O’Sullivan: Local hockey fans saddened, but not surprised by departure of Monarchs

Monitor staff
Published: 5/18/2019 5:32:12 PM

Cam LaRiviere went to Manchester Monarchs games with his youth hockey teams and got to skate on the big rink before the pros took the ice. He also used to go watch the minor league team with his family, and he even had a birthday party at a Monarchs game.

But when the Monarchs announced they were folding on Wednesday, the news didn’t mean much to LaRiviere.

“It’s a little disappointing because the Monarchs and Fisher Cats were the closest pro teams,” said LaRiviere, a Concord High senior who was an alternate captain for the Crimson Tide boys’ hockey team this winter, “but it’s not like I was planning on going to a game anytime soon.”

That sums up the problem for the Monarchs, who had seen a steady decline in attendance over the last five years. It also sums up the consensus for much of the local hockey community.

“I talked to other coaches in the area, I talked to (Concord coach) Dunc (Walsh), and I talked to my assistant coaches, and for us, we’re not really going to miss much because we weren’t going,” Bow High boys’ hockey coach Tim Walsh said.

The news may have been upsetting for the locals who were still traveling to Manchester to see the minor league action, but even to them it was not a surprise.

“I was kind of expecting it,” said Devin Philbrick, another Concord High senior hockey player, “but it’s still sad to hear. It’s sad that younger kids won’t be able to go now and watch that as they’re growing up playing hockey.”

Philbrick comes from a hockey-playing family and they saw some of what turned out to be the Monarchs’ final games this season, as did Pembroke-Campbell boys’ hockey coach Marc Noel.

“I’m disappointed the Monarchs are gone,” Noel said. “I think people enjoyed going to a local hockey game, and now if you want to see professional hockey, you have to go to Boston, and that’s a longer trek and very expensive. With the Monarchs, it might not be the same caliber of play, but it was right in Manchester, you could go out for a night, grab a pizza, see the game and be home at a reasonable time. It was a real family thing.”

Like Philbrick, Noel wasn’t surprised the team left town. And both of them pointed to the same primary reason – the move from the American Hockey League to the East Coast Hockey League in 2015. The players on the AHL teams were one step away from Manchester’s NHL affiliate, the Los Angeles Kings. The players on the ECHL teams were, in theory, two steps away, but the distance was actually much further.

“There’s a major difference between the two leagues,” Bow’s Walsh said. “Most guys don’t have a chance to play in the NHL that are in the East Coast Hockey League; it’s a rare, rare thing. So, I think people were like, ‘Why am I watching these guys that are never going to play in the NHL?’ ”

The move from AHL to ECHL may have worked in another market, but not in a hockey-savvy place like New Hampshire.

“Manchester is a hockey town and this is a hockey state, and everyone knows the different levels and can see that,” Noel said. “I think that’s why people got disinterested.”

“When the lower-level team came in, the play was a lot, lot slower,” LaRiviere said.

In some ways, the Monarchs’ run in Manchester was longer than should have been expected.

“Speaking to people that have worked in the industry, minor league sports are on a five-year cycle, and you have to do something drastic every five years to really keep the interest in most places,” Walsh said.

The Manchester numbers support that statement. During their first five seasons, from 2001-2006, the Monarchs led the AHL in attendance three times, were in the top three every season and averaged 8,798 fans per game. By their eighth season, they had dropped to 10th in the AHL in attendance, but the team still existed in Manchester for another 10 years after that. Things finally became untenable this season when the Monarchs averaged just 2,458 fans, the second-fewest in the ECHL and about half of the league average of 4,445.

“I only went to one game after the AHL team left,” LaRiviere said, “and there was no one there.”

The general manager of the SNHU Arena, the Monarchs’ former Manchester home, has said that the venue will look for a new professional team to bring to the city. Noel was hoping a team in a major junior league (the top amateur leagues in Canada and some northern parts of the U.S.) would fill the void, but it might be hard for that level of team to fill the 10,000-seat SNHU Arena.

“I’ve heard a couple rumblings about a junior team, but I’m not sure that would work anyway,” Walsh said. “Other than that, I really don’t know what they would do there. I don’t know what Southern New Hampshire’s plans are for their (hockey) program. That arena is way too big for a college program, but they do own it. So, who knows?”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20)

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