After nearly three decades as a hockey staple in the 49th state, the Alaska Aces will cease operations at the end of this season. The announcement was made Thursday.
BREAKING: The Alaska Aces will cease operations at the end of the 2016/17 season. pic.twitter.com/aUjom3uMO6
— Alaska Aces (@AlaskaAces) February 23, 2017
Last Friday, through multiple sources, KTVA first reported the team’s ownership group was considering the move. When reached by phone Aces co-owner Jerry Mackie said no decision had been made yet, but also did not deny it.
“We’ve been struggling,” he said. “Look at the fans in our stadium. It’s been a labor of love for 15 years and we’re trying to figure out what’s next what’s in store.”
The organization has been wrestling with declining numbers in attendance. The East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) regular season is 72 games, with 36 played at home. In 2007, the team was flying high at the gate averaging 5,152 fans per game placing them seventh out 25 teams in the ECHL. Last season however, they fell to 19th of 28 teams as the number dropped below the 4,000 mark to 3,386. Through 27 games this campaign, it’s at 3,400.
Two straight seasons missing the playoffs have not helped either. Now in their 14th year with the ECHL, the team had qualified for the post season in its first 11 years.
But overall, the Aces have long been regarded around the league as a strong franchise with a great winning tradition and buoyed by local support. For years, a group of ardent supporters known as the Cowbell Crew watched their beloved “Glacier Blue” play thousands of miles from the rest of the league’s teams. In many cases, the Aces have had much smaller populations to draw from, but it didn’t prevent them from drawing vocal crowds and winning three Kelly Cups, the ECHL equal to the Stanley Cup. The most recent came in 2014, with the others being raised in 2006 and 2011.
There’s no doubt, it’s a sad finish. The Aces have had a long history in Alaska as the state’s only professional sports franchise. It came into existence in 1989 as a semi-pro team known as the Anchorage Aces, part of the Pacific Coast Hockey League. Six years later, they joined the West Coast Hockey League and in 2003 became a member of their current group the ECHL, a 27 team league based in Princeton, New Jersey. That number has fluctuated over the years. The ECHL is the equivalent of AA minor league baseball, two levels below the National Hockey League.
Adding to the turmoil was the death last month of one of the Aces’ co-owners, Rod Udd. For years Mr. Udd was a prominent businessman in the community. As the owner of Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram Center since 1989, he was one of six in the Aces ownership group. Udd was also a significant sponsor of the Iditarod. It’s unclear how his passing affected the outcome of the Aces. Recently, a family spokesman said details of Mr. Udd’s estate were still being addressed.
It’s also not known whether the team will be sold, or simply disband. There are always cities laying in wait to acquire sports teams. But any such moves would have to be approved by the league.
The Aces have nine regular season games remaining at home. Currently, they own a two-point lead with two games in hand over Utah and Missouri for the final playoff spot in the Mountain Division.
However, they’ve been faltering of late. They were swept in a three-game series at home over the weekend by Colorado and now begin a 10-game swing. It’s anyone’s guess how this news will affect a team’s morale. The group could play relaxed hockey or go into a tailspin.
“We’re still a team, we’re playing throughout the season,” Murray said of the distraction. “To me, it should almost give us a little more momentum to do better, is the best way to put it and want to go out and feeling really good about ourselves.”
“Maybe it sticks in the back of your mind a little bit, but at the end of the day everybody here is a professional, so it comes down to doing your your job on the ice,” defenseman Nolan Descôteaux added.
If they fail to qualify for the post-season, their final game at Sullivan Arena would be Saturday, April 8, against Idaho. A more fitting end would be one final playoff appearance for a franchise that is accustomed to deep runs in the post season.