Serving Up Hockey Southern Style

Originally published in the 2003 NHL All-Star Game Program

By Lucas Aykroyd

Traditional Southern cooking abounds with homegrown delicacies. But for sports fans in hot, dry places, hockey is often seen as an exotic new addition to the menu.

Fortunately, it hasn’t taken long for the southern United States to acquire a taste for the NHL’s ice cold treats. The dramatic march of the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals paid tribute to the growth of non-traditional hockey markets. That’s backed up by the presence of franchises in places like Nashville, Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim, which would have been unthinkable in the past.

The August 9, 1988 trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings marked a turning point. Gretzky’s unparalleled star power put hockey on the front burner in the Sun Belt for the first time in NHL history. After all, who better than the Great One to whet the appetite of new hockey fans?

“I think it had an enormous impact on the growth of hockey and the NHL in the United States,” Gretzky said. “The entire state of California fell in love with the Kings when we made it to the finals against Montreal in 1993. Our success made a lot of new hockey fans and ultimately allowed the league to expand.”

With the 2003 NHL All-Star Game coming to Miami, it’s clear hockey is flourishing in Florida. But Carolina supporters have had even more excitement in recent months. If you like your grits nice and gritty, the Hurricanes are your kind of team.

After ousting New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto in last year’s playoffs, the Raleigh-based squad gave the favored Detroit Red Wings a valiant five-game battle in the championship series. Carolina’s sudden-death victory in Game One represented the franchise’s all-time highlight both before and after relocating from Hartford in 1997. Hockey fever gripped a population better known for its love of football and NASCAR racing, and players like Ron Francis, Jeff O’Neill and Arturs Irbe became household names.

But those colorful pre-game tailgate parties and sellout crowds of 18,730 didn’t just materialize out of nowhere at the RBC Center. The Hurricanes had to find a recipe for promotional success before they could cook up a winning tradition.

“Obviously, as a non-traditional sport in a new market, that has definitely been a focus of ours,” said Ken Lehner, Carolina’s vice-president of marketing communications. “In the early years of the franchise, we really relied upon a ‘you’ll know when you go’ mentality. We felt that if we could get the non-traditional hockey fans into the arena to experience the greatest game live, we would be able to convert them into ‘Caniacs.'”

The team took the concept of educating fans to a whole new level with the creation of Hurricane University.

“We ran three-night programs, where fans could first come and meet with one of our coaches and learn about strategy,” said Lehner. “Another night, they came to the practice rink and were taught how to skate with the help of the players. Finally, they came out to a hockey game. They had a scouting report, and they met during the intermissions to talk about what had gone on during the play. It was very well-received.”

So well-received, in fact, that Hurricane University now offers a Master’s program for more experienced hockey lovers. And the team constantly monitors the development of its fan base.

In 1999-2000, the first year in the new building in Raleigh, a survey indicated 22 percent of the fans there were attending their first hockey game ever. Of those, 85 percent said they’d come back for a second game. The 2001-02 survey had less than 10 percent coming to their first game ever, and of those, 94 percent said they’d be back. It’s exciting for both management and players.

“It’s great to be part of a team that is making its franchise history rather than playing for a team that already has all the tradition and history,” said Carolina’s Erik Cole.

The Nashville Predators are in the same boat. While they haven’t matched the on-ice success of the Hurricanes, they’re right up there when it comes to savvy marketing. They’ve brought in country music performers like Tim McGraw, Vince Gill and Mindy McCready. They’ve offered a Playoff Pledge from owner Craig Leipold this year: the increase in season ticket prices will be refunded if the Predators fail to make the playoffs.

Obviously Leipold doesn’t intend to eat his words. But this will pose a challenge for a young team with no post-season appearances in four years, even if budding prodigies like Scott Hartnell and Denis Arkhipov step up.

Whatever happens, it’s clear the Predator players have adopted Nashville just as the fans have adopted them.

“The most rewarding thing about being in Nashville is the quality of life there,” said longtime head coach Barry Trotz. “It is one of those hidden secrets. It’s a very metropolitan city, well-connected in entertainment and other fields. The weather is good, the school system is good, and it’s really a nice place to raise a family.”

The antics of teams like the Birmingham Bulls of the defunct World Hockey Association once stereotyped hockey as a violent sport in the South. But Nashville fan Steve Speakman recognizes the appeal of good clean play: “Once fans learn about the game, they’ll come for the action instead of the fights. The players really give their all.”

Over in Georgia, the Atlanta Thrashers boast a dynamic duo as slick and slippery as catfish. Calder Trophy winner Dany Heatley and Russian goal-scoring sensation Ilya Kovalchuk should draw crowds to Philips Arena for years to come. Great offensive talent is one of the best drawing cards an expansion team that came on board in 1999-2000 could hope for.

Of course, this isn’t the first time NHL hockey has come to Atlanta. On November 1, 1971, the city was awarded its first expansion franchise. The Atlanta Flames were named after the great fire that destroyed the city during the Civil War, as depicted in “Gone With the Wind.” But they didn’t heat up the ice. The club flamed out and blew off to Calgary in 1980 without ever having won a playoff round.

Happily, the Thrashers enjoy far better financial and media support under the ownership of Turner Sports. Atlanta set an NHL record for average attendance by an expansion team in 1999-2000 with an average of 17,205 fans per game. The club has offered such enticing promotions as a live concert by rocker Joan Jett following a home game and a Thrashers lunchbox giveaway. General manager Don Waddell has been on board since 1998, and if he can convert his vision into victories, there’s no reason why this success story shouldn’t continue.

“Our fans are really loyal and continue to support and grow with us,” said Heatley. “They are so enthusiastic, and that makes it a lot of fun for us.”

Meanwhile, new blood is energizing hotspots like Phoenix and Dallas this season. The addition of three-time 40-goal scorer Tony Amonte to the Phoenix lineup shows Wayne Gretzky’s team is serious about trying to make it past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since 1987. The Dallas spending spree that landed such free agent talents as Bill Guerin, Ulf Dahlen and Scott Young reflects a commitment to returning to the Western Conference elite. Make no mistake: these are hockey towns.

Some might think the sunny climate in Phoenix would create a distraction for NHLers. But Coyotes GM Michael Barnett believes it actually can benefit on-ice performance, and that was part of his pitch to Amonte: “Not catching the colds and things that you tend to do in those winter climates, guys play younger. They feel better about themselves. I saw Larry Robinson do it in Los Angeles, and this is Tony’s chance to come in and enjoy the sunshine.”

In Dallas, every home game was a sellout last year even though the Stars missed the playoffs. The atmosphere is as colorful as the Dr. Pepper memorabilia displayed on the upper level of the American Airlines Center, as fans holler out the team’s name when the word “star” comes up during the pre-game singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“Non-Texans joke that we think icing goes on cakes, boarding is a class at Home Depot, and a hat trick is an intermission show at the rodeo,” said Jennifer Floyd, a staff writer with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Yet two straight runs to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999 and 2000 have surely taught these Southern fans what hockey is all about.

The California teams are also moving forward. Despite struggling in recent years, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks have bulked up their offensive presence by signing power play threats like Adam Oates, Petr Sykora and Fredrik Olausson, not to mention two hot Russian prospects in Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov. “I’m very happy for them,” said Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya’s former linemate with the Ducks. “I think they’ve made some good moves and they’ve got some strong players now. They’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

And the San Jose Sharks have come a long way since their inaugural 1991-92 campaign, when their only praiseworthy statistic was $150 million in merchandise sales, accounting for 27 percent of the NHL’s total.

“San Jose supports their team like no other team in the league,” said Boston goalie Steve Shields, who has suited up for both San Jose and Anaheim. “Their building’s full every night. L.A. does a great job too, and Anaheim’s rebuilding right now. There’s a lot of support for the teams down there, but they especially want a team to win if they’re going to get behind it. When you play hockey out in California, you have to put a good product on the ice, but if you do, they’re going to come in droves.”

If San Jose stars like Selanne, Owen Nolan and Evgeni Nabokov play up to their potential, most hockey observers believe the Sharks are among the most likely teams other than Detroit, Colorado or New Jersey to capture the Stanley Cup.

Surveying the Southern teams, it seems the potential for future growth is unlimited. For instance, there’s the matter of attracting non-traditional ethnic fans to the world of hockey. The NHL Diversity Task Force, founded in 1995, supports youth hockey organizations like Disney GOALS of Anaheim and the Metro Atlanta Hockey Association, which cater to the economically disadvantaged. African-Canadian stars like Carolina netminder Kevin Weekes and NHL scoring champion Jarome Iginla are among the role models who speak to ethnic youngsters in Southern communities and appear at hockey instructional clinics designed to cook up enthusiasm for this great sport.

In fact, Southern hockey fans of all descriptions have plenty of reasons to cheer.

“Each year, all our teams are going to get better, and very soon it will be a powerful division,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said of the Southeast Division.

In the old six-team NHL, the idea of icing Southeast and Pacific Divisions would have crumbled like corn bread. But the NHL of the new millennium can take the heat. The league looks set for a prosperous and palatable stay in the hockey kitchens down south.

Super Southern Shooters

Check out who scored the most goals in one season for our spotlighted teams:

Anaheim: Teemu Selanne (52, 1997-98)
Atlanta: Donald Audette (32, 2000-01)
Carolina: Jeff O’Neill (41, 2000-01)
Dallas: Mike Modano (50, 1993-94)
Nashville: Cliff Ronning (26, 1999-2000)
Phoenix: Keith Tkachuk (52, 1997-98)
San Jose: Owen Nolan (44, 1999-2000) Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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