Last weekend, I witnessed the Manchester Monarchs host the Adirondack Thunder for the first two games of the ECHL‘s Kelly Cup Northern Division Semifinals.
Manchester, New Hampshire, is a decent sized city with over 400,000 residents in the metro area. The seating capacity at SNHU Arena is 11,770, yet a mere 8,385 fans came through the gates for both Games 1 & 2 combined last Friday and Saturday, respectively.
The weekend before that, I watched a packed house at First Arena in Elmira, New York, say goodbye to their beloved ECHL Elmira Jackals. Forever.
There were 3,601 fans at the final game in franchise history, making the Jackals’ season average of just 2,300 fans per game completely baffling. I sat there that depressing night on April 9, dumbfounded, thinking to myself, “There is definitely nothing else to do in this town. Where has everyone been all season?!”
There were tributes throughout the entire game and children crying everywhere (especially when the arena said one last goodbye to Blade, the mascot), and before the Jackals even skated off the ice after their painful 5-0 loss to the Thunder, the scoreboard turned pitch black.
We all just stood there for a few minutes, stunned. The arena took a while to clear out that night. It really felt like a funeral.
Don’t you worry. I’ll tell you the whole story about the demise of the Jackals at a later date. There were a LOT of moving parts to this.
This disheartening weekend also included the folding of the ECHL’s Alaska Aces. Two teams dead in one weekend, all due to poor attendance. Unbelievable.
And just before starting my playoff coverage last weekend, I squeezed in one final regular season Utica Comets home game at one of my favorite American Hockey League arenas, the Utica Memorial Auditorium.
The “AUD” houses some of the most passionate hockey fans in upstate New York, which is evident with the Comets’ unheard of sellout streak that now stands at 93 games.
It definitely wasn’t the most ideal on-ice season for the top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, but that didn’t stop the fans from supporting their squad on a day to day basis, as they have since the team’s inaugural 2013-14 season.
Until, of course, the last 10 or so minutes of April 12’s contest against division rivals, the Syracuse Crunch.
Coming into that game, there were still several scenarios that could’ve guaranteed the Comets a spot for the 2016-17 Calder Cup Playoffs, as detailed here by Utica’s broadcaster, Andy Zilch.
The Comets hung with the Crunch the entire night, yet Syracuse expanded their lead to a three-goal advantage by the third midway point of the third. It was then that I witnessed something I didn’t think was even possible to witness after two seasons of covering games at The AUD.
Okay, maybe not everyone, but it took just minutes for over half of the over 3,500 fans in attendance to leave the seating bowl. I was in complete shock.
That behavior was totally unlike Utica. These fans are normally incredible, yet with their team down by a few goals and playoff hopes on the line, the fans walked out on the Comets. They gave up.
Never have I ever seen the AUD that empty.
The score was 5-2 at the time. In the minutes following the mass exodus of Comets fans, the Crunch tacked on two more to come away with a 7-2 victory.
I can understand leaving the game with a couple minutes left if your team is down by three to beat the traffic or whatever, but this was different. There were over 10 entire minutes of regulation still to be played, and the arena cleared out, long before Syracuse’s lead expanded to five.
I’ve witnessed much crazier things in this sport than a team being down by three, and with not much time left, tie the game back up or even take the lead. Maybe the Comets could’ve made a comeback in those final 10 minutes, but they saw the fans leave, too.
I was really disappointed in you that night, Utica. Your team needed your support that night, and you ditched them. Now the Comets have to suffer through offseason without a taste of the Calder Cup playoffs, and one of their lasting memories of the season will be how their fans stopped believing in them.
This all comes after an entire season of mourning the fact that the Portland Pirates don’t even exist anymore. The loss of Maine’s professional hockey team is something that will personally stick with me forever.
It all just makes me wonder – why can’t sports fans take the “minor leagues” seriously?
There’s definitely a stigma attached to the term “minor league,” and if it was up to me, the AHL, ECHL, etc. would all be called the “affiliate leagues.”
There is absolutely nothing minor about the players and coaches in these leagues, not to mention the broadcasters and other talented front office personnel.
Not only do these teams have ties to the greatest league in the world, the National Hockey League, but the athletes also play here to have a chance to occupy the top lines of other national teams around the world. What you’re seeing at your local rink is 100% world class hockey, whether you believe me or not.
The best hockey players in the world play here. The WORLD. There is such a wide range of talent in this sport and simply not enough NHL roster spots to give every guy a chance.
Don’t think that because you’re attending a “minor league” game, it won’t be a good one. Some of the best games I’ve ever been a part of have happened at arenas that most sports fans have never heard of.
Like last night in Glens Falls, New York. It was a must win for the Adirondack Thunder against the Manchester Monarchs in Game 5 of the first round, and the team dazzled fans with a 2-1 victory to force Game 6. I can’t remember the last time I was at an arena that loud.
However, it was what happened during the first intermission at the Glens Falls Civic Center last night that I’ll never forget.
I’m not even completely sure who these people were. I’m assuming the Thunder’s booster club or longtime season ticket holders, but they made one hell of a plea to hockey fans residing in the Adirondacks in one of the most unexpected intermission speeches I have ever heard.
I’ll bring you the full story when I go back for Game 6 on Tuesday, but the point they made was clear: KEEP HOCKEY HERE. (scroll down for video)
The emotional ringleader begged fellow fans to talk everyone they know into purchasing season tickets for next year, which start at an amazing deal for $13/game. He did his research, stating that if just 400 new season ticket holders sign up, that would be enough revenue for the team to be off to a financially secure start to next season.
Do spectators simply not realize that without the NHL sending players to the Olympics, these “minor league” cities currently house future Olympians?!
True fans know how important keeping affiliate leagues in their cities are, but more work needs to be done. These athletes train hard enough that they deserve to play in sold out arenas every night, and there are definitely enough people residing in these struggling cities to make that a reality.
It’s obvious that I love hockey more than anything in the world, and I am willing to do anything for it. I spent the 2016-17 season falling for arenas in countless cities across the country, and none of you deserve to lose your affiliate league teams due to a lack of attendance.
So, if you get anything out of this post, please do yourself a favor and purchase tickets to your local arena or stadium soon. I don’t even care what sport you see.
It may be too late for most hockey fans, but the playoffs are far from over. Take a drive. See a game in a new city. Maybe seeing another arena’s enthusiasm for their beloved hometown team will give you a new appreciation for yours.