The junior hockey season in Alaska is under way with a notable exception for Kenai Peninsula hockey fans: the Peninsula Chinooks, a team that has called the Soldotna Sports Center home since the fall of 1998.
That's not to say that the Junior B club won't return to the ice during the 2000-2001 season, but the Chinooks organization is currently listed as an inactive member of the newly formed Northern Pacific Junior Hockey League (Nor-Pac).
"We've finally got junior hockey started on the peninsula," Chinooks president Vince Redford said. "I'm not going to give up that easily."
In fact, the Chinooks spent the summer preparing to play in the Nor-Pac's inaugural season. Redford said that Steve MacSwain (the 34-year-old from Seward started the season as a right wing with the Anchorage Aces before the team waived him last week) had come on board as the team's head coach, replacing Paddy Flynn. Flynn resigned at the end of last season to head up the Junior A Timberwolves in Miramichi, New Brunswick, Canada.
Redford expected 19 players to return from last season's team, many of them from the Kenai Peninsula -- a source of pride for the Chinooks organization.
"There was a huge growth in interest from the first year to the second," Redford said. "Hopefully, that interest will continue."
"Vince was involved in the formation of the Nor-Pac," said league commissioner Jack Tragis. "During scheduling meetings, we actually prepared two drafts -- one with the Chinooks and one without. Go or no-go was a last-minute decision."
The Chinooks' financial situation, particularly with regard to the club's outstanding debt from last season, was the major catalyst in forcing the organization to start the season with its inactive status.
"The team's got some financial obligations," Redford said. "We're just trying to get the bills paid as we could get them paid."
The biggest sticking point for the Chinooks -- as far as negotiating a new lease in Soldotna -- was an outstanding bill for ice time at the Sports Center. Redford said the outstanding balance was about $3,000, but Sports Center director Andrew Carmichael said the amount due was somewhat larger when negotiations for a new lease began over the summer.
"The Chinooks are trying to negotiate a lease with the city of Soldotna," Redford said. "We have a debt that we owe from last year."
Under the Sports Center's operating policy, Carmichael explained, once a bill for ice time becomes past due, all ice time scheduled for the user group in question is canceled. In addition, any reservations for future ice time must be paid for in advance.
Carmichael said that the Chinooks' balance from last season has been addressed. Redford said he has submitted three proposals to the city of Soldotna for a 2000-2001 lease agreement, but never got a reply.
"They had proposed a lease agreement we weren't comfortable with," said Sports Center director Andrew Carmichael. "As presented, the proposals would have had the city subsidizing the team."
The Chinooks are a for-profit organization. Carmichael said that the club might have had a little more support if it was operating as a non-profit organization.
Tragis said that the Chinooks, like the rest of the teams in the Nor-Pac, rely more on revenue generated at the ticket booth than from player fees or sponsors.
Redford is hoping that growing interest in the team over its first two seasons will translate into more interest from potential advertisers.
Redford cited the importance of scheduling Chinooks' home games to start at 7:30 p.m., rather than 8:30 or 9 p.m., to help the club with its gate receipts.
In seasons past, Chinooks starting times have been pushed back due to other groups that use the Sports Center. Soldotna, Skyview and Kenai Central High Schools call the rink home, as does the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association and the Rusty Blades adult league, among others.
"We're the only organization that's dependent on attendance," Redford said. "It's very difficult -- the difference between 7:30 and 8:30 doesn't seem like much, but when you're talking about a family coming to the game, it is."
Redford also wants the Chinooks to receive a share of the concessions profits made during their games.
Carmichael said the Sports Center keeps only 10 percent of the concessions money, though. The rest, he said, goes to an entrepreneur class at Soldotna High School. The school uses the money to purchase items not covered in its budget.
Redford said that he feels an anti-junior hockey sentiment in the way the Sports Center is managed.
"I've submitted three proposals to the Sports Center, and I haven't gotten anything back. I feel like there isn't much -- I don't know if good faith is the right word for it," Redford said. "They might feel that with our financial situation, it isn't worth going to bat to make an effort to keep junior hockey here. I'm hoping it's something that can change."
Certainly, the Chinooks have been forced to address the shortcomings of their predecessor, the Hellfighters. That first introduction to junior hockey on the peninsula left a bitter taste in many mouths. The Hellfighters folded in 1998 after just one season.
In 1998, Redford put together an ownership group and made a successful bid for a new WSHL team, one independent of the Hellfighters organization.
Redford hired Flynn as coach and general manager, and the organization's efforts over the past two seasons went a long way toward repairing damage done to junior hockey's reputation by the Hellfighters.
The Chinooks organization is still dealing with the impression left by the Hellfighters, though, particularly in regard to payment for ice time.
"Three years a go, we were stung with a $10,000 bill from the Hellfighters. We're still licking our wounds from that," Carmichael said, pointing out the difficulties the Sports Center would have in answering to taxpayers for making an uncertain financial venture.
Redford said the Chinooks had been a moneymaker for the Sports Center.
"We sold them ice, same as everybody else," Carmichael said.
Redford said that the Chinooks will continue to pay off their debts in the immediate future and that the club's creditors have been patient and supportive.
"Unfortunately, I didn't have the finances to weather the storm," Redford said.
Redford wants to have a team on the ice this season, and suggested a series of exhibition games with other members of Nor-Pac's Northern Division.
"Teams up here would do their best to support them, especially Whitehorse and Anchorage," Tragis said.
With 24 Junior A games on its schedule in addition to its Nor-Pac slate, Fairbanks may not have as much of a window to add games with the Chinooks.
Tragis said is was important for the Chinooks to get their books in order before they return to active status in the Nor-Pac.
"They have to work out their support issues and they have to take care of their financial obligations," Tragis said. "That's doable.
"I see (the Chinooks) like I see Whitehorse and Fairbanks, and like Wasilla wants to be, where the program is tied in with youth hockey and the community. That's what it takes for junior hockey to succeed."
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