The San Antonio Rampage, AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, celebrate a win on home ice. (Photo courtesy: AHL)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – After it seemed the Blues were finally getting comfortable in their new AHL house, they’ll have to start all over again.
News broke out on Thursday before the Jets/Blues contest that the San Antonio Rampage, St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since 2018, were sold to the Vegas Golden Knights, with plans to immediately relocate the franchise to the Henderson/Las Vegas area. The physical transferal of the franchise to Vegas is as of yet still pending AHL approval, but the Knights will take full ownership of the Rampage following the 2019-20 season.
“We are extremely grateful to our staff, our fans and our partners who have supported the Rampage for the last 18 years,” Spurs Sports and Entertainment CEO R.C. Buford said. “While this was a difficult decision to make, we believe this move is best for the long-term success of Spurs Sports and Entertainment.”
The St. Louis Blues made a statement on the sudden purchase as well. “We are aware of the news regarding Vegas purchasing the San Antonio organization,” St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Doug Armstrong said in a release. “The Blues will finish the remainder of the 2019-20 season with San Antonio as our AHL affiliate. In the meantime, our pursuit of a new minor league affiliate will begin immediately. We will have no further comment on this topic at this time.”
Now, it goes without saying you probably have to be a pretty hardcore St. Louis hockey fan to care about the Rampage as a team. While they have funneled in up-and-coming players the last few seasons like Mackenzie MacEachern, Jordan Kyrou, Sammy Blais, and even Jordan Binnington; the Rampage never garnered as much attention to the St. Louis franchise as perhaps the Toronto Marlies do for the Maple Leafs.
Of course, being a hockey team in Texas, the Rampage are the “Little, little brother” to the Dallas Stars and their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars. There’s even the San Antonio Spurs, one of eight different major sports franchises in Texas. The Rampage’s greatest moments came in their 10th anniversary season, where they went 41-30-5 only to bow out in the second round. As of now, they currently sit 3rd-last in the 31-team AHL.
Yet, despite an underwhelming following, the Rampage still embraced their home in San Antonio, and the fans reflected that. There have been plenty of fun, affordable giveaways and gameday promotions from the Rampage (including the awesome Chimuelos jerseys worn during the Dia de los Muertos themed games).
The Rampage’s mascot, T-Bone, was temporarily changed to Bistec, as a way of embracing Hispanic culture and impact on the San Antonio community while blending it with the game of hockey. Even Canadian-born players like Jordan Binnington championed the rare opportunity to fuse Mexican art with a predominantly North-American sport.
Multiple Rampage fans took to Twitter expressing their displeasure in losing another San Antonio-based sports franchise. “San Antonio deserves so much better than this, especially as the 7th biggest city in the US,” one twitter user commented.
This isn’t the first time Vegas has fleeced San Antonio or the St. Louis Blues, either. The Golden Knights received the Chicago Wolves AHL team from St. Louis when they came about in 2018, prompting the Blues to find a new affiliate franchise.
That same year, Vegas purchased the WNBA franchise San Antonio Stars, where they have since been playing as the Las Vegas Aces. Hell, even the Oakland Raiders were rumored to relocate to San Antonio, and we all now where they’re headed now. And as for the tweet by the Knights… come on, man, little too soon there.
It also goes without saying that Tom Stillman, Doug Armstrong, and Spurs Sports and Entertainment were likely caught by surprise on this, based on the brevity of their statements. After all, the Rampage were under a 5-year contract with the Blues, set to expire in 2023. The silver lining, for anyone still unaware, is that the players are under contract with the St. Louis Blues, not the San Antonio Rampage, so players like Nathan Walker or Austin Poganski aren’t getting fleeced to the Knights.
However, after everything is said and done, the Blues need a new home for their AHL affiliate. A lot of people from a struggling San Antonio area are going to need new jobs, fans will need a new team to cheer for, or find out ways to follow the current Rampage roster. Be that as it may, there’s still some immediate opportunities for the Blues to pursue something a little bit closer to home, and there may be a golden opportunity to give the game of hockey in Kansas City an upgrade.
Option 1: Chicago Wolves Redux
This is not a new experience for Blues fans, as the Chicago Wolves were the Blues’ AHL affiliate from 2013 to 2017, when they became the Golden Knights’ affiliate. The distance between the Windy City and St. Louis is obviously more favorable than San Antonio to St. Louis. Another benefit is the Wolves are the only AHL franchise that broadcasts every single game locally on television, sort of a “screw you” to the Blackhawks’ late owner Bill Wirtz and his stingy marketing.
A major snag – and one that the Blues have already encountered before – is ownership. The Wolves are one of few AHL franchises that are independently run, and Wolves owner Don Levin and General Manager Wendell Young definitely take a lot of pride in that. From the allowance of certain contracts and salary for the NHL affiliate, to buying pucks and sticks for players, it can sometimes be a frustrating war of compromise.
Danny Ecker provides a great piece on the specifics of what’s involved with an independently run franchise, dating back to when the Blues first partnered with the Wolves.
Option 2: Peoria
Okay, kind of the galaxy-brain, tinfoil hat option here. It’s been a hot minute since the Peoria Rivermen relocated and rebranded to become the Utica Comets, Vancouver’s current AHL affiliate, but the franchise even closer to St. Louis was always deemed a fan favorite.
The Rivermen still exist as an SPHL team today, with a committed following considering their fall into obscurity. It’s been a while since Peoria’s been talked about in St. Louis sports media, but at one point touted legendary Blues past and present, including notable enforcers Kelly Chase and Tony Twist.
While I love the ideas to throw back to the days of the Rivermen (which is up there in awesome logos with the Islander fisherman), you have to look at their track record. Time in the IHL, ECHL, AHL, and SPHL – four different leagues with varied success. The Rivermen in their current state have existed for almost eight years, nearly as long as they existed as an AHL team.
Finally, the ownership of this team, specifically minority owner Bart Rogers, is committed to the SPHL, which they expressed as such in a 2017 article: “Nothing is changing. The Rivermen will remain in the SPHL, remain in professional hockey,” Rogers said. “Same name, same colors, same tradition intact. John [Butler] and I essentially own the same amount of the Rivermen we always have, but now we’ve been joined by Bill Yuill as a majority owner in what promises to be a terrific partnership.
Option 3: Kansas City
Now for the good stuff. It’s a long shot to start an AHL franchise from the ground-up, but the state of Missouri sports has been more successful than ever. The Royals and Cardinals won two World Series in the 2010s, the Blues are looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, and the Chiefs just won the Super Bowl.
The ownership group lead by Tom Stillman have to be more than satisfied with the revenue brought into St. Louis hockey, between the first Stanley Cup, hosting the All-Star Game, and record-smashing ticket sales. Again, I say that the Rampage getting bought now was a surprise move, but with the widespread success and marketing of the Blues, I’d find it naïve to believe St. Louis ownership haven’t considered moving their AHL affiliate a little closer to home.
The world of hockey hasn’t been incredibly prevailing in Kansas since the exodus of the Scouts in ‘76 (there’s your trivia for the day). And imagine the marketing slam dunk in KC, with a Super Bowl champion and MVP Patrick Mahomes in your corner – and a supportive Stanley Cup champion team right nearby it.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility, and clearly the sexy choice. I could be way off, but starting up a brand-new AHL franchise could be below 10, even 5 million dollars for starting up the first season. I haven’t forgotten about the Mavericks either, currently in Kansas City – er, near Kansas City. The Kansas City Mavericks are a Calgary Flames ECHL affiliate and play in Independence, Missouri – 25 minutes out. The Blues could buy them and similarly upgrade them to the AHL level – something that’s actually been done before.
It’s a shame to see the Rampage go, not just because Vegas has screwed us twice, or because all the players have to move someplace else come summer of 2020, but because the fanbase was a small, unique pocket of fans both unique and passionate. Yes, relocating the AHL franchise to local land in Vegas will be another fantastic feather in the cap of Nevada sports, which seems to grow every time you blink.
However, despite the abbreviated timeline, I think (and hope) that the Blues explore options to make their imports and minor leagues more local to the state of Missouri and continue the growth of revenue to St. Louis and Kansas City.
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