Back in June, there were some unknowns surrounding the Corpus Christi IceRays transition to the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
However, 40 games and seven months later, the community has embraced the IceRays and their season - and future - look as bright as ever.
“To tell you the truth, it’s been a dream come true and a very positive move for our team,” said IceRays general manager and governor Pat Dunn. “The community has responded and we’re not only excited about the rest of this year, but many years to come. “
One the ice, the IceRays have had their highs and lows, but through it all remain just four points out of the fourth and final playoff spot with 18 games to go in the South Division.
Some recent player moves have the IceRays geared up for the stretch run in which they play 10 of their final 18 games at home.
“It’s been a grind and a learning experience, but we’re not out of it yet,” said Dunn. “When our guys are playing well, we can play with anybody. We’ve seen what it takes to compete with the likes of Topeka, Texas and Amarillo. Now, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it when it counts.”
Off the ice, the ‘Rays are seeing the benefit of a huge community response to the team. Players are out in the community almost on a daily basis and the face-to-face interaction has created a devoted following.
The IceRays are second in league attendance at just under 3,000 fans per game, but Dunn believes that number is going to go up judging by the second-half numbers.
“We still have some important home games left, including our ‘Pink in the Rink,’ which traditionally has a very large crowd and brings in over $50,000 for the American Cancer Society. We also have our ‘Pack the House’ Night during our final home game of the season, so there are some great opportunities there to keep reaching out to the community and showing them what we’re all about.”
So what’s more important for the first-year IceRays: Winning or providing fans with a quality entertainment product?
“The hockey guy in me says winning, but fans just want to come out and have a good time,” said Dunn. “An entertaining product is so important and everything we’ve done so far this season tells us that our fans are having a great time and, more importantly, once they see a game they’re going to come back.
“I think that’s been the biggest positive for us is the response after fans have seen a game. Even if it’s been a loss, people are responding to us - and the local media - that they’ve been very pleased with their experience. The bigger the crowds, the better the atmosphere and the more fun our fans will have.”
Looking into the future, the IceRays are excited. The team is competing for a playoff spot, they’re challenging for the top attendance average in the NAHL and their biggest home games may be yet to come.
“Because of what had been here previously, we’ve already been through our honeymoon period, so to see the type of response we’ve had in just a couple of months makes us believe that not only is the team going to be sustainable now, but well into the future and that makes us very optimistic for the short-and long-term future of the Corpus Christi IceRays.”
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
AMARILLO BULLS: The Bulls moved back into second place in the NAHL’s South Division with two wins at home last weekend over Wichita Falls on Saturday and Corpus Christi on Sunday. Goaltender Nikifor Szczerba stopped 61 of 64 shots in the two games, which included a 33-save shutout in Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Wildcats. Sean Keane, who was acquired from Wichita Falls last week, had four assists in his first two games in a Bulls uniform. The Bulls crowd of 4,912 on Sunday was the largest to watch a hockey game in Amarillo since March 8, 2008. This week, the Bulls host New Mexico on Thursday and travel to Corpus Christi for two more games Friday and Saturday.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: It was a successful weekend for the Mustangs despite going just 1-1. On Friday, 28 saves from Marco Wieser helped the Mustangs to their first shutout of the season with a 6-0 win over visiting Corpus Christi. Patrick Anderson and Ian McGilvrey both scored twice in the win. On Saturday, the Mustangs fell to the IceRays 4-1, but the game wasn’t without its bright spots. Forward Sander Valde from Norway scored the lone Mustangs goal and now has six points in his first six games in a New Mexico uniform. The crowd of 1,405 on Saturday was New Mexico’s largest of the season. Three road games await the Mustangs this week with a Thursday night game in Amarillo and weekend games in Wichita Falls.
TEXAS TORNADO: It was a rough three games for the Tornado last week in Fairbanks as Texas dropped three straight games to the West Division-leading Ice Dogs. The losses snapped Texas’ five-game winning streak and moved them into a tie for second place in the South Division with Amarillo. Although all the losses came in regulation, the Tornado still lead the NAHL in OT/shootout losses with five. Forward J.D. Howard had a good week with three goals and an assist in the three games, and now leads the Tornado in goals with 20. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Tornado as it travels to Wenatchee this weekend for two out-of-division road games against the Wild.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: With two more wins last weekend over the Wichita Falls Wildcats, the RoadRunners increased their season-high winning streak to eight straight games and increased their lead in the South Division to five points over both Amarillo and Texas. Statistically, the RoadRunners are currently the top team in the NAHL with a .757 winning percentage. With a 4-3 shootout win on Friday night, goaltender Eric Rohrkemper has now won in his last eight starts. Newcomer Davey Middleton had three points in the two wins over Wichita Falls and now has six points in his first four games as a RoadRunner. Topeka continues its current seven-game homestand on Saturday and Sunday with two out-of-division games against the Springfield Jr. Blues.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: The Wildcats dropped a pair of games on the road to division-leading Topeka on Friday and Saturday and were shutout Sunday in Amarillo, but did manage to earn a valuable point on Friday in a 4-3 shootout loss in Topeka. Forward Dakota Klecha, who leads the NAHL in penalty minutes, showed his scoring touch last weekend as he lit the lamp in both games. Klecha now leads the Wildcats in goals with 19. Goaltender Tyler Green played admirably in the losses at Topeka, stopping a combined 73 of 79 shots in the two close losses. The Wildcats, who still are hanging onto the fourth and final playoff spot, look to get back on track this weekend hosting two games against New Mexico.