River Rats will move to Charlotte

Checkers owner Kahn buys Hurricanes' AHL affiliate to create geographical synergy

Staff WriterFebruary 11, 2010 

— The Carolina Hurricanes will no longer have to go as far to check out their top young prospects.

Charlotte Checkers owner Michael Kahn has purchased the American Hockey League's Albany (N.Y.) River Rats, the primary minor league affiliate of the Hurricanes.

The team, which will start playing in Charlotte next season, will assume the Checkers name. Kahn said he anticipates that Charlotte's existing Checkers franchise in the ECHL will be sold, possibly within a month.

The Hurricanes had been trying to find an AHL location where their prospects would be closer to Raleigh. They've been affiliated with the Albany franchise, which has struggled financially, for four years.

"Moving guys in and out, having them 21/2 hours down the road, that's fantastic," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "I think we will have happy hockey players."

Maurice said there have been times when a player has been called up but has gotten caught up in travel connections, and the coaching staff was not sure he would make it by game time.

"You've got such a big [airline] hub in Charlotte, and even [with the Hurricanes] on the road, you'll be able to get the direct flights out," he said.

The Checkers will be one of the few Southern franchises in the 29-team AHL, which has 25 U.S. teams and four in Canada.

"The travel from Charlotte to Raleigh will be easier, and [it will be] easier to get guys up in time for games," said Hurricanes forward Patrick Dwyer, a former River Rats player. "At the same time the travel around [the league] with Charlotte will be that much tougher. There's excitement to see how it goes and how the fan base will be in Charlotte. It will be nice to be close to the parent club."

Charlotte's hockey presence will shift up a notch from the ECHL to the AHL, the NHL's top developmental league.

"I probably wouldn't have done this if it hadn't been the Hurricanes," said Kahn, who wouldn't disclose the terms of the sale. "They were what created the perfect storm, so to speak. If it wasn't Carolina, I don't think I would have jumped into this as quickly as I have."

The marriage between the Checkers and Hurricanes should help boost the sport in a region long dominated by NASCAR, college sports and the NFL, said Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, whose team won the Stanley Cup in 2006.

"The sport is growing," said Rutherford. "It took off big when we won the Cup, and now to have another team associated with the Hurricanes within the state, it will help get the word about hockey that much more. People can come and watch our young prospects playing [in Charlotte]; and then people from [Charlotte] can come to Raleigh to see them when they're with the Hurricanes. It's just going to create that much more interest."

Kahn bought the Checkers in 2006 from Charlotte sports entrepreneurs Felix Sabates and Carl Scheer, who had returned the franchise from dormancy in 1993 after a 17-year hiatus. The Checkers originally started playing in Charlotte in 1957.

Kahn said the Checkers' front-office staff will remain in place with the new franchise. Whether the Checkers coaches are retained will be up to the Hurricanes.

Rutherford said the Hurricanes might play some preseason games in Charlotte, but not next season, because the schedule is already set. He said didn't foresee the Hurricanes playing any regular-season games in Charlotte but said Charlotte could be the site of the team's training camp.

Staff writer Chip Alexander contributed to this report.

dscott@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5889

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