Hockey Skates South
By Ronald Sitton
While you were sleeping, an ice storm swept across the South. That's ice as in hockey, not tea. Southerners are now learning a biscuit isn't something you eat, a crease isn't how your shirt is ironed, icing isn't what Mama covered the cake with, and the pipe isn't something to stick in your mouth.
"The South is a hockey hotbed," Dave Berryman, president of the East Coast Hockey League's expansion team Arkansas Riverblades, says. "It's just the opposite of what you'd think. The further south you go the higher attendance in hockey. The further north you go the higher attendance in minor league baseball. Hockey blends all of the major sports, especially football and basketball."
Hockey's benefitted from comparisons to other sports. For example, it has baseball's hand-to-eye coordination requirements, basketball's five-on-five action and taking-it-to-the-net aspects, and NASCAR's bumping and spectacular spills. Fans love the fighting, which combines the best and worst aspects of boxing and wrestling. And in the land where there used to only be football and spring football, the physical contact is nothing but a plus for hockey. There's nothing quite like a good body check to get the crowd pumped. "The appeal of speed and the physical play of the game has made people fans," Jason Rothwell, ECHL's director of Communications, says.
Though not an avid hockey fan, I vividly remember watching the seventh-seeded U.S. Olympic hockey team defeat the defending champion Soviet Union 4-to-3 in the "Miracle On Ice," on TV. Eighteen years passed before I went to my first game. Ironically, my brothers took me to see the Western Professional Hockey League's Arkansas GlacierCats play a Russian national team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, on New Year's Eve.
The game wasn't that physical, which the WPHL's Director of Scheduling and Media Services Steve Cherwonak attributed to the Russian team's high skill and finesse. But for my $12 ticket, I did get to see a good game complete with Zamboni, cheerleaders, loud music, a floating indoor blimp and the famous human slingshot, where the lucky helmeted participant is flung by an 80-foot bungee cord/rubber band across the ice at 20 mph on a saucer dish towards 10 plastic, inflatable beer cans arranged bowling-style. Whoever knocks down the most cans wins a prize.
Other gimmicks promote crowd involvement. At many venues a pressurized cannon shoots T-shirts 300 feet into the crowd. In the "chuck-a-puck" game, fans buy a foam-rubber puck for $1 and throw it to a designated spot in the center of the ice to win a $75 team jersey (teams collect about $1,500 for each jersey). But it's not only gimmicks that engage the crowd. Minor league teams (and fans) also benefit from player accessibility. "If you go to a game in our league and can't get an autograph, I want to know why," Cherwonak said.
During the game, Arkansas' Jarret Whidden, who notched his third hat-trick of the season, was the only shooter lighting the red lamp in overtime as the 'Cats won 5-to-4 in front of 5,179 fans. Read that again more than 5,000 people in Little Rock spent New Year's Eve at a hockey game. Whodathunkit?
Little Rock's but one Southern city taking to the pageantry of hockey, a game developed by Micmac Indians in Nova Scotia in the late 1600s. While national estimates of new hockey fans are leveling off, Southern attendance figures continue to climb. In the ECHL, the Greenville Grrrowl has averaged more than 9,000 fans per game this year. If that seems incredible, Rothwell notes the Louisiana IceGators have averaged more than 11,000 in attendance during the last two years. The Lafayette-based team has a season ticket base in excess of 7,000 fans. At one time, the team outdrew four NHL teams, prompting the book The Louisiana IceGators Phenomenon.
Minor league officials have estimated 60-75 percent of ticket buyers are native Southerners rather than transplanted Yankees, tend to be homeowners and college graduates, and are increasingly female. According to the The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, 40 percent of hockey-goers are women.
Perhaps the biggest growth indicator is the fact there are now more National Hockey League teams in the South than in Canada. The Central Division of the Western Conference has the newbie Nashville Predators, while the Pacific Division boasts the Dallas Stars. The Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference is filled with Southern rivalry between the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. The Atlanta Thrashers begin Eastern conference play in the 1999-2000 season.
Colin Campbell, NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations, says the NHL's extension into the South indicates the league's strength. It was only a matter of time until the league returned to the city it spurned in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames left despite decent attendance, leaving some to predict hockey's demise in the South. Atlanta, however, has already surpassed the 12,000 mark in season ticket sales mandated by the NHL and announced a partnership with the AAA International Hockey League's Orlando Solar Bears as its top player development partner commencing with the 1999-2000 season.
Cherwonak says southern NHL expansion made it easier for fans to identify with hockey. Pre-existing rivalries in other sports provide the crowds who, Cherwonak says, come to watch "grown men from exotic locations" demonstrate their prowess on the ice. Berryman says if curiosity draws people to see the games, entertainment value and appeal for all family members keeps fans returning. Owners have tried most everything to keep the fans in the seats, which Rothwell says is harder once the novelty wears off; thus the need for gimmicks, which go all the way to naming the teams. Who wouldn't want to see at least one game involving the Macon Whoopee?
Teams moving south have been helped by pre-existing facilities from the 1970s and 1980s. Most of these were built for basketball (or rodeo in the Southwest), but were unoccupied during the off-season outside of the occasional circus, concert or tractor-pull. Mike Meyers, in charge of special assignments for the Central Hockey League, says just putting ice in a building easily costs $900,000. But the money spent has paid off, especially in towns that previously did not have a professional team. Rothwell notes the players are integrated into the communities, too, increasing the sport's popularity.
Indeed, if you haven't been inside Little Rock's renovated Barton Coliseum in the last year, you wouldn't recognize the place I didn't. The last time I was there (covering a White Zombie concert), you couldn't see the ceiling tiles for the soot. Its face-lift made me more cautious while handling my beer. Hockey has not just spurred the renovation of old buildings; North Little Rock's new Alltell Arena, which will house 16,377, was built with the dimensions of a hockey rink in mind, eliminating the sight-line problems of older buildings. It also has a $100,000 lighting system, allowing the building to go from complete darkness to complete light in an instant. "It'll rank in the top dozen facilities in North America for hockey," Berryman says.
If you haven't noticed, Little Rock will have two hockey venues once the arena is completed. It will also have two teams when Berryman, a former partner in the Louisiana franchise, brings the ECHL to the Rock. This demonstrates one of minor-league hockey's major headaches. Meyers, who happens to be the former West Coast Hockey League commissioner, said it is hard on the market when two minor-league professional teams compete against each other in the same city for the corporate dollar. Previous experiences in Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Cincinnati and Dayton (Ohio) have shown the market won't bear the strain.
"Having two teams in a market is a pretty foolhardy thing to do," Meyers says. "I would be surprised if both teams make it in Little Rock. I'd be shocked, to be honest."
WPHL's Cherwonak believes a second Little Rock team will lead to a fragmented fan base, crossover scheduling, and competition for players, corporate dollars, employees, officials and even ushers. Yet ECHL's Rothwell said that his league had been exploring the Little Rock market for some time, even before the WPHL's GlacierCats moved into the area. Indeed, the GlacierCats' contingent bid for Alltell Arena but lost to Berryman's Riverblades, who begin play in 1999.
This season, the GlacierCats rank third in WPHL attendance with an average of 4,173 per game. But Berryman has marketing research indicating more central Arkansans (86 percent) would be willing to attend a hockey game at the Alltell Arena than at Barton Coliseum (6 percent). Berryman is willing to bet the bank that after the smoke clears, the ECHL's Riverblades will be Little Rock's team.
"Can two teams survive in one market? NO!" Berryman exclaims. "I'm surprised they're still here."
Berryman says the community's corporate dollars are behind Alltell Arena, which accounts for his certainty. His group plans to incorporate the one-stop shopping approach, which made Wal-Mart a household name, into the hockey game. Each game becomes an event to compete for the community's entertainment dollar. "We're in the entertainment industry, providing a premier form of family entertainment at an affordable price," Berryman says.
The competition for the entertainment dollar has prompted rumors of mergers among the minor-league teams, but no meetings have been held and merger seems unrealistic for now. Meyers says the owners see the need for consolidation and an overhaul of the existing system where some teams are flourishing while others flounder.
"From a business standpoint, the overhaul of the industry will happen sooner or later," Meyers says. "Somehow or the other over the next three years, there's got to be a get-together to make sense of the industry."
Cherwonak said the WPHL hopes to meet with other minor-league organizations after the season ends to discuss such things as standardizing territorial boundaries, player contract issues and incentives. "It's better for us to work together than have seven single (minor-league) units going their own way," he said.
However, it will take large incentives to get all of the leagues at the same table, partly because of perceived differences in play. The ECHL, for example, is the only AA league with NHL affiliations (23 of the 27 teams), and it has sent 117 players to the show. Contrast that record with the WPHL that had two players sign NHL contracts for exhibition games, but only one player to play in the NHL. Most AA teams will send players to the AAA International or American hockey leagues.
If, as some believe, the top-tiered teams across the AA have comparable talent, why not have interleague or All-Star games? Though travel expenses might drop, it's unlikely to happen due to insurance questions and financial equity concerns, not to mention differing season lengths, salary caps, point totals and rules of play. A regional All-Star game also seems out of the question. In the ECHL alone, there are problems with team representation versus deserving players selected to play. In a regional game, one-third of the ECHL would not be represented, as only 18 players could suit up. It's unlikely any team would be happy with receiving such a slight.
In the long run, though, hockey has a better chance of surviving in the South with an agreement between the leagues. The obvious benefits include reduced travel expenses and personnel costs, stronger franchises and a better chance of capturing the corporate dollar if there is regional exposure.
Considering AA expansion franchises sold for $25,000 in 1988, but now sell for more than $2 million, owners must hope the thrill of watching hockey players skate up to 30 mph with slapshot puck speeds reaching more than 60 mph keeps the fans in the seats.
United Hockey League Commissioner Richard Brosal believes it will. "It's an exciting sport. People are looking for a choice in their entertainment dollar," he said. "They get hooked on it."
Pictures courtesy of the Western Professional Hockey League.
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Copyright © The Southerner 1999.