The ECHL is expanding to New England in 2017, as the league announced today will add a franchise in Worcester, Mass. that will begin play in the 2017-18 season.
The yet-to-be-named team will play at the DCU Center, a 12,239-seat building that will be the third-largest in the league behind Orlando’s Amway Arena and Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena. Built in 1982 and formerly known as the Centrum, it has hosted games in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament among other major events.
The team is owned by local businessman Cliff Rucker, and Toby O’Brien was announced as the team’s general manager. O’Brien is a Massachusetts native who once coached the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs. The team name will be announced April 3.
Worcester has a city population of approximately 183,000, and a metro area population of more than 900,000. It is the second-largest city in New England.
The expansion will make the ECHL a 29-team league. Last summer, the league announced it would cap membership at 30 teams.
“We are pleased to welcome Worcester, Massachusetts to the ECHL,” ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said in a league release. “Cliff Rucker made a very impressive presentation to our Board of Governors. He laid out a strong business plan, that has broad-based community support and is prepared to take the proper lead time to execute a successful introduction.”
Worcester had an American Hockey League team from 1995-2015 under the IceCats and Sharks names, but that franchise relocated to San Jose, Calif. It was one of five AHL teams to move to California in 2015 in a move to get affiliates closer to their parent clubs. Worcester marks the fourth such city to join the ECHL, along with Norfolk, Va.; Manchester, N.H.; and Glens Falls, N.Y.
Oklahoma City is the lone market that was vacated by the AHL in the westward expansion that has yet to be replaced by another hockey team. Brad Lund, who managed the Oklahoma City Blazers in the old Central Hockey League, was reportedly putting an ownership group together in June, but nothing has been publicly reported on that front.
Worcester becomes the second New England city to join the ECHL, alongside Manchester, which swapped cities with the Ontario Reign this summer. It will likely play in the North Division, which will likely cause some minor realignment in the Eastern Conference.
While an NHL/AHL affiliate has yet to be named, O’Brien said “we will have an affiliate, a great affiliate,” via a tweet from Worcester-based reporter Darryl Hunt. The Boston Bruins would be a likely choice, as their two-year affiliation agreement with the Atlanta Gladiators ends in 2017, when the Worcester franchise takes the ice. Worcester is less than 50 miles from Boston and the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence. Of the 28 current ECHL teams, 25 have official NHL affiliations with the 30 NHL teams.
In other ECHL news, the Southern Professional Hockey League announced today that it is placing a team into the Ford Center in Evansville, where the IceMen are currently playing in their fourth ECHL season. Earlier this year, Evansville owner Ron Geary announced a deal to move the team to nearby Owensboro, Ky. 40 miles southeast of Evansville. The timing of the SPHL announcement would indicate that IceMen’s move to Owensboro was also approved by the ECHL, where Geary is renovating the Sportscenter arena to have 7,200 seats and an ice plant. The SPHL is an 11-team league with teams largely located in the southeastern United States, with Evansville joining Peoria as a Midwestern franchise. It has no NHL affiliations and smaller rosters and a lower salary cap than the ECHL. With a population of 57,285 at the last census, and a metro population of more than 116,000, Owensboro will be of comparable market size to the cities where the Adirondack Phantoms, Elmira Jackals and Rapid City Rush play.