Warm up the Zamboni
I will admit that when the news that professional hockey was coming back to Lexington, in the form of an East Coast Hockey League team being moved from Macon, GA, I was not that excited. Who cares? We don't need hockey. We've got the Legends, that's good enough. Since one hockey team has already failed here, this new team would follow suit, so why get attached? I put the over/under of their survival at two seasons, which coincidentally was the length of their lease with Rupp Arena. Hockey was not, and could not, be successful in Lexington. This is what I thought and that is what I was going to write about. And then I did some research.
The amazing thing about research is that it gives you facts and not perceptions. The good thing about sports research is that most of it can be done on the Internet late at night in your boxers and a t-shirt or while you are sitting on the can flipping through various sports pages. Anyways, while doing this research, I realized that my definition of "successful" was wrong. Hockey did not fail in Lexington, the Kentucky Thoroughblades failed. The game did well, the businessmen who ran the game did not, and that is where I was confused. Consider that the average attendance of teams in the ECHL is 4,020. During the final season of the Thoroughblades, which was by far their worst and after a lot of people lost interest, their average attendance was 4,461. Therefore the attendance for hockey games in Rupp Arena was actually very good. It was some bad business that caused the previous owners to bolt, not a lack of interest Hockey was not a failure, but there did exist a perception of failure.
The perception of failure will be the biggest challenge for the new hockey team. The owners of our new, yet to be named, hockey team are Jean Gagnon and Michel Cadrin. They have been successful running minor league hockey teams in the past, and there is no reason to believe they would enter into an agreement with Rupp Arena if they thought they would not make money. The ECHL is at a slightly lower level than the AHL, which was the conference of the Thoroughblades. In baseball terms, if the AHL was AAA than the ECHL is AA. This means that although the talent level may not be as high, the operating costs are lower, so the potential for profit is greater. The better the profit, the better the chance that the team will be staying for awhile. According to Gagnon and Cadrin, they will need to average at least 3,000 people to be financially successful. That would seem easy enough given the levels of attendance the Thoroughblades held during their tenure, even at the end. According to their lease with Rupp Arena, they are also eligible to receive cash credits at different attendance levels, starting with 4,000. It seems that business-wise, these people know what they are doing. If the money side is going to be strong, then all they need to be successful is for the hockey side to also be strong. Can they get people to come to the game?
If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear about living in Lexington, it is that people around here are dying for something to do. Take the "Summer in the City" going on each weekend in downtown. It is incredible that all it takes to attract hundreds and hundreds of people downtown is to throw up a couple of sawhorses and bring in a Budweiser truck. If it was this easy, why did it take so long for us to figure out? Go to a Lexington Legends game and see all of the people there. There is a very good chance that most people in the stands cannot name the starting nine for the home team, but they are still there cheering and having a good time. Now, that being said, the new hockey team is not going to hurt the Legends in any way. Baseball has a level of familiarity that hockey does not. They can both co-exist and be successful, and since the end of the hockey season and the beginning of the baseball season will overlap, there is hopefully a chance for the two teams to work together. Another factor in their success will be if they can hook up with an NHL team. 22 of the 28 teams in the ECHL have an NHL affiliation and the new ownership has stated that one for Lexington is being pursued. An affiliation with an NHL team gives excitement to the fans, as they can watch players move up to the Show and play on ESPN. Nothing is more fun than seeing a guy on Sportscenter and telling someone, "Yeah, I saw him play a few years ago. You could tell he was gonna be good."
The season for our new team starts in October. That does not give them a lot of time to create a buzz and to dispel the notion that hockey was a failure. It will take a lot of time and effort, but this ownership group is ready to put that forward. The first thing they will do is to have a contest to name the team. The details of this have not been released, but it is never too early to start thinking of ideas. Remember the excitement around town as the Legends held their name the team contest (for the record I voted for The Horse Flies), and hopefully this will generate the same excitement. Two suggestions, though. The Lexington Lunatics is the first one. Imagine t-shirts and bumper stickers saying, "Go Crazy with the Lunatics!" Another contender, the Lexington Ice Holes, with a picture of a guy fishing on a frozen pond. Close your eyes and envision a team photo with the caption, "What a bunch of Ice Holes!" As soon as they start their contest, I am sending those in, so don't get any ideas. You know what. I am excited about the new hockey team. They have not even started the promotions yet, but already they have one convert. The perception of failure is hard to get rid of, but I think they will be successful. The hockey fans will come back. That is not really the question. Will the casual sports fans and the corporate sponsors come back? I think they will. People in Lexington are always eager for something to do, and if you sell beer there, that is even better.
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