They say that things get better with age. 36 years ago the then Great Lakes Junior Hockey League was surviving as a rugged five-team circuit in Michigan and Ohio. It would have been hard to believe back then that fans would one day flock in the tens of thousands to catch a glimpse of what then an unknown and trailblazing idea in the United States called ‘junior’ hockey.
36 years later, fans saw plenty of North American Hockey League (NAHL) action from all over the country as the league set new and ground-breaking records for both total and average attendance this year. During the 2011-12 season, the NAHL welcomed a record 1,128,098 fans to see a total of 840 regular season league games in 28 cities. It also included the thousands of fans that came to see the NAHL Showcase this past September in Blaine, Minnesota, in where each NAHL team played four regular season games.
So what was behind the record-setting numbers? The NAHL had a record number of teams (28) this past season, however the league average of 1,342 fans per game was also a NAHL record, further proving that the growth of the NAHL and its surrounding communities is evident. A closer look revealed that not only is the product on the ice more entertaining than ever because of the talented pool of players, but teams are working harder than ever to establish that personal connection with their fans and their communities.
NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld believes that the players that are developing within the league are the key to growing the sport within the NAHL’s footprint, which spreads across 14 states. “Our teams have done a tremendous job of promoting our game and the players play with an exuberance and passion that translates into a competitive atmosphere on the ice,” said Frankenfeld. “I think fans enjoy the family fun entertainment and the ability to be up close and part of clubs and players with their community-based initiatives. Not only does the NAHL provide players with an opportunity to develop their hockey careers and advance to the next level, but it also provides fans in the respective NAHL communities a very exciting and entertaining product to watch.”
The Fresno Monsters, who ranked #1 in overall in team attendance with 106,718 fans, saw a spike at the turnstiles this season. They averaged 3,557 fans, a better attendance average than some NCAA Division I programs enjoy. It was something that Fresno Governor David White said that was based upon an increased involvement with the community and focus on entertainment. “We have invested more time in the community as an organization, getting people to see their first ever live hockey game this past season. This has resulted in more repeat attendees enjoying our great sport in action,” remarked White. “Our game day staff engages the audience, and our games are fast-paced and present a skill level that our fans have seemed to have accepted and enjoyed.”
The South Division was the biggest draw for NAHL fans this year. Six of the top 10 teams in overall attendance were from the South. South Division member Corpus Christi finished second overall with 91,678 fans total and 3,055 on average. The Odessa Jackalopes, who were new to the NAHL this season after spending the past 14 seasons in the professional ranks, actually averaged more fans this season as a junior team (2,880) than they did last season as a professional franchise.
Odessa General Manager Joe Clark said once fans got out to a game to see the product and identify with the players, it was something that grew on the community. “It was a big challenge at first because we had to introduce the NAHL brand and style of hockey to the fans. I think the die-hards understood that the product was exciting, but we had to show the rest of the community that these players are the stars of tomorrow with their whole hockey future ahead of them,” said Clark. “As the season went on and our team got better and better, fans really started to grasp what the league was about and what the goals were for the players. The Odessa/Midland area is very a tight community and when they see the team giving back to the community and being a part of it, they want to be a part of that. It takes a lot of work and volunteers who are dedicated to help get it done.”
Perhaps no team is more popular in their community than the defending Robertson Cup Champion, Fairbanks Ice Dogs. When it comes to selling out their building, no one in the league does it better or more often. Out of the 28 home games played at the Big Dipper Ice Arena this season, 24 of them were sold out or played at capacity, including the Ice Dogs annual outdoor game, which was played at a balmy 10 degrees outside. Ice Dogs General Manager Rob Proffitt says the connection with the hometown fans is the primary reason for the support on a game-by-game basis. “Each hockey game is an event for our community. I think when the team won the National Championship last season, everyone felt like it was our fans championship too,” said Proffitt. “I think they also enjoy seeing players that will have a future in the NCAA and maybe even pro hockey. The product on and off the ice has gotten better each season. We get great support from the community and the surrounding military who really enjoy the fact that it is one of the more entertaining things to do in our area.”
It was just two years ago when the Aberdeen Wings began playing in the NAHL. Since then, the Odde Ice Center has been the home of the Wings and their thousands of fans. On any given night more than 1300+ people fill the stands to capacity and the fans are considered some of the most passionate in the league. It has worked out so well, that the city and Wings have doubled their youth program and are trying to expand the arena. “Our city is still discovering how exciting NAHL hockey is,” said Wings Governor/Owner Greg Odde. “Games are such a great event for young and old alike and we have a very passionate fanbase. You can truly tell that they love this team as a part of their community.”
The Austin Bruins have resurrected hockey in their area of Southeast Minnesota to where it has now become an event for their fans. The Bruins shattered their single-game attendance record (1,989) earlier this season with their annual Pink in the Rink game and they increased their average attendance over 25% this year to average over 1,000 fans per game. “Being a part of the Austin community is everything to the Bruins and ultimately we feel like it is the community’s team, not an individual’s,” said Craig Patrick, Governor/Owner of the Bruins. “We made over 100 school visits this season and those kids they talk to and see at the schools then identify with the players and want to see them at the games. Our players make it a point to be approachable at the games and talk to fans. It also helps that the NAHL is very good hockey and entertaining.”
It’s clear that the common theme to the NAHL’s success this season with their fans is two-fold. Credit certainly rests with the talented group of over 600 players, who sacrifice and put it on the line for 60+ games a season. It also would not be possible for the support of the fans of the NAHL communities. NAHL hockey is entertaining, fun and most of all, one that the fans can connect and identify with. So here is a big ‘thank you’ from the NAHL to our fans, players and teams for setting the foundation and their continued support of the North American Hockey League, the league of opportunity.