The America West Hockey League shut down the Butte Irish, Commissioner Steve Nelson announced Monday, saying the troubled Junior A hockey franchise will cease operations immediately.
The move dashes any realistic hope of a 2002-2003 season in Butte.
The decision to pull the plug came after the current ownership group failed to find its replacement by the league-imposed May 1 dead line. Talk of the franchises' imminent demise started before the season ended and intensified over the weekend.
“ They really put us in a no-win situation and forced our hand,”' Nelson said in a telephone interview from Stevens Point, Wis. “ We gave them a timeline to adhere to and told them the proper way to sell a team. They didn't get it done.”
Negotiations were said to be ongoing with a number of buyers since the beginning of the sea son. The league was never directly involved.
Principal owner Rich Taylor was unaware of the new development when interviewed Monday evening. None of the current ownership attended the league board of directors meeting on Thursday when the decision was made.
“ There was no indication that any progress had been made,” said league Treasurer Mark Rule of Butte. “ Nothing had been communicated.”
Taylor said the owners had been approached by potential buyers but not by “ anyone interested yet.”
The league will now step forward to find a new ownership group for Butte. But there is little hope that a team will be in place in time for next season.
lquote'We will do everything we can to get a viable franchise back in Butte,” Nelson said. “ I can promise you that.””
But starting a franchise is tough in May when the recruiting season is already in full swing.
That and having no coaches in place makes it unlikely a new owner could field a team to start play in the fall, Nelson said. That means the earliest a Butte team could play likely would be in September 2003.
“ In a perfect world we could,”' Nelson said of any hope for a 2002-2003 season in Butte. “ It would be very difficult and I don't want this to ever happen again. We're going to take the time and find the right fit. We want to do right by the town and the fans with a stable ownership.””
Recent improvements in the hockey scene in Butte weren't enough to help the Irish now but could help land another franchise later.
The Butte Community Ice Rink proved invaluable as a practice facility. The recent renovations at the Butte Civic Center made it one of the more-hockey friendly facilities in the league.
“ (Butte) has done recent things to put variables in place that will lead to success,”' Nelson said, referring to the rink and renovations. “ We realize good things have happened.””
Nelson stressed that there is a future for the Mining City in the America West Hockey League.
“ This is a difficult decision for the league to make,”' Nelson said in the initial press release. “ Butte has a long-standing tradition in our league as it relates to developing and advancing players, but this is the direction we have to go for the better ment of the AWHL and its players.””
The decision came after the rest of the league's owners contributed “ substantial”' money to keep the franchise from folding before the finish of the regu lar season and the first round of the playoffs.
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The money owed was not the only reason the franchise was terminated, Nelson added.
“ It was due to a number of bylaws violations,”' Nelson said. “ We've done everything we can. The league can't run the team. It puts too much stress on our resources.””
The Irish coaches did not receive paychecks on time, reportedly for weeks on end. That was a major factor in the league stepping in, league officials have said.
Other ongoing problems for the franchise includ ed repeated delinquencies in paying league dues and strife within the ownership group that included a lawsuit brought by one part-owner against the oth ers. According to papers filed in that suit, the fran chise is about $150,000 in debt, and shares of the team are “ worthless.””
The defendants named were Taylor, Jean Tourikis, Brenda Krebs, Dr. Terrence Scott, the league and the corporation, Butte Irish Hockey Inc. Dale Krebs was the part owner who filed the suit.
A separate court order also prompted the sudden closure of The Hockey Stop, the team's pro shop and merchandising outlet in the Butte Plaza Mall, and a potential source of revenue.
Another revenue source was cut off when con flicts between some owners and the promotions staff resulted in no dasher board advertisements all season and no program or rosters available for sale by the end. Once the advertisements failed to appear, local businesses demanded their money back.
Taylor cited lack of advertising revenue and poor attendance as a factor in the franchise's money problems.
“ The profitability of the organization”' was the largest stumbling block when trying to find new owners, Taylor said. He said the current owners would continue to try to sell their stakes in the fran chise. He also said he would like to help any new franchise any way he can, in a non-ownership role.
The league's decision opens the door for a buyer to step in and pay a franchise fee, said to be about $75,000, and start an entirely new franchise instead of buying the Irish.
The recent departure of head coach Brian Meisner and assistant Mike Perkins for jobs with the Wichita Falls, Texas, franchise in Hockey South had nothing to do with Thursday's decision, Nelson said. Both were no longer under contract, he added. Hockey South is a new division of the America West Hockey League, including Tupelo, Miss., that will play games against the current league this coming season with all contests counting in league play.
The rights to the remaining 11 players on the Irish protected list will likely be doled out through a dispersal draft, like Minot and Kimberley last sum mer. Kimberley folded during the playoffs and the Muskies franchise did not last the summer.
The league also announced that the Missoula Moose will play the upcoming season, with ongoing development in Boise and Kalispell.
The Butte franchise went through six coaches in its six seasons of existence and four in the past 26 months. The previous coaching change came sud denly during the last offseason when Joe Liquori was fired while on a recruiting trip. Liquori had stepped in at midseason for his predecessor, Tom McDermott.
McDermott replaced former coach Mike Corbett, who was told his contract would not be renewed fol lowing a game seven loss in a 2000 first-round play off series against Great Falls.
Corbett took over for the team's first head coach, Gary Sampson, on Christmas Eve the season before, following Sampson's sudden resignation. In its inau gural season the year before, the franchise, former ly the Vail Avalanche, advanced to the Borne Cup Finals, losing 4-0 to Billings, but has not advanced past the semifinals since.
The Irish finished this past season with a 22-30-7 mark including the playoffs.
— Joe Paisley is a sportswriter for The Montana Standard.