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Ben Smith

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Fort Wayne’s Jesse Bennefield scrambles on the ice against Tulsa on Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum.

Major overhaul to minor leagues

– I don’t know if the future of hockey in this town is the CHL or the ECHL or the HL-To-Be-Named-Later. What I do know is where you can find it.

Downtown. Across the street from Taco Bell. In a humble little place we like to call Parkview Field.

No, this is not where I bang the cymbals for a Komets Winter Klassic, though heaven knows that would be cooler than Bond vs. Ethan the “Mission: Impossible” guy. This is about what Komets president Michael Franke sees when he looks in his crystal ball these days, and how much of it is ultimately about cold beer on hot summer nights in Parkview Field or the Cove in South Bend or Victory Field in Indianapolis.

Which is to say: Minor-league baseball is where minor-league hockey needs to go. Franke believes this, and and so do I.

“I believe in the long run it’s the wish of all the hockey people to have one AAA (structure), one AA and one A,” Franke says. “I think that’s the model that eventually is gonna occur. I think it has to occur. Major league baseball has the best minor-league system setup of all the minor league sports, and that’s the way they’re set up.”

This is not a new theme for Franke, mind you; he’s been saying for a couple of years that when the dust settles there’ll be only one Double-A league left standing. It’s why the Komets have opened the door publicly in the last week or so to the notion that maybe, just maybe, the Komets’ future might not be the CHL.

And so: all this talk about the ECHL.

It’s happening only because the CHL seems to be following the same doomed path as the second IHL. The league shrank from 18 to 14 teams this year, and now there are whispers are out there that 14 teams could shrink to as few as six or eight. In which case the CHL would be no more viable than the IHL was.

And so the Frankes put the ECHL thing out there. Call it a trial balloon or keeping options open, but also call it the sort of positioning that’s kept the franchise alive and mostly thriving for 60 years.

“We’re kind of sitting here waiting to see what others decide,” Franke says. “The one thing our organization definitely has decided is we want to be as permanent as whatever permanent is right now.”

Which is none too permanent, mind you.

The ECHL has 20 teams for now, flung literally from Florida to Alaska. Yet it’s likely no more viable on its own in the current environment than the CHL is. The inevitable attrition – minor-league hockey has shrunk from more than 100 teams to 73 in the last two decades – just hasn’t hit it yet.

As for the Komets, economically the ECHL and the CHL are a push. There are five ECHL cities within a five-hour drive of Fort Wayne, and five CHL cities within roughly the same distance. So, tit for tat there.

But, of course, this isn’t really about the CHL vs. the ECHL. It’s about how minor league hockey survives going forward. And it’s about where a 60-year-old franchise that draws north of 7,000 fans a night fits into that.

“I think that’s more the story here,” Franke says. “And I think it’s gonna be important in time for the NHL to get involved, because in the end the local flavor of minor-league hockey is kind of the accelerant to a person’s interest in hockey in general.”

There’s a breath or two of wishful thinking in those words, of course. But Franke’s view of the future isn’t wishful thinking at all, and it has a distinct look and smell and feel to it.

The crack of a bat. The chill of a beer. The warmth of a summer night.


Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.