"Closing Time, open all the doors and let you out into the world, closing time, turn all the lights on over every boy and every girl, closing time, one last call for alcohol so finish your whiskey or beer, closing time, you don't have to go home but you can't stay here," are the lyrics of the Twin Cities'-based band Semisonic. The lyrics are sadly appropriate as news broke on Thursday that the Houston Aeros are moving to Des Moines next season where they will become the Iowa Wild. The move is a slap to the face of Houston Aeros fans who have been one of the best fanbases in the NHL. They are 7th in the AHL in attendence, averaging 6,793 fans per game. So the move certainly was not about a lack of fan support. That makes it that much more difficult for Aeros' fans to understand. Especially when you consider the lack of success Des Moines had with AHL clubs in the failed Iowa Stars and Iowa Chops respectively. Hopefully, with a team that has some regional ties they will connect better with the locals. On Friday, the Aeros clinched a playoff spot with a 3-2 win over in-state rival the Texas Stars but its tough not to empathize with the locals. I'm sure the good news is bittersweet.
Houston's departure will end a long and storied era of professional hockey in America's 4th largest city. A history that goes back to 1965 with the Central Hockey League's Houston Apollos which lasted until 1969. After a short hiatus professional hockey returned in 1972 with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. This was the team that Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe bulit as he came out of retirement in order to play with his two sons Mark and Marty. Howe scored 121 goals and 369 points in four seasons with Aeros (1973-1977) leading Houston to win consecutive WHA Championships in 1974 and 1975. As the WHA fizzled out, pro hockey in Houston would go into hibernation for a while before returning again with the International Hockey League in 1994 featuring its bomber logo with a B-23 Dragon WWII-era bomber and one of the better logos in minor league hockey using art deco lettering. The Aeros have stayed fairly competitive throughout the last 19 years as they won a Turner Cup in 1998-99 and then joined the American Hockey League in 2001 and they would win the Calder Cup in 2002-2003. This article will do its best to explain why the move is ocurring while paying respect to the great relationship that was and continues to be between the team and its great fanbase.
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So if attendance wasn't a problem, why are they moving?
The Minnesota Wild, who are the owners of the franchise had a falling out with the Toyota Center management who refused to agree a more favorable lease. The team was happy with the fan base, who as I stated before kept Toyota Center fairly full in comparison to the rest of the league. The Toyota Center management more or less wanted to rid itself of its hockey commitments which always made things tight and strained with its primary tenant, the Houston Rockets of the NBA. As talks began to break down, Heather Galindo of the 3rd Intermission Aeros hockey blog said that the Wild and Aeros management started touring arenas in the midwest like Witchita, Kansas City (which has a beautiful NHL worthy arena by the way) and Des Moines looking for a place to land its AHL affiliate if a deal could not be reached. Toyota Center also felt its venue could be more lucrative by landing more concerts at its site than sticking with the Aeros. While I understand concerts are nice, and probably could fill more seats depending on whose performing you're going to have to attract a completely different group of people everytime instead of the same regulars walking through the turnstiles. I guess that's the business of arena management so the Wild took their opportunity to move its AHL affiliate as close as possible so they could make call ups a little less strenuous. The team would likely be relocated to a division that would include teams like Peoria, Rockford, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Grand Rapids.
Galindo is optimistic a hockey team will return to Houston eventually, but she recommends a deal where the minor league hockey club gets a total share of the profits from concessions etc, and not just part of it as presently is the case as it cuts off an important revenue stream from the hockey club. That's easier said than done, but I'd agree with her that would make for the ideal situation. The major thing Houston has going for it is that its proven itself as a solid hockey market and I would think the AHL would want to return as soon as it can.
Since the Wild gained their affiliation with the Aeros back in 2002 I've been a fan of the team. I have been to quite a few Aeros games and for the last two years I've been listening to just about every Aeros game via streaming audio, tuning into the Aeros' play-by-play ace Joe O'Donnell. During their most recent game you could hear the disappointment in O'Donnell's voice as he discussed the news of the clubs future relocation. He is a great broadcaster and I hope he relocates with the team. This season with the NHL lockout, I bought tickets to the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals just to watch the Aeros twice this season. It will be sad to see them leave Houston but relocation will make it easier for most Wild fans to make a trip to see the farm team play. However, will travel be easier for players being called up? Not necessarily according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Michael Russo when he was interviewed on KFAN's Beyond the Pond radio show this morning. He pointed out how the advantage of Houston being a major air hub made players traveling to meet up with the big club easy as there was always lots of flights leaving Houston and going to all over North America whereas traveling from Des Moines likely means catching connecting flights making travel more complicated.
Currently the Aeros are in 5th place in the AHL's Western Conference with 88 points with a 39-25-5-5 at the time of this article. Head Coach John Torchetti along with assistants Mike Van Ryn and Sebastien Laplante have done a terrific job of developing the Aeros young players as they have been meaningful contributors when being called up to the big club. Sure, the number of blue chip prospects playing for the team but the fact these youngsters are ready to play the Wild's system is a testament to the quality coaching they've received. The Iowa Wild doesn't roll off the tongue all that well and only time will tell if this was a good move for the franchise.