Oilers keen on Oklahoma City AHL team


The Edmonton Oilers are eager to open negotiations with an Oklahoma City company that aims to have an American Hockey League franchise up and running there for the 2010-11 season.


The Edmonton Oilers are eager to open negotiations with an Oklahoma City company that aims to have an American Hockey League franchise up and running there for the 2010-11 season.

"Yes, we have an interest in Oklahoma City as a market," Oilers president Patrick LaForge said in an e-mail exchange on Sunday. "Of course, we wish them luck and hope to do business with them(all terms to be determined) if and when they are legally clear and ready for entering into a negotiation," LaForge added. "I also hope we can get to that point soon because the 2010-11 AHL season is closer than we think."

It's the strongest statement of intent yet from the Oilers, who have made a couple of site visits to Oklahoma City in the past 18 months. The Oilers currently have a minor-league affiliation agreement with the Springfield Falcons of the AHL in Springfield, Mass.

However, the 2009-10 season represents the final year of that deal and there are no plans for an extension. The Oilers also own a dormant AHL franchise, last known as the Edmonton Road Runners, and will in all likelihood be allowed to activate it for the 2010-11 season. They have been paying hefty, six-figure suspension fees since the end of the 2004-05 AHL season when the Runners last played home games at Rexall Place.

LaForge's comments make it clear where the Oilers intend to set up shop with their farm team a year from now. Still to come is the establishment of a working relationship between the Oilers, who own a franchise, and Express Sports, the Oklahoma City company that is mere days away from securing a five-year lease at the Cox Convention Center arena in the heart of the downtown core.

Express Sports owned the Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League, a team that suspended operations Thursday after 17 years in the city, citing economic challenges. When that shoe dropped, it was immediately speculated Express Sports will operate the Oklahoma City AHL franchise if and when it is granted by that league, and that is obviously a major hurdle yet to be overcome. The speculation was dead-on, as evidenced by a letter from James Couch, city manager of Oklahoma City, to members of the Oklahoma City Public Property Authority, the local government body that leases the Cox Convention Center and its arena from the city.

"At this time, the opportunity exists to negotiate an agreement with a prospective American Hockey League ( "AHL") franchise affiliated with Express Sports to present professional hockey at the Cox Convention Center arena beginning with the 2010-11 season," Couch wrote.

He recommends approval and acceptance of the letter of intent drafted between an entity called AHL Hockey Club LLC, believed to be an Express Sports affiliate, and the city which would authorize negotiations aimed at luring an AHL franchise to Oklahoma City. The exclusive negotiating period extends to Dec. 31.

If the letter of intent receives approval during a city council meeting on Tuesday, AHL Hockey Club LLC will finalize a lease agreement with the city and SMG, the Pennsylvania-based company that manages the arena.

The lease agreement calls for a five-year term (with an additional pair of three-year team options)to set up an AHL franchise in the Convention Center arena, which seats 13,399 for hockey games. The National Basketball Association's Oklahoma City Thunder play home games at nearby Ford Center, which has a capacity of 18,036 for hockey. It was the previous home of the Blazers and also hosts the Yard Dawgz of arenafootball2.

Under other terms of the arena lease, the team would pay $7,500 US in rent per game and all parties to the agreement would have the option to terminate the arrangement after the second season if average attendance dropped below 4,000 per game. It also calls for extensive renovations to the arena, including the installation of a new ice plant, as well as construction of loge boxes and a VIP club.

Bob Funk Sr., owner of Express Sports, could not be reached for comment Sunday. Armand Paliotta, an Oklahoma City lawyer who is listed as the manager of AHL Hockey Club LLC, did not return a phone call Sunday. AHL president Dave Andrews was not immediately available for comment either.

A move to Oklahoma City makes perfect sense for the AHL, since there are already established franchises in nearby Houston and San Antonio, Texas and the Dallas Stars are scheduled to launch their AHL farm club, the Texas Stars, in the Cedar Park area of Austin in the fall.

The move west from Springfield to Oklahoma City would cut off about 1,000 kilometres in one-way travel for any Oilers farmhand who received a call-up to the National Hockey League club.