Augusta RiverHawks fans entering James Brown Arena on Saturday were greeted by a woman who welcomed them in, handed over a program and offered to answer questions about the team.
Three hours later, rookie goalie Jon Olthuis, tired and sweaty after a 3-1 win, was stopped by a man who ushered him over near the seating area where a young boy wanted an autograph.
The woman who greeted the fans and the man who flagged down the player weren't hired by the minor league hockey team, and they aren't members of the arena's staff. They're RiverHawks owners Bob and Diane Kerzner, and such personal efforts are exactly the image they intend to portray to the Augusta community.
"You're not going to find that all over the place," Bob Kerzner said. "I've taken a much more active role here, and so has my wife and (general manager) Mark (Richards). We're going to keep plugging away."
Augusta's previous hockey team shut down two years ago this month with ownership citing a lack of fan support as the reason for the Augusta Lynx's demise. The Kerzners, who brought hockey back to town in October, are seeing similar attendance problems in the RiverHawks' inaugural season despite their attempts to personalize the hockey experience with a more hands-on effort.
"We're going to be in the stands," Kerzner said in February when he announced his intention to bring a Southern Professional Hockey League expansion team to Augusta. "My wife and I are not the type of people to sit in sky boxes or to hide in the office or stuff like that. We will be at every game."
But almost two months into hockey's return, the view from the Kerzners' seats on the glass in a corner of the arena hasn't been what they hoped. The RiverHawks sit at the bottom of the league's attendance rankings at an average of 1,540 fans per game. Two of Augusta's neighbors in the SPHL -- Fayetteville and Columbus -- rank No. 1 and No. 2 in that same list at 3,388 and 3,192 fans per game respectively.
For the Kerzners, who have only seen a crowd top 2,000 twice in nine home games, the difficult task at hand is becoming clearer. But they're not ready to give up.
"It's just going to take a long, hard grind," Bob Kerzner said. "Our commitment is the same. If someone could tell me how to get another 1,500 people in here, I'd love to hear it. We would do it tomorrow. But we have done stuff."
Kerzner wasn't happy with the team's home opening weekend in October when the combined attendance for the first two home games failed to hit 5,000. General manager Gilles Richard was fired later that week, and managing director Bill Coffey, a founding member of the East Coast Hockey League and highly respected hockey mind in the minor league community, parted ways with the RiverHawks a few weeks later.
"Without naming names, we all make judgment mistakes on individuals and people and stuff like that. I had let somebody be the managing director and it didn't work. He wasn't doing what he needed to do, and therefore the people in the front office weren't doing what they needed to do," Kerzner said. "So now I've kind of taken over. I'm not managing director, but Mark and I talk four or five times a day. He and I see eye to eye. ... He's going to be the future and the face of the RiverHawks. He really wants to do things right."
Doing things right, Richards said, includes getting players into the community. Three players visited Gracewood Elementary on Monday to help teach hockey to children during physical education classes, and assistant general manager Ken Vezina said players will make four or five similar appearances at local schools before the end of the year.
Members of the team and front office also volunteered their time to assist in the construction effort at the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition site in Augusta this week, and the team recently launched a new text-messaging campaign aimed at a younger generation of potential hockey fans.
"When we promote something we want to make sure we do it right. We're not just going to have a promotion just to say we're promoting something," Richards said. "As time goes on, you'll see the progress."
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
Promotions at home games are also scheduled for the near future, though various road blocks have prevented the team from featuring any recent entertainments draws. A "Heroes Night" to include an appearance by a S.W.A.T. team and an American Flag flown at the World Trade Center before Sept. 11, 2001, was originally planned for next weekend, but delays have pushed the theme night back.
Smaller promotions are still going forward. Fans who bring a new, unwrapped toy to either home game tonight or Saturday get a discounted ticket price, and a "Patriots and Pucks Night" for members of the military is scheduled in January to help kick off the team's 2011 portion of the schedule. Kerzner said the team has already given away 1,300 tickets to members of the military at Fort Gordon this season.
"These are some of the things I had wanted on Game 1, and that didn't happen," Kerzner said.
"We're slowly trying to get to that stage," Richards said. "I hope everybody understands it's not an automatic flip of the switch. We've got a long way to go. My main goal really is to see progress, whether it's from our game operations side or seeing more people in the stands or our corporate relationships or getting our players out in the community more. That's the important part for me."
The product on the ice has improved as well, going from an 0-3 start to a four-game winning streak. The RiverHawks enter tonight's home game four points out of first place with a 9-7 record.
"(Head coach Brad Ralph) has put in some great systems," Kerzner said. "The guys are buying into it, and because they're buying into it, we're getting the results we're getting."
For at least the immediate future, the Kerzners will continue to wait for Augusta to buy into the team as well.