Central Hockey League in merger talks

Thursday, April 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Western Professional Hockey League and the Central Hockey League, a pair of minor professional leagues that span the South and Midwest, are close to an agreement to merge, officials say.

``We expect to have something ... determined by the first week of May,'' WPHL spokesman Steve Cherwonak said. ``Both sides are committed to making something happen. But, until we see the final documents, I'd hate to say something's imminent.''

CHL spokeswoman Amy Pickett also confirmed Thursday that final word on a merger was expected soon after both leagues' seasons have ended.

``We wouldn't want to overshadow the playoffs,'' she said.

Both leagues have seen several teams fold in recent seasons.

The 5-year-old WPHL has lost six teams since the 1998-99 season. A seventh team, the expansion Tucson Scorch, was supposed to begin play this season only to disband days before the season began. The league still has 13 teams, although some are struggling financially.

The CHL, with franchises in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, lost its Texarkana, Ark., franchise in the midst of the past season. The league's Topeka, Kan., franchise made it to the end of this season but will not be back next year, Pickett said.

Both leagues also have several strong franchises, such as the WPHL's Bossier-Shreveport (La.) Mudbugs, still in the running for their third-straight league title.

``We've been able to keep a loyal fan base and build upon it,'' said Bossier-Shreveport General Manager Jason Rent. ``We'll be one of the strong (franchises) when the merger happens.''

The CHL, which began nine years ago with six teams, expanded to a high of 12 teams at the beginning of last season and expects to have at least 10 next year, Pickett said.

The WPHL and CHL are lower-tier, developmental leagues, unlike the American Hockey League or the International Hockey League where players are one call away from the top flight National Hockey League.

The CHL, WPHL and larger East Coast Hockey League expanded rapidly in the South, initially getting by on novelty appeal, which now seems to have dissipated. In Louisiana, ECHL franchises in New Orleans and Baton Rouge suffered through dwindling attendance. The Lafayette-based Louisiana IceGators also saw attendance fall slightly but remained a relatively strong franchise.

The Monroe Moccasins of the WPHL exemplify the struggles of developmental league teams. The Moccasins have set a goal of selling 2,500 season tickets for the 2001-2002 seasons by May 15 in order to stay afloat. As of Tuesday, the team has sold 360 season tickets.

``The declines in attendance are a trend,'' Pickett said. ``When you expand so quickly like minor league hockey did, you do have novelty, and now we're trying to find fans who really do enjoy the game,'' Picket said.

Cherwonak said the league is watching the Monroe drive closely, and is imposing new criteria for season tickets, staffing levels and financial commitment.

``We've really changed our approach so that if somebody starts the season, they'll finish it,'' he said.