This time two years ago, the Houston Aeros were making their final push to secure a Western Division playoff spot. They were on a spurt of a fantastic play that would propel them through the end of the season into the Calder Cup finals, where they came up just short of the AHL championship.
Two years ago, the team was packing the Toyota Center. The players were happy. The coaches were happy. The fans were ecstatic. The future looked bright. But that was two years ago.
Now the Aeros are in the middle of a desultory ten-game home stand that, instead of propelling them into the playoffs, has them poised on the brink of missing out on postseason action. But this ten-game stretch, which ends next Saturday, might not only see the team blowing a playoff spot, it might also mark the end of the franchise's tenure in Houston.
The Aeros' lease with the Toyota Center is up at the end of this season, and though the parties are negotiating and have been negotiating throughout the season, the odds in favor of the team staying in Houston are dropping more rapidly than Astros left fielder Chris Carter dropping easy fly balls.
"We're still talking," Aeros GM Jim Mill said yesterday. "We're still talking. We're still in negotiations, talking to Toyota Center."
The Aeros have seemingly been set on a move since even before the season started, with rumors of negotiations to move the team to Des Moines, Iowa, dominating talk. There's also been mention of a relocation to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the Minnesota Wild, the owner of the Aeros, are supposedly setting up a junior league franchise. And just last week, the rumors erupted with talk that the Aeros will be moving to Peoria, Illinois, a city that's losing its team not because of attendance but because the team has been sold to the folks who own the Vancouver Canucks and who want to move the team closer to Vancouver.
But with the season fast approaching an end, those people hoping for closure might have to keep on waiting. That would include season ticket holders, who have yet to receive information regarding ticket renewals for next season.
"It depends on negotiations," Mill says about whether a lease renewal will be announced before the end of the season. "It's all depending on how that goes."
John Royal Judging by the attendance, Aeros fans have already checked out
The team, meanwhile, is still playing hockey. But the Aeros' play on this current homestand, which should have seen them solidifying a playoff berth, has instead more closely resembled the play of a team that has already mentally relocated itself to the offseason. And with the emptiness of Toyota Center for this week's games, it appears that the fans have also checked out on this season.
The team is 1-2-1-1 for this homestand (after pulling out an overtime win last night) and they have five games left on what has been a very disappointing stand inside Toyota Center. Instead of helping the team solidify a playoff spot, the Aeros have struggled at home and are finding themselves on the verge of missing the playoffs in what could be the team's last season in Houston.
"We needed [last night's win] bad," head coach John Torchetti said. "Nobody expected to have that 0-2-2 start at home. And then we're a little bit shorthanded if you noticed, again."
Next week might see the end of the last ever homestand of the Houston Aeros (who are in sixth place in the playoff standings, but only six points up on the 11th-place team, with only eight teams making the playoffs). Two years ago, the team was on top of the Houston sports scene, playing for a championship before packed houses. Now they're on the verge of a relocation that could once again bring an end to professional hockey in the city of Houston.
Change happens, especially when it comes to the minor leagues -- see the Astros trying to rob New Orleans of its minor league team and move it to The Woodlands. It's just a shame that the team hasn't been putting up more of a fight before it's all over.
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