It looks like both sides might need some time in the penalty box.
Last week, when it was announced that the Missoula Maulers were finished, the head of the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association said she was shocked and the group was still in the midst of contract negotiations.
A follow-up interview with Maulers owner Michael Burks revealed a fairly lengthy list of feuds with the association and increased fees for using the facility, Glacier Ice Rink. Burks also pointed out that he pulled the plug on the Maulers when a letter from their attorney characterized negotiations as at an "impasse."
So it appears the decision to stop playing hockey probably wasn't as much of a surprise as it originally was billed. And, we can also sympathize with a non-profit group having few other options than to increase rent as its costs rise.
Yet it's hockey fans and Missoula who stand to be the real loser in the bargain. In the end, Burks will have other ventures, the Glacier Ice Rink will have others to use the ice, and Zootown will be without hockey.
While we want to believe there may still be a glint of hope that the two will somehow, some way reach a new deal, the question for Missoula becomes: What's hockey worth to residents?
Burks said he's lost nearly $1.2 million during the nine-year stint. On the other hand, necessary improvements to the facility meant the hockey association had to find an additional $150,000 on top of the normal operating costs. Even in a cool place like Missoula, ice isn't exactly cheap.
Ironically and probably not surprisingly, money separates the two sides, not really something to do with the sport. Neither side seems to have enough to make the Maulers viable. Missoula has so many things that enhance the quality of life. Is hockey important to our community?
If the answer is yes, then we have to decide what it's worth. And, should the cost of having junior hockey be placed fully on the backs of a franchise owner like Burks? How can a nonprofit afford to keep the facility running and still offer programming that is within reach for youth and adults needing ice time for hockey, skating or other events?
In comments made to the Missoulian, it's also hard to wonder if it really is all about the money. On one hand, we hope so. Money is the easy part. But reporting done by the Missoulian's Bill Speltz seems to indicate there may be more to the story.
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"The lease itself the rink presented is not catastrophic at all," Burks said. "What's catastrophic about it is the respect for what I have done for the rink and the fact they weren't willing to concede to that other than say, 'We appreciate what you've done.'"
Wait. Wasn't it about the money?
Maybe not. Anyone associated with hockey in Missoula does owe a sincere thank you to Burks – not only for his investment, but also for his vision of hockey. But, we have to wonder if this statement doesn't demonstrate a deeper, more substantial rift. If the lease isn't bad, and the hockey association has offered a thank-you – anything more borders on favoritism or preferential treatment. That would be hard for a nonprofit to do equitably.
Also, a feud that began with Burks and his son's hockey coach seems to play some part in his decision to jettison the Maulers.
"I went to the last (youth) tournament of the year and was asked to leave in front of family," Burks said. "Getting my (butt) ripped at a rink I built."
Again, it's undeniable that Burks' contributions have built up the facilities. However, he's also gotten something in return: a better facility to use for his business. What seems to be at issue here may not be money, but personality.
If that's truly the case, then Missoula hasn't just lost a junior hockey club, it's also lost hockey because of what boils down to personality disputes.
We hope that calmer heads prevail, as the saying goes.
It seems what we need most in this situation is something cool. Something like ice.