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Monday, August 28, 2006

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A new start

It may be more than 80 degrees out, but hockey season starts in less than two months, and the pre-season and the training camps in just a few weeks. Why am I obsessed with minor league hockey? First, I never got hooked on the Chicago Blackhawks. That is the price of not televising your games. Instead, at the age of 45 I went to see the Chicago Wolves win the Turner Cup.

Today I’m a season ticket holder. The Wolves are one of about 26 professional teams in the Chicago area, and join to become one of about 60 professional teams in the greater area by which I include places like Peoria, Milwaukee and South Bend. Places within about 150 – 200 miles of the city. I won’t even start to list all the NCAA teams in that region. Plus there are interests like harness, horse and greyhound racing, boxing, NASCAR and drag racing, etc.

It is a tough media market. The ads here are expensive. There is a lot of competition.

So, where are the Chicago Hounds in all of this?

The Chicago Hounds plan to skate in the still-to-be-completed Sears Center in Hoffman Estates starting in October. New to the area, they’ll play in the UHL, or United Hockey League. To give some perspective to the casual fan, the Chicago Wolves are in the American Hockey League, the AAA level of hockey. About a third of their players move up and down to the NHL each season.

The next level is the ECHL, which was once known as the East Coast Hockey League. Those players generally move up to the AHL or sometimes the NHL. The UHL is in the next level down of AA Hockey. Maybe one player a season will move to the NHL. The Rockford Ice Hogs were the best development team in the UHL last years, they sent two players to the Chicago Wolves and three players to the Milwaukee Admirals. That’s about a third of their typical lineup.

The Hounds announced an exciting signing of Coach Greg Puhalski from the Fort Wayne Komets. And the first signing of player Greg Koehler. But I’ll be damned if I understand who they are marketing this thing to. The stealth marketing discussed earlier: it is continuing.

What’s more, they aren’t saying value to the hockey fan. My AHL Wolves tickets run about $15 a seat, $18 for a single ticket on day of game. That’s row eight, sort of at the angle behind the net. The same Hound tix look to cost $26 day of game. For that, I give up AAA hockey and accept low AA hockey. Milwaukee Admirals tix, this season are about $19 on the glass, $16 or so for the Rivermen glass seats. And at those AHL games, I saw a lot of NHL talent on the ice.

I’d rather drive the additional 45 minutes and see the Ice Hogs. $19 for a glass seat.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Billy Tibbetts a Bruin

Now Billy Tibbetts has long attracted as many readers to this blog as my entries about Harry Dumas. (I think it's great to write Billy's name and Harry's name in the same sentence, don't you?) Billy will not, apparently, return to the Rockford Ice Hogs. This is frustrating, I think, to Rockford fans, among whom I include myself. But a news report in the Rockford Register Star specifically mentioned Tibbetts as being out.

Where has Billy gone? There’s no word yet from the Chicago Wolves. However, Tibbetts is known to have been accepted for a reality television show starting this fall. The usually reliable Billy Tibbetts website is silent on this matter. However, here is a link to the show So you want to be a Bruin where you can enjoy Billy discussing why he wants to be a Boston Bruin.

Billy’s birthday, by the way, is October 14th, which happens to be the date of the home opener.


Bloomington Prairie Thunder local connections

It is two months to go till they drop the puck. The site, for the Chicago Wolves, will be the Carver Arena in Peoria, Illinois, home to the Peoria Rivermen. So many things will change between now and October 7th. However here are a few things we now know. First, several ECHL Rivermen players are now wearing sweaters bearing the logo of the Bloomington Prairie Thunder. I took an unofficial look at the US Cellular Arena in downtown Bloomington. It is a place that my wife described as a bride, waiting to be raped by the horde of fans from Rockford and the Quad Cities.

The smell of a new arena… Contrast that, if you will, with the dingy smoke that is the home of the Toledo Storm, the Toledo Sports Arena. I doubt the US Cellular Arena has had a single event yet. It smells of plastic, it has carpets without beer stains or cigarette burns and the blank canvas that lies under every sheet of ice. It is a far cry from the Sports Arena. Yum… can you taste the blood, I mean love?

Give me the Sports Arena, where fans lean over the glass and scream at the players. Where they get ejected for interfering with play, where they drown out the singer of the national anthem screaming curses at the Canadian players. It may not be love, but it is hockey.

We found a wonderful picture taken at the Sports Arena during the Kelly Cup playoffs. The Gwinnett Gladiators had just won the game and were preparing to congratulate the Storm. In the stands you see the fans giving one finger salutes to the Gladiators.

I’ll give the Prairie Thunder this, so far I’ve noticed a great marketing campaign from the team. Although I haven’t been personally contacted, I see ads in the local phone book, on radio and in the visitors guides. I’m impressed by their effort to reconnect with the base of ECHL fans that had followed the Rivermen. Derek Booth was the first clear sign of that effort. Booth was a captain of the Rivermen four years ago, and has coached in the SPHL at Fayetteville, bringing them to the post season twice.

The first player Booth brought aboard was former Rivermen Trevor Baker. Baker will fill a position as player/coach in the position of forward.

Over at the Chicago Hounds they must believe in stealth marketing. I’m definitely a season ticket holder of the Chicago Wolves, but also purchase enough to be considered a low end STH of the Rockford Ice Hogs and the Milwaukee Admirals. I’d think I might be considered in their target demographic? Well, nothing on the horizon so far. Am I not reading the right newspapers or listening to the right radio stations or driving on the right highway? (I only pass by the Sears Center twice a week each way).

What’s wrong with me?

Thank god for Google news alerts.

The first player signed by the Hounds was Greg Koehler. He’s got pretty good stats in the UHL and has been in professional hockey for about ten years. But unlike Baker, I just don’t see a local connection. The same couldn’t be said for the head coach of the Hounds. Greg Puhalski wanted to go to Chicago, leaving a successful coaching position with the Fort Wayne, Indiana Komets organization. I think Puhalski intends to make this area his home for a long time to come. And welcome to you Greg!