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Local fan saves Falcons franchise for WMass

Date: 12/23/2010

Dec. 27, 2010

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- After two years of uncertainty about whether or not professional hockey would remain in Springfield, Bruce Landon was finally able to tell the city that all is well.

Landon, the team's president and general manager, announced on Dec. 21 that he had finally been able to broker a deal with Connecticut businessman Charlie Pompea, who bought the team from Springfield Pro Hockey, LLC, with the intentions of keeping the Falcons in Springfield. Landon will stay on as president and GM, as well as holding a minority ownership share of the team.

Pompea, who had his purchase of the franchise approved by the American Hockey League (AHL) Board of Governors on Dec. 16, was not in attendance at the official announcement, but said in a statement read by Landon, "As we move forward, our intention is to keep hockey here in Springfield and provide a consistency of an NHL affiliation.

"We also want to provide our fans with aggressive, entertaining and winning hockey. I realize that our record on the ice has not been very impressive over the last several years, but we have been assured by the management of the Columbus Blue Jackets that they will do their very best to provide us with players that will help us bring winning hockey to Springfield."

The new ownership will be known as Falcons Hockey Entertainment, LLC.

In addition to the new ownership, Landon was able to announce the team had extended both their lease with the MassMutual Center and their affiliation with the Columbus Blue Jackets, bringing stability to a situation that was on the brink of leaving the Greater Springfield area without an AHL team for the first time since 1954 and without professional hockey at all for the first time since 1933.

"What it does is it brings stability back. There's going to be hockey here next year. I've extended our affiliation, so there's no more worrying about who our players are going to be," Landon said. "The lease has been extended and our plans now are to eventually make that long term."

Falcons head coach Rob Riley said Columbus is also extremely excited to have a more stable arrangement with the Falcons.

"They're looking for that stability. They left Syracuse and came here and have been very happy and impressed with the facilities [and] the management team," Riley said. "They were hoping this would be more long-term than a one-year deal. It's a great thing for all of us."

Springfield Pro Hockey LLC, which has owned and operated the Falcons for the past eight years, began looking for new partners or someone to take the reigns completely for the past couple of years and went public with their intentions to find a buyer for the team in April.

"I think, first of all, you have to remember that [Springfield Pro Hockey LLC] brought stability for eight years and like any business, they thought it was time to move on," Landon said.

Landon and the partners of Springfield Pro Hockey, LLC, were extremely devoted to keeping the franchise in the City of Homes.

"I would have to say that over the the last 18 months, it has been the most difficult time in my long career in professional hockey," Landon said. "I had a fiduciary responsibility to the partners, but I also felt that I had a commitment to the fans in the area and this great city that we keep professional hockey in Springfield."

According to Landon, the former ownership turned down substantial offers from out-of-town interests before making the deal with Pompea.

"Over the past 18 months, I have dealt with 28 different groups or individuals -- some of them four or five times over - who expressed interest in professional hockey here in Springfield," Landon said. "The unfortunate thing is that the majority of the groups were from outside the area and there was, indeed, some sincere interest from groups to move this franchise to another city. That was something I didn't want to happen, nor did my partners."

AHL President David Andrews expressed his relief in learning the franchise will stay in Springfield.

"It's our 75th anniversary as a league and to have a charter member re-energized in this way is really important," Andrews said. "The second part is the league headquarters are located here and have been for some time. We're operating a very successful league in this city and 29 other cities across North America and it's important for the league that team in the city the league is headquartered in is successful and vibrant. This announcement today goes a long way toward achieving that."

Mayor Domenic Sarno termed the announcement "quite a Christmas gift under the tree" and added that the long-term success of the Falcons directly impacts the economic development of the downtown corridor.

Landon cautioned that while this was a very positive sign for the future of hockey in Springfield for the long term, it does not mean that the team is out of the woods.

"We've still got work to do. We've got to get people in the seats," Landon said. "We don't want people to take this for granted. Without people in the seats, we'll be going through this again, maybe down the road."

The Falcons have struggled to draw gate, especially over the last five years. Springfield has been one of the bottom five teams in the league in attendance in every season but one -- 2008-09. In the 08-09 season, the team still trailed the league average in attendance by over 1,000 fans.

Landon conceded that while the fragile economy in Western Massachusetts has had an impact, the team's performance on the ice has played a part as well. The Falcons have not had a winning season since the 1997-98 season and haven't made the playoffs since the 2002-03 season. The last time a Springfield franchise won the Calder Cup was when the Indians won back-to-back cups in 1990 and 1991.

The Falcons finished last in the Atlantic Division last season and endured a 17-game winless streak.

Still, with a new affiliation, better talent, and as a result, a better record, the Falcons average attendance is down this season approximately 300 fans per game.

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