With the news breaking yesterday that team owner Robbie Nichols and the local IDA in the Elmira area were able to reach a deal, the Federal Hockey League will have a team at First Arena this fall, and for a number of reasons, it’s the biggest day in FHL history.
Now, many will point to Carolina as the biggest get in the league, and I disagree with that for a couple of reasons. Yes, they set attendance records that may never be broken in the FHL, but the Winston-Salem area was not exactly a hockey hotbed, and had tried numerous times to have hockey in the area that all failed. So while Carolina was a big announcement, there was no guarantee it was going to work and be the success that its been, especially in a market that is 10-plus hours from the next closest team, and in the heart of SPHL country.
But back to Elmira, everything about this seems like a home run for the owners, the city, and the league.
It’s such a big get for the FHL because Elmira is a hockey town and has routinely packed the First Arena, regardless of the league, getting crowds that have always been larger than Carolina got, and in an area that has a fraction of the population that Winston-Salem does.
In seven seasons in the UHL, Elmira’s LOWEST attendance was 2692, about 500 more than Carolina averaged this season. In those seasons, average attendance was around 3200 fans a night. And when the team jumped up to the ECHL, attendance stayed strong until the end when ownership issues drove some fans away. In 10 ECHL seasons the last season was the lowest at 2300 a night, which would have still led the FHL last season. The first five seasons in the ECHL were around 3500 fans a night, while the last five, including that 2300 mark, were around 2500 fans a night. That includes the team missing the playoffs each of the last four years, so even with bad teams, questionable ownership, and a rink in need of repairs, there were fans willing to go.
I’m not saying that you should expect 3500 fans a night, or even 2500 fans a night, because we have no idea how fans, particularly casual fans, will take to the FHL, especially considering the league’s past that some fans may read about. But it’s clear that people in Elmira like hockey and will support it if done right. And if Elmira even comes close to that 2500 number, for the sake of a number let’s say 1500 to 2000 a night, then it’s a huge success for the FHL.
Now back to that hockey done right comment. From everyone we’ve spoken with in the Elmira area, from fans and news alike, they all had nothing but fantastic things to say about the owner of this new team, Robbie Nichols.
Nichols co-owns a baseball team in Elmira, the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League’s Elmira Pioneers, so he has connection to the area (he was also former GM of the Jackals from 2007-13), and knows what people in the area want in a hockey team, and how to market it to bring people back. And if you need proof, Elmira is currently tops in the PGCBL in attendance of the 10 teams who report attendance, averaging 2,690 fans a night through 13 home games; 1,100 fans more per night than the next closest team.
But as great as having local ownership and potentially a large fanbase is, for the FHL, the bigger thing is the potential doors this opens up for the league.
Having Nichols and the hockey population in Elmira on-board will give future markets more of a reason to strongly consider joining the FHL. In the past there were negative connotations associated with the FHL, and for good reason in some cases, but to get a great minor league market, with a strong local ownership group, is a huge shot in the arm to the FHL’s future prospects.
And who knows, maybe with Elmira on-board you can lure back some more old UHL markets, or bring in new ones that may be nearby in New York, Pennsylvania, or other eastern states.
Now, this is not to say that there won’t be challenges in making an Elmira a success. There are still Ts to cross and Is to dot before things are final with the team and the rink, and then there are TONS of things that need to be done with both the team and arena in a short amount of time.
The FHL season is set to start on October 26 (rumored), 106 days away. So Nichols and Co. have basically three months and two weeks to try to get a hockey staff, both on and off the ice, in place, come up with a team name, get jerseys, sell sponsorships, sell season and group tickets, hold tryouts, and generally just get a team together. That’s not a lot of time to do all that. But if Nichols is a good as everyone says he is, he likely has a lot of pieces and people in place for this, and didn’t just fly in on a whim to get a hockey team.
And the rink is reportedly in needs of plenty of repairs, like the roof, cooling system, boards, and boilers, and that is all stuff that will need to be taken care of before a team can practice in the arena, let alone play a game with thousands of fans inside.
But one assumes that will all get worked out and done before the season starts, because again, you (hopefully) don’t come into putting hockey team down in an area you live in with no plan in place.
It’s a big day for Elmira getting hockey back, but it’s just as big a deal for the FHL as a whole, because Elmira just might be the key to bringing this league to widespread respect in the hockey world, and not a moment too soon.