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Bandits' target: new hockey fans Community projects help build interest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Baltimore Bandits took the Arena ice for the first time as an American Hockey League franchise Saturday, there was a highly appreciative crowd of nearly 5,000 responding to their every move . . . . even to the penalty box. It was an exhibition game.

The last time the city was a member of the AHL, as the Baltimore Skipjacks in 1992-93, regular-season games drew an average of 3,000 fans. The previous 10 years of their existence, the Jacks had averaged 3,375 per contest, which usually placed them about eighth in attendance in the 13-14-15-team league.

So why the apparent surge in interest, especially for a practice game, after the Arena has been without hockey for a couple of years?

The return of hockey has a revitalizing effect, yes, but, as team director of marketing Kim Babiak says, "We've been doing a lot more advertising and many more community involvement projects."

Then, hockey interest is burgeoning and has been for a while, mainly in the form of more youth hockey leagues and in-line skating. Director of amateur hockey development Steve Elias got started months ago, meeting with leagues and otherwise getting involved.

"Besides getting the old fans back -- and Baltimore carries a rich tradition with the sport, dating back to the last century -- we're going after the new fan," said Babiak. "It seems a lot of new fans developed last year when the AHL got some coverage on ESPN, filling the void caused by the NHL lockout.

"What involvement with a lot of activities, which includes charities, does is get everyone to thinking, 'Hey, the Bandits are a great addition to this community, we want them,' " said Babiak. "The coaches, Walt Kyle and his assistant Mike Gibbons, have been great. They tell us, 'Whatever player you want, just let us know, they want to get out there and become involved.' "

Enthusiasm is a commodity easy to come by when a new franchise arrives in town, and it figures to remain a constant for owners Bob Teck and Alan Gertner.

"The AHL is going to 18 teams this year, and 20 teams soon, to answer a need of the National Hockey League," said Teck. "The reason is, our league is a perfect developmental tool for the NHL, nurturing its stars of the future."

Teck says NHL expansion, expected late in this decade, will lead to AHL expansion. Sooner or later, he reasons, Baltimore will be well positioned to join the NHL, seeing as how the city sits right outside the top 20 markets in the United States.

It appears Teck and Gertner plan to have the Bandits digging in for the long haul and eventual up grade. They're off to a fast start with as many as 6,500-7,000 likely for tomorrow night's regular-season opener against the Carolina Monarchs.

AHL in Baltimore

A look at the year-by-year attendance of AHL teams in Baltimore. 6Season ... ... .... Total att. ... ... .... Avg. att.

'62-63 ... ... .... 171,948 ... ... .... .. 4,776

'63-64 ... ... .... 190,099 ... ... ... ... 5,281

'64-65 ... ... .... 178,666 ... ... ... ... 4,963

'65-66 ... ... .... 142,056 ... ... ... ... 3,946

'66-67 ... ... .... 164,731 ... ... ... ... 4,576

'67-68 ... ... .... 176,219 ... ... ... ... 4,895

'68-69 ... ... .... 161,590 ... ... ... ... 4,367

'69-70 ... ... .... 218,965 ... ... ... ... 6,082

'70-71 ... ... .... 187,662 ... ... ... ... 5,213

'71-72 ... ... .... 110,566 ... ... ... ... 2,910

'72-73 ... ... .... 110,566 ... ... ... ... 2,910

'73-74 ... ... .... 117,140 ... ... ... ... 3,083

'74-75* ... ... ... 60,988 ... ... ... .... 3,049

'75-76 ... ... .... 125,554 ... ... ... ... 3,304

'76-82 ... .... ... No team ... ... ... ...

'82-83 ... ... .... 108,826 ... ... ... ... 2,721

'83-84 ... ... .... 144,204 ... ... ... ... 3,605

'84-85 ... ... .... 135,393 ... ... ... ... 3,385

'85-86 ... ... .... 116,343 ... ... ... ... 2,909

'86-87 ... ... .... 135,250 ... ... ... ... 3,381

'87-88 ... ... .... 100,962 .... ... ... .. 2,524

'88-89 ... ... .... 152,143 ... .... ... .. 3,804

'89-90 ... ... .... 156,321 ... ... ... ... 3,908

'90-91 ... ... .... 145,218 ... ... ... ... 3,630

'91-92 ... ... .... 154,655 ... ... ... ... 3,866

'92-93 ... ... .... 122,643 ... ... ... ... 3,066

* -- Baltimore played only 20 home games this season

AHL South preview

Baltimore Bandits

Last year: Competed in the IHL as the San Diego Gulls and had a record of 37-36-8.

Affiliation: Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Coach: Walt Kyle, who, after coaching U.S. National Junio teams in 1991 and 1992, began his pro career as coach of Seattle in the Western Hockey League (juniors). His two-year record there was 63-65-6. He moved up to San Diego of the IHL last season.

Key players: Centers Jarrod Skalde, Sean Pronger and Dave Sacco, wingers Mike Maneluk, John Lilly, Craig Reichert and Maxim Bets, defensemen Pavel Trnka, Alex Hicks and Darren Van Impe, and goalies Mike O'Neill and Byron Penstock.

Outlook: Most of the Bandits don't have AHL experience, and it's difficult to predict how quickly they will adapt to the different style.

Binghamton Rangers

Last year: First in Southern Division at 43-30-7 after finishing last in previous season (33-38-9). Lost divisional playoff final.

Affiliation: New York Rangers.

Coach: George Burnett coached the Edmonton Oilers last season after a two-year stint with the Cape Breton Oilers.

Key players: Centers Peter Ferraro and Andrei Kudinov, wingers Jean-Yves Roy (41 goals two years ago), Ken Gernander, Corey Hirsch, Dimitri Starostenko and Chris Ferraro, and defensemen Eric Cairns and Sylvain Blouin.

Outlook: The Rangers appear to have improved as a result of solid off-season dealing and young talent gathered up by the parent New York Rangers.

Carolina Monarchs

Last year: Competed in the East Coast Hockey League (a lower classification) as the Greensboro Monarchs. In six years in the ECHL, Greensboro averaged 36 wins and 24 losses per season while winning the league championship once and being beaten in a playoff final another time.

Affiliation: Florida Panthers.

Coach: Rich Kromm, assistant coach with Cincinnati (IHL) last season after a lengthy career playing for Calgary and the New York Islanders.

Key players: Center Alexei Ku--ov, leading scorer for the St. John's Maple Leafs last year, and goalie Kevin Weekes.

Outlook: New franchises, it seems, always have a grace period and the Monarchs may need it.

Hershey Bears

Last year: Last year: Had a disappointing third-place finish in division with a 34-36-10 record; eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs in the first round.

Affiliation: Philadelphia Flyers.

Coach: Jay Leach.

Key players: Center Vaclav Prospal. Shawn McCosh, Todd Nelson and Darren Rumble, all off-season acquisitions from the free-agent market. Ageless Mitch Lamoureux just goes on and on, leading the Bears in scoring last year with 85 points. Les Kuntar and Neil Little are solid in goal.

Outlook: Because of free agent pickups, Bears are looking for big turnaround from veteran cast (average age 24.4).

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