Another year, another attendance record. Judging by the turnstiles at NAHL arenas, it appears the North American Hockey League (NAHL) is more popular now than it ever has been thanks to another record-breaking response and season by NAHL fans.
A season ago, the NAHL, which was at 28 teams, set an overall record for total attendance with 1,128,098 fans during the regular season. This season with four less teams in the league, the NAHL saw a total of 1,097,499 fans come through turnstiles, which not only almost equaled last year’s total number, but also set a new average attendance record of 1,524 fans on average per NAHL game. That was a 12% increase over last year’s average attendance mark of 1,342.
“As we continue to evolve the NAHL, the owners have been more aware and responsible in approving markets that have the best chance of long-term sustainability and success within their respective communities,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “I think the attendance numbers this year are providing further proof that certain methodology is working and fans are continuing to respond to our brand and level of hockey. They are enjoying the passion and talent our players bring to the arena every night, and because our teams do a great job at getting these players out in the community with their community-based initiatives, the fans feel that personal connection and can identify with the players. It is an exciting and entertaining product to watch and one the entire family can enjoy for eight months out of the year.”
The strength behind the numbers was the significant increase in attendance for teams like Corpus Christi, Austin, Michigan and Kenai River. Other teams did a great job at maintaining or slightly increasing their numbers. Teams continued to capitalize on an entertaining product, along with several community-based initiatives to introduce their players to their respective communities. Finally, there was the talent level of the players, which saw more than 100 make NCAA commitments to date and five with NAHL ties drafted in the NHL this past summer
The league was also given a big boost by the addition of the Johnstown Tomahawks, who not only won over the hearts of their community with a new brand of NAHL hockey, but also managed to finish 5th in league attendance with an average of over 2,500 fans per game. In their last season of professional hockey back during the 2009-10 season, the Johnstown franchise barley averaged 2,000 fans per game, further proving that the NAHL brand of hockey and its players have a special connection with fans and is also a testament to the hard work and vision of the Johnstown Tomahawks franchise.
Johnstown Tomahawks General Manager Rick Boyd said that the plan from the start was to educate the fans on the style of hockey the NAHL brought to the table. "When putting this plan together we knew that Johnstown and all of Western Pennsylvania had a very strong and knowledgeable hockey fan base,” said Boyd. “The focus was going to be how can we get a former professional market to accept and understand junior hockey? Once the fans saw the level of competitiveness that the NAHL brings to the fans, it just took off. As an organization we made a commitment to the community and our fans to bring a quality hockey team to the ice, a professional and dedicated staff off of the ice and an ownership group that was willing to put themselves out there in an effort to win the community over, and it is working."
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs continued their tradition of being of the most popular events in town. No team in the NAHL sells out their building more often than the Ice Dogs. The Ice Dogs had 26 sellouts this season, something that Ice Dogs General Manager Rob Proffitt says that is because the games have become an annual event. “It is more than a hockey game to our fans, it is an event. It can be a hockey game for the die-hard hockey fans, it can be a social gathering to those who want to see their friends and have a good night out with the family and it is entertaining for all age levels,” said Proffitt. “We really try and put on a good show for them and the hockey speaks for itself. In the wintertime, there are a limited amount of things to do and Ice Dogs home games have become one of those things that is a tradition now amongst the community. There is a multitude of things they can do at a game, but we try and cater to everyone. I have a passion for it like I did coaching… I take it personal because I want to see the team the best they can be, both on and off the ice. If the building is full and the crowd has energy every single game, is really helps out on the hockey side of things.”
The South Division was once again a big 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 99,300 fans total and 3,310 fans on average, an increase of almost 8% over last season.
"It was another successful season at the box office and the IceRays organization can’t thank the population of Corpus Christi, sponsors and season ticket holders and all the media enough for their continued support,” said IceRays General Manager Pat Dunn. “We have such a wonderful situation for hockey in the area. We had over 10 games with an attendance over 4,000 fans. We were hoping to get to the 100,000 mark this past weekend with our annual "Pack the House for Charity" night and came really close. The response from everyone was terrific.”
Dunn also attributes the rise in attendance in specialty-themed nights during home games and getting out in the community to raise awareness. “Military Night, Grades for Blades, Pink in the Rink, Cool school matinee game, Faith and Family and Pack the House were our highest attended games again this season. We just don't open the doors and people come in, we really need to work it and do many community appearances, phone calls and emails. We have knocked on many doors from different businesses in Corpus Christi and they responded in a very generous way. Our staff deserves all the credit for this as their hard work and dedication really paid off."
To set attendance records is one thing, but to do it in consecutive seasons is another. Credit goes to the almost 600 players in the league, who put it on the line each and every night for 60 games during the season. It also goes to the owners, coaches and staffs across the league, who spend tireless hours of preparing their teams and getting the word out about the excitement that is the NAHL. Finally, credit lies with all of the one million plus NAHL fans that support the league and understand that 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.