Local hockey fans may have something to cheer about soon 

Barely two weeks into January, a quick check of the Oklahoma City Blazers' Web site is all one needs as a reminder to the long, cold, lonely winter local hockey fans find themselves suffering through these days.

The site is blank, other than a brief note from DeBray Ayala, the defunct team's former general manager, explaining why the Blazers ceased operations last summer after a 17-season partnership with OKC and its loyal fans. An "economic downturn" is blamed for the decision, which probably had more to do with the arrival of the city's NBA franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder, than anything else.

In the meantime, area hockey enthusiasts have been forced to get their ice fix somewhere else over the last few months. But that could be changing in the not-too-distant future, as the Oklahoma City Council voted unanimously last month to grant SMG the authority to enter into a lease agreement with Prodigal Hockey LLC, which has its sights set on bringing professional hockey back to the city soon.

SMG manages the Cox Convention Center, where the new franchise could play as many as 40 home games. The five-year lease agreement, which contains a pair of three-year renewal options, allows for more than $4 million in renovations to the venue, including a new ice plant and improvements to the mechanical room, locker rooms and various other aspects of the arena.

Negotiations to finalize an agreement that would purportedly bring an American Hockey League franchise to Oklahoma City in time for the 2010-11 season are in their final stages, according to Prodigal Hockey owner Bob Funk Jr. While an official announcement date has not been set, a deal is imminent.

"We're close. We have some things to finalize, and there are some approval processes that need to be gone through, but I think we're really close to getting something done," Funk Jr. told The Associated Press.

That's great news for local fans who have been suffering withdrawals since the Blazers were unceremoniously disbanded.

"It would be great to get an AHL team in here " not just because Oklahoma City needs a hockey team, but because that is a better overall brand of hockey," said Debra Larch, an Oklahoma City resident and longtime hockey supporter. "To be honest, the Blazers were fun to watch back in the '90s when they had some good players and good teams. But over the last few years, it got to where you were watching players whose skill levels were going down, instead of like the AHL, where you are obviously watching young guys on the way up."

Oklahoma City has a long relationship with professional hockey, dating all the way back to the 1930s. But the sport really took off in the mid-'60s when the Boston Bruins' farm team called the State Fairgrounds Arena its home. The last high-level minor league team here had been associated with the Minnesota North Stars and Calgary Flames as late as 1982.

The Blazers, basically the equivalent of a double-A team, began their successful run here in 1982, and built a faithful following that was regularly tops in Central Hockey League attendance figures.

It has been rumored the Edmonton Oilers will be the new team's NHL parent club. The Oilers' ownership group has visited OKC on more than one occasion and their present affiliation agreement with the AHL team in Springfield, Mass., expires at the end of the 2009-10 season.

The AHL is a 29-team league based out of Springfield. Most of the franchises are located on the East Coast, with teams in San Antonio and Dallas being the closest in proximity to Oklahoma City. Prodigal, which has no ties to the Blazers' former ownership group Express Sports, hopes to have an update or even an official announcement in the near future.

"The sports landscape has changed and will continue to change as the city continues to grow. In addition to providing the best hockey available, Prodigal LLC also wants to provide affordable entertainment options (Pro Bull Riders, hockey) for the city," said Funk Jr. "Sporting events provide many things to many people. For the dyed-in-the-wool hockey fan, we can provide players that will someday be stars, as well as quality play. To others, we will provide them with a fun time with family or friends.

"Our goal will be to entertain people from the moment they walk through the doors with the product in the building, as well as on the ice."

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Jay C. Upchurch

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