On occasion, a Monday Mailbag question requires too much research for me to include in the weekly feature, so I end up writing it up separately as a "Mailbag leftover." While I haven't gotten a tweet on this exact subject, I have received a couple of emails asking if the new Reno Ice facility in town means minor-league hockey is coming to Northern Nevada. In addition to emailing those people back, I figured I'd write it up for the website, too. Let's break it down.
Question: Does the opening of the Reno Ice facility pave the way for a minor-league hockey team to come to Reno?
Let's start with some background. Reno did have a minor-league hockey team called the Reno Renegades in the 1990s. It was a founding member of the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League (WCHL), which was active from 1995-2003 with anywhere between six and nine teams in a given season. That team was best known for signing female goaltender Manon Rhéaume in 1996. Rhéaume had previously played some preseason games for the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. She logged 11 games with the Reno Renegades in 1996-97.
The Renegades, which began play in 1995, was renamed the Reno Rage in 1997 and folded in 1998. The franchise went 65-106 with 15 shootout losses in its three seasons before shuttering. The team played in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in a makeshift setup. In 2000, the rights to the franchise were purchased by businessman Larry Leasure, from Boise, Idaho, who has flirted with the idea of returning a team to Reno for parts of two decades without getting too much traction. Reno has been listed on the ECHL's Future Markets page as recently as 2016 but is no longer there.
Enter the state-of-the-art $9.5 million Jennifer M. O'Neal Community Ice Arena, which opened this month and is a 38,843-square-foot building that houses an NHL-sized rink with a capacity of 900 people. The "capacity of 900 people" thing is a problem. Reno Ice would not be suitable for hosting a minor-league team, although that doesn't mean its creation does not get Northern Nevada closer to fielding a minor-league hockey team. In fact, it's a step in the right direction. Reno Ice, which is located in south Reno next to the South Valleys Sports Complex, could host practice for any minor-league hockey team that comes to the area. Reno Ice was scheduled to build a birthday party room in its footprint but intentionally did not develop that portion or the project in case a minor-league team comes to Reno. That area would instead be used to build a locker room for a team if it ever lands in Reno.
So what has to happen next? The biggest thing is finding an area for home games. The most logical place is the Reno Events Center, which hosted Reno Bighorns games when the G League team called Northern Nevada home from 2008-18 prior to a move to Stockton. The Reno Events Center, which also hosts concerts, youth tournaments and other events, has not had a primary tenant since the Bighorns left town. The building is overseen by the RSCVA, which has said it doesn't want to be in the "arena management business." Adding a long-term lease for a sports team is much more complicated than a one-day deal for a concert.
In 2015, Worth Group Architecture was paid $18,200 to come up with an estimated cost to remodel the Reno Events Center for hockey. In May 2016, EKAY Economic Consultants got $11,900 to determine the feasibility of putting an ice rink at the Reno Events Center. The projected cost in 2017 was $5.7 million. It's surely gone up since then. In December 2016, the Reno city council voted 6-1 to approve a term sheet and direct staff to negotiate with the Reno Puck Club, which was formed in an attempt to bring an ECHL team to Reno. The goal was to develop a plan for hockey in Reno starting in fall 2018 following the 10-year agreement with the Reno Puck Club in 2016. Not much has happened on that front since then.
The upfront costs of bringing a hockey team to Reno to play at the Reno Events Center is high. It would probably be closer to $10 million than $5 million, and with the economic impact of COVID-19, it would not seem to be a high priority for the city council. As a market, Reno would be better served as an ECHL town (basically Double-A) rather than an AHL town (basically Triple-A). But unless a major investor steps forward to pay for the project, this seems unlikely to happen. The city council almost certainly isn't paying full freight for a Reno Events Center renovation.
Reno has a spotty history supporting minor-league teams, losing the Reno Silver Sox (two iterations), the Reno Bighorns and most recently Reno 1868 FC, which was shuttered last November due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Reno Aces remain Northern Nevada's only affiliated minor-league team. The Triple-A baseball team drew 4,803 fans per game in 2019, 47th among 160 minor-league teams. It ranked 15th among 16 Pacific Coast League teams. The rough estimate for a break-even point for a minor-league hockey team is about 3,000 fans per game, which the Reno Renegades/Rage fell way short of in the 1990s. Northern Nevada has grown tremendously since then and would have a larger population to draw from, although it seems like a long shot that minor-league hockey comes to Reno in the next decade.
The Reno Ice facility opening was a step in the right direction, but to use a sports analogy, Northern Nevada is on its own 20-yard line with a lot more ground to cover before Reno has a realistic shot of luring a minor-league hockey team to town.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.