The Utah Grizzlies have chosen the East Coast Hockey League to be their new home, said team owner David Elmore Wednesday, adding he has informed the Central Hockey League of his decision.
The Grizzlies still will have to be ratified as members by the ECHL probably prior to league meetings June 23-24 in Las Vegas and have signed no papers yet, Elmore said by telephone.
But he foresees no problems in joining the AA-level league, which has several dormant franchises including one that he owns from when he had teams in Richmond, Va., and in Tallahassee, Fla., in the early 1990s.
Elmore and the Grizzlies recently made the decision to leave the AAA-level American Hockey League, which he said has cost too much money in salaries and travel expenses and has no other teams in the West.
Elmore has said he has lost money operating the Grizzlies for the past eight years, some of that in the defunct AAA-level IHL and the last four in the AHL.
He has said that he had to pay some travel subsides to AHL teams, but the league disputes that. "Utah did not pay a travel subsidy to other teams. In fact, the AHL subsidized other teams to travel to Utah," said AHL vice president of communications Jason Chaimovitch in an e-mail.
Dropping to the AA level means the Grizzlies will mostly sign their own players and coaches, though they could have a limited NHL-by-way-of-the-AHL affiliation that would bring in maybe three players who are property of an NHL team. The past several years, Utah called up players from the Idaho Steelheads in Boise.
"It's not mandatory," Elmore said about an NHL partial affiliation. "I don't know which team," he added about any possible NHL hookup.
It wouldn't likely be Phoenix, which had another year plus an option on its agreement with the Grizzlies to provide its AAA team in the AHL and is unhappy it now must scramble to find a new AHL affiliate for its players and coaches.
Elmore personally had been interested in joining the CHL, based in Phoenix, with teams in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and New Mexico, among other states.
But a recent survey of about 1,000 Grizzly season ticket-holders indicated that fans overwhelmingly preferred the rivalries the ECHL could present. That league has teams in Boise, Las Vegas, Long Beach and San Diego. It also stretches from Alaska to Florida, but the Western Division, with teams also in Bakersfield, Fresno and Victoria, B.C., and new teams for next season in Phoenix and Stockton, Calif., would be Utah's main playground.
The ECHL merged with the old Western League about four years ago, bringing in the Western clubs. "That has made it a viable league," in Elmore's opinion.
"That makes it a great mix for us," Elmore said.
Though both the ECHL and the 16-team CHL are classified as AA, the ECHL has a little more prestige.
Elmore clearly expects the ECHL to welcome Utah to the fold for next season, which would begin in late October but last season played eight fewer games than the AHL.
"We are anxious now to interview and find a great coach," Elmore said of the coming weeks.
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