Some hockey fans in Corpus Christi were skeptical when it was announced last May that the local pro team would be replaced by a relocated NAHL team.
But it hasn’t taken long for those fans to be won over by the excitement of Junior A hockey.
The IceRays lead the NAHL in attendance with an average of 3,446 a game. In Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Texas Tornado, 5,912 fans came out for the team’s annual Stars and Stripes Night, in which tickets were provided to the families of police, fire, other law enforcement and emergency response personnel.
Another 5,762 fans showed up at the American Bank Center on Oct. 10 to witness a 5-4 shootout victory over New Mexico.
Corpus Christi coach Brent Hughes said the transition from pro to junior hockey couldn’t have been much smoother, and he has received lots of support and positive feedback from the fans.
“It’s gone super well,” said Hughes, who is enjoying his first stint coaching junior hockey after spending the last seven years in pro hockey with Corpus Christi and Austin. “A lot of skepticism was definitely in the air (about the league switch). A lot of Texas people didn’t know about junior hockey.
“It’s pretty much the same speed as the pro game, and the intensity is probably higher.”
Hughes said that IceRays general manager Pat Dunn invited all of last year’s season ticket holders to the first two home dates on Oct. 1-2 and guaranteed that he’d refund their money for 2010-11 if they weren’t satisfied.
The result was an increase in season tickets sold. Corpus Christi has always drawn well - it averaged 3,104 in 32 home games a year ago as a pro team - so it’s not too surprising that fans have embraced a different level of hockey.
While the crowds have been stellar, the IceRays own a 3-3 record at the American Bank Center and are 6-6-2 on the season.
Hughes said he expected a slow start because his squad is young and was assembled later than most. The Alpena team wasn’t relocated to South Texas until after many teams had tendered prospects and the 2010 NAHL Draft had taken place.
“If I was told we’d be .500 almost two months into the season, I would have taken it all day long,” Hughes said. “With junior kids, there’s a bigger learning curve. We’re making headway, and the guys keep working together.”
Goaltender Marco Wieser, who played in 42 games with Alpena last year, has been pivotal to the IceRays’ success early on. Hughes also said leading scorers Beau Walker (21 points) and Mike Benedict (15 points) have flourished in elevated roles. Walker scored all of seven points a year ago with the Alaska Avalanche.
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
AMARILLO BULLS: The Bulls have been outstanding at home this season, winning seven of eight games and outscoring opponents 39-24 in the process. Forward Zack Smoot and defenseman Karl Beckman are a combined plus-20 inside the Amarillo Civic Center. The Bulls play only two games in the next three weeks.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: Forward Adam Chapie had a hand in all of the Mustangs’ goals during Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Wichita Falls. Chapie, a Michigan native, registered a goal and two assists. He leads New Mexico with nine points this season.
TEXAS TORNADO: The Tornado has now won eight straight and moved into sole possession of first place with a weekend sweep of Corpus Christi. Texas has scored at least eight goals once in each of the past three weekends, and forward J.D. Howard returned after being sidelined for three weeks with an injury to lead Texas with four points against the IceRays.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Topeka split its home weekend series against the St. Louis Bandits. The RoadRunners rallied from a 3-1 deficit Friday behind five goals in the third period to win 6-3. Captain Michael Hill scored twice, while Jordan Davis and Nate Milam recorded shorthanded tallies a mere 45 seconds apart.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: After a 1-for-25 stretch on the power play in its previous four games, the Wildcats broke out of a slump by going 5-for-14 during a four-point weekend. Mac Olson, who had a hat trick in Sunday’s 5-3 win against New Mexico, and Mikhail Sentyurin had two man-advantage goals each.