Sellout weekend sought by RiverHawks

Executives hope giveaways, wins keep stands full

It's been almost two years since Augustans have had the opportunity to watch a regular season minor league hockey game at James Brown Arena.

Augusta RiverHawks executives have been working since February to make sure that streak ends this weekend for thousands of potential fans.

"It's a big celebration for us, and a lot of effort went into this opening weekend," general manager Gilles Richard said. "With the ticket pricing and how we've blanketed the arena, we're looking to go back-to-back sellouts. It's never been done in our league, so we like to set high goals for ourselves."

The RiverHawks opened their inaugural season in Fayetteville, N.C., on Thursday night and will return for tonight's home opener. Defending Southern Professional Hockey League champion Huntsville will face the RiverHawks, and Richard and his staff are hoping thousands of fans will attend.

Tickets start at $11, and the first 5,000 fans at tonight's game will receive a free thunderstick. In-game promotions will include a flat-screen television giveaway and smaller prizes. Richard said the idea is to grab the attention of casual fans early in the season.

"Opening weekend is the key," he said. "But also, this is something the fans can look forward to that we're going to keep consistent throughout the year. We're really going to drive as much giveaways and fan activities as we possibly can to keep them intrigued about hockey."

The arena, which seats 6,602 for hockey games, will charge $5 for parking in its primary lot across the street from the main entrance along Seventh Street.

The RiverHawks will also play at home Saturday night with more fanfare planned by the team's front office.

"I was looking at my board in my office the other day and we have over $100,000 worth of giveaways. That's just straight-up giveaways, so we're going to be prepared," Richard said. "We really want to make it a big part of the city and something that's really about entertainment and not just hockey."

Hockey fever hit the city when the ECHL's Augusta Lynx arrived in 1998. More than 7,000 fans showed up for the team's first game, and the Lynx averaged 5,443 fans a game in their first season.

But the novelty wore off and that number dropped to 4,767 by the second year and below 4,000 by 2003. Lynx ownership cited lack of fan support when it shut the team down in December 2008, averaging fewer than 2,600 fans per game.

Both Gilles and RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner said the new team, operating as an expansion franchise in the Southern Professional Hockey League, has roughly half the expenses of an ECHL team and can thrive with as few as 3,000 fans per game. But they still have a game plan set to keep the fans from losing interest.

Richard said it starts with giving Augusta a winning team, a task charged to first-year coach Brad Ralph.

"If we put that kind of product on the ice, people will respect that and they'll come back for that and eventually it'll overwhelm the promos," Richard said. "That's the key to us. We're here for hockey. That's what we're about, and we really want to put a good, strong product on the ice that the city, the fans and the media can be proud to be associated with."

The RiverHawks will play a 56-game schedule in the SPHL, with all 28 home games played at James Brown Arena.

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