Ebright asks ECHL support Tells fans he'll replace AHL with new team, boss

March 20, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Skipjacks owner Tom Ebright took his case for the continuation of hockey in Baltimore to the Arena ice last night.

Between the first two periods of the Skipjacks' American Hockey League game against Rochester, Ebright asked fans in the crowd of 5,219 to make a $50 deposit toward season tickets for an East Coast Hockey League team here next season.

His strategy is to replace the departing AHL franchise with one of three ECHL possibilities -- existing franchises in Knoxville, Tenn., or Roanoke, Va., or an expansion team.

Ebright expects to finalize negotiations soon to move his AHL team to Portland, Me.

"There is going to be hockey here [next season]," Ebright said after sampling fan response to his intermission speech. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to do it." He said he hopes to have 500 renewals off this year's season ticket base of 700.

Ebright's appearance on the ice was met with boos. When he finished, he left to polite applause.

In a restructuring of his hockey interests, Ebright would own both teams, but delegate the operation of both to W. Godfrey Wood as president. Wood is owner and general manager of the Nashville Knights in the ECHL.

The Portland team will be called the Pirates, Ebright said, and the Baltimore team will retain the name of Skipjacks.

"I don't think I've been a good hockey operator," Ebright said of his six-year struggle to make hockey self-sufficient in Baltimore. "I want to be an owner and stop trying to make decisions from New York. I'll go to games and be a fan and enjoy myself. . . . Maybe I've been part of the problem. We need fresh ideas in here."

Ebright, vice president of Quest Advisory, an investment firm in New York, began soliciting fan opinion about an ECHL team during home games last weekend.

"The only people who count are the people attending Skipjacks games," he said. "Does the existing fan base favor this new team? The answer so far is a resounding yes, by 80-20."

Ebright asked for support from Baltimore's corporate community in a news conference on Feb. 19 at which he also announced a tentative extension of his affiliation with the Washington Capitals.

The only response beyond individual season-ticket holders came from City Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, who has authored a resolution to pledge $150,000 to Ebright's hockey team. That amount is to be matched by the corporate community. DiBlasi has said the pledge applies to hockey in Baltimore, not specifically an AHL team.

The corporate support that never materialized in Baltimore apparently is available in Portland. According to Ebright, a sports committee charged with bringing an AHL team to Maine has raised $1.3 million.

Ebright said his revenue from season tickets and advertising here is between $450,000 and $500,000.

The idea of operating an ECHL team in Baltimore was first broached by Wood the night of Ebright's plea for corporate help.

"At first, I thought it was the most absurd thing I ever heard of," Ebright said. But after examining the financial possibilities, Ebright changed his tune. On March 1, he told Capitals general manager David Poile of his plans to swap franchises.

Poile said this week that being affiliated with Ebright's Portland team is one of his options, although he was exploring others.

If the Capitals defer, Ebright may play as an independent team in the AHL next season.

Ebright said he is willing to put an ECHL team in Baltimore for two reasons -- a sense of obligation and, more importantly, the prospect of the team being self-sufficient.

"Joyce [his wife] and I have an obligation here," he said. "We're not going to walk out on our friends. And the damn thing looks like we might break even or make money."

Ebright estimates he loses $400,000 a year operating an AHL team in Baltimore. He said affiliation rights with the NHL are expected to increase from $500,000 to $700,000 for AHL teams next year, too. The ECHL, meanwhile, has a salary cap of $5,000 a week and significantly lower operating costs.

Ebright said he has made an offer of $650,000 to buy the Knoxville Cherokees, and that he also has made an offer to buy the Roanoke Valley Rampage.

If neither team becomes available, Ebright said he would purchase an expansion franchise for $500,000. The ECHL wants to expand from its current 15 teams to 18 next season.

The future of hockey in Baltimore is at stake, Ebright says.

"If it dies this year, I think it dies forever," he said. "My goal is still to preserve hockey here. Secondly, I want to make sure th [financial] bleeding stops. And third, I want to get better management, get someone in here who has fresh ideas about marketing and management."

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