Minor league hockey sure has come a long way in Southern California. From a dilapidated building in San Diego during the 90′s to games in front of just a few hundred fans inside Long Beach Arena as recently as a couple of years ago, the times they are a changing.
Later tonight the ECHL’s Ontario Reign – proud affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings – will host the Stockton Thunder in the home opener of their 2010-11 season. The arena will probably be packed, just as it has been since they played their first game there two seasons ago.
They were second in league attendance during their inaugural campaign and topped that by leading the entire 19-team league last season.
Several players on the current roster of the Kings top minor league franchise, the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, have previously played for the Reign – including goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, defenseman Colten Teubert and forward Bud Holloway.
The synergies between the Kings and their affiliates aren’t just on the ice. The team continues to strengthen their hockey presence and brand awareness by building a strong relationship with the Reign.
What better way to get things started tonight than to hear from the man in charge of the whole operation, Team President, Justin Kemp…
MM: Given the past attempts to bring this level of hockey to Southern California – not to mention there are two NHL teams here now – are you surprised by the success you guys have had in Ontario?
JK: It hasn’t really surprised me because I knew this was a hungry market for entertainment. There are about four million people in the San Bernardino and Riverside counties, with very little to do. They used to have to drive to Orange County or LA and now they have the crown jewel of the Inland Empire, our Citizen’s Business Bank Arena. So, now they have a place to live, work and play. Although Southern California isn’t exactly known as being a hockey market, people have fallen in love with the team and they’ve taken great pride in it. Plus, our fans have been great about helping get new people - people that have never been to a hockey game before – out to the arena to see a game live.
Last year the Reign hosted the ECHL All-Star Game, just talk about that experience a little…
The league approached us mid-way through our first season and it seemed like a good opportunity. I think the Inland Empire sometimes feels like it lives in the shadow of Los Angeles. So, this was our opportunity to get some exposure – TV, some involvement from the Kings when Luc (Robitaille) came out to speak at the ECHL Hall of Fame induction, etc. All of those things put together gave us some credibility, certainly in the corporate world. We had great support from the city of Ontario too. The league was happy as well. So, it was a tremendous event for them and it set the bar a lot higher for what other teams will do in the future.
Off topic a little bit, but I saw that you helped coach a women’s team back in college. Earlier this year, many of the ladies games were lopsided contests at the Olympics. Since then, there have been several debates surrounding their game - ranging from dropping it as an Olympic sport to starting a pro league. Any thoughts?
I’m not sure I would drop it. Perhaps it entered the Olympics too soon though. There are a few countries, like the US and Canada, that are well established. They have some pretty strong programs and they’ve been mixed in there with programs that are still upstarts. So, that’s why it may have been a little soon. I don’t think taking it away is a good way to grow the sport though, nor is (having the NHL involved) in a professional league. I look at it a little like women’s basketball. It’s never going to rival or be within the same universe as the NBA or the NHL. But, there is a niche there for it. However, I think the WBNA has proven that it’s not working as a professional sport and there’s a lot more women participants there (compared to hockey). Keeping it at the collegiate level, even having it at he junior level and youth leagues, is very smart and would grow the sport – and would be less expensive than doing an upstart professional league.
How about a different hot topic… You served as a Corporate Account Executive in the Phoenix Coyotes organization for a few years. Many people have spent the last 18 months or so questioning if Phoenix is a viable NHL market. Any thoughts?
I’ve always felt, even when I was there, it’s an overly saturated market. You have four major sports teams there and I just don’t know if they really have the ability to support that many teams. The Suns are very popular there. The Diamondbacks are pretty popular. The Cardinals, with their recent success, are growing. But, the corporate world can only support so much – especially in these times, where everybody in the sports industry has seen a dip in their corporate support. It’s hard for me to sit here and say that I think Phoenix is a good market for it. They certainly have a core fan base. But, do I think they have enough to sustain it and that they’ll be able to turn a profit? I really don’t honestly believe that.
I don’t like to see leagues relocate teams or to fold teams. However, when you look at what’s best for the strength of the league and the team’s that are there, I just don’t see it as a viable market anymore for the NHL. They’re in a lot of non-traditional markets and I’d rather see them focus their efforts on the places that have an opportunity to grow.
Talk about the affiliation with the Kings. Let’s start with players, do you push to get Kings prospects or is it more of a passive relationship where you just wait for the phone to ring – like with Colten Teubert coming in the last two seasons?
We push all the time. We’re probably the biggest pains in the butt to them. Our coach is always talking to Ron Hextall, so we try and try and try. The truth of the matter is, they’re tyring to work on their own things. They’re trying to win a Stanley Cup and that’s their main focus. We have a lot more to gain from certain players coming here than they do. Sometimes we don’t always see eye to eye. But, we continue to push. Sometimes if you don’t ask, you don’t get it. So, we’ll continue to be a pain in the butt as much as we need to.
What are you guys working on when it comes to the marketing side?
We were at Frozen Fury this year. We also do an affiliate night. We did it last year, when we wore black and silver jerseys. This season we’ll be wearing the old purple and gold style jerseys, with a Reign theme. It will be an all Kings night – with highlights on the big screen, Bailey and the Kings ice girls will be there, plus Luc is coming out to drop the first puck. We’re also working on getting some of the Kings Alumni there. After the game the jerseys will be auctioned off for charity too. So, just a whole Kings night.
[note: to see the dates for various bobblehead promotions and get a sneak peak of the purple and gold jerseys the Reign will wear later this season, click here]
How do you balance pushing the affiliation and still being mindful of needing to build your own brand?
It’s funny because this is the one place where Kings and Ducks fans can come in unison and root for the same team. We’re split about 50/50 between Kings and Ducks fans. We’re very focused on building our brand though. We talk up the affiliation with the Kings when we’re talking to people that don’t know us, because everybody knows who the Kings are. Then, once we get them in the door, we try to show them we have our own thing going here. We’re an affordable alternative to the NHL. We’re in no way a competition to what the Kings or the Ducks do. We like to think of ourselves as being able to help each other.
At the end of last season, you guys basically controlled your own destiny for the last few weeks. How disappointing was it to not get those few wins you needed to push the team into the playoffs?
It’s very disappointing. Our success doesn’t wholly rely on the success of the team on the ice. There certainly is a correlation there though. To be the only team from our conference last year not to make it was certainly very disappointing. We kind of set the bar a little too high our first year. I think we were a lot better than anybody expected us to be and we took it to game seven of the first round. It was a very exciting series. Our season ticket holders and fans sort of came to expect that then. This year we have almost a completely different team. We have a very young team that will be, at the very least, exciting and hungry. It should be a little closer to the team we had our first year, where we didn’t have the high scoring forwards and what not – but, they were a team in the truest sense of the word. They were really bonded together and overachieved.
Because of the missed opportunity – or lack of success – down the stretch last year, does your head coach, Karl Taylor, come into the season with a bit of a bullseye on him – similar to what would happen in the NHL?
No, he’s not on the hot seat. At this level, development is very important. It’s more about teaching and he’s very good at that. He’s very, very good at bringing in the right types of people. One of the biggest things we have going for us is our ability to get our players out in the community on a regular basis and get them to interact. So, having good people is critical to our success here. Molding good people with good players is challenging. He’s proven that he can do than in the past. He coached in a very difficult division when he was in Reading (ECHL) and did a good job there. I think he did an excellent job the first year here and I think he did a good job last year too. It’s one year and things don’t always go your way. We still finished at .500, so it wasn’t like we had a horrible season.
What three things would define a successful season for the Ontario Reign this year?
Number one would be turning a profit. That’s what everybody’s goal is. Two, I would like to build on the attendance records we set last year. We were just under 6,500 on average, I’d like to see us get closer to 7,000 per game. Third would be making the playoffs and having an exciting team that people are proud of. Combining all three of those components would definitely define a successful campaign.
So, even with the strong attendance and the benefit of the All-Star Game last year, are you saying the team hasn’t turned a profit yet?
It has not. The first year, we attribute a lot of that to start up costs. Last year, we made some improvements, but we didn’t make as many on the bottom line as we had hoped to. This year, we’ve made some big strides to the bottom line. And we try to do that without impacting the game experience. For example, we cant gouge the fans on ticket prices because our greatest asset is our affordability. I’m very comfortable that we’re going to get to profitability this year, or at least get very close to it. As long as we can continue to move in the right direction, this team will be around for a long time.
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Yes, hockey is still a business.
The last ECHL team in Southern California, the Long Beach Ice Dogs, had several NHL players suit up for stretches of games - including goalies Manny Legace, Nikolai Khabibulin and Jaroslav Halak.
The Reign were planning on having their own high-end net minder manning the crease tonight, in Kings prospect Martin Jones. However, he was just called up to the Monarchs within the last 48 hours (to replace the departing Erik Ersberg).
No problem though. There’s a roster full of guys looking to become the next great success story.
If you haven’t done so yet, you should get out there and take in a game. It’s good, inexpensive fun. The hockey is usually fast, high-paced action with a few more fights than an average Kings game. And as an added bonus, you’ll get to enjoy it all while sitting inside one of the nicest non-NHL arenas in the country.
No wonder their fans keep coming back!
Interview with Colten Teubert – the Kings first round draft pick talks about his time with the Reign
Interview with Jordan Nolan – another Kings prospect to play in Ontario, now with Manchester
2010 ECHL All-Star Game wrap-up - includes player quotes
photo courtesy of the Press Enterprise