Charlotte Checkers prepare to join the AHL: The hockey will be finer down here in Carolina

Hockey fans at Charlotte's TWC Arena will see new faces take the ice this fall as the Carolina Hurricanes AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. via i301.photobucket.com

Hockey fans in Carolina got some great news February 10th when it was announced that the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate was moving to Charlotte. The logic of the move was inescapable; last August, Canes Country's blogmeister Bob took a thoughtful (and prescient) look at the potential synergies in this post. The excitement of what this new arrangement means for the teams and their fans is playing out now in the Checkers’ offices on the 6th floor of a beautiful, historic building at 212 Tryon Street, a block or two away from the Time Warner Cable Arena, where the new and improved Charlotte Checkers will take the ice when the 2010-11 season opens in the fall.

It was my great privilege to sit down with Checkers COO Tera Black and Director of Media and Public Relations Mike Lappan last week at their offices in Charlotte. They (like many fans and followers) are thrilled by what the future holds for hockey in Carolina and are brimming with enthusiasm as they devote this off-season to laying the groundwork for the transition.

After the jump, a snapshot of Charlotte hockey history, some events on tap this summer, and a preview of what we can look forward to next season, as the front office gets ready for the Checkers to make their debut in the American Hockey League. 

And later this week, watch for my feature focusing on Tera Black's unique window into the world of professional hockey. [UPDATE: Here's the link to "Meet Tera Black: Charlotte Checkers Chief of Hockey"]

 

Professional hockey is hardly new to Charlotte; the roots of the Checkers reach back to the 1950s with the now-defunct Southern Hockey League, which lasted until the mid-70s  The team was re-born in 1993 as part of the ECHL, and was acquired by current owner Michael Kahn in 2006 (Cory Lavalette did this 2-part Q&A interview with Kahn in February, that is well worth checking out). With the team enjoying the venue of the spacious (capacity: 14,100) and sparkling TWC Arena downtown, the attendance numbers continued to grow steadily each season, crowds of nine or ten thousand becoming the standard for a Saturday night, with over twelve thousand fans packing the arena on occasion. Yep, twelve thousand rockin' the house for ECHL hockey. I, for one, was impressed.

And it seems those Queen City fans are paying attention and are ready for more. In the weeks following the announcement in February, Black described seeing the fans sporting Hurricanes attire throughout the arena at the Checkers games. What’s more, the fans were apparently googling the River Rats roster in Albany, and sporting Rats' jerseys from those AHL players who will become the pride of the Checkers fans looking forward. With the pool of talent in the Hurricanes organization that is arriving this summer, along with Coach Jeff Daniels and his staff, and frequent drop-ins by the Hurricanes’ Ron Francis as Director of Player Development or Glen Wesley minding the young blueliners, it’s safe to say those fans will be thrilled and entertained by the high caliber hockey coming to town. The Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford  said in his season-ending press conference that he intends to take full advantage of the proximity of the farm team to develop the young, smart and talented players in the system, tapping the top prospects on short notice to join the Big League action with the NHL team in Raleigh. Expect the rosters to be fluid and intermingled, especially in the first half of the season.

A Mission

How did the following of a lower-level minor league hockey team in "the South" get to be so large and, equally as important, so loyal? This is where the vision of owner Michael Kahn and his front office master of all-things-hockey, Tera Black, become the story.

For Kahn and Black, it’s about "Building the Community", and they back those words with the money, attention and energy that they pour back into the Charlotte Metro region. Black, who describes the owner as "under the radar" in his presence running the team, elaborated with heartfelt pride on their team’s "mission":

"Michael Kahn wants us to utilize this team as a resource to build this community. Really, that was his initiative when he bought the team."  In the four years since he acquired the Checkers in 2006 and Tera Black arrived (later promoted in 2008 to run the show), she explains, "we took our community perspective and our relationship with the Charlotte Metro region and escalated it significantly; and in that time we donated…close to $2 million back to the community."

She continued, "The last four seasons have been a mission; it’s a belief, really. We believe first, that we take care of the people who surround us and come to our games, and then the rest follows. And if you look at our history, we’ve had some amazing nights. …If you're going to expect [the community's] support you really need to support them first. We get 10,000 people coming in for this and the energy in there is wicked. It’s just unbelievable." From all accounts, it is a formula for success benefiting all involved.

At this point in the conversation, both Black and Lappan immediately recalled the name of Ellie Potvin, a young girl whose cause evokes a most vivid and touching example of Checkers hockey supporting a local child, transforming a life, and carrying their team.  Eight-year-old Ellie Potvin, who has been fighting a rare form of cancer since the age of six, is supported by a charitable effort called "Lift up Ellie" which the Checkers have been part of for the last two seasons. More than a slogan, the players all met her and followed her story and progress, wearing pink butterfly stickers on their helmets to reinforce the connection.

In a game played this past March 28th against the Reading Royals, the strength of the relationship played out emotionally in front of the crowd during an intense 5-round shootout. In the Sunday matinee game dedicated to the cause of "Lift up Ellie", the Checkers’ leading goal-scorer, rookie winger Andrew Carroll, was next up for the home team. With the game on his stick, Carroll skated in with a special purpose in mind and beat the Royals' goalie, winning the game for the Checkers. The crowd went wild. Lappan (a native of Ontario who also serves as the front office’s unofficial in-house Canadian guru of Hockey Culture) picked it up there:

"So it was one of those things where after you saw it happen, you know that [Carroll] was thinking about her before he scored. So that, after he scored, he went to spin around on the glass and then bolt straight across the ice, diagonally, right to where she [Ellie] was sitting. And it was pretty much like ‘that was for you’ and then all the team met him there. It was just like...." and Lappan dabbed his eyes to describe the emotion in the arena at that moment.

He was quick to get me the youtube link too – if you go to the closing moments (beginning at 2:45) you can watch it unfold . Bring a tissue.


As Black aptly summarized the Checkers' track record for success, "People are coming to our games because of the event we’re throwing, and they come to love hockey because they see it." This is the Checkers tradition upon which they intend to build.


So, Carolina hockey fans, what’s next?

Look for a series of summer events that are part of these Community Initiatives that are jointly sponsored with the Hurricanes organization in Raleigh. Doug Warf, well-known among the Triangle's hockey faithful for his strong and caring leadership of the Canes’ Kids 'N Community Foundation, has been active in his support of the new Checkers' efforts and Black is excited by the synergy that is coming from the relationship.

"Yes, in fact we’re groundbreaking in our affiliation with the Hurricanes," said Black. Beyond the hockey, "there is a marketing affiliation that is largely based on the community initiatives that we’re going to establish together.

"You’ll see several programs rolling out over the summer that are based on those initiatives. Things going into the Charlotte/Mecklenburg schools that are similar to the Raleigh area….things we would not have been able to do without this relationship: education, non-profits, youth hockey. Doug has been instrumental, asking our staff: 'How can we help?' With strength in numbers, we will have a much bigger impact."

A few other events on the Checkers Summer 2010 calendar:

  • A NHL Entry Draft Party for "Hockey's Future" devotees on June 25th, watching together as the NHL franchises make their selections in Los Angeles. The Hurricanes are slated for the 7th overall pick, but that could change.
  • Announcement of joint ticket packages together with the Hurricanes; they’ll include tickets to a "handful of games" for both the teams and will have an option of bus transportation between the cities.
  • Introduction of the re-designed Checkers’ jerseys and logos.  I got a sneak preview of the Home and Away design which will not vary much from those worn by the River Rats, with the Checkers' Polar Bear now taking the place of honor on the front, and a red, black and white color scheme. The totally new look "Third Jersey" is a closely-guarded secret still, but I can tell you Black was all smiles when she referred to it. (Hockeymom is thinking retro, with laced-up neck, maybe. You may want to wait to pick out your jersey till you know all your options.)
  • Announcements regarding broadcast agreements on radio, with the addition of broadcaster Jason Shaya, a native of Hockeytown Detroit, whom I also met at the Checkers offices. Both Black and Lappan were very quick to assure me that Shaya is "really good" with heads nodding in unison to emphasize their point. They are currently working through details of having the radio broadcasts carried by a Raleigh station, as well as through the Charlotte airwaves (with online streaming as well), to expand the team's reach to a statewide audience.
  • Not satisfied, and knowing you'd want more, I asked about TV coverage. Black said she was in fact "optimistic", though nothing is official, that "we’ll have games televised. We plan to start small, do at least one game a month and grow it from there." That's a big improvement  from the effort required to see the prospects take the ice in Albany last year, no?

The schedule, tickets and fan promotions

The game schedule will be announced following the AHL Annual Meeting in Hilton Head, SC, July 3 - 8. Coming with this, we can expect to see a re-alignment of teams across the AHL’s four divisions. With the addition of the Oklahoma City Barons, there are, for the first time, thirty teams corresponding to the thirty NHL teams. Add in the relocation of Albany to Charlotte, and almost-officially Lowell to Albany, the necessity is obvious. As Checkers' COO and Alternate Governor, Black will be involved in the discussions in July. This spring, she attended American League meetings in Chicago and has enjoyed the support and guidance of League President Dave Andrews during the transition, speaking highly of his leadership in growing the quality and success of American League hockey.

Once the game schedule is known, individual game tickets will be available.

Black used the descriptor "satellite" to characterize her new AHL outpost in Carolina, well outside the northeastern US core occupied by most other AHL Eastern Conference teams. With the Norfolk (VA) Admirals as the closest team on the map, she anticipates that the Checkers and Admirals will be grouped in the same division as southeastern rivals.

Beyond that, we can expect the Checkers’ schedule (which is also contingent on that of the NBA’s Bobcats as the #1 tenant at TWC Arena) to have longer road trips. Ideally, the team will  fly to a region and travel to a number of games in that vicinity via bus. On the flip side, we should see longer homestands, where an opponent may arrive in Charlotte and play a 3-game series over a long weekend. The Checkers will offer special packages for such weekends, which will include a hotel option for those who would like to enjoy the entire mini-series in Charlotte’s upscale yet family-friendly downtown. (I’m thinking the Hershey Bears are ripe for that sort of offer. Imagine these Checkers exacting revenge for that second-round sweep this post-season, this time with 12,000 Carolina fans cheering them on).

They also are hopeful that the Hurricanes and Checkers home game schedule will dovetail rather than overlap, allowing hockey fans in Carolina to have an almost continuous supply of home games they can attend. I like how they think. (At this point, they may have realized they were preaching to the choir. So much for my attempts at journalistic objectivity.)

When it comes to ticket pricing, the Checkers’ mantra will continue to be: "We are the most affordable sports entertainment option in town". And here's why: the city of Charlotte offers many more choices than we have here in the Triangle for professional sports, with the NFL, NBA and NASCAR all vying for attention and family budget dollars. Black reiterated that it is part of Kahn's commitment, even in a tough economy, "that everyone can enjoy the game that he has worked so hard to grow." Full-season ticket packages (forty games) start at $400 in the lower bowl (not surprisingly, those $200 seats have sold out). The 10- and 20-game Mini-packages are similarly affordable. Black was proud to tell me that since season tickets went on sale in March, the response has been "phenomenal"; in only two months, sales have "already eclipsed total sales for all of last season".

The players

When I asked, neither Black nor Lappan were aware if any players from Albany had independently made the trip to Charlotte yet, to scope out the arena or begin to look for housing. From their contacts with the team this spring, they said that the players are excited about the relocation to the bustling city, which offers so much to young people and their families. (Walking through the active urban neighborhood surrounding the TWC, we joked that they may have "issues" to address this fall due to the very natural attraction of twenty-somethings to Charlotte's Uptown district.)

During the conversation, it was my impression that regarding the 2010-11 Checkers players, a few of us puckheads here at Canes Country just might have better insight to their stats and stories than Black does at present. But I am confident that will change by October, once the guys arrive and Black turns her attention from the Community Initiatives, Re-branding, and American League coordination to learning about these players who will live and play in her slice of Southern hockey heaven. With the parent team only 2+ hours' drive away, the Checkers organization will, for the first time, be able to focus on the players as individuals as they introduce and present the new team to the community. Whether Zach Boychuk, Drayson BowmanJared Staal, or Justin Peters (and maybe a half dozen others we could argue about) are playing at the AHL or NHL level, they’ll always be nearby and visible to their fans.

Black says her marketing staff is looking forward to the opportunity and options available when they showcase the talents of the young prospects who skate in the Carolina system. More specifically, as we wrapped up, I was told to be sure I mentioned this: "There will be bobbleheads."

 

To learn more and keep up with the Charlotte Checkers (beyond the always timely updates and insightful analysis here at Canes Country), check out their various pages, links and web connections:

Official Charlotte Checkers Website plus their FacebookTwitter and Youtube pages.

 

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