The Worcester hockey community, nearly one year removed from losing its AHL franchise for the second time in a decade, received some great news on Monday: professional hockey will be returning to the DCU Center, beginning in October 2017.
The ECHL, the third-highest level of professional hockey in North America beneath the NHL and AHL, announced Monday it approved the Expansion Membership application to Worcester for the 2017-18 season. The franchise is the league’s second to open up shop in New England, joining the Manchester (N.H.) Monarchs, who began competing in 2015.
Worcester has hosted two AHL franchises since 1994, when the Springfield Indians moved to Worcester, playing as the Worcester IceCats until 2005, when an Illinois-based ownership group bought the team and moved it to Peoria, Ill. A year later, the San Jose Sharks moved its AHL affiliate from Cleveland, Ohio to Worcester, moving prior to the 2006-07 season. The Sharks moved to California following the 2014-15 season as part of the AHL’s West Coast expansion, when it placed five teams in California.
The announcement comes with little surprise, as the ECHL has looked to expand into New England cities that have backgrounds in minor league hockey. Manchester, like Worcester, lost its AHL team to the 2015 western expansion after 15 seasons in New Hampshire’s biggest city. Lowell, which hosted an AHL team from 1998-2010, could lie in the plans as well, though the 6,500-seat Tsongas Center was sold to UMass-Lowell by the city of Lowell in 2010. The city has adopted the UMass-Lowell men’s hockey team, which has won two of the last three Hockey East championships and went to the Frozen Four in 2013, to fill the void left by the AHL.
No nickname has been publicly discussed, though barring copyright issues, the IceCats brand seems to be the undisputed top option. The nickname, which was employed during Worcester’s first go-around in the American League, has been the moniker that resonates best with the city’s hockey scene.
The ECHL doesn’t require an NHL affiliate, though team owner Cliff Rucker said he’d prefer one. All but three of the league’s 28 current teams have an NHL parent club. The Boston Bruins – the ideal affiliate, as Worcester sits equidistant to Boston and Providence (where the B’s AHL affiliate plays) – current deal with the Atlanta Gladiators expires following the 2016-17 season. One would assume Rucker will make a serious run at that the Bruins. Likewise, one would assume the Bruins would prefer its minor league affiliate be closer than Duluth, Ga., where the Gladiators play.
Regardless, hockey is back in Worcester, after it never should’ve left..for a second time.