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Kevin Schnepf, Published September 27 2012

Schnepf: If Scheels Arena is OK, Fargo Force will be OK

FARGO - Even though it will be 80 degrees today when the Fargo Force opens their fifth junior hockey season, the hot news for this franchise occurred Wednesday.

That’s when it was announced that an anonymous benefactor will chip in enough money to put a major dent into the $23 million debt that is hanging over Scheels Arena, which happens to be the home of the Force.

“The better position the arena is in, the better the position the Force is in,” said Force general manager Jon Kram. “We’re excited for the arena and what’s to come with that.”

That’s as much as Kram would comment on the financially floundering arena. But that gush of wind whooshing out of Scheels Arena was probably a big sigh of relief from Force employees.

Before Wednesday, you couldn’t blame them for thinking they may be kicked out of their home if the banks took over a foreclosed building.

After Wednesday, you couldn’t blame them for gloating just a bit for surviving longer than the five previous failed junior hockey franchises in Fargo-Moorhead.

A big reason for that is fan-friendly Scheels Arena, built by Force owner Ace Brandt. So is Brandt, the developer with lots of money but very few words, the mystery benefactor?

“No comment on that,” Kram said.

Unlike Scheels Arena, the Force have been a huge success.

On the ice, they have reached the United States Hockey League playoffs every season during their four-year existence – reaching the Clark Cup finals twice.

Off the ice, the Force have quickly become the envy of many of the other 15 teams in the USHL. They ranked second in attendance last year.

“We’ve grown the most than any other USHL team in the last three years,” Kram said, referring to an average attendance that grew from 3,200 two years ago to 3,700 last year. “We just want to keep growing that number.”

Tonight when the Force open the season against Sioux City, all 36 suites and the two lounges will be full. Fans will continue to witness family-friendly promotions, new flat-screen TVs at every concession stand and a “Bud Light” bottom-up beer stand on the east concourse.

It’s a formula that has worked for the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks baseball team during the summer. And it’s a formula that never did seem to catch on for the five previous junior hockey teams in town.

The F-M Sugar Kings of the Midwest Junior League lasted one season in the 1970s. The F-M Express lasted one season in the defunct American Hockey Association from 1992-93.

The F-M Bears and the F-M Ice Sharks combined to last six seasons in the USHL from 1994 to 2000. And the F-M Jets survived from 2003 to 2007 in the North American Hockey League.

Of course, most of these teams played in an aging John E. Carlson Coliseum. The saving grace for the Force has been Scheels Arena, even with the financial baggage it has been carrying.

As long as the Force can call Scheels Arena home, it appears there will be junior hockey in Fargo-Moorhead. And that’s good news for the USHL, which has seen seven franchises fail in Minnesota.

“What the Force have been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time has been phenomenal,” said Brian Werger, director of communications for the USHL. “In terms of bringing fans and revenue to the arena, there’s no question what the Force can do.”

And there’s no question what a mystery donation can do as well.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com