( Photo Credit: Commercial Construction & Renovation / Mansour )

By: Mark Allred | Follow Me On Twitter @BlackAndGold277

The National Hockey League is getting closer-and-closer to finalizing a return to play scenario targeted for January 13th, 2021, which is good for the league’s future sustainability. With Covid-19 numbers rising all over North America, it’s in the league’s best interest to construct safe environments and division realignments to get the product back on the ice. The NHL needs to have a season to lure new television revenue opportunities as a new deal is set to be in place for the 2021-22 regular season.

That’s all well and good, but when you look further down the pipeline in the minor-pro developmental systems, those franchises are the ones really taking the hit. The American Hockey League is a gate driven business, and 11 of the 31 teams in the league don’t have the financial backing from their parent NHL teams. Some AHL teams may not survive, and in this week’s Around the “A” Podcast below, show hosts David Foot and Patrick Williams interviewed Syracuse Crunch owner Howard Dolgon to talk about the struggles he and other team owners are dealing with through this pandemic. For all your AHL news and updates, we highly recommend you follow the Around The A Podcast and subscribe on your favorite listening platforms.

Listen to “Around the A Podcast Offseason Update with Syracuse Crunch Owner Howard Dolgon – December 9th, 2020” on Spreaker.

Where Could The Providence Bruins Play If and When the 2021 Season Starts?

When it comes to Boston Bruins related news and these pandemic struggles of operating a sports business, the Providence Bruins are one of those AHL teams that are not directly owned by the NHL Bruins. Without a readily available vaccine and gate driven revenue, the top minor-pro affiliate may seek an alternative home facility for the upcoming 2021 regular season. With Covid numbers rising in the state of Rhode Island and strict group restrictions concerning events at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, AHL Bruins owner H. Larue Renfroe may be forced to take his minor-pro organization out of the Providence area. Below, New England Hockey Journal writer Mark Divver suggested a few places where the AHL franchise could play for the upcoming 2021 regular season in a tweet released yesterday afternoon.

The arena mentions that Divver provided above are all valid suggestions and great facilities in an emergency situation. The AHL season has a tentative start date for early February 2021, and even though that’s around three months away, the day-by-day logistic discussions are for sure happening when thinking about placing people in safe areas. A place like the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence is not owned by AHL Bruins CEO Renfroe and an organization losing money quickly until a vaccine arrives; I find it speculative that Larue would place his club in an area where he has to pay rent.

Renfroe, an American Businessman, bought the AHL Bruins franchise in 2006 after a 14-year stretch from former team owners Frank DuRoss and Ed Anderson who relocated their Maine Mariners affiliate to the city of Providence in 1992 per Wikipedia. This is not Larue’s first dealings in the business of hockey. In 1994 he opened a four rink developmental facility in Marlborough, Massachusetts. That four rink facility called the New England Sports Center that opened in the early 1990s has grown to eight rinks (ten rinks including mini-training sheets) and hearing there could be an expansion to make this suburb of Boston business the biggest hockey training facility in the world.

Now for at least the upcoming 2021 AHL season to save money, particularly in the “rent” factor, the New England Sports Center makes a ton of sense. Without fans in the stands revenue, Renfroe could significantly decrease overhead spending and move the club to Massachusetts. One of the rinks at the Marlborough facility can hold up to 1,800 spectators, so plenty of room for team management and hockey media to appropriatly social distance with development at the forefront.

Per Black N’ Gold Productions team member Andrew Taverna, the New England Sports Center might be preparing for the Providence Bruins arrival with the recent news of removing a free Covid testing facility in mid-January of 2021. The Free Stop The Spread testing provided by the Marlborough Hospital has been done in the parking lot of the NESC mega-plex for a good part of 2020 and will shrink it’s testing sites from five to two.

In an article for the Patch.com website, staff writer Neal McNamara quoted Marlborough, Massachusetts Mayor Arthur Vigeant said in a news release earlier this month, “We are working to extend free testing beyond January and will update our residents when we have additional information.”
Governor Baker’s office did not return a request for comment about the Stop the Spread reductions in Marlborough and Framingham. Marlborough officials could not immediately say why the state is reducing the number of local sites.

What About The Future of the Providence Bruins and Where They Might Play Home Games?

One interesting scenario that was brought to my attention the other day per source is the fact that Providence Bruins primary owner Larue Renfroe could permanently move his franchise to his property in Massachusetts. This is purely speculation at this point, but when you put two and two together, it actually makes sense. I’m not saying this is a great idea for fans and season ticket holders of the Providence Bruins team, but in a league where even some AHL franchises were struggling even in pre-covid times, downsizing operations putting professional players development ahead of business to thrive is not a bad idea.

Hypothetically speaking, of course, and heavy business angle brought to this thought, but if Renfroe were to move the Providence club to his property in Marlborough, Massachusetts, he’d save a ton of money. Larue is a New Orleans, Louisiana native that move to Massachusetts in 1966 per a press release article by Telegram & Gazette writer Martin Luttrell in August of 2006 with word of his purchase of the AHL franchise.

Now, most intelligent Boston Bruins fans would question a potential departure because the Boston Bruins and AHL Bruins affiliate signed a ten-year affiliation extension in May of 2019, with Renfroe having control until the 2028-29 season. This means that Larue has a contractual obligation to provide the means necessary to develop the Boston organization’s top prospects, but that doesn’t mean a specific location. As long as Larue provides everything needed that’s satisfactory to the parent NHL franchise, he could pretty much place Bruins prospect anywhere, hypothetically speaking.

The location makes sense, and not saying traveling to and from Providence was that much of an inconvenience, but for call-up reasons, it’s just a closer stone’s throw. Once again, coming at readers with a little heavy speculation but as a property developer along Donald Lynch Boulevard in Marlborough, Mass. which started with the NESC 24-acre grounds of operation purchased for $11 million back in the early 1990s, a new arena is not out of the realm of speculation. As seen below in an overhead view courtesy of the great folks at Google Earth, Renfroe certainly has or could have the space for relocation. Regardless if Renfroe owns the adjacent property next to his New England Sports Center complex, it is enough space to consider property expansion.

( Photo Credit: Google Earth )

After talking to a few of my peers from the NHL and minor-pro hockey media personalities, there seems to be more chatter about professional developmental downsizing when it comes to seating capacity. Some Canadian Hockey League franchises operate solely on an average attendance of 3,000 to 5,000 seat capacity, so this might be an idea to save AHL franchises to don’t get direct financial backing from their NHL parent clubs. As a business, this also opens up a tremendous amount of opportunities for non-hockey related events like concerts, indoor lacrosse, indoor soccer, E-Sport events, and trade shows. Also, a hotel right next door for any event is a bonus and could increase more hospitality companies to join the commercial property neighborhood in an effort to not only house hundreds of hockey players year-by-year but also bring fans from afar to the Massachusetts area.

I hate mentioning an area so invested in hockey dating back to the early 1900s could lose an AHL franchise. Saving money at the minor-pro level of the game goes back to the great AHL western shift where a thriving area like Manchester, New Hampshire lost a franchise due to the 2,500-mile gap between the Monarchs parent NHL club in Los Angeles, California. From club leagues to the Providence Reds and later Providence Bruins, the Rhode Island area has been a place for many to grow their game or getaway searching for professional hockey entertainment. In the age of rising operational costs, all options have to be considered when thinking about the future of all minor-pro leagues regardless of what affiliation.