Hockey pucks on display inside the Apex Center. Courtesy of Wythe County.
Hockey pucks on display inside the Apex Center. Courtesy of Wythe County.

Wytheville … the puck stops here.

Maybe more accurate to say the puck drops in Wythe County as local officials announced Monday plans to debut a hockey franchise in the county beginning in 2023.

Wythe officials said at a news conference that the county will lease the 90,000-square foot Appalachian Expo (Apex) Center to an outside group called Apex Drive Holdings LLC, which plans to operate a team in the Federal Prospects Hockey League.

The FPHL, based in New York state, is a 10-team league with franchises in the current 2022-23 season in the following locations: Port Huron, Michigan; Columbus, Georgia; Fraser, Michigan; Biloxi, Mississippi; Binghamton, New York; Danbury, Connecticut; Elmira, New York; Harrington, Delaware; Watertown, New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The deal is contingent on approval by the FPHL and on approval by the Wythe County Board of Supervisors.

A public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday where county citizens can offer input.

ADH president Barry Soskin has more than a passing interest in hockey. Soskin already is a majority owner of three other teams in the league — Port Huron, Biloxi and Winston-Salem — and is banking that there will be enough curious hockey fans in Southwest Virginia for the franchise to be successful.

“Southwest Virginia is a coveted new hockey market, and our group is pleased to bring this energy to Wythe County and the region,” Soskin said in a news release. “Wythe’s at the intersection of two interstates. We’re going to put a product on the ice that draws thousands of people to our events.”

Wythe County assistant administrator Matthew Hankins said Monday that leasing the facility to ADH will be a plus for the county.

“It’s very much a win-win,” Hankins said. “There’s been a lot of [public] criticism of boards of supervisors in recent years … A lot of folks just wanted to sell the building at a loss even though it represented a significant capital investment for the county. The only potential investors out there were willing to pay pennies on the dollar, and that wasn’t a good outcome for the county either.”

Hankins said the revenue the county receives from its renewable 10-year lease is largely contingent on ticket sales.

“It’s an escalating lease,” Hankins said. “We get so much per ticket year one through three. Then [years] three through five it goes up, then there’s an escalator after that.

“It really depends on the number of tickets they sell. We’re counting on this being a big draw. They’re counting on this being a big draw. There’s very little risk for either side, but there’s a lot of incentive to bring more people in.”

Wythe County recently terminated its lease with the Appalachian Exposition Center Authority to run the Apex Center, which is located just off Interstate 81 Exit 77 in the northeast part of the county.

Hankins said the facility has held events such as rodeos, cattle shows, horse shows, monster trucks, remote control car racing, motocross and gun shows.

“It just really hasn’t taken off under the leadership of the authority that was created to run it, so these folks came along,” Hankins said, “and it made sense to get in with some private-sector folks that had some experience and could run it without us having to invest a lot of county money. With this, we will generate rental income. We’ll generate admissions tax. We’ll have marketers with a lot of experience that will do a lot of the heavy lifting. We’re glad to provide a facility.”

Before hockey can be played in Wytheville, the Apex Center needs an upgrade.

A concrete floor must be installed with the ability to produce and maintain the ice surface. The interior must be redesigned to accomodate enough floor-level seats. 

“Instead of just putting in the basic concrete floor, we’ll be putting in the sub-floor piping, the chiller system and everything it takes to run the glycol through to freeze it and make the ice,” Hankins said.

“That’s going to take some work. We don’t know yet what that’s going to cost. We’ve been soliciting designers and architects … so we can get under construction hopefully by February or early March.”

Monday’s news conference included a mockup of a hockey rink on the dirt floor to show how much space might be available for temporary floor seating in the arena. The facility is listed with a 5,300-seat capacity, but that might be very generous for hockey.

“We’re going to let the designer tell us how many floor-level seats we can put in there,” Hankins said. “I think we’re counting on being able to put around 1,000 floor-level seats in.”

Hankins said the county has received at least two bids on the construction job.

“Once we have a design by the end of the year we’ll have a better handle on what the potential costs are,” he said. “Whether we were leasing it or selling it or looking to hang on to it, it’s going to be better off with a concrete floor. That was probably money we were going to have to spend anyway, and we already had money borrowed to do that. It’s taxpayer money. We’re trying to mindful that we’re not wasting it, that we’re setting ourselves up for growth and economic development.”

The FPHL began in 2010-11 as the Federal Professional Hockey League, but it underwent a name change in 2017.

Hankins said players in the independent league are from North America and Europe and generally range in age from 18 to 25 years old. Most of them find part-time jobs to augment their salary during the season.

“We have a labor shortage,” Hankins said. “We could use extra people.”

The Wytheville team, the first FPHL club in Virginia, has yet to be named. Soskin said he will consider suggestions from the public.

The league has a 60-game season with approximately 30 home dates per team. The 2022-23 regular season began in October and ends April 15.

Single-game ticket prices for the home games for the Winston-Salem team, the Carolina Thunderbirds, range from $9 to $29.

With the league footprint stretching from Connecticut to Michigan to Mississippi, having another central franchise makes sense, Hankins said.

“As spread out as they are, adding another team in the center of the footprint will just help with their travel cost and their itineraries,” he said.

The FPHL has a long list of franchises that have come and gone in the 12-year history of the league. Hankins said Wythe County officials are confident the league is on solid ground.

“We’ve done what I think was our due diligence,” he said. “We’ve gotten references. We’ve seen what they’ve been able to do with other teams. We need to make sure we’re not diving in where it’s not going to be a good fit.”

But will people come to what has to be one of the league’s smallest markets to watch ice hockey?

“I think it says a lot that they’re willing to invest here,” Hankins said of ADH. “I think they count it as good if they draw 2,500 or 3,000 people.

“I don’t know [if that figure is reasonable] right off the bat. I think it will be a novelty for people. The key is to make sure it doesn’t remain a novelty. We’ve got to have some tempered expectations. This is a new market, an untested market. If that doesn’t work out, we have an upgraded facility.”

Robert Anderson worked for 44 years in Virginia as a sports writer, most recently as the high school...