If it came down to just dollars, the New Jersey Devils would be moving their minor league affiliate out of the Times Union Center after this season.
“There were better business deals elsewhere,” New Jersey Devils President Hugh Weber said Monday.
But the business side, while important, is only part of the equation for an NHL team looking to place a minor league team it owns.
In this case, facilities, amenities and proximity to the parent club in Newark, N.J., play even bigger factors.
And that tipped the scales in favor of the Times Union Center, as local and team officials announced a three-year extension to the lease for the American Hockey League affiliate, meaning the Albany Devils will be playing at the downtown arena at least through the 2018-19 season.
Last summer the team, which entered this season in the final year of its deal, held a rally of sorts in front of local business leaders, stating it had to drum up increased fan support.
That effort led to increased business involvement, but not more fans.
Albany, which historically struggles to draw fans to the Times Union Center, is second to last in attendance in the 30-team AHL this season with three regular-season home games to play, averaging 3,283 through 35 dates. That is a drop of 1.2 percent from last season, when it was 26th in the league, and more than 43 percent off the league-wide average of 5,896 fans per game. Since becoming the Devils in 2010 up until this season, the affiliate has been in the bottom five in attendance every year they’ve been here, and dead last twice.
But officials still expressed hope there is a market for the team in the Capital Region.
“We do have a fan base,” Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy said. “We are growing it.”
He then turned to Tom Fitzgerald, the general manager of both the New Jersey and Albany Devils.
“You can’t leave us,” Tom,” McCoy said with a smile. “You’re stuck with us.”
Weber said there were other suitors for the Albany Devils — TU Center general manager Bob Belber said one city in the mix was Trenton — but upcoming improvements to the TU Center and the existing amenities, such as its NHL-quality locker room and workout facilities, were big factors in the decision.
“This is a great building run by a top-notch organization,” he said.
Still, Weber said he wants to see the chronically low attendance increase — and believes it can be done. Weber said season-tickets sold, now less than 900, can triple with the right sales approach. That would necessitate reaching out beyond the hard-core hockey fans who have been clamoring for the Devils to stay.
“If we only rely on hockey fans,” Weber said, “we won’t make it.”
The Albany Devils have performed well on the ice, setting a franchise mark for points in a season with 94 (42-18-8-2), which places them second in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, second to North Division rival Toronto Marlies. There is hope that this edition could compete for a Calder Cup title, last won by an Albany team in 1995, when they were known as the River Rats.
Belber said with the $29 million in renovations to the TU Center expected to be completed by next year, the new Capital Center going up next door as well as increased marketing, he could see attendance rising to 4,000 to 4,500 per game in a couple of years, and continuing to climb after that.
Both Belber and club officials believe the potential exists for a return to the heyday of the River Rats.
“I can see them getting back to the days of 6,000, when they won the Calder Cup,” Belber said.
The return of the Devils means the continuation of AHL hockey in the immediate Capital Region, a heritage that dates back to 1990 (not taking into account the longer history of pro hockey in Glens Falls).
The Capital District Islanders (1990-93) played in Troy, followed by the Albany River Rats (1993-2010), which were originally a Devils affiliate, then the Carolina Hurricanes. The Albany Devils began in 2010.
The TU Center also hosted an International Hockey League team, the Albany Choppers, for part of the 1990-91 season before the franchise folded.