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From the Catbird Seat': It's a business'

It's a business.

That's what we hear quite a bit from team owners right before they ask us for something. We heard it from the Pohlad family before Target Field was built and we heard it from the Wilf family before we gave them U.S. Bank Stadium.

Thankfully, junior hockey isn't yet on quite that scale, but talking with General Manager Dave Boitz last week about the Wilderness and their negotiations for a new agreement to play at Northwoods Credit Union Arena, the phrase came up more than once.

Boitz is right. There's no denying it.

The Wilderness are not a non-profit. In fact, during our talk we even joked about the old sports maxim which reads "How do you wind up with a million dollars? Start with two million dollars and buy a sports team."

There's a lot to that, especially in this part of the world. Buying the Duluth-Superior Dukes baseball team in 1994 nearly cost owner Ted Cushmore his personal fortune acquired through a long and successful career at Pillsbury. Of course, fielding a team that went 19-60 in his only year as owner didn't help.

He sold the team to clothing store millionaire Jim Wadley, who sold it to Harry Stavrenos, who sold it to John Ehlert, who moved it to Kansas City after the 2002 season.

But, in the finest tradition of the Dukes, they moved to the wrong Kansas City — they moved to Kansas, not Missouri. Three years later, city government was after the team to pay three years of back taxes it owed, and just three weeks ago forgave the team, now called the T-Bones and which is still struggling financially, of a good portion of its utility and tax obligations.

That's only one sport. There have been others which didn't work at the professional or semi-professional level in our area.

So when Boitz talks about the need to be viable, just remember the background. There's a lot to discuss.

That's not to say there's a real danger of the team playing somewhere else. While anything's possible — "nothing is forever," Boitz told me — he made it abundantly clear the team would like to stay as its first priority.

That's a good thing. A very good thing, in fact. A healthy junior hockey program is great for the area and to have it housed in Cloquet is better still from our point of view. There have been real inroads, real strides made to make the team a part of the community.

The economic impact of the team was touched upon in my bylined piece last week. There's no doubt that drawing 900-1,100 fans a night helps, and so does the hotel revenue players and visiting teams generate.

But there's also this to consider: after five years in Cloquet, the team is building a local history, and that should mean something to those who respect tradition.

Boitz noted that the team has now been in Cloquet long enough for an entire hockey generation of Cloquet kids to have had it in their sights. "The Pee Wees have played on that ice as long as we have," he said. "They haven't known Cloquet hockey without the Wilderness around, and that's a good thing."

He's said the only thing that stands in the way of a truly robust attendance base is the fact that so many potential customers have hockey to play, or have children who play, and they miss the Wilderness games.

Boitz has described the team's relationships with the Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) and the city of Cloquet as excellent. There's no reason to think otherwise — and that's a good thing as well.

Boitz is hopeful that an agreement can be worked out before summer's end, so the team can go into the coming season in Cloquet with its home ice assured for some time to come.

After all, it is a business.