Season cut short for Wranglers ice hockey as owners say team will not return
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Wranglers Junior Hockey team’s four-year run in Steamboat Springs, which included two appearances in the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League championships and a regular season title and tournament championship in 2018, has come to an end.
“It is with great regret that the ownership group of the Steamboat Wranglers have announced that the team will not continue through the rest of the 2019-20 season,” the Wranglers announced in a press release Sunday afternoon. “The last home game for the Steamboat Wranglers was today.”
The team won’t be returning for future seasons.
The news came following a heartbreaking 5-4 loss to the Wichita Junior Thunder and was broken to the players by the Steamboat-based ownership group in the locker room.
“We wanted to make sure that we did it properly to make sure the kids had the best experience in their last weekend with the Wranglers,” said Brent Pearson, who is part of the team’s ownership group based in Steamboat. “We wanted to just be focused on the hockey, and then unfortunately afterwards, we had a tear-felt discussion with the players.”
Pearson said it was difficult to shut the team down halfway through its season, but a number of factors resulted in the ownership’s decision to pull the plug.
The pay-to-play model is difficult in a town the size of Steamboat, according to Pearson, and a drastic change in the recruiting landscape caused by an influx of a record number of junior teams across the nation made recruiting a full, competitive roster in Steamboat much more difficult. Pearson said this year, the Wranglers’ roster had just 16 players, far less than the 26 players found on most junior hockey teams.
The Steamboat team also struggled after moving from the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey league, a Tier III league, to the more competitive Tier II Western States Hockey League. The Rocky Mountain League folded after the 2018 season, and Steamboat was forced to move into the new league where it struggled to win games and meet the added expense that came with an expanded travel schedule.
“It’s been a struggle. The Western State’s Hockey League is a different league, and it’s a different paradigm,” Pearson said. “The Rocky Mountain League was based locally, but the Western State’s League has a huge amount of travel with trips to Dallas, El Paso and all over the country.”
Pearson said the timing of the announcement should allow time for the players who wish to keep playing to relocate and find more competitive programs in other towns. He also hopes the move will allow the players to take part in the Western States Hockey League Showcase, which is slated to take place Dec. 17 through 20 in Las Vegas.
“I expect that 95% of the players on this team, who want to continue to play, have an opportunity,” Pearson said.
The ownership has been thankful, Pearson said, of the support the Wranglers received from the local community in the past four years and for the fans that have turned out to cheer on the team. The team regularly drew crowds of 200 to 400 people for a game, and Pearson said the reaction from the community since Sunday’s announcement has been one of sadness.
Dmitry Chase, Howelsen Ice Complex supervisor, said he has been talking to the Wranglers’ ownership group to figure out an exit strategy for the team that will be amenable to the city in terms of agreements for office and locker room space, as well as ice time.
“They are being extremely responsible about it,” Chase said of the Wranglers. “Ultimately, the goal for us, as a city-owned facility, is to recover whatever revenue we would expect moving forward through the organization and to do that in a fashion in which we can substitute whatever revenue we would have collected in the form of more public skates and bumper cars when it comes to ice time.”
Chase said he has already had several user groups reach out to him interested in some of the areas the Wranglers team had leased.
“We may even be able to have a net positive when it comes to the ice, and as far as office space goes, I think it will be a lateral,” Chase said. “So, I don’t think it’s going to have substantial financial implications, if any.”
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