PALMER — The Kenai River Brown Bears could be losing one of their primary rivals, as the future of the Palmer-based Alaska Avalanche is very much in doubt.
In mid-February, Avalanche owner Mark Lee announced he intends to sell the team, but hopes to see the organization stay in the Valley.
“We like the Avs, make no bones about it,” said Nate Kiel, general manager of the Brown Bears. “It’s good to have junior hockey in Alaska, and the Avs have proven to be a top-notch program.
“It’d be great if the Avs could find a new ownership group and sustain what they have started.”
Lee also confirmed the Avs are one of seven North American Hockey League teams allowed to declare dormancy for the 2012-13 season.
“We’ve done everything we could to keep the team here. What we’re looking for is someone to step in and take the team over, and keep the team in the Valley,” said Lee, who also announced he has been diagnosed with cancer. “With my health, I literally just can’t go any further.”
The Alaska Avalanche, Traverse City (Mich.) North Stars, Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, St. Louis Bandits, Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage, Fresno (Calif.) Monsters and Michigan Warriors are the seven teams granted dormancy for the 2012-13 season by the league during its Board of Governors conference call on Feb. 15.
Four of those teams are from the six-team NAHL West, which also includes the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Brown Bears.
Both Kiel and coach Oliver David, who is at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament this week in Troy, Mich., said it is too early to speculate how these league changes will affect the Brown Bears.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern to see what the division will look like,” Kiel said. “We’re in wait-and-see mode.”
For starters, the teams that have been granted dormancy could request to go back to active status prior to scheduling, according to Kiel.
According to a Wenatchee World report on Feb. 14 , the Wild are preparing for a move to another Tier II Junior A league, the British Columbia Hockey League. USA Hockey had denied Wenatchee’s application to move to the BCHL in January, but earlier this month USA Hockey overturned that decision. Wenatchee will now have a second opportunity to bid to join the BCHL.
Kiel and David said the other West teams have been granted dormancy for a variety of reasons.
Even if all four West teams are dormant next year, Kiel said new cities could be granted franchises, or that some division realignment could occur.
Kiel said that this kind of offseason shuffling is common in the NAHL.
“The Brown Bears are interested in moving forward, with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs remaining in Alaska with their franchise,” Kiel said. “With Fairbanks, even if the Avs are not in existence, we’ll still have a travel and hosting partner.”
While Kiel’s preference is for the Avs to stay in existence, he said that having two Alaska teams in the NAHL would provide certain scheduling advantages.
The squads could travel and host games together, meaning the Bears would get to host more Friday and Saturday night games, which lead to more fans in the stands.
Currently, visiting teams will come to Alaska and play weekend games in one city, followed by midweek games in another city, followed by trip-ending weekend games in another city.
David also said there would be recruiting advantages opened up if there were only two teams in the state, instead of three. The Avs have five Alaska players on their current roster.
Lee has been with the Palmer’s Junior A Tier II hockey franchise since 2005 and has operated as the sole owner since 2008. With Lee at the helm of the franchise, the Avalanche have made three straight trips to the NAHL playoffs, with a fourth consecutive trip nearly wrapped up.
Alaska also netted a franchise-record 32 wins in back-to-back years. Lee led the organization through a major move, as the team shifted from the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla to its new home at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
But recent struggles complicated by concerns about his health have forced Lee to the need to part ways with the team.
“I really feel bad, but I just can’t go anymore,” Lee said.
Lee said he has set up a nonprofit group, made up of members of the local community familiar with the franchise, and that group could have access to the use of a gaming license by September.
“We need to figure out a way to keep the team here,” Lee said.
The franchise is two years through a five-year deal with the city of Palmer, which makes the team a flagship tenant of the MTA Events Center.
“Palmer’s just been a great place to play, great city to work with,” Lee said. “Palmer’s done a tremendous job trying to improve the rink. It’s coming a little slowly, but they’re helping out as best they can.”
Work is currently being done to increase the seating capacity of the MTA Events Center.
“We’ll have the capacity to seat over 1,200 when they’re done,” Lee said.
The Avalanche moved from Wasilla to Palmer prior to the 2010-11 season to reduce expenses. Since the move, there has also been a tremendous drop in the team’s attendance numbers. During the Avs’ final year in Wasilla, the team averaged 926 fans per home game. That number dropped to 528 per home game during the team’s first season in Palmer. This year, the average, according to the NAHL, is 417.
“We really do need the fans back,” Lee said. “It’s funny, they’ll go into Anchorage for an Aces game, but won’t drive to Palmer for an Avalanche game.”
Lee said he’s seen a divide in the local hockey community since his time as owner of the team.
“Let’s put all the attitude and feelings aside and embrace this wonderful group of young men, who have brought an awful lot to Palmer, Wasilla, the whole Valley,” Lee said.
Lee said several things could still happen. The team could be sold and kept in the Valley. The franchise could also be purchased by an ownership group ready to move the team outside of the state.
Lee said he needs to seriously consider all offers, but his preference is to sell to an owner ready to keep the team in the Valley.
“If the Mat-Su community wants to keep the Avalanche, we’re open to talk to anybody,” Lee said.
If the Avs are dormant during the 2012-13 season, the organization will still remain an NAHL franchise.
While that could give a new owner extra time to prepare for the 2013-14 season, dormant teams lose all of the players on the roster. Lee said he doesn’t want to see the current collection of talent split up.
The team has until 48 hours following the final official game of its season to hold on to the rights to the players on the roster. If a transfer of ownership is not approved before that point, eligible players on the roster become NAHL free agents.
The Avs are currently 28-14-3 and sit in second place of the West Division with 59 points. The team has been off since Jan. 28, but returns to action with a two-game series against the Brown Bears on Friday and Saturday at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak contributed to this story.