Opportunities are endless with Mallards now in CHL

Originally Posted Online: June 01, 2010, 8:56 pm
Last Updated: June 02, 2010, 12:24 am
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In their mutual release announcing the joining of forces, the Central Hockey League and International Hockey League dubbed Tuesday's agreement a "historic day" for minor professional hockey.

For one man, this day and the birth of talks had a specific catalyst.

"This started the day Muskegon told me they had walked out of the league," said Mallards owner Chris Lencheski.

For another man, this day took too long in coming.

"This was something we worked on a decade ago," said former Mallards owner Howard Cornfield. "This was something that wasn't going to happen until all parties decided they wanted it to happen, and this was the right time."

Both league commissioners -- Dennis Hextall of the IHL and Duane Lewis of the CHL -- said it makes sense economically.

Former CHL player and 2009-10 Quad City Mallards forward Chris Lipsett said that the league's talent is comparable, but said a league of 20-or-so teams can be more appealing to a player than a league of fewer than 10 teams.

"From a stability standpoint it is," said the veteran Lipsett, who has yet to finalize his playing plans for next season. "The CHL has been around for a while. You don't hear of them having problems that maybe the IHL has had."

There were many reactions to the news that the International Hockey League and Central Hockey League had combined, but those reactions varied very little: This is good for hockey.

No matter how it got to this point, though, the focus needs to turn now to where to go from here. The CHL landscape will come together over the next few weeks during each league's meetings, and there is plenty to be hammered out. But the attraction of the league, and the quality of the product it puts on the ice, will make the greatest difference in the end.

But there needs to more in the coming years. Major League Baseball has benefited tremendously from an organized minor league ladder. The American Hockey League has that at the AAA level, but this could be that big step toward finally organizing the AA level. Now, there are two sizable AA hockey leagues that overlap only slightly, but if merged, could provide that AA rung.

Some changes would need to be made in the current NHL business structure, however, for that to happen.

"Right now it's a free for all," Cornfield said. "You have small business owners trying to operate a business that, at any given time, a team in the AHL can pull your most valuable asset and leave you with nothing. There has to be something put into place that protects owners, fans and players at all levels. The current business model doesn't work."

The success of the league will by and large determine the attraction of affiliation agreements -- the bulk of which at the "AA" level lie in the ECHL. Lencheski said he wants an affiliation for the Mallards next season, but the owners of the Philadelphia Flyers -- Comcast-Spectacor -- is a competitor of Global Entertainment Corporation, which owns the CHL. That may lead Lencheski to look elsewhere.

Whether or not CHL teams choose to affiliate, the bottom line is that Quad-Cities hockey fans have grown tired of year-to-year insecurity. Momentum has been sparked, and this doesn't have to be the last big fusion at the AA level. To many, this is a chance to pour a new foundation upon which to build, and this is only the first step.

"There's no such thing as stability in minor league hockey," Cornfield said. "But there's strength in numbers and strength in leadership. ... This is a good thing for minor league hockey."

Matt Veto is a sports writer for The Dispatch and the Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at (309) 757-4968 or mveto@qconline.com.

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