As the Calgary Flames continue their preparation for the draft, trades, and free agency, there is one more important matter to secure, at least for Mrs. Finest and me. October will begin the fifth and final year of the contract between the City of Stockton, Stockton Arena, and the Calgary Flames. The City of Stockton will be celebrating their 15th year of professional hockey with the first 10 being with the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder.
2017-18 vs. 2018-19
At the end of last year, I chronicled the decline in attendance through the first 13 years of hockey in Stockton. In 2018-19, I am happy to report that the Heat increased their average attendance to 3,690, up from the previous year, albeit by a mere 11 per game. They also climbed up two spots to 27th out of 31 AHL teams. They finished above San Jose, Binghamton, and Belleville, and just behind Rockford, Utica, and Hartford. These seven teams averaged below 4,000 a night, with Stockton and San Jose hosting four less home games then their East Coast counterparts. San Diego once again paced the league with an average of 9,021 per game.
For those who say hockey cannot thrive in Stockton, the Thunder averaged just over 5,900 in 36 home games for 10 years, which included eight straight playoff years. With a little more emphasis placed on marketing and a winning culture, attendance can easily be in the same 5,000 range as Bakersfield.
While Calgary works on an extension for the Heat, things have changed a bit from last year. The hockey team now shares the Stockton Arena with the NBA G League Stockton Kings and the Stockton Rush of Major Indoor Soccer League 2 (Electric Boogaloo).
The Kings’ season is slightly shorter than the Heat’s (November through March) while the Rush play between December and March. Having other teams share the arena should help with the cost for sorely needed improvements for the arena, which include the sound system and video screens. For example, talking with some Heat personnel, Stockton Arena is the only barn that does not meet the AHL requirements for audio and video connections for both teams. This is why the highlights link on my updates either have the HD video and audio from the visiting teams or the low-quality video and audio from the Heat.
According to my Heat source (no, not the stove), the City is more than happy to let the Heat bear the entire costs for these upgrades. Obviously, Calgary is pushing back, wanting the City and other arena residents to cough up a little coin to share the expenses, as these upgrades will benefit everyone, including City-run events like boxing, MMA, and concerts. Another point of negotiations is the practice facility and its availability. Oak Park Ice Arena hosts various hockey leagues along with other events and open skate sessions. Booking closed practice time for the Heat is becoming more difficult as hockey increases in popularity.
Inside Stockton Arena
Even with a sucky sound system, the arena is an enjoyable place to watch hockey. Even second level seats provide a full view while still feeling close to the action. As with any arena, one loses sight lines the closer to the ice the seats are, unless in the end zone like we are. On some of the less populated nights, one can move around to view the game from different angles. Concession choices have improved, with new vendors added last year. Parking options are close and reasonable. There is a good security presence throughout the arena and parking areas. Even the beer selections have improved with at least eight different microbrews along with the standard Bud Light and Coors Light.
The Stockton advantage
While I do not know how many Benjamins are currently being doled out for rent, Stockton does offer some benefits. Travel costs are reduced with Stockton being able to bus to places like San Jose, Bakersfield, and Ontario. When they need to fly, Sacramento Airport is a short 45-minute bus ride away. Low cost air carriers, like Southwest, help reduce air travel cost and fly to most places the Heat play. Player housing is less expensive than other California cities like San Jose and San Diego. All of the training facilities and weight rooms are located within the arena for in-season sessions. Lastly, there is me, someone who provides first-hand insights and analysis that cannot be found in the official team reports.
Recently, Pittsburgh and Vancouver locked in multi-year contracts with their current AHL cities. New Rangers’ President John Davidson is making Rochester a priority. Calgary needs to build some stability in their farm system and plant roots for an extended amount of time, but all of the things listed above still may not keep the Heat in Stockton. With Calgary’s history of moving their affiliates every three to five years, things do not look good for Mrs. Finest and me for Heat hockey in Stockton beyond the 2019-20 season. I am told that every effort is being made for an extension, but with recent front office departures, a move to another West Coast city is looking more imminent. I hope I am wrong and Calgary and Stockton announce an extension before the puck drops on the season.
[Editor’s note: All indications from the Flames are that there will be an update on the future of their affiliations with both Stockton and the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks in the near future.]