Thursday, January 21, 2010

How Minor League Hockey Should Be



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Andy MacWilliams is known to tell the story of how in 1977, the front office staff of the Cincinnati Stingers were answering the telephones with: "Cincinnati Stingers - National Hockey League (NHL)," in anticipation of the announcement that would come later in the day, declaring the Cincinnati World Hockey Association (WHA) franchise as part of the WHA's merger deal with the NHL. MacWilliams, the former Stingers radio broadcaster who would later become the voice of the Xavier Musketeers, would be disappointed along with the rest of the front office when they were informed that the merger deal had been voted down by the NHL.

The Stingers would go on for a few more seasons in the WHA until they were left out an eventual final merger of the two leagues. The team would attempt to survive as a minor league franchise in the Central Hockey League, but would fold just 33 games into the 1979-1980 season. After just four seasons, the only major league hockey franchise to call Cincinnati home was gone and despite a series of NHL exhibition games in the years following the Stingers demise, an NHL expansion franchise known as the Blue Jackets would come to call Columbus, Ohio's state-of-the-art Nationwide Arena home in 2001. Despite the Queen City's lack of success in securing an NHL franchise, Cincinnati has had and continues to have a proud history in minor league hockey.


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- A replica vintage Cincinnati Stingers jersey that I own.

Whether it was the multi-championship winning Mohawks and Swords or the Mighty Ducks and Cyclones who co-existed in top tier minor leagues across town from each other, Cincinnati has been home to numerous minor league teams, NHL alumni and most importantly; passionate fans. The well known Cyclones franchise would fold after the 2003-2004 season and the cross-town Mighty Ducks would suspend operations at the Cincinnati Gardens following the 2004-2005 season upon losing their NHL affiliation. The Ducks would be renamed the Cincinnati Railraiders and were set to play for the 2006-2007 season, but despite strong local support, plans for the team would be scrapped after again failing to secure an NHL affiliate to help front the team's costs. With no hockey team in town and Nederlander Entertainment looking for a regular tenant to play in their recently acquired US Bank Arena, the company purchased the suspended Cyclones franchise and brought it back to life. While the Cyclones return has yielded a championship season and a return to hockey in town, many fans, such as myself, feel there's something left to be desired.


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- A sign for the offices of the Cincinnati Railraiders American Hockey League team still remains in the Cincinnati Gardens. After failing to secure an affiliation with an NHL team, the Railraiders never took the ice.

I was originally inspired to write this article after attending a Fort Wayne Komets game in November, 2008. With many relatives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I had been to many Komets games as a kid, but this was the first time I had gone in a couple of years and the first time I really noticed the details. The Komets, a local mainstay, have existed as a hockey team in the Summit City since 1952. The action and talent on the ice was good and the amenities and service in the suite my cousin hooked us up with surpassed those of the US Bank Arena where I had viewed a Cyclones game a month earlier. Since then I've attended other Komets games and found the ticket and concession prices to be extremely reasonable and the arena to be a great place to see a hockey game. Despite the renovations in 2002 where they literally "raised the roof" and added more seats, luxury suites and other modern amenities, the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum is still a great "hockey barn."


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- Crowds pack the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana for a Komets hockey game. The Ft. Wayne Komets have averaged 8,036 in attendance so far in the 2009-2010 season.



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- The Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, while having great sight lines and a great atmosphere for hockey, has some cramped seats.

The sight lines are excellent and well suited for hockey and while the concourses and seats are a bit cramped, the arena has a great atmosphere even when the crowds are low. The dedicated fanbase and intimate arena provides a good environment no matter how big or small the attendance is. I found this to be a stark contrast to the regular experience of viewing the Cincinnati Cyclones at US Bank Arena where on most nights when it's not a major promotion, the arena can feel like an empty ghost town.


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- The Ft. Wayne Komets on the ice against the Flint, Michigan Generals.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a Cyclones fan. Let's get that straight. I attend their games regularly, I love how the players appreciate their dedicated fans and salute the crowd after every game and even since winning the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) championship Kelly Cup in 2008, the team and on-ice product have remained at a high caliber. The team has a friendly group of loyal fans, a committed coach and their zamboni driver is a great guy who provides a well maintained playing surface. I will be honest though, the atmosphere commonly found during a Cyclones game at US Bank Arena pales in comparison to that of my experiences in Ft. Wayne and even more recently in Dayton, Ohio at Hara Arena. The Bank Arena (formerly The Firstar Center, The Crown and before all that: "Riverfront Coliseum") was built with intention of attracting a major league hockey franchise in the mid 1970's and only one NHL team, the New York Islanders (who are seeking a new facility), still play in a similarly designed arena. Even when a respectable crowd of 3000 attends a Cyclones game, the audience tends to get lost among the approximately 3000 other empty seats in the lower bowl of a two tiered arena that can seat up to 12,000 for ice hockey. Jim Evers, webmaster of "Section 60/The Cycward," a dedicated group of loyal Cyclones fans who have cheered on the team since it's inception at the Cincinnati Gardens in 1990, likes the modern amenities that came to the arena in the mid 90's, but recognizes how the arena isn't well suited to handle large crowds when it gets them. "I dislike the "cramped areas" [of the arena] when there are 8000+ crowds. Kind of a double-edged sword, I like the big crowds, but I miss the room" says Evers.


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- A crowd of 10,392 at US Bank Arena for "throwback night" in November 2009. Although the large crowd provides a great atmosphere, the arenas poor design and ill equipped staff provide poor logistics.

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- A more typical crowd for a Cyclones game of approximately 1300 during a "Wet Wednesday ($1 Beer) promotion.

During "Throwback Night (seen above)" this season; 10,392 fans enjoyed dollar hot dogs and beers as the Cyclones donned their "throwback jerseys." Unfortunately the arena and it's staff, not suited to handle large crowds, saw long lines at the concession stands that crowded the cramped concourses as more fans waited outside in a line that wrapped around the building. The Cyclones made a request to delay the start of the game till more fans could enter, but were denied by ECHL officials. The arena that hosts a great team faces two challenges; it's often dull atmosphere when crowds are average to light and its incapability to properly handle large crowds. So how should it be? What's the solution? Well in my opinion, the solution for minor league hockey is the Cincinnati Gardens.


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- The Cincinnati Gardens, while temporarily set up for the Shrine Circus in this photograph, can still be seen with it's seating configuration and hockey boards.

Opened in 1949, the nearly sixty one year old Gardens lacks many of the modern amenities that its downtown brother has, but what the Gardens lacks in luxuries, it more than makes up for in terms of character, charm, atmosphere and history. Designed after the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the sight lines and seats are positioned specifically for watching hockey. The intimate construction and configuration provide for a raucous atmosphere even when the crowds tend to be on the low end. "The Gardens is probably the best venue to actually watch hockey in. Cincinnati is spoiled to have an arena with such great sight lines for viewing. The Gardens in my mind should have always been Cincinnati's home for hockey." says local fan Cory Lusk, a Lt. Colonel in the US Army and former Cincinnati Mighty Ducks partial season ticket holder. "At US Bank Arena you have to pay for parking and the concession stand prices are way over the top, especially in this economy. I can take myself and family to a first run movie and spend less than going to a AA hockey game."


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- The Cincinnati Gardens.
I feel the Gardens would be the perfect place to see minor league hockey in Cincinnati. The Fort Wayne Komets and the Dayton Gems of the International Hockey League play in similar "old time hockey barns," albeit Ft. Wayne's Memorial Coliseum has been substantially renovated. These buildings provide great atmospheres and viewing areas for hockey while the league offers a comparable level of play that of the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL.

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- Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio. Home to the International Hockey League's Dayton Gems.

While I'd love to see the Cyclones move back to the Gardens, that seems unlikely given that the company which owns US Bank Arena also owns the team. On a recent trip to see the Dayton Gems play, I was thoroughly impressed with atmosphere and on ice action. Hara Arena may not be much to look at, but it's a place designed for viewing hockey, the parking is free, the pizza tastes outstanding and is cheaply priced while the sight lines are great no matter where you decide to sit and sip your $1 beer from.

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- $3.50 gets you this massive slice of great tasting pizza, made uniquely at the arena. A stark comparison to typical sports venue food value.

Ft. Wayne's Memorial Coliseum has been upgraded significantly over the years and features luxuries comparable to and in some cases better than US Bank Arena, but at the same time the general seating is affordable and still in line with the building's original seating configuration. The cheapest adult ticket for a Gems and Komets game is $10.00 (with the cheapest ticket for kids 12 and under being $7.00 and $6.00 respectively), while Cyclones ticket prices are a straight $12.00 for all general admission seating. The Cyclones also do not offer a discounted ticket price for group sales, instead offering a free t-shirt to all group members and the groups name announced on the P.A. system and scoreboard. Dayton's Hara Arena offers free parking while parking at Ft. Wayne's Memorial Coliseum is $5.00 (non-preferred). Parking near the US Bank Arena can be free if you choose to park on the nearby Public Landing (which reaches its capacity quickly and closes during Showboat Majestic operation or when the river is high) or on side streets, however parking in the adjacent ballpark and arena garages is $10.00, while nearby lots offer parking for $8.00, $5.00 and $4.00 as you park in lots further down Pete Rose Way. All those parking rates increase if the Cyclones season extends into the ECHL playoffs and happen to be playing on a night when their neighbors, the Cincinnati Reds, are home at Great American Ballpark.

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- Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio.

What about the Cyclones, though? Could two teams coexist? There are many factors to be considered in this and at one time Cincinnati boasted two minor league hockey teams, one at each arena; the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the AHL at the Gardens and the original Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL/ECHL at US Bank Arena. While the Cyclones originally folded citing attendance difficulties and the Mighty Ducks folded after failing to renew an agreement with their NHL parent club, both teams coexisted in Cincinnati from 1997 until 2004. "I think it [having two teams in town] helped by having more opportunities to see hockey (and different leagues). On the other side of things, I think it hurt because both teams were competing for fan loyalty." says Jim Evers. When asked about the scenario of a new team coming into the Cincinnati Gardens, Evers noted: "If both teams 'left each other alone,' it might work out. Look at the Queen City Steam (a Junior hockey team that plays at Sports Plus in Sharonville), they seem to be coexisting with the Cyclones."

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- The scoreboard at the Cincinnati Gardens still featuring advertisements from when the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks called it home.

I will continue to support the Cyclones (and hockey in general) in any scenario, but I feel we need to see a minor league team return to the Cincinnati Gardens and continue the great tradition of ice hockey here in the Queen City. The Gardens is designed for hockey, offers free parking, fantastic sight lines and a great "old time" hockey environment that makes up for its age. While I am a Cyclones fan, there's nothing quite like seeing a game at the Cincinnati Gardens. The downtown US Bank Arena just doesn't compare. I would love nothing more than to see the return of the American Hockey League (the top tier of North American minor league hockey) to the arena, but I'll settle for a league like the International Hockey League (IHL). The IHL and its seven teams form a regional bus league and with teams already in nearby Dayton, Ohio and Ft. Wayne, Indiana, we could see the birth of new rivalries in a local venue thats already well suited for the crowd and sport. Nearly all opposing teams are close enough to allow oneself to "road trip" for a Cincinnati away game. This would be the perfect fit for a team at the Cincinnati Gardens. Great hockey and good times in a classic arena.

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As you may have noticed on here for some time, there's been a link on the right side of the site which states "Help bring IHL pro hockey to the Cincinnati Gardens." Some passionate fans have organized to show their support to bring about the return of a team to Cincinnati's "original home for hockey." While rumors abound and details are sketchy at best, I highly encourage you to join the facebook group, invite your friends and show your support to bringing back a team to the Queen City's historic hockey landmark.


Previous Update :: January 11, 2010 - "Coming this Final Friday."

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7 comments:

  1. Great article. I've seen hockey games at both arenas and completely agree that the Gardens have the better atmosphere. Have you heard there is an indoor football team, "Cincinnati Commandos", starting at the Gardens this March?

    Also, out of curiosity, do you know why the Gardens was originally built in 1949?

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  2. Thanks for reading Osogato. I have heard about the Commandos and am really excited to see a game there. I've never seen indoor football before.

    Don't forget that the Cincinnati Rollergirls also have their home bouts there and start the 2010 season in March.

    I don't know why it was originally built other than to fill a void, as there was no arena that size or comparable at the time. I like to think maybe they were trying to lure an NHL or NBA team (the Royals (now Sacremento Kings) played there in 1957 until 1966), but I think it was mostly to house events that couldn't come to Cincinnati because there was no similar venue, or at least not one with that kind of seating capacity.

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  3. I noticed the pictures of your cramped seats at memorial coliseum. i believe its the top couple row's on the sides where that happens. and the only reason that is, is because of the luxury seats behind them..they needed more room so the top couple row's are really cramped but only on the sides

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  4. I have to say that I want to go there. It looks pretty impressive and the food looks so good.

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