WENATCHEE — If the Wenatchee Wild end up leaving town, it’ll be a hard loss for the team and the Town Toyota Center, head Wild hockey scout and adviser Rick Ellison says.
Ellison, who’s been around hockey as a player, coach, scout and administrator for more than 40 years, says it’s “perplexing” that negotiators for the Wild and the Public Facilities District don’t appear to be working harder on reaching a new agreement.
“The ownership group here has gone through a lot of pain and a lot of hardship to keep this afloat in a league (the North American Hockey League) that has been very difficult, very expensive to play in and players that have an incredibly difficult travel schedule,” Ellison said last week. “To see this right now, right before you, right at the end of the tunnel. so to speak, and to see it potentially fall apart, it just is very worrisome.”
The organization, whose contract with the PFD expired April 1, spent a good portion of the past five years working toward leaving the NAHL to join the British Columbia Hockey League — an institution with a strong junior hockey tradition dating back to 1961 — and finally accomplished that long-sought goal after numerous meetings and presentations, accompanied by hours of travel.
But to the dismay of fans and several other interested parties, no deal has been reached with the PFD, both sides appear to have ceased communicating, arena officials are actively seeking a new hockey team to replace the Wild and the time to negotiate a new contract is running out.
Part of the reason the Wild pursued a league change was because of Wenatchee’s proximity to BCHL teams. Closer opponents should mean lower travel expenses and shorter commutes — the team spent much of this season traveling to California and Alaska for road games. Their closest NAHL West Division opponent is the Fresno Monsters, an 18-hour bus ride away.
Aside from dedicating hours of time and energy, the league change cost Wild ownership seven figures in expenses, Ellison estimated. Additionally, several members of the Wild coaching staff moved to Wenatchee under the assumption that a league change was in the works.
The Wild’s move to the BCHL — which was approved by USA Hockey and the BCHL in January — should also give Wenatchee fans a more exciting brand of hockey and provide the Town Toyota Center with a reliable, long-term tenant playing in a stable league. Ellison called it a ‘historic opportunity.’
Ellison sees a BCHL franchise in Wenatchee as beneficial for the community and the Northwest hockey scene in general.
Understandably, the breakdown in negotiations is frustrating to Ellison.
“You’ve got proven operators who brought a great product with sacrifice,” the longtime hockey expert said. “Now they’re at the point where a long-term solution with a tenant with the right league which works for the building, works for the ownership and will work for the fans and tax payers. … After all this work, that it’s not going to come to fruition? It’s really snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Ellison draws parallels between the situation between the Wild and Town Toyota Center to the Comcast Arena in Everett and the Everett Silvertips, a Western Hockey League franchise.
The Silvertips — who signed a five-year lease extension with Comcast Arena on Monday — provide the arena a stable tenant with a strong fan base. Both sides saw the benefit of coming to an agreement and worked to get the deal done.
Ellison is still hopeful the Wild will stay in Wenatchee and believes the future is bright if the sides can come to an agreement.
But BCHL teams have to begin creating a schedule for the 2013-14 season soon, further squeezing the Wild and the PFD’s bargaining window.
As the days press on without any apparent progress, the prospect of keeping the Wild in town is dwindling.
“It concerns me that there is no conversation going on, yet time is ticking,” Ellison said.
Jon Frank: @JFrankWW