ELMIRA, N.Y. – The 2016-17 season was everything short of ideal for the Elmira Jackals, an ECHL franchise that folded this spring after completing their last home game in the team’s 17-year history at First Arena on April 8.
The Jackals, formerly affiliated with the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres, finished dead last in the league with a record of 17-47-7-1 after enduring negative press about the future of their arena and careers with the organization since arriving for training camp last fall.
The unfortunate announcement was made by the Jackals on March 10 that the team would cease operations at the end of the season due to financial issues that have seemingly stemmed from a steady decrease in attendance over the last several seasons, which is a problem from the affiliate leagues up through “the show” (Hutchinson, 1993).
“I can definitely speak to the team and hockey side of things,” said Jared Abbott, former Assistant General Manager for the Jackals. “We were moving forward everyday knowing the situation was at the same status quo that it was at the start of the season.”
Abbott, who now serves as Vice President of Sales and Operations for the Manchester Monarchs, used his expertise he developed over multiple seasons with the Jackals to try to keep the team on track, despite the rumors surrounding the team all season long.
“As professional athletes, it was just a matter of the guys putting aside distractions that were out there publicly and just focus on doing their jobs, and for all of us, that was trying to continue to put a competitive team on the ice,” reflected Abbott.
The front office continued to make efforts to improve the team’s on-ice play and interest of the fans alongside every news report which claimed the arena would close its doors, and hockey might disappear forever.
“It was definitely a tough season in the wins and losses column with plenty of changes throughout the year,” Abbott explained. “We had players coming in and out and even coaching staff changes.”
“They were definitely a resilient group and competed hard. A lot of visiting coaches would say that despite the wins and losses, the team was hard to play against,” said Abbott. “They were actually surprised there weren’t more wins from the group.”
Unfortunately for the entire Sabres organization, the 2016-17 season was a major struggle. Not only did the Jackals suffer in the bottom of the standings all season, but their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, also experienced a downward spiral over the winter that cost them a chance to make the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Sabres themselves also disappointed their fans this season, finishing in last place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference after accumulating just 78 game points. Abbott doesn’t feel, however, that the lack of success out of the organization contributed to the factors leading to the Jackals ceasing operations.
“You can wind up on a winning streak, or sometimes it can go in a different direction, and unfortunately you can collect some losses,” said Abbott. “The wins and losses may not exactly go your way, but that’s the nature of the game. Our guys were competing every shift in search of that next win.”
Lukas Favale, who joined the Jackals last September as the team’s broadcaster, arrived at First Arena at a time when these rumors started swirling and is just as dumbfounded as the rest of the front office as to what has actually gone on.
“I don’t really know what else I can say other than what you’ve seen or heard. You know as much as me,” admitted Favale. “I guess it’s a year of change here in Elmira.”
Perhaps Favale’s first impression of the Jackals and First Arena would have been better back in the inaugural season in 2000, when the $15.5 million building, then known as Coach USA Center, became home to the Jackals, who originally competed in the Ontario Hockey League (Coy, 1999).
“It was just one of those years where it seemed like everything that could go wrong went wrong, especially in terms of on-ice play,” Favale said. “You can play well for 55 minutes, but a five-minute stretch can cost us two or three goals, and that was a major issue.”
As to whether or not the disappointing news updates throughout the season affected the Jackals’ on-ice play is difficult to determine, but the team’s broadcaster, who spent every waking moment with the team this season, likes to think otherwise.
“The guys were talking about it here and there, but I think they were trying the best they could to ignore everything,” said Favale. “They know that they can’t control what happened, so they focused on controlling what they could control, and that was trying to win on the ice.”
While the rest of the former front office staff members of the Jackals have moved onto new opportunities, there is one loyal employee remaining in Elmira who intends on being the next team’s first hire when hockey hopefully returns to the city in the future.
“It seems like every person you talk to has a different story about what has gone on or what is going to happen next,” said Rick Bacmanski, longtime team photographer. “My take on it is, and I’ve been around here since the first puck drop way back in the inaugural season, is the arena is going to continue, one way or the other.”
Most of the community still remains in a depressed state of shock over losing their hometown team, yet Bacmanski relies on his expertise from his 17-year career covering the Jackals to keep his spirits high about First Arena’s future.
“I’ve been around so many years, and I’ve seen so many changes in ownership and management. A lot of people like to talk gloom and doom all the time, but I think this is just another step in the progression of this place,” Bacmanski said. “It’s going to end up taking us to a better final situation in the long run.”
Efforts to help struggling markets didn’t need to be a top priority of the ECHL until 2014 (Fraser, 2007), when the league partnered with Essensa, a purchasing company promising “significant savings” by incorporating cost-cutting methods and enabling teams to pay less for day-to-day business expenses (Essensa, 2014). Bacmanski believes the next leader of First Arena shares the same mentality.
“I know the new owner of the building, and he’s a very smart businessman with the financial background to take care of issues that are always plaguing this place,” explained Bacmanski. “He’s got the drive and the love of the game, and I don’t think he’s going to let hockey disappear out of Elmira.”
“To anybody who says that it’s going to be gone, I just think they’re wrong,” Bacmanski added.
It is unfortunate to note, however, that over half of the ECHL’s franchises do not break even on their operating costs, and even less of them make a profit each season (Stewart, 2007). Not only did the league lose the Jackals this spring, but the Alaska Aces also folded as well – all due to a lack of attendance.
It’s easy to blame the performance of the team (Forrest, 2005) for a steady decline in attendance at First Arena over the last decade, but for the men who have donned a Jackals jersey over the course of their career, the additional work they put in off the ice to develop new fans often goes unnoticed.
“Players and coaches are usually at the mercy of the public relations staff,” said Nathan Oystrick, former Elmira Jackals player and assistant coach during the 2015-16 season.
Oystrick, who currently serves as an assistant coach for the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators, recently reflected on team obligations he has been required to participate in over the course of his 20-year professional career that didn’t involve the ice.
“I know personally, I spent many hours in libraries speaking to kids about the importance of reading but also representing the team I played for to attract new fans,” said Oystrick. “There are always numerous season ticket holder parties where it is mandatory for players and coaches to be at events.”
The Jackals did not fold due to a lack of participation in these types of marketing activities, either. According to Oystrick, the Jackals tried everything they could in that regard.
“Along with all those events, guys are asked to do many different things throughout the year, and from my experience, hockey players are always very accommodating to help the PR and marketing staff,” he added.
Although Oystrick’s time in Elmira was short, his reaction to the news of the Jackals folding was shared by many others in the hockey community who have spent time at First Arena.
“The news was a bit surprising considering a new owner had purchased the arena,” said Oystrick. “Obviously it wasn’t a secret that the team was going through some financial trouble, but like everyone else, I had hoped the new owner could rectify those problems.”
While Oystrick has spent time as a player in various markets at every level, his heart goes out to the faithful hockey fans in Elmira who can no longer call the Jackals their hometown team.
“I feel bad for the fans,” he said. “There are a lot of really great people who spent their hard-earned money to watch their favorite tam play, and it can’t be easy for them to see the team they love leave.”
While the future of professional hockey at Elmira’s First Arena remains completely unclear, Oystrick wishes the local community will be able to watch their favorite players again in the Twin Tiers in the near future.
“I enjoyed my time there and always felt like I was a part of the community,” said Oystrick of Elmira. “I know a lot of people were hurt by what happened, but hopefully something will be figured out and the city, and most importantly the fans, will get a team back.”