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Bandits try to ice a success story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore is not exactly a hockey hotbed.

In 1993, the American Hockey League's Baltimore Skipjacks moved to Portland, Maine, and the city responded by seemingly shrugging its shoulders.

You could drive from Ocean City to Hagerstown in winter and barely see a frozen puddle, much less a frozen pond suitable for skating. The average Baltimorean might identify a Zamboni with Italian cuisine, not a machine that resurfaces the ice between periods of a hockey game.

Yet, Bob Teck and Alan Gertner, majority owners of the Bandits, Baltimore's latest entry into the AHL, have invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours into making hockey a success here.

"This is definitely the right time for hockey in Baltimore," Teck said. "Hockey has become a more mainstream sport; over 30 high schools are playing hockey in this area, and, in every neighborhood, there are kids playing street hockey."

There is also a lot to learn from the past.

The Baltimore Bandits will market extensively and promote the sport. The Skipjacks did little in those areas to boost the team. Bob Leffler, whose ad agency handled the Skipjacks, now works for the Bandits. He said the new ownership is consumed with making hockey work.

"Gertec is putting together a massive marketing campaign," Leffler said. "They are dedicated to spending $1 million to advertising. The last time we had that kind of financial support was with the Blast [of the Major Indoor Soccer League] in the mid-'80s. They were drawing 11,000 fans a game then."

Bandits merchandise has been in stores since mid-July, the team already has begun advertising on Orioles radio broadcasts and it is negotiating with three local radio stations for broadcast rights. It will focus its campaign on television and billboard advertising in the coming months.

Teck and Gertner also have Walt Disney in their corner -- the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are the Bandits' NHL affiliate. In addition to supplying players, Disney designed Baltimore's new logo and uniforms.

"It's in the best interest of the Mighty Ducks to put their top young talent on our team and let them play and learn. The AHL is the top developmental hockey league in the world -- bar none," Teck said.

Teck said he expects 80 to 90 percent of his roster to remain in Baltimore for multiple seasons, which should help fans identify and connect with the "NHL-caliber" talent on the ice. He also will solidify his team's relations with the community by stressing involvement in charity events. He is hoping for an average attendance around 8,000.

The goal is to provide a family atmosphere where everyone from 6-year-old kids to 70-year-old grandmothers will enjoy a trip to Baltimore Arena. The first step is to make a night out affordable for the family.

"A family of four will be able to come to our games, buy hot dogs and Cokes and still not spend what they would for an evening at the movies," Teck said.

Baltimore's tickets will range from $14 to $8, children under 3 will be admitted free and children under 14 get $3 off any ticket.

It's the same strategy that is working in other AHL cities.

Dave Andrews, president of the AHL, said his league has set attendance records in the past two years. The AHL also had more than 60 games televised throughout the United States and Canada last season.

"The ownership in Baltimore will do a terrific job of promoting the sport as a family event," Andrews said. "That is the same thing that has gone on in Syracuse and Portland and the other successful cities in the AHL."

Syracuse and Portland are examples of the AHL's renaissance. Both cities failed to support hockey in the past. But the Syracuse Crunch averaged more than 6,000 fans in its inaugural season in a city that had gone 14 years without hockey. The Crunch stressed a family atmosphere and kept fans entertained a full three hours with everything from father-and-son mascots to wacky between-period antics.

"I think we quickly gained a reputation as having a building that was the most fun for fans of all ages," said David Gregory, the Crunch's general manager. "First you get the kids into the game, because kids don't hesitate to have fun. That atmosphere quickly spreads to their parents -- the older kids."

Though the Crunch failed to make the playoffs, it sold out more than half its games, and the mascots, Crunchman and Jr. Crunch, were a merchandising bonanza.

The Portland Pirates drew more than 7,000 fans a game and won the Calder Cup, the AHL's championship, in their first year after moving from Baltimore. Just one season earlier, the Maine Mariners moved to Providence, R.I., because of poor fan support.

"I think Baltimore will be a great success in the league," said Godfrey Wood, the Pirates' general manager. "When a team leaves a city, the fans realize what they had and they support the new franchise. That's exactly what happened here."

The Bandits are looking for a long-term relationship with the city, and Teck said he is committed to making hockey a fixture in Baltimore.

"We want to be Baltimore's team from now on," Teck said. "we're not only here for five or 10 years. We're here to stay."

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