OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Less than a week after the city’s popular minor-league hockey club abruptly folded, the Oklahoma City council is weighing a proposal that could help land a replacement team in a more talented league.

The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a lease with a local group seeking to run a potential new American Hockey League club.

The group, AHL Hockey Club LLC, would be affiliated with Express Sports, which has begun the work needed toward setting up an AHL franchise for the 2010-11 season.

Express Sports is the same organization that operated the Central Hockey League’s Oklahoma City Blazers. The team announced last Thursday that it was suspending operations after 17 years.

Edmonton Oilers president Patrick LaForge has told newspapers in Edmonton and Oklahoma City that the NHL team would be interested in having an AHL team in Oklahoma City as the Oilers’ top minor-league affiliate.

“Yes, we have an interest in Oklahoma City as a market,” LaForge said in an e-mail to the newspapers. “Of course, we wish them luck and hope to do business with them – if and when they are legally clear and ready for entering into a negotiation. I also hope we can get to that point soon because the 2010-11 AHL season is closer than we think.”

The Oilers have made at least two site visits to Oklahoma City during the past 18 months. Their current affiliation agreement with the AHL’s Springfield (Mass.) Falcons ends after the 2009-10 season. Edmonton also owns a dormant AHL franchise, which could be activated in time for the 2010-11 season.

Josh Evans, Express Sports’ assistant general manager, declined to comment Monday about the group’s future plans.

Oklahoma City hasn’t had an upper-level minor-league hockey franchise since the Oklahoma City Stars folded in 1982. The Blazers brought pro hockey back to Oklahoma City in 1992, playing in a league with talent roughly equivalent to that found in Double-A baseball.

The 16-team AHL is considered a Triple-A-level hockey league, though the closest current AHL franchise to Oklahoma City would be in Houston.

Mayor Mick Cornett said the decision of Express Sports — which means there will be no hockey in Oklahoma City next season — surprised him.

“This is clearly a choice of the ownership group,” Cornett said Monday. “It wasn’t us making this choice to go to a higher league. But we are basically ready to follow their lead.”

He said the city’s willingness to enter into a new lease agreement with Express Sports “shows that we have an allegiance to our local ownership group that is providing hockey to us. We’re even willing to allow them to go dark for a year to allow them time to negotiate with this higher league.”

The lease agreement between the city and Express Sports would be for five years, with two three-year extensions possible. The lease could be terminated if the team’s average paid attendance falls below 4,000 fans per game.

The team would play at the downtown Cox Convention Center, where the Blazers played before moving into the Ford Center across the street. The Ford Center now has another primary tenant, the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, who moved to the city last summer.

Cornett said if Express Sports’ efforts to land an AHL team fail, the lease would not be valid.

“It still hasn’t happened, so I don’t want to be presumptuous,” he said. “I don’t want to assume it’s a done deal.”

The Blazers consistently ranked in the top 10 in attendance among North American minor-league hockey franchises, leading the CHL in that category every year. Last season, they averaged 6,508 fans for 32 home games. Oklahoma City had strong rivalries with CHL teams in Tulsa and Wichita, Kan.

The Blazers cited “substantial losses” during the current recession as the reason for suspending operations.


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