Marek Warszawski

How one team’s return to Selland can thaw Fresno’s frozen relationship with hockey

Fresno Monsters bring hockey back to Selland Arena

Owner Jeff Blair hopes to fill seats at the downtown venue with a promise of value and a good time for fans. Selland Arena once was the longtime home of the Fresno Falcons pro hockey team.
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Owner Jeff Blair hopes to fill seats at the downtown venue with a promise of value and a good time for fans. Selland Arena once was the longtime home of the Fresno Falcons pro hockey team.

Fresno and the sport of hockey have been in a long, deep freeze.

Perhaps it’s time for some thawing in that relationship.

This week, hockey enjoys a rare turn at center ice as the Fresno Monsters skate at Selland Arena for the first time since 2013 with a trio of games Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

If the weekend proves successful, Monsters owner Jeff Blair proposes to have the junior hockey club play 16 weekend dates there starting next season.

Meanwhile, hockey proponents who yearn for the days of the Fresno Falcons are hopeful a robust turnout will help convince arena operator SMG and City Hall to at least be open-minded toward the return of a professional franchise.

“There’s no question in my mind Fresno can support pro hockey,” said Darren Redmond, co-founder of Fresno Hockey Talk. “This is a real opportunity for hockey to re-energize downtown.”

“I would love to see pro hockey come back,” added Reino Siipola, a standout on Fresno Falcons teams in the 1970s and ’80s who now owns a local construction business. “There’s still a dedicated core of fans that really miss having a pro team in town.”

Fresno used to be a hockey town. Selland Arena was home to the Falcons from 1968 to 2003 as well as for a brief period in 2008 after the team returned downtown following five seasons at Save Mart Center.

Hockey aficionados know what happened next. Months into their new 20-year lease at Selland, which had just undergone $5 million worth of hockey-related improvements designed to accommodate the team, the Falcons folded and left the city holding the bag.

Since then, and perhaps understandably so, Fresno has given pro hockey the cold shoulder despite repeated interest from NHL clubs to move minor-league affiliates to town.

It happened in 2014 when a Bay Area developer wanted to move the San Francisco Bulls, then the San Jose Sharks’ ECHL club, to town and more recently when the Las Vegas Golden Knights were looking for a West Coast city for its AHL feeder.

Five California cities are home to AHL franchises: San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Mighty Ducks), San Jose Barracuda (Sharks), Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers), Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) and Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings). Each team is owned by their respective NHL parent clubs.

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Members of the Fresno Monsters hockey team practice at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. The Monsters are playing at Selland on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, the first hockey games in the arena since 2013. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

What’s stopped Fresno from joining that list and rekindling old rivalries with San Diego, Bakersfield and Stockton? In short, a deal that works for the team and city.

Mayor Lee Brand has indicated he’s open to the return of pro hockey – provided the agreement makes fiscal sense and doesn’t dip into city coffers.

“Fresno cannot afford to subsidize any more sports,” Brand said in reference to the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team, which routinely operates at a loss despite large cutbacks in rent for use of city-owned Chukchansi Park.

According to Bill Overfelt, general manager of the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center, previous proposals could not give that assurance.

Overfelt also disputed rumors, circulating in local hockey circles, that the price SMG quoted to the Golden Knights to rent Selland was nearly three times higher than what the Stockton Heat pays for its arena. Negotiations, he said, never reached that stage.

“If someone presents me with a deal that pencils out and protects the city, I’ll definitely take a look at it,” Overfelt added. “That’s my job. But I haven’t seen that. They still want the city to take a certain amount of risk.”

Bringing hockey back would certainly make more use of Selland, which sits empty during long stretches of the fall and winter. And there are ancillary benefits to having more people visit, park and eat in the area.

We are supposed to be revitalizing downtown, right?

“If I owned a restaurant,” Siipola said, “I’d sure want a hockey team down there during the part of the year when there isn't baseball or soccer.”

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Members of the Fresno Monsters hockey team practice shots on goal at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. The Monsters are playing at Selland on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, the first hockey games in the arena since 2013. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

But there are complications. According to Overfelt, the power bill for keeping the 30,000-square-foot ice sheet runs $1,500 per day. AHL teams play from October to mid-April, so do the math. (Overfelt said the $1,500 figure came as a result of a “detailed study.” But other arenas with ice rinks pay significantly less, according to my online research.)

Furthermore, Selland has entered into contracts with several organizations, including USA Wrestling, that Overfelt said bring more economic benefit than hockey (i.e. hotel rooms) and don’t want their events held over ice.

Is there an average attendance figure that would make hockey pencil out? Overfelt set that number at 5,000, slightly above the 4,823 the Bakersfield Condors are averaging this season at Rabobank Arena.

Incidentally, the Falcons averaged more than 5,200 fans at Selland in each of the final three seasons that preceded their move to SMC. (How many of those were actual ticket purchases vs. freebies, I can’t say.) But attendance dipped below 3,500 during the ill-fated, aborted 2008 campaign.

“It’s a business,” Overfelt said. “If an event makes sense and works and makes money we’ll do it in a heartbeat.”

Blair, a Fresno native and lifelong hockey fan who purchased the Monsters in May 2016, has a different wrinkle.

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Fresno Monsters owner Jeff Blair stands at center ice at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno, where the junior hockey team will be playing their first games since 2013. Blair would like to see the Monsters play Friday and Saturday games at Selland starting next season. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Since 2014 the amateur club, made up of 18- to 21-year-olds, has played all its home games at Gateway Ice Center, which wasn’t designed as a spectator venue. Why not let the Monsters play Friday and Saturday night games at Selland starting next season?

That’s the proposal Blair intends to make to SMG and City Hall, provided the Monsters draw a crowd this weekend. The Monsters typically play a three-game series on consecutive days against the same opponent. Under Blair’s plan, Thursday games would remain at Gateway with Friday and Saturday games moving downtown.

“I want to see hockey on the big stage,” said Blair, who grew up attending Falcons games at Selland during their “green and gold” era of the Pacific Southwest Hockey League. “I want to see fans in that building. I want to see that building utilized.”

Blair said he’s not looking for handouts or subsidies. He just wants a “fair shake” from the powers that be to prove hockey in downtown Fresno can work.

“Why wouldn’t the city go for that?” he asked.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

Return to Selland

FRESNO MONSTERS VS. LONG BEACH BOMBERS

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Where: Selland Arena

Tickets: $13-$19, available at Selland box office or online via Ticketmaster (with added fees)

Parking: $10 at main Selland lot. Early arrival recommended due to other events taking place at Convention Center all three nights.

Special events: Friday is Public Safety Night by the Fresno Police Officers Association. Chief Jerry Dyer will perform ceremonial puck drop. Saturday is Hockey Heritage Night with pregame ceremony honoring former Fresno Falcons and Monsters who give back to the community. Monsters players will give away 20 hockey sticks and pucks to children in the crowd.

Details: fresnomonsters.com, 559-549-4849

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