Local hockey fans, rejoice. Oklahoma City is about to become a hockey town once again, courtesy of the Edmonton Oilers and Prodigal Hockey.
The Oilers, one of the National Hockey League's most storied franchises, made the news official last week when they announced the American Hockey League Board of Governors voted to approve the move of Edmonton's inactive team here. The relocation process will begin immediately, and the new OKC franchise will be ready to hit the ice for the 2010-11 season.
"This announcement is the culmination of hard work from all the groups involved in this process," said Bob Funk Jr., owner of Prodigal Hockey LLC. "As a group, we're pleased to be teaming with a franchise with the rich history and passionate fan base of the Edmonton Oilers. We look forward to providing Oklahoma City with outstanding entertainment as well as world-class hockey."
Prodigal is a locally-based company that spent much of the last eight months focused on bringing professional hockey back to the city. The Oklahoma City Blazers, a staple of the Central Hockey League, called it quits last summer after 17 seasons, citing financial difficulties.
While local hockey fans have suffered through a long winter without their beloved Blazers " who won two CHL titles during their successful OKC run and regularly led the CHL in attendance" the temporary sabbatical has resulted in an upgrade in talent and overall quality. The AHL is hockey's equivalent to Triple-A baseball, the final proving ground for the best young prospects hoping to make the jump to the big stage.
Almost 85 percent of the players on current NHL team rosters honed their skills in the AHL, which has helped make the highest level of minor league hockey a huge success over the last decade. The fact that more than 6.5 million fans have gone through the league's turnstiles since 2001 is testament to the AHL's popularity.
"Oklahoma City has a rich hockey history and a terrific fan base, and will be an excellent fit with our 29 member cities across the U.S. and Canada," said AHL President and CEO David Andrews. "Fans in Oklahoma City can look forward to seeing intense competition, strong rivalries and the best young players in the world as they prepare for careers in the NHL."
To help further promote the new franchise, Prodigal is asking local fans to help name the team. The "Name the Team Contest" at www.prodigalhockey.com is taking suggestions and ideas through Saturday. The fan who submits the name ultimately chosen by the organization will earn a VIP trip to a future Edmonton game at Dallas next season.
Longtime fans will be familiar with the Edmonton teams of the 1980s when Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri helped lead the Oilers to multiple Stanley Cup titles.
While the team has not won a title in two decades " and the current Oilers are struggling through a tough season well back in the Northwest Division" 21 of the 27 players currently on what is essentially a young roster spent time in the AHL.
Simply put, Edmonton management is looking forward to great success in the not-too-distant future, and a lot of those hopes are riding on current and future AHL prospects who will be showcasing their talents in OKC soon.
"The Oilers have felt for some time now that Oklahoma City is the right fit for our American Hockey League franchise," said Kevin Lowe, president of hockey operations for the Oilers. "There is a rich hockey tradition in Oklahoma City, and we anticipate this partnership to be very successful."
In December, the Oklahoma City Council voted unanimously to clear the way for a lease agreement between Prodigal and SMG, the management company for the Cox Convention Center.
Prodigal began taking deposits for season tickets following the Feb. 9 announcement. Fans can call 232-4625 for more information. "Jay C. Upchurch | Photo Shannon Cornman