Bill Hargett sat in the same blue seat in Section 214 he has occupied at Stockton Arena for 16 seasons and watched as the city’s era of professional hockey came to an end.
There was disappointment and sadness from many of his fellow fans, but the 77-year-old Stocktonian tried to be philosophical.
“I’m very disappointed, of course. This is my sport and I’ve missed two games in 16 years,” Hargett said. “But there’s nobody to get mad at.”
Some would beg to differ with Hargett. During what would be the Stockton Heat’s final weekend at its home, loyal hockey supporters debated who, or what, was to blame for losing the team.
Among the culprits cited by fans were city officials who dragged out contract negotiations for a deal with the club, a parent franchise which did little to build a relationship between the team and the community, and the effects of the pandemic.
All three reasons are valid.
The NHL’s Calgary Flames brought in the higher-level American League team to replace the rough-and-tumble Thunder of the ECHL. It was better hockey, but to some the Flames never seemed to give a flying puck about bonding with the community or gaining support.
In some ways it makes sense the Flames never really bought into staying in Stockton, since their AHL teams rarely put down roots for long. Since 2007, the AHL club has moved five times.
In many ways, it was never the same after the Thunder went to Glen Falls, N.Y. The Flames owned both teams and decided to send the Thunder to the East Coast and start over in Stockton with a new name.
It didn’t work. Other cities who migrated to the AHL with Stockton kept their ECHL names. Bakersfield is still the Condors, Ontario kept the Reign, and when it returned San Diego went back to using the Gulls.
But it wasn’t just a new name that cost Calgary fans in Stockton. It was a different, less involved attitude with the community. Richard Perry, a fan for a decade, put it succinctly.
“The feeling I get from Calgary is, ‘we’re going to play hockey, and you’re welcome to come watch.’ With the Thunder, it was ‘how can we make it fun for the fans?’ ”
It’s true that the feelings for the Heat never rivaled those for the Thunder, which was the Stockton hockey fans’ first great love. The Heat was more like a rebound relationship: nice enough and you get along fine, but it’s different. Still, you love the game.
The Thunder arrived to sellout crowds in a new arena the populace was proud of. They were terrible but beloved during the inaugural 2005-06 season, and led the ECHL in attendance. Early season favorites included sharp-shooting forward Mike Lalonde and enforcer Adam Huxley. Stockton embraced the athletes, and two former coaches – Chris Cichocki and Rich Kromm – stayed and lived in the city after they left the team.
Rod Villagomez, who worked for both hockey teams in the city, took his family to one of the final games and wished more had been done to keep fans coming to the arena.
“I’m a little sad. I have to say I’m a little disappointed too,” Villagomez said. “The last few years have sort of lacked the connection with the community that the Thunder had. And really, that might be part of the reason why this is the way it is right now.”
The crowds began to wane before the Heat came in 2015, and nosedived soon after. The Thunder drew about 6,800 per game in its second season; the Heat’s last pre-pandemic average was around 2,700. For the final game on June 11, the Heat drew 2,103.
The arena, a gem in 2005 when it opened, began to age, and Calgary and the city went back and forth over upgrades. There is a new scoreboard on its way, but the Heat won’t see it.
Negotiations dragged on for a new contract for more than two years, and to some fans, the city had a responsibility to get it done. Maria Miller, 72, showed up on the final weekend in her Heat gear with a sign pleading for one more victory. She said she has attended every game since 2009 and knows whom she holds responsible for the Heat’s departure.
“I’m gonna cry, I don’t want them to leave,” Miller said. “I blame the city. They had three years to come up with a contract for the Heat, and they never did it.”
But the main culprit to many of the fans was the pandemic. Due to travel restrictions, the Heat played in Calgary last year.
“The pandemic did it,” Hargett said. “They played in Canada because of the pandemic last year, and realized if they moved them to Calgary that they had a better fan base and more people would go to the games.”
On May 23, the Calgary Flames announced it was moving the Heat to Canada. The City of Stockton wished them well in their future endeavors. The Heat gave their fans a final thrill when it staved off elimination in the playoffs with a pair of overtime victories against the Chicago Wolves on June 10-11. They were eliminated from the postseason a few days later in Illinois.
It’s hard to imagine professional hockey returning anytime soon, but there’s an attempt to bring an elite juniors (amateur) league to the West Coast, and Stockton might be a good fit. That league is rumored to begin in 2023.
For now, the ice will be empty and the sticks have been put away. The Heat’s departure was all about business. But for the hockey loyalists of Stockton, it’s a sad business indeed.
Scott Linesburgh is the Executive Editor of Stocktonia News Service and has covered more than 400 hockey games at Stockton Arena