What the WHL?

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:40 AM ET

The Edmonton Oilers want to own a WHL franchise. WHL president Ron Robison likes the idea of opening up shop here. If that's bulletin board material, you haven't been paying attention the past year or so as the Oilers have wagged their chequebook trying to flush out a seller and lure a team to Edmonton.

The problem for the Oilers, who'd move or sell the Edmonton Road Runners and get out of the AHL business in a heartbeat if they could secure a WHL franchise for the 2005-06 season, is it hasn't happened. Tri-City Americans owners Darryl Porter, Glen Sather, Brian Burke and Bob Tory rebuffed a second offer by the Oilers in March.

Unless they reconsider and receive the blessing of WHL governors to relocate - something that wasn't forthcoming in their attempt to move to Chilliwack, B.C. - there's no reason to believe that's going to change any time soon.

"After all these months, what has the WHL done creatively to help move a team here? We've had a blank cheque out," says Oilers president Patrick LaForge, who is leading the bid to land a team. "We're standing here with our pants down and our Visa card hanging out. Not a pretty picture."

STANDING OFFER

The Oilers' zeal to secure a WHL team is such that they made a standing offer of $5 million to any owner wanting to sell. That inducement, made with a provision a deal be done for the '04-05 season, was at least $1 million over market value. No takers.

The WHL is a better fit for the Oilers on a lot of fronts. While the Road Runners turned into profitable Plan B this season, it's questionable they'll be able to stay in the black when the NHL is up and running. The Road Runners' average paid attendance was 8,853 this season. What will it dwindle to when the Oilers are back? Will 7,000 fans a night mean a profit? What about 5,000?

The second scenario is this: what if a deal can't be struck with the NHLPA by next season and owners decide to open with replacement players? That won't fly here. That would be like having two AHL teams. No way.

"We still think the ideal combination is the NHL and the junior team," Oilers governor Cal Nichols says. "Look at Vancouver. Look at Calgary. Then, is it really reasonable in the longer term to have two pro teams in a market this size? I think that would be ill-advised."

A WHL franchise, without the same costs for airlines and hotels as the AHL, not to mention the absence of a payroll that approached $2 million with the Road Runners, would turn a profit at 5,000 fans a night. The bottom line aside, there's an obvious rivalry with Red Deer and Calgary.

"It's been a great idea for the last year-and-a-half, but it's only been smoke and mirrors," LaForge said. "If the WHL fits, great. They've said they'd like to move a team here, but nothing's come of those conversations. We're not likely going to stand around and watch. That's not an Oiler attribute."

UP FOR SALE

Unless a team comes up for sale, the Oilers would have to wait for expansion, and the WHL has no plans at this time to increase its number of teams. The other possibility is landing an ECHL team - something the Oilers are contemplating.

The first choice, by a long shot, remains the WHL. With the deadline to relocate for next season having come and gone, the Oilers would be willing to operate in an existing WHL city for a year and then move a team for 2006-07. In theory, that's a scenario that might still involve the Americans.

If that's the case, or if there's another owner interested in a tidy profit, LaForge wants to know, sooner rather than later. Pants down with your Visa card hanging out is no way to do business.


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