Austin hockey could be back on the map

Published 1:19 pm Saturday, January 30, 2010

A junior hockey team in Austin would figure to be a boon for the city, region and league, but it would likely not be hugely profitable, several regional officials said — something a former local hockey owner is all too familiar with.

Hudson, Wis., businessman Craig Patrick, 45, has received permission from the North American Hockey League to start an expansion franchise, which he plans to do in Austin, with Riverside Arena serving as the home. That plan will become a reality Monday if city council approves to take in the team and pay for roughly $70,000 of initial renovations to the arena.

Patrick aims to have a team on the ice for the 2010-11 season, which begins in September. The Austin franchise would compete with the likes of the Owatonna Express and the Albert Lea Thunder, as well as a Mason City team that has plans to move to Wisconsin.

Officials in those nearby cities said they’re excited about the prospect of getting a new rival in the region.

Jeff McKay, parks and recreation director in Owatonna, said the Express already draws big crowds for games against Albert Lea, which he expects would be the case with an Austin team.

McKay said the Express ultimately has been a boon for the community.

“Bottom line, it’s been very positive,” he said.

He added that average attendance is around 300 to 400 people per night, with many of those folks being quite dedicated.

“They’ve got a good following,” McKay said. “There are some hardcore Express fans.”

The parks and recreation director in Albert Lea said his city has also benefited from having an NAHL team.

“It’s been a good thing for us,” director Jay Hutchison said. “They’re renting ice we wouldn’t be using.”

Like in Owatonna, Hutchison said roughly 300 to 400 people come to an average Thunder game. And when some of those folks are traveling from out of town with the away team, that’s big for the whole city, not just the parks and recreation department.

“They’re going to stay in the hotels and eat at the restaurants,” Hutchison said.

However, teams certainty aren’t free from their share of challenges and controversies.

The Albert Lea franchise made headlines in November when it was reported that several players paid owners to play on the team, a violation of league rules.

Thunder owner Barry Soskin was forced out by the league, and the NAHL took over team operations. A Minneapolis businessman has since expressed interest in buying the team, though no final deal has been reached.

Hutchison said the ordeal has certainly been a negative, but it’s something his department doesn’t get involved with.

“We stay out of that,” he said. “We’re just renting them the ice.”

Mark Motz, who is a member of North Iowa Outlaws ownership group, said finances can also be a concern for a new team.

Motz, along with his brother and a third partner, started the Outlaws five years ago. He said the upfront costs, which he declined to disclose, were steep — the owner said the team is still slowly making up its initial investment.

“They’re much bigger than you anticipate them being,” Motz said of startup costs.

Not helping the situation in Mason City was the fact that the team got no financial support from the city, and the owners were inexperienced in running a sports team, Motz said.

However, the owners did learn from their mistakes.

“If we made 100 mistakes our first year, we probably only made 50 in our second,” Motz said.

Now the team is primed to move to Onalaska, Wis., which is closer to Motz’s children. He said the city is prepared to offer financial support, something he wished he would have approached in Mason City.

“I wish we had (city financial support) when we came in,” Motz said. “But we didn’t know.”

The team was able to overcome a rocky beginning and start making money, helped in large part by a supportive crowd of between 700 and 1,000 fans each night, Motz said.

Getting that type of community support — and maintaining it — should be a top priority for Patrick, Motz said.

“The biggest thing for a team to be successful is that the city gets behind it, and fans need to get behind it,” he said.

Being supportive also means sticking with the team if the losses pile up, Motz said, which often happens with expansion franchises in any sport.

“The first year, you’re growing that team,” he said. “Don’t get discouraged if they don’t win a lot of games.”

If Austin residents show support and patience, Motz said he thinks the new team can be a success — a prospect he’s excited for, just like the potential Austin team owner.

“I intend to keep the team here for a long time,” Patrick said. “I’m just obviously really excited.”

Learning from history

But that excitement should be tempered by some degree of caution, Jim Weber said.

And Weber would know — the retired Austin businessman was the last owner of the Austin Mavericks junior hockey team, which called Riverside Arena home from 1973 to 1985.

The team got started, Weber said, one night at the Austin Country Club. Walter Bush and Murray Williamson, two influential hockey men from the Twin Cities, were in town to play a round of golf with some Austin friends. Both were also affiliated with the Midwest Junior Hockey League, which had teams throughout Minnesota and a few nearby states, and they were looking to expand.

“They wanted us to take on a franchise,” Weber said.

Like Motz, Weber said finances were hard at the beginning. But unlike the Outlaws owner, Weber said they never came around.

“The team never made money,” Weber said. “Never even remotely close.”

The dire finances weren’t due to a lack of effort on the ice, Weber said. The Mavericks were competitive year in and year out, even winning a championship in 1975. They had a number of alumni advance to higher-level hockey, including coach Lou Vairo, who went on to coach in the Olympic ranks. And they drew decent crowds every night.

But the deck was stacked against Weber and a crowd of ownership partners that came and went over the years.

For one, the team had to provide essentially all of the players’ supplies in year one — including sticks and jerseys — which Weber called a huge cost.

The team also rented Riverside ice from the city, which the new team would do, but the Mavericks never got any financial help from the city — even at the beginning.

“No one ever had the idea of making a lot of money,” Weber added.

Yet the Mavericks were able to make it through 80-game schedules for more than a decade. Weber said giving young hockey players the great opportunity the Mavericks provided was the driving force behind keeping the team on the ice.

The infamous Hormel strike, however, changed everything.

That came in the summer of 1985, and it drastically altered the landscape of Austin. Disposable income became nearly non-existent for many, meaning ticket sales dropped. And for those who might not have lost as much, the negative aura that permeated town was enough to make hockey the last thing on the mind.

The Mavericks made it through the season, Weber said, but the future looked grim in Austin and shutting the doors on the team seemed inevitable.

That’s when several Rochester businessmen approached Weber and brought up the idea of moving the team. By the next season, the Mavericks had a new home.

Weber said he stayed somewhat involved with the Rochester team — he “unofficially” served on the board, attended a few games and even presented the “Jim Weber Award” at a few banquets.

But before long, the Mavericks were done being a part of Weber’s life.

“I kind of drifted away from the team,” he said.

Twenty-five years later, with the prospect of Austin getting a new junior team very real, Weber said he reflects positively on his time as an owner, despite the challenges he faced.

“I have a lot of fond memories,” he said. “We did a lot for a lot of kids.”

And Weber said he can see that happening again with the new team, though he knows Patrick will have to be patient, determined and willing to take a financial hit, at least up front.

“God bless him if he can bring it in and support it,” Weber said. “It’s a great thing for kids.”