For the first time since the 1978-79 season, Baltimore will be without a professional hockey team next winter.
Two top officials in the East Coast Hockey League said yesterday that the Baltimore Hockey Advocates have run out of time to put an expansion franchise into the Arena for the 1993-94 season.
ECHL commissioner Patrick Kelly said the league's executive committee rejected an 11th-hour bid by Baltimore interests this week to become the league's 20th team next season. "If [Baltimore] wants to apply for an expansion team next year, I'm sure the board would listen," Kelly said.
"In our opinion, it's dead, it's too late," said Bud Gingher, who is chairman of the ECHL's board of governors and its executive committee, as well as owner of the Dayton Bombers.
Also yesterday, a member of the advocates announced an end to the stalemated lease negotiations with Centre Management that would have brought the new team here.
"I honestly believe if this had been the Maryland Stadium Authority and people connected with Baltimore instead of the Washington-based group [Centre Management], this deal would have been done, over and signed weeks ago," Dr. Denis Franks, an advocate and team physician, said.
Thus ended the latest era in Baltimore's checkered hockey past. The last time the Arena was dark for hockey was in 1977, when the Southern League folded with only three existing teams -- one of them the Baltimore Clippers.
The Clippers returned for the 1979-80 season in the Eastern League and in 1982-83 became the Skipjacks.
Baltimore lost its third AHL franchise on March 26 when Skipjacks owner Tom Ebright signed a three-year lease to move the team to Portland, Maine.
Just three days later, the advocates, a group of local businessmen who held minority interest in the Skipjacks, asked Ebright to abandon the effort to gain an ECHL franchise. The new investor was Ed Anderson, who owns the AHL Providence Bruins.
With no lease agreement to play in the Arena, Anderson skipped the ECHL's annual governors' meetings in Freeport, Bahamas. On Thursday, he faxed the governors an application for an expansion franchise, but did not submit the required $5,000 application fee.
Had he done so, Kelly said yesterday, the governors would have held open the possibility of Baltimore's joining the league next season.
"At that meeting, I told him to wire a $5,000 check," Kelly said from his office in Charlotte, N.C. "I told him he would get it back if we did not go forward with it. He said he would get back to me. I never heard from him."
Kelly said he also told Anderson last week that the cost of a franchise would go up at the meetings, and it did -- increasing from $500,000 to $1 million. But Gingher said there was "no way" Anderson could get in the league now for the $500,000 fee. "It's a million. That's what it will cost them," said Gingher.
Anderson was unavailable yesterday, but said Monday that it was "undetermined" whether he would pursue a team for Baltimore in the future. "At $1 million," he said, laughing, "it's very, very speculative" that he would be involved here.
Anderson turned over lease negotiations a week ago to John Haas, a past president of the Skipjacks and advocate member. Those negotiations became snagged first over the rent proposal for the Arena, and then over issues of concessions and signage in the building.
Haas was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment.
Franks said Centre Management wanted a bigger percentage of the concessions tied to attendance. "The problem we saw with that was that Mr. Anderson intended to paper the Arena, giving a large number of tickets to school kids, beginning with kids in Baltimore city," he said.
He also said Centre Management wanted to insert a clause in the agreement in which it could cancel the contract if the hockey team did not meet a minimum attendance figure of 1,700 a game.
"We had the feeling all along they didn't want hockey here," Franks said. "The real question the people of Baltimore have to ask is, what has Centre Management done for the city of Baltimore? All I see is a large number of dark, non-prime nights [at the Arena]. One of the problems with the lease they offered was that many of the nights were non-prime nights, mid-week nights. There were only 11 primes out of 35 dates offered.
"Certainly, Centre Management did not make it easy to reach a compromise."
Gary Handleman, vice president for facilities and the chief negotiator for Centre Management, said his organization had reduced losses for the Arena significantly over the four years it has run the building.
He said the Arena had a $1.2 million deficit when Centre Management took over and showed a profit of $14,000 by the second fiscal year.
"And in relatively poor economic times, the Arena lost around $250,000 in each of the last two years," Handleman said. "Therefore, we feel we have made considerable strides in improving the taxpayers' situation by dramatically reducing the deficit.
"We wanted hockey if it made financial sense. The [Centre Management] deal out there barely makes sense to the Arena. But we were willing to go with it because we wanted to see hockey there."
Handleman, who said he has not been notified by the advocates of any final decisions, likened the hockey negotiations to negotiations that were conducted last year with the Baltimore Spirit soccer team after the Blast and Major Soccer League folded.
"We handled these negotiations in an identical manner," he said. "And what was offered to the new ECHL team is quite comparable to what the Spirit currently have as their financial arrangement."
Handleman said the Arena can make more money for the city by holding as few as five concerts in place of hockey. He said he expects to move Pam Shriver's November tennis tournament to the weekend, and that the Spirit would get more weekend dates as well.
Franks said he expects the advocates will regroup and attempt to put a hockey team in an as-yet unbuilt arena outside the beltway.
"I think that will be one of the directions the group may move in," he said.
HOCKEY IN BALTIMORE
1962: Baltimore Clippers begin play in the American Hockey League, hockey's Triple-A minor league.
1967-68: National Hockey League expands from six to 12 teams, but Baltimore does not get a team.
Jan. 23, 1975: Clippers disband in the middle of the season with a record of 21-48-7.
Jan. 25, 1975: The Blades of the World Hockey Association play their first game representing Baltimore after the franchise moved in mid-season from Michigan. The Baltimore Blades lasted 35 games, winning eight, before folding at the end of the season.
1975-76: Clippers return to AHL for one season.
1976-77: Clippers drop to Southern League, but the league folds on Jan. 30, 1977.
1979-81: Clippers return to play in East Coast Hockey League, but that league folds after 1981 season.
1982-83: Baltimore Skipjacks begin play in the AHL as the top farm team of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
1987-88: Penguins pull out of affiliation with Baltimore. Tom Ebright takes over as team president, and the Skipjacks play as an independent.
1988-89: Skipjacks begin first season as top affiliate of the Washington Capitals.