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.”