Thursday, May 10, 2001

Cyclones may continue in lower league

Older IHL team loses hockey war to AHL Ducks

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Already bankrupt and drained from a four-year battle with the crosstown Mighty Ducks, the Cyclones plan to play next season, but probably in a new league.

        Team officials Wednesday said the team is not on the verge of folding. The International Hockey League, which includes the Cyclones and 10 other clubs, reportedly is about to disband and put six teams (not the Cyclones) into the rival American Hockey League.

        The Cyclones admit the formula they cooked up in 1997 — selling top-level minor-league hockey on the riverfront — has failed.

        When a new owner buys the Cyclones out of bankruptcy in June, it probably will seek a lower-level league that costs less. For fans, it could mean cheaper tickets but less-skilled players.

        For the Cyclones, it means they have lost the minor-league hockey war to the AHL Mighty Ducks and the Cincinnati Gardens.

        “I just don't see Cincinnati as a two-hockey-team town, at least at the level of the IHL and AHL,” said Rich Neumann, a part-owner of the Cyclones until early 2000. “At the (lower) level, at least you'd have a chance, because the economics are so different.”

        Tim Macy, Cyclones chief operating officer, said the team is planning on operating next season at Firstar Center. He would not speculate on the league.

        “Certainly, the climate has changed,” he said. “But if the decision is made to (change leagues), along with that decision would be the belief that we could market it successfully.”

        Doug Kirchhofer, who owns the parent company of the Cyclones and Firstar Center, did not return calls seeking comment.

        It has been four years since Kirchhofer moved the team downtown from the

        Gardens in Roselawn. It was supposed to be the next chapter in one of the more unexpected success stories in Cincinnati sports.

        In 1989, Kirchhofer founded the Cyclones, bringing back minor-league hockey to a city that traditionally has struggled to support professional sports below the major-league level. Cincinnati did have a team in the NHL-rival World Hockey Association, starting in 1975, but the Stingers lasted only four seasons and weren't part of the merger into hockey's dominant league.

        The Cyclones began in the low-level East Coast Hockey League but built a loyal following at the historic Gardens with flashy promotions, cheap tickets and a raucous atmosphere. Success pushed the team up to the IHL.

        But Kirchhofer could never completely control operations at the Gardens, owned by Jerry Robinson. In 1997, Kirchhofer tried to create an entertainment empire, buying Riverfront Coliseum for $21 million and moving the Cyclones there.

        Once downtown, payroll costs increased dramatically, from as little as $250,000 a year to as much as $1.7 million a year, according to one source close to the situation. And ticket prices were raised to help meet the escalating expenses.

        The Cyclones-Gardens divorce was not amiable. Robinson responded by luring the Mighty Ducks, who brought immediate name recognition from kids who saw the popular Disney movies, while the Gardens still lured families with cheap tickets plus the arena's atmosphere and location.

        The Cyclones were never successful downtown, proving to be a financial drag on the arena. And franchises such as the now-defunct soccer Silverbacks and the basketball Stuff also failed to attract much fan attention.

        In June, the Cyclones and Firstar Center will be sold out of bankruptcy after filing Chapter 11 in March.

        The IHL's model of putting big money into marketing and publici ty in big cities to draw new fans didn't work. The result: The renamed Firstar Center quickly struggled to pay the Cyclones' debts, starting a downward financial spiral that the team never escaped.

        “That (two teams) doesn't work,” said Doug Moss, IHL president since 1998. “Just putting a team in any market and in any building ... well, clearly a lot of mistakes were made.”

        Those mistakes built quickly toward a crisis early this year, one that could be settled soon. The new owner of Firstar Center and the Cyclones could reject all the team's contracts, including the deal with the IHL, the naming-rights deal with Firstar Bank and deals with coaches and players.

        In fact, if a company formed by Provident Bank buys the assets, it probably will start looking for a new hockey league, the company's lawyer said. CEA Holdings, which owns Firstar Center and the Cyclones, owes Provident Bank about $30 million.

        “There will be a hockey team, and it may very well be a team called the Cyclones,” said Stephen Lerner of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, the firm representing Provident.

        Moss said he had had no discussions with the AHL and already was giving teams priority dates for group sales next season.

        “I'm driving to Grand Rapids this afternoon for a playoff game, thinking about the playoffs and thinking about next year,” he said. “I'm not talking to the AHL about anything.”

        He acknowledged the Cyclones' financial troubles, but said he had not been told the team was leaving the IHL.

        “It's a possibility, looking at the financial duress they're in,” he said.

        Pete Robinson, head of the Mighty Ducks, declined to comment on a possible deal with the IHL or on the Cyclones' troubles.

        “We had a good plan and a good league,” he said. “It's a very competitive entertainment environment there, but we were always confident about being in the AHL and in the Gardens.”


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