Austin may land junior hockey team

Published 7:06 am Thursday, January 7, 2010

Austin has skated closer to having its own Junior A hockey team, and it could come in time for the 2010-2011 season.

If that happens, it would be the area’s first junior team since the Mavericks left in 1985, according to Kim Underwood, director of Austin Parks, Recreation and Forestry.

On Wednesday, the parks and rec board unanimously backed bringing a junior squad to Austin, and Underwood said she has asked for the item to appear at the city council’s work session Jan. 19.

The team would come in the form of a franchise owned by a Hudson, Wis. man, who Underwood said wants to remain anonymous until a contract is signed with the city to use Riverside Arena.

Underwood said the man has already received approval by the North American Hockey League to own a franchise with the NAHL.

Underwood added that it’s her understanding that Austin is the man’s first choice for the location to have that franchise.

“That’s his tentative plan,” Underwood said.

Underwood said city officials are aware of the man’s interest — in fact the man toured Riverside Arena in December — and Mayor Tom Stiehm voiced his reaction Wednesday evening.

“From what I’ve heard, I think it’s great,” Stiehm said. “It’s kind of a no brainer.”

Members of the parks and rec board expressed similar thoughts.

“I just can’t think of a negative,” said Gretchen Ramlo, parks and rec board member.

If a team does come to Austin, Underwood said renovations would have to be made to the north end bathroom at Riverside Arena to install showers for the home team, lockers would have to be added for the home team as well and an existing space would need to be turned into a team office. Those costs would likely have to be paid by the city, Underwood said, although revenue would also come in from renting ice time to the team.

Riverside already houses locker facilities for the Austin High School boys and girls hockey teams and one for a visiting team, Underwood said.

She added that the high school teams would not be displaced if a franchise were to come to Austin.

In terms of scheduling at Riverside Arena, Underwood said she does not foresee it being a problem, as the high school teams schedule the arena through the city already. In addition, junior teams usually play on Friday and Saturday evenings, times rarely shared by the high school teams.

Parks and rec members said Wednesday that a junior hockey team would also likely benefit the local economy from visiting teams coming to Austin.

“How exciting, how very exciting,” parks and rec board chair Darlene Thaisen said.

Underwood said if a contract is signed, the Austin team would have a mascot and be included in the existing five-team central division of the North American Hockey League.

That division includes the Albert Lea Thunder, the Alexandria Blizzard, the Bismark Bobcats, the North Iowa Outlaws and the Owatonna Express.

Calls to officials from the NAHL were not returned as of press time. To learn more about the NAHL, visit www.nahl.com.

Also on Wednesday, the parks and rec board unanimously approved to keep its officials the same in 2010 as they were in 2009. That means Thaisen remains chair, and Ramlo remains vice chair. New to the board this year is Karen Sundal Hardy.

— Mike Rose contributed to this report