North Carolina, it wasn’t just about going to Raleigh,” said Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes’ longtime general manager. “It was about growing the sport throughout the whole state. We really feel that this is a huge step forward for hockey in North Carolina and the South.”
While the Hurricanes anticipate the agreement will widen their fan base, the move will mean more convenience for the hockey operations, too.
Sending players up or down will involve a car ride of less than three hours instead of a connecting flight through Charlotte from Albany. Charlotte’s airport is a US Airways hub, which will often allow a late call-up to quickly catch up with the team on the road with a direct flight.
“Most or all of our staff will be able to come on a regular basis to see the progress that they’re making,” Rutherford said. “It was a pretty easy ride down here today.”
The deal ends a 17-year run for the River Rats in Albany, which became Carolina’s affiliate in 2006. Owner Walter Robb, who bought the team in 1998, said he’s hopeful Albany will be able to secure another AHL team before the start of next season.
“My intention throughout this process has been to have an AHL franchise playing in the Capital District,” Robb said. “There have been constant negotiations with local officials, arena and county personnel, along with potential investors, a process we expect to continue beyond today’s announcement.”
Rutherford said the organization approached Kahn about a year ago with an offer that if he acquired an AHL franchise, the Hurricanes would be their parent club. Kahn, who wouldn’t discuss the financial terms of the Albany sale, said he expects to sell the Charlotte ECHL team to an outside group that will move that team elsewhere.
“Charlotte has become very much a professional town and this is taking it a level up,” Kahn said. “And having the local affiliation, Carolina, I think it’s going to help it even more. If this had been somebody else, Nashville, Atlanta coming to us, I don’t think I would have done it as quickly as we did this.”
The Checkers rank sixth in the 20-team ECHL with an average attendance of 5,292 fans per game. That would rank ninth in the 30-team AHL, which is more spread out. Charlotte’s closest opponent will be in Norfolk, Va., more than 480 kilometres away.
The increased travel costs in the AHL and a costly lease with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, which own the arena, will bring the need for better attendance and perhaps higher ticket prices as the economy struggles. But Kahn and the Hurricanes envision cross promotion and marketing deals that will bring more attention to hockey in the heart of NASCAR and basketball country.
Rutherford floated the idea of holding training camp in Charlotte. The Hurricanes could also hold exhibition games here, although not next season since the schedule is already set.
“It’s the single most important factor in this whole deal, that it was the Carolina Hurricanes,” Kahn said of his purchase. “The synergy created, the marketing dynamics that are going to be created. For example, if the Carolina Hurricanes are on the road for the weekend, people might come down to see their prospects.”