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Grizzlies, AHL part ways for a season

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Utah will still have a hockey team named the Grizzlies, and they will play in West Valley City's E Center, but they will no longer be an American Hockey League club.

For the 2005-06 season, the Grizzlies will play in either the Central Hockey League or, less likely, in the East Coast Hockey League. Both are a lower classification (AA) than the Triple-A AHL.

That possibility and the attempt by Grizzlies' owner David Elmore to sell his AHL franchise was reported in the Deseret Morning News on May 4.

Elmore on Tuesday asked the AHL board of governors for a one-year suspension of his franchise as he tries to sell it, perhaps to interests in Orlando, Fla., and the AHL announced on Wednesday that the suspension has been granted, along with several other changes in league teams.

The action by Elmore leaves the NHL Phoenix Coyotes without an AHL affiliation for their minor-league players and coaches, meaning they are now scrambling to place personnel for next season.

The Grizzlies and Coyotes last summer signed a two-year agreement with an option for a third year, and Utah's actions this week could very likely mean legal action by the Coyotes against the Grizzlies for breaking that contract.

The Grizzlies are already involved in legal wrangling with the NHL Dallas Stars. Their affiliation of three years was dissolved last year before Utah turned to the Coyotes, who left Springfield, Mass., after eight years there, hoping the proximity of Phoenix and Utah would benefit them.

Elmore was traveling Wednesday and did not return phone messages.

He told the Deseret Morning News two weeks ago that he has been losing money in the expensive AHL for eight years, partially because he had to subsidize travel for the Eastern clubs in that league.

Elmore said if he couldn't sell the AHL franchise to a buyer who would operate the team in the E Center - which is managed by his company - he would try to sell to out-of-state interests and operate the Grizzlies in the CHL or ECHL next fall.

Elmore met Monday with representatives of the CHL, a league based in Phoenix with no Arizona teams.

The discussions were "pretty preliminary," said CHL VP of Communications Steve Cherwonak. "I can confirm we had initial discussions" to determine whether a CHL-Utah marriage is practical.

Phoenix assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, who oversees the Coyotes' minor-league operations, said by telephone Wednesday that his team is "disappointed" with Elmore's decision to suspend AHL operations because the Coyotes had planned to be involved in Utah at least through 2006-07.

He said he was not yet sure what the Coyotes will do with players who were based with the Grizzlies last season or with coaches Pat Conacher and Gord Dineen. Phoenix could seek a full affiliation in the AHL, though there do not appear to be any available right now, or it could share an AHL working agreement or place several players with several different teams. Gilman indicated the coaches would probably remain in Phoenix employ, as scouts if necessary.

Speculation is that, if Elmore sells to Orlando, the NHL Florida Panthers would take over that team and leave their half affiliation in San Antonio. There is speculation that the Panthers have made an agreement with interests in Orlando already. Dallas, which shared San Antonio least season, is putting a full affiliation in Iowa and leaving the Texas town, perhaps affording some room for Phoenix players.

"We feel badly for the fans of the Utah Grizzlies that we didn't get the job done," said Gilman about the 2004-05 team that finished last in the AHL and had the worst record (23-50-2-5) in the Grizzlies' 11 years of existence. "We were looking forward to making things right" in the coming season. The Coyotes' first team in Utah was beset by injuries costing 315 man-games.

The CHL, thought to be Elmore's first choice for a new playground, has 17 teams, seven of them in Texas with others in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee, New Mexico and Colorado. The Colorado Eagles, based near Fort Collins, won the 2005 championship, and Elmore sees that as a successful team with which the new Grizzlies might have a rivalry. His original Grizzlies began 11 years ago in Denver and won the IHL championship their first year before moving to Utah because the NHL moved to Denver.

The CHL receives some players from AHL affiliations, much as the ECHL. Cherwonak said the CHL teams have outdrawn ECHL teams each year for the last four years. Elmore at one point had a CHL franchise in San Antonio.

The 28-team ECHL has nearby teams in Boise, Las Vegas and Long Beach and next season will be in Phoenix. It stretches from Alaska to Florida. It had 28 teams last season. Elmore has had conversations with that league and actually has a suspended franchise in it.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com