Canadian AHL teams get creative during NHL lockout | Hockey | CBC Sports

NHLCanadian AHL teams get creative during NHL lockout

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012 | 02:39 PM

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Abbotsford Heat president Ryan Walter is confident attendance will pick up, thanks to a NHL lockout-friendly schedule, following a disappointing opening weekend. (Paul Daly/Canadian Press) Abbotsford Heat president Ryan Walter is confident attendance will pick up, thanks to a NHL lockout-friendly schedule, following a disappointing opening weekend. (Paul Daly/Canadian Press)

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The NHL lockout alone won't help American Hockey League teams fill their arenas. Many clubs, like those in Canada, had a game plan in hopes of attracting more fans this season long before the NHL shut its doors in mid-September.

Ryan Walter understands a lockout-friendly schedule isn't the lone answer to the attendance woes experienced by his American Hockey League team.

The president of the Abbotsford Heat is also aware of the importance in reaching beyond the B.C. team's current fan base with the National Hockey League more than a month into its work stoppage.

If opening weekend of the 76-game AHL season is any indication, Walter has some work to do as Heat attendance fell well short of recent home openers and last season's average.

A crowd of 3,840 took in a season-opening 4-1 victory over the Peoria Rivermen on Oct. 12, a far cry from the 5,000-plus who filled the Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Centre for each of the previous three home openers. The Calgary Flames' affiliate also won the next night before 2,416 fans, well below last season's average of 3,545.

"Our back-to-backs are not always easy to sell," Walter said in an interview. "We believe this [dip in attendance] is going to improve."

The NHL lockout certainly could provide an attendance boost in Abbotsford. It might also aid the Bulldogs during tough economic times in Hamilton and in Toronto, where the fight for the entertainment dollar in Canada's largest city extends beyond the AHL Marlies.

The feel-good story is in St. John's, where the AHL IceCaps are on track to sell out all 38 regular-season games for a second consecutive season at the 6,297-seat Mile One Centre. They housed their 47th and 48th consecutive sellout crowds over the Oct. 20 weekend.

Back to Abbotsford, where single-game tickets that are purchased in advance have been reduced across the board and cost $15 to and $40. Average attendance has dropped from 3,897 in Year 1 in the 2009-10 campaign to 3,545 last season. But the 83 per cent season-ticket renewal entering this season is the highest in the team's history.

Big draws

Walter expected attendance to spike over the Oct. 20 weekend when the Vancouver Canucks' affiliate from Chicago visited for two games, and it did, with the Heat playing in front of crowds of 7,046 and 6,871. In November, Abbotsford hosts Toronto and Oklahoma City, the temporary home of locked out Edmonton Oilers such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

"Those games are going to be well attended. We have 10 of our first 13 games at home, so it really allows us to go after the possibility that the NHL will be locked out in that October/November window," said Walter, who played 15 NHL seasons in the 1970s, '80s and '90s for Washington, Montreal and Vancouver.

He added filling the arena is about being creative. To that end, the Heat have built a professional hockey experience for local minor league teams.

On game days, Walter will put any team from the peewee level through adult hockey through an NHL/AHL style practice. Afterwards, the team will eat dinner at the arena, sit on the Heat bench during warmup "to get a feel for how good the professional game is," and watch the game while answering 15 questions of "hockey homework."

"It's such a good experience for teams," said Walter. "We just ask them [in return] for that experience to sell 120 tickets. What we're trying to do is take it away from the box office selling one ticket. We think that will increase with the NHL lockout."

In Hamilton, the Bulldogs announced pre-NHL lockout they were introducing tiered pricing for the first time in the franchise's 16-year history, with single-game tickets ranging from $17 to $26.

With the median household income in Hamilton at $76,000, according to the most recent census, the Bulldogs have priced themselves to be cost effective for families and are in line with major junior hockey, or the Ontario Hockey League, said team president Steve Ostaszewicz.

Longtime rivalry

For the Oct. 19 home opener against Toronto, the Bulldogs pushed the tie-in with their NHL affiliate, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Maple Leafs, saying the longtime rivalry continues.

"We know that it's good business for us for the NHL to be back in business but at the same time, we're telling people in our ads it's their chance to see the NHL stars of tomorrow today," said Ostaszewicz, whose goal to fill the lower bowl of Copps Coliseum with about 8,500 fans was met.

"The fact the National Hockey League is not playing doesn't directly impact the efforts that we're doing. It just increases the visibility we get and it opens that reach to a much larger population, the 1.9 million people that live within a one-hour radius [of Hamilton]."

Approximately 81 per cent of last year's season's-ticket holders are back in Hamilton, noted Ostaszewicz while adding those who didn't return have committed to 10-game or 20-game Flex Packs, meaning they can be used in any combination for any regular-season game.

The IceCaps were well on their way to selling out the entire regular-season schedule in St. John's prior to Day 1 of the NHL lockout on Sept. 16.

Club president and CEO Danny Williams said about 100 tickets remain for a given game compared to approximately 800 at this time a year ago.

"It seems strange to say," Williams told CBCSports.ca, "but the NHL lockout has had no effect on our ticket sales. Maybe marginally because ... I think our season ticket holders feel they have added value, and the product will be marginally better. These teams will probably be 10 to 20 per cent better [because of the added NHL-calibre of talent]."

Williams said the team, the Winnipeg Jets' affiliate, held prices on advanced single-game tickets for this season, which range from $16 to $26.

Hockey starved fans in Toronto pay more ($19-$45 for advanced single-game ducats) but came out in droves for the Marlies home opener on Oct. 13, selling out Ricoh Coliseum with 7,921 in the seats. But people stayed away the next day with just 4,472 on hand to watch the Marlies fall 4-0 to the Lake Erie Monster. Still, the two-game total of 12,393 represents a 44 per cent increase from 2011 (8,581).

Toronto averaged 6,943 fans during last year's playoff run to the Calder Cup final, almost a 1,500-person jump from the regular season (5,480). Fans clearly believe the team is headed in the right direction as season tickets numbers have spiked 41 per cent since last season, according to Mike Cosentino, Marlies director of business operations.

"I love telling people you can't just walk up to our building like two or three years ago, and grab a ticket on game night. That's not happening," Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins told the Globe and Mail recently. "You might want to call in for the end of October because we're starting to sell out."

That would be music to the ears of Ryan Walter in Abbotsford.

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