BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — The North Stars are moving north, but they'll no longer be Stars.
Traverse City's North American Hockey League franchise has been sold to an ownership group in Sault Ste. Marie that will move the team there and operate as the Soo Eagles.
North Stars majority owner Raj Wiener confirmed the sale on Friday.
The team flirted with moving toward the end of last season, but Wiener decided to give the franchise one more year in Traverse to see if attendance could improve.
"They originally approached us last year, and we didn't do anything with it," Wiener said. "Then recently they had been approved by the league for a franchise. And so they reconnected with us. It all happened pretty quickly this week, actually."
While the Stars' on-ice performance has improved steadily since their 2005-06 inaugural season, the team's attendance has dropped. For the first four years of the team's existence, crowds ranged between 775 and 807 a game. But this year's average draw has been just 466.
"Fan base support is important," Wiener said. "And we didn't have it."
"There's a lot of competition for your entertainment dollar in Traverse City," said North Stars general manager Anthony Palumbo, who was the team's coach for the previous four seasons. "I really have a lot of respect for Steve Fournier before this and now Raj as majority owners. You can only do it for so long."
The Stars are currently 25-16-5, third in the North Division. They travel to Kalamazoo for two games today and Sunday and don't play at home again until a March 15-17 series with Jamestown.
The Eagles have an 88-28-8 record and won the 2010-11 Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League championship, but owner Ron Lavin said the organization was impressed with the amount of talent they could inherit from Traverse City in their step up to the NAHL.
"The team is terrific," Lavin said. "I haven't seen the boys play, but from everything our G.M., assistant G.M. and scout said, they were beyond impressed."
Sault Ste. Marie — which also acquires TC's equipment in the sale — had a successful NAHL entrant from 1995-2005 that routinely averaged around 1,000 fans a game over the last six years of that run.
"We applied for membership in October," Lavin said of the move to the NAHL. "We had to be approved as an ownership group. Then it was a matter of — because we wanted to stay in the Sault — which team was available.
"I know she sold with a heavy heart," Lavin said of Wiener.
Wiener considered moving or selling the team last year after attendance dropped almost 150 spectators a game from the prior campaign to just over 500 on average, despite the franchise's best season on the ice at 40-17-1.
"This decision has always been about what is best for the players," Wiener said. "The Sault represents the best opportunity to keep a large Michigan footprint in junior NAHL hockey. It has always had a strong fan base, had support from its youth hockey programs, media interests and a strong core of sponsors. It'll be a great opportunity for northern Michigan players — including those from Traverse City — to develop. Traverse City played a large role in preserving the Michigan footprint last year."
Traverse City has 14 games remaining in the regular season, six of which are at home — all against last-place division foe Jamestown.
The franchise's last regular-season game is an April Fool's Day matchup with Jamestown, although the team is currently in solid position to make the league's postseason.
The players were notified of the sale on Thursday.
"There were a lot of guys that were like, 'What?' when coach told us," said forward Mitch Snider, one of the team's seven Traverse City natives. "There were a lot of questions. But the main thing we got out of it is to focus on this year. When we get thinking about next year — if we don't want to play there or what the team's like and stuff like that — but we have 14 games left this year. It's tough to not think about that. But our goal is to have a great regular season for the last season in Traverse City and looking forward to a great playoff push."
One Traverse City player has already been through this.
Cadillac native Will Badner played for the Motor City Metal Jackets last year, which were sold to an ownership group in Jamestown, N.Y. After the Jackets' season was over, he expressed his opinion about playing in New York and requested a trade.
"Once the season is over, you just have to figure out if the place or the city is where you want to be next year — what's best for you," Badner said. "Once you figure that out, you just need to be straight up with the owners and coaches about what you want to do and where you want to be. You just have to hope they'll work with you. For me, it worked out. I was really fortunate to move to Traverse City."
Badner — who is in his last year of Junior A eligibility — said Traverse City players should approach the sale the same way and concentrate on the rest of the season.
"If they were to ask, I'd say to just not think about it as much as possible," said Badner, who Palumbo acquired in a trade from Jamestown and is fifth on the team in scoring. "There's nothing you can do about it right now, and it's just going to take away from your focus of what we have to do right now."
Palumbo said the one worry for him was whether Traverse City would get as many local representatives on a team in Sault Ste. Marie, which has its own deep talent pool to draw from.
"Will (Badner) figured it out," said Snider, who is tied as the team's points leader. "He told their coaches he didn't want to go, and they figured it out for him. And that's what our coaches said they'd do for our guys next year."
"We will take care of all of our players," Wiener said.
Between Traverse City West and the North Stars, Snider played AAA Midget hockey in Marquette, and regularly made the trek across the Upper Peninsula to play in Sault Ste. Marie.
"Every time we went to the Sault, they had a great rink they played out of," said Snider, who recently committed to play collegiately at Manhattanville College. "They're a great hockey team and a great hockey town."
The economic impact of the North Stars includes about $40,000 the team pays for ice time at Centre ICE, as well as providing extra students to Traverse City Central High School that results in additional state funding per pupil. Currently, five North Stars attend Central that otherwise wouldn't.
Wiener estimated that the team spends $15,000-18,000 per player each season for 23-25 players.
Centre ICE executive director Terry Marchand said the arena is already looking for a new tenant to replace one of its biggest single customers.
"We're not going to sit on our hands," Marchand said. "We've already got some feelers out. ... We are definitely being proactive about it. We're looking at other junior league possibilities."