The Alaska Aces' home-ice advantage for the first round of the ECHL playoffs just took a detour, and headed on down the road.
The minor-league hockey club announced Thursday that scheduling conflicts at Sullivan Arena, its home rink, will force it to play first-round home games in the Kelly Cup playoffs at the much smaller Menard Memorial Arena in Wasilla.
The first round is scheduled for April 5-12. But the Great Alaska Sportsman's Show is set for April 8-11 at Sullivan, and organizers of that show have also booked April 5-7 as move-in dates for vendors to set up in the arena and adjacent Ben Boeke Arena.
Joe Wooden, the regional general manager for SMG, which manages Sullivan, said Sportsman's Show organizers could not be persuaded to move their event to the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center downtown because of contracts already in place with vendors and Sullivan.
Thus, the only first-round date available to the Aces is April 12, which would be the date of Game 5. But the Aces don't want to play four road games to start the best-of-5 series because they own the league's worst road record and to do so would not even guarantee the Aces a home date.
Even if the Aces stayed alive for Game 5, they also would only get one game's worth of revenue from the first round.
Instead, the Aces said they will play Games 1 and 2 of a series in the Valley on April 5-6, whether they are the higher seed or the lower seed. If they were the lower seed, their playoff opponent would have first dibs on dates, but the Aces said most other potential first-round opponents in the National Conference have agreed to accommodate them.
First, though, the Aces have to qualify for the playoffs -- seven of the eight teams in the National Conference qualify.
They are currently locked in a battle for a playoff spot with 12 regular-season games remaining. They are tied for fourth place, but last-place Utah only trails them by three points and has played two fewer games.
In six previous ECHL seasons, the Aces have advanced at least as far as the second round and are the only team in league history with that accomplishment on their postseason rink resume. The Aces won the Kelly Cup in 2006 and lost in Game 7 of the Finals last season to South Carolina.
Aces managing member Terry Parks said moving games to Wasilla will diminish the Aces' considerable home-ice advantage -- they are annually one of the league's deadliest home teams -- cost them revenue and inconvenience their fans.
"I'm not real happy about it,'' Parks said. "After seven years, when you've never missed the first or second rounds, you'd think they'd figure it out.''
Parks said the Aces are Sullivan's principal tenant, accounting for roughly one- quarter of the dates the building is used, and generates far more revenue for the facility than any other tenant. He also said the club has spent roughly $240,000 in recent years to install extra seating and video and replay equipment, and upgrade the medical trainer's room.
Sullivan seats more than 6,300 for Aces games. Parks said Menard officials have told him that, including standing-room-only, about 3,000 fans can be squeezed into that facility. Menard is home to the junior hockey Alaska Avalanche and located about 45 miles from Sullivan.
In past first-round games at Sullivan on Mondays and Tuesdays, the Aces have averaged announced attendance of 4,856.
"We're giving up our home-ice advantage because (Menard) is not our home ice, our players haven't played there,'' Parks said. "Do I think we'll get support from people in the Valley? Yes.
"But the Dena'ina was designed for shows (like the Sportsman's Show). Well, why did we build it if we're not going to use it? It makes absolutely no sense to me.''
Parks said calculating the decline in revenue between playing games at Sullivan and at Menard is difficult, but estimated the Aces could gross $20,000 less per game.
Fans can reserve playoff tickets for Games 1 and 2 of the first round tonight and Saturday night during the Aces' games against Ontario at Sullivan. Aces employees will be posted near the main entrance and season-ticket holders get first crack.
SMG's Wooden said the Sportsman's Show, organized by Aurora Productions, Inc., was already booked at Sullivan when the ECHL released its playoff dates late last summer.
Last playoff season, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Inc., helped solve a scheduling conflict for the Aces by moving the Native Youth Olympics from Sullivan to the Dena'ina. Other potential scheduling conflicts for the Aces in the past have been avoided because of short series or preferential seeding.
Should the Aces advance to the second round this year, they also would face a conflict at Sullivan with the Alaska Women's Show, scheduled April 23-25.
Wooden described the situation as difficult all around. He said the ECHL moved up its first-round playoff dates, which complicated scheduling. In three previous seasons, the National Conference first round began on either April 9 or 10, compared with April 5 this year.
"The bottom line is we've looked at every way so we don't get into these situations,'' Wooden said. "We've passed on events, we've moved events that we have (at Sullivan) to the Egan Center. We don't like to be in these situations.
"This is the Aces' home, and we want them to be here. We also are dealing with (Sportsman's Show) organizers who are trying to make a living and dealing with 500 vendors. And with contracts, there's always the threat of a lawsuit.
"It's a shame.''
With the Sportsman's Show at Sullivan, the Aces also lose their practice ice at both Sullivan and Ben Boeke. They would likely practice at Dempsey Anderson Arena near West High.
Losing Sullivan for playoff games, though, is the greatest concern for the Aces, who feel they and their fans deserve better.
"My suggestion would be to call the mayor's office,'' Parks said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY