Hockey fans in Plymouth are losing their Whalers, but they’ll almost certainly be getting a steady dose of top prospects such as Jack Eichel starting next season when USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program is expected to move there.
There have been a lot of proposed names bandied about for Flint’s new Ontario League team that will hit the ice next season. I’m kind of partial to Hurricanes. After all, that’s what the team was named the last time Peter Karmanos played a key role in a city losing its Whalers.
The Plymouth Whalers, who began their life as the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors in 1989, then became the Detroit Jr. Wings, then became the Detroit Whalers and have been in Plymouth since 1997, were sold today to a group that plans to move the team to Flint in time for next season. The purchase still has to be approved by the OHL, which is expected to do so at its next board of governors meeting Feb. 2.
But that doesn’t mean the good people of Plymouth will be without high-level hockey. In fact, it will probably result in hockey fans there getting to see hockey that’s just as good with players who have a far better NHL future than those playing major junior. That’s because USA Hockey already has an agreement in place to purchase Compuware Arena in Plymouth and intends to move its National Team Development program there. With USA Hockey having its under-17 and under-18 teams playing out of Plymouth, fans there will get to see some of the best players in the United States play against top teams in the USHL and Division I U.S. college teams.
Let’s take a sample year as a point of comparison. In the 2005-06 season, the USNDTP teams boasted Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, Blake Geoffrion, Kevin Shattenkirk and Erik Johnson. The Whalers that season had James Neal, Jared Boll, Tom Sestito and Chris Terry. That’s only 5-4 when it comes to producing NHL players, but there’s a huge disparity in quality.
By moving to Plymouth, USA Hockey gets out of the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, which seats only about 1,000 people and does not have the amenities the program needs. By moving to Plymouth, it gets a bigger rink which it will own and will have proximity to a major airport in Detroit and the wherewithal to host more international events. (A spokesman for USA Hockey said the due diligence is being done on the purchase of the rink and it should be done in four-to-six weeks.)
Flint, which has had its own fair share of hardships over the past two decades, is no stranger to pro hockey, but this is its first stab at major junior hockey. The team will play out of the Perani Arena, which was built in 1969 and has hosted a number of minor pro teams, most prominently the Flint Generals of the defunct International League. The new owners of the team have pledge to upgrade the arena for the OHL, but it remains to be seen what hockey fans in one of the most depressed markets in North America will be will be willing to pay to see major junior hockey. One of the main reasons Karmanos left Plymouth was the fact that the fan support simply wasn’t there for a team that is last in its division this season, but historically has been a pretty competitive outfit. Karmanos cited the cost of running a major junior team as one of the main reasons for his decision.
The moving of franchises in the OHL is hardly a new phenomenon. North Bay, which lost its team to Saginaw in 2002, got major junior hockey back last season when the Brampton Battalion moved there. In fact, it’s rare for a season to go by when the long- or short-term future of at least one of the league’s teams isn’t in question.
And the Whalers might not be the only team playing in a new locale next season. The future of the Connor McDavid-led Erie Otters, a team that has a legitimate shot to win a Memorial Cup this season, is also in flux. Owner Sherry Bassin has made no secret he wants to sell the team and even though he has denied plans to move the team, has been unable to find a local buyer.
Bassin came close to selling the Otters two years ago to a subsidiary of the Edmonton Oilers that would have moved the team to Hamilton. That team would have replaced the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate that could move to Laval once a planned $200 million arena is built there. The Canadiens affiliation agreement with the Bulldogs ends after next season.
Bassin, meanwhile, is facing a $4.5 million lawsuit from the Oilers subsidiary, claiming it loaned Bassin $4.2 million against a purchase price of $6.9 million for the Otters. Bassin instead renewed his lease in Erie and didn’t sell the team and has said he will repay the money once he sells the team.
It’s unclear whether there’s anyone in Erie who will meet a price that will allow Bassin to repay his loan, which leaves the team’s future unclear. The Otters lease in Erie goes until the end of the 2018-19 season, but the Otters can get out of it for no more than $76,000 if they move.
Chatham had been mentioned as a destination for the Whalers and remains a possibility if the Otters were to move, but it does not have a suitable rink by OHL standards.