CHL Update: Squirrels Owner Forfeits Team

The Continental Hockey League was thrown into turmoil this week, as the owner of the Muncie Squirrels abruptly announced that he was abandoning his franchise due to mounting debts and poor attendance.  With a month left in the regular season, the announcement led to league-wide concerns about the fate of the Squirrels and their players.  The league quelled the fears by week’s end, though, ensuring that Muncie would finish out the season.

On Wednesday, Squirrels owner Kenny Cheswell held an impromptu press conference at which he announced that he was “waving the white flag.  I’m tapped out, friends.  I’m taking a bath on my car dealerships, and I’m taking a bath on this hockey team.  I ain’t in the charity business, and neither are the banks that hold my paper.  Something’s gotta give, and it’s gonna be the team.”

The timing of the announcement was a surprise, as was the fact that Cheswell had apparently not informed anyone on the team about his plans.  But it wasn’t a shock that the Squirrels are in rough shape financially.  Muncie finished second-to-last in CHL attendance last year; the team that finished behind them, the Albuquerque Screaming Eagles, moved to Colorado Springs in the offseason.  This year, the Squirrels’ attendance has fallen further, dipping below 2,000 per game on average.  The team’s most popular promotions have been themed around TV painter Bob Ross, who recorded his shows in Muncie, but the allure of those promos has diminished over time.  Given that the team is not likely to make the playoffs, which might provide an additional windfall, Cheswell decided to get out now rather than wait for the season’s end.

Although the players (who are being paid by their parent organization, the Dakota Jackalopes) have been receiving their paychecks, team coaches and staffers reportedly have been getting paid late or not at all in recent months.  “I’m not going to say that you can hear the checks bouncing in the hallways,” joked coach Ross Roberts, “but it’s definitely been an anxious time around here.  Just ask my landlord.”

At the time Cheswell made his announcement, the Squirrels were in Milwaukee getting ready for that night’s game against the Hogs.  “We weren’t sure what was going on,” said Squirrels D Zander Phthalo.  “We were sitting in the hotel, eating beef jerky and Cheez-Its, trying to figure it out.  We didn’t know if we were going to play the next night, or if they’d pay to fly us home, or what.”

After some frantic phone calls between Roberts, the Squirrels front office, and the league headquarters, the team went ahead and played on Wednesday night, battling to a 2-2 draw with Milwaukee.  “We weren’t sure if we would get paid, or if we were even really still a team,” said Phthalo.  “But the league told us to keep going, so we did.”

By Thursday, the league officially stepped in, announcing that the Squirrels would remain in business under league control until the end of the season.  In the meantime, the league will seek a buyer to take over the team going forward.  “Obviously, this is not something we envisioned happening,” said CHL Commissioner Denny McNerny.  “But once it did, we knew we had to take action.  We had to protect the integrity of our league, and the future of these young players.  So we’ll make sure they get to finish out the year.”

The Squirrels were delighted and relieved with the late-week stay of execution.  “I really wasn’t sure where this was going to wind up,” said Roberts.  “I didn’t think they’d just send us home, but I also didn’t think our owner would quit in midseason.  I didn’t even know you could do that.”

The league is taking steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.  McNerny said that going forward, he would ask team owners to put up performance bonds to guard against this sort of situation.  In addition, the league plans to perform a more vigorous financial vetting of prospective owners.  “We all need to understand that this can’t happen,” said the commissioner.  “If you’re going to buy in, you need to make the commitment to play the whole season, come what may.”

CHL Update: Squirrels Host Bob Ross Night

The CHL’s Muncie Squirrels have made no secret of their connection to the late television painter Bob Ross.  Ross filmed his iconic “Joy of Painting” series in Muncie, and the team selected its name as a tribute to the painter’s fondness for raising baby squirrels.

The Squirrels were out of town on Thursday, but they opened up Ball Arena to host “Bob Ross Night.”  Over 3,000 Squirrel fans and Muncie residents turned out to celebrate the life of the famous painter, and Squirrels GM Clay Charles described the event as “a tremendous success.”

It’s not the first Ross-themed promotion that the Squirrels have held; previously, they have given away T-shirts with Ross’s face on them, as well as stuffed squirrels modeled after Peapod, the painter’s best-known companion.  This was the first time, however, that they had done an event that wasn’t tied to a game.

As fans entered the event, they received commemorative keychains shaped like Ross’s famous palette.  A continuous loop of “Joy of Painting” episodes ran on the arena’s Jumbotron throughout the event, and people were invited to “sit as long as you like and enjoy Bob’s tranquil voice and his happy little trees and paintings.”

Those who wanted a more active experience could paint along with a Certified Bob Ross Instructor, who showed fans how to create one of the painter’s signature landscapes.  In addition, several of Ross’s colleagues and former employees of WIPB-TV shared stories about the main and the experience of creating “Joy of Painting.”

“It was just a really wonderful, special experience,” said Muncie resident Jane Chivers, 38, who described herself as a lifelong fan of Ross.  “It was like for one night, Bob was still with us, helping us find peace and happiness through art.”

The Squirrels offered fans who attended the event discounted tickets to a future game.  Charles reported that “we’ve been flooded with calls” from people taking advantage of the offer.

The GM proclaimed himself “100% pleased” with how the event came out.  He said that he hopes to make Bob Ross Night an annual event.  He said that going forward, he planned to schedule the event on a day when the team was in Muncie so that the players could attend.

“I’d like to strengthen the links between Bob and the team,” said Charles.  “Maybe some of our players could paint along; I bet our fans would love to see Kyler White or Dylan Alizarin try to paint some happy little trees.”