Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Arena Origin Story (Part 3)

By Jon Brooks

After the University of Nebraska at Omaha announced their intention to start Division I hockey in 1996 (and after they took $25/ticket deposits on season tickets), they set forth to find a home for the nascent program.

Installing ice into the venerable Omaha Civic Auditorium wasn't a given. In fact, there were questions about adding hockey to the venue -- both from the Omaha City Council and Creighton University (which held its men's and women's basketball games there).

Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen told the Omaha World-Herald on April 30, 1996:

"We've been a longtime tenant at the Civic and we feel it's been a good relationship. However, if there are issues that arise that create additional problems for us, and other opportunities arise, maybe [the city] will be adding hockey and losing Creighton."

Rasmussen was concerned about the nature of collegiate hockey scheduling, and the two-game series structure of Friday and Saturday night games. He felt sharing the facility with UNO could impede his school's ability to hold games during prime hours (he even mused that Creighton might build its own basketball arena should issues arise).

UNO AD Don Leahy did a yeoman's job trying to quell any concerns. Additionally, he talked about the Civic's beautiful sight lines and the fact that the facility could hold 2,000 more spectators for hockey than Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum.

The other piece of the puzzle in UNO becoming a tenant was that the Omaha City Council would have to approve the the ice install as well as any additional renovations to the 40-year-old facility.

Council members Subby Anzaldo and Lee Terry actively pushed for ice.

But according to Omaha World-Herald accounts of the proceedings, some on the council weren't as supportive:

Aside from a 20-minute filibuster by Councilman Frank Christensen, the council's public hearing and vote on the renovation package went smoothly, lasting about an hour and a half.

Council members put to rest any question about their support for ice and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Hawkins Construction Co. contract worth $13.1 million.

The contract calls for the main renovation work to cost $11.1 million, plus $1.6 million for ice and ice-related facilities. Another $400,000 in additional items such as new wall surfaces and new air-handling units also is included.

The contract also includes an 11th-hour change by Councilman Richard Takechi to move the hockey locker rooms and storage areas to a new addition on the west side of the auditorium. The change will tack another $400,000 onto the project but will preserve arena concourse space used by trade shows.

Councilman Paul Koneck was the lone council member to oppose the ice component of the contract. Although he voted against installing ice, he later voted in favor of the agreement with UNO for hockey.  

With the city in place to make the necessary renovations – and UNO having sold 5,000 season tickets at the time of the vote – UNO could get down to the nitty gritty of putting a hockey program together.

The Race Toward a New Arena
As UNO was forging ahead with UNO Hockey (securing the necessary renovations to play at the Civic), talk of a new arena was swirling on the Aksarben property.

With the piecemeal breakup of the 360-acre Aksarben property, the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum's future was in doubt. Mayor Hal Daub favored a new 15,000-25,000 arena in downtown.

While all of this was going on, Council Bluffs was talking about building an arena and convention center on the other side of the Missouri River.

Omaha would eventually build an arena on the riverfront, Council Bluffs would proceed with plans to build an arena of their own, and the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum would get razed in favor of new development.

Within seven years of the Omaha City Council approving ice at the Civic Auditorium, there would be arenas in the metro area that held ~8,314 for hockey, ~6,700 for hockey, and ~16,000 for hockey.

A Stranger Rides Into Town
Businessman Ken Stickney of California-based Mandalay Sports Entertainment decided in 1998 that he wanted to move one of his minor league teams to Omaha, and he wanted that team to play in the Civic Auditorium.

Stickney suggested (in the Omaha World-Herald on Aug. 31, 1998) that if they couldn't play at the Civic, Mandalay was prepared to enter into a partnership with the city to privately fund a 10,000-seat sports arena.

UNO had a non-compete clause in their contract with the city, and could keep the IHL out.

Mandalay, [Stickney] said, would want the arena to seat about 10,000 and feature 36 luxury suites. A second ice rink would be located elsewhere in the building. Cost, he said, would be $38 million. In addition to hockey, Stickney said, a new arena would be used for other events throughout the year.

"You don't just build an arena for a hockey team," he said, "unless it's a National Hockey League franchise."

Omaha is the No. 1 target for company growth, Stickney said. The city is attractive, he said, because it is the largest market in the country besides Portland, Ore., that does not have a pro hockey team.

While city leaders had already eyed a new arena and convention center, it is interesting to note how Mandalay's overtures sparked Omaha to move in that direction.

Just as important is the role that the sport of hockey played as a catalyst in Omaha's desire to improve its entertainment venues in the city. Sellout games and Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum and the Civic Auditorium for the sport caught the attention of outside business interests.

Pro hockey could be seen as the next logical step.

Mayor Daub and members of the City Council were intrigued with the possibility. Mandalay scheduled a pair of exhibition games at the Civic Auditorium between the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder and Long Beach Ice Dogs on Sept. 24 and 25, 1998.

All signs suggested that whatever Omaha did regarding a new arena, pro hockey could become an anchor tenant in such a facility.

Voting With Their Wallets
Any of you remember those exhibition games?

Me neither.

A combined 3,000 tickets were sold for the two exhibitions. The prices were $13, $11, and $9 respectively (comparable to UNO Hockey ticket prices at the Civic).

While the small turnout didn't close the door on pro hockey in Omaha, it did demonstrate that consumers wouldn't blindly follow the "next thing" in town.

The IHL eventually folded into the AHL, and pro hockey would eventually take the ice in Omaha.

However, the ho-hum response to Mandalay's exhibition games foreshadowed the community's eventual interest in that level of hockey.

Omaha eventually took the path of funding its own arena/convention center along the Missouri River.

UNO's eventual move to that facility would help solidify the notion that the university needed its own facility, where they could better control their own destiny.

Next time: Part 4

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