Owners take personal approach

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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.

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Two years ago this week the Augusta Lynx shut down, blaming a lack of fan support for their demise. The RiverHawks are seeing a similar trend as they tally last in attendance in the SPHL. The future is uncertain but owner Bob Kerzner is not giving up on the inaugural season.  Corey Perrine/Staff
Corey Perrine/Staff
Two years ago this week the Augusta Lynx shut down, blaming a lack of fan support for their demise. The RiverHawks are seeing a similar trend as they tally last in attendance in the SPHL. The future is uncertain but owner Bob Kerzner is not giving up on the inaugural season.

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."

FIXING MISTAKES

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.

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Louis E. Svehla
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Louis E. Svehla 12/10/10 - 10:46 am
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We as a community need to do

We as a community need to do more to support this team. They were fantastic with the kids at Gracewood and I look forward to meeting them at the other schools. The players are great young men and there is no sporting event more exciting than live hockey.

bdouglas
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bdouglas 12/10/10 - 09:16 am
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Make ticket prices more

Make ticket prices more comparable to movie ticket prices and I might come more often. At the movies I can get a nice, roomy and comfortable seat in a cozy temperature-controlled theater. At a hockey game I can't even get a seat in the nosebleeds for the same price...and then I have to bundle up and sit in a cramped seat and bruise my shins constantly on the seat in front of me. In fact, when they renovated JBA not long ago and replaced the seats, I'm pretty sure they got smaller ones and crammed in more when it was already crowded. I enjoy live hockey games, but the experience here hasn't been that great for comfort.

anotherlook
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anotherlook 12/10/10 - 09:15 am
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I wish the owners of the

I wish the owners of the Riverhawks well...but don't expect to see me in the stands. I don't follow sports of any kind with the exception of Rhythmic Gymnastics at the Olympics. But the bottom line is that the one time I darkened the door at a former Lynx game, I couldn't even stay because I was soooo cold! I wouldn't even pay to see the Pope, the President, or the Queen of England at the same time if it meant that I had to freeze my bottom off! That's why I always pay my mortgage on time...I don't want to be out in the cold!

gnumbgnuts
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gnumbgnuts 12/10/10 - 09:23 am
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OMG! It's ICE hockey people.

OMG! It's ICE hockey people. Ice works a lot better in a cold climate.

El Guapo
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El Guapo 12/10/10 - 09:28 am
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Let's see, if they are

Let's see, if they are getting the same size crowds as the old Lynx did, maybe THAT'S ALL THE HOCKEY FANS IN AUGUSTA! No one else cares.

blues550
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blues550 12/10/10 - 09:56 am
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This team will
Unpublished

This team will ultimatelysucceed because of their owners. The biggest negatives facing the Riverhawks are the sins of former owners, which they havce no control over but have to live with. They actually pay their bills, honor their commitments and treat people well. That fan and sponsor friendly attitude will bring many people back to watch hockey.

The team is without question the most competitive team Augusta has seen on the ice. The Lynx were perennial bottom dwellers. Well into the season these guys are only 4 points out of first place. They hustle and they scrap...and yes they are getting out in the coimmunity.

To the "aginners' who lurk on these pages - if you'd rather watch rythmatic whatever by all means do so, if you think its too cold wear a coat and if I can comfortably fit in those seas, most anybody can. You'd be hard pressed to find quality live entertainment at anywhere near the price you pay to see 60 minutes of exciting action in the James Brown Arena.

The RiverHawks don't deserve to have people supportint them, they have to earn the support. They are doing a great job of that!

Hatfield0278
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Hatfield0278 12/10/10 - 11:13 am
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The post about ticket prices

The post about ticket prices intrigued me so I went to the Riverhawks webpage, and walk-up tickets are: $18 / $16 / $14 / and $12. That's comparable to movie ticket prices, and if you are military, student or 62 years or older the tickets are $10. Not bad.

I think the GreenJackets do a great job of letting people know when they have a home game, but I never know when the Riverhawks are in town. The webpage says they have 28 games (total) at the JBA this year. I know I could look on the webpage, but frankly, out of sight out of mind. They should consider a few radio-spots ahead of home games.

Finally, the GreenJackets always have a crowd on Thirsty Thursday. That may or may not be the environment the owners wish to create but it might be worth a look. Good luck guys!

akmoose
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akmoose 12/10/10 - 05:13 pm
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blues550 - you said it! These

blues550 - you said it! These guys are amazing on the ice, they don't take crap and they play all heart. Former Lynx and new Riverhawks player Matt Auffrey - team captain - is genuinely nice on and off and all about the kids. At every game during practice I see him make a point of skating with the puck near the seats to toss one over the glass to an eager kid wanting an icy puck of his own.
I haven't seen any of them turn away a fan for a chat or an autograph and the fact that they are so willing to be among everyone in the community, not because they are told, but because they are asked and they give of their time.
Hockey is exciting to watch in person and to watch a great team AND great guys makes it worth the ticket price.
AND they also have food...the Hawks' Nest serves hot meals at every game for a reasonable $6-8 a plate. It smells phenomenal and we always see people enjoying it...I'm eager to try it myself soon.
GO RIVERHAWKS!!

Crabby Appleton
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Crabby Appleton 12/10/10 - 07:12 pm
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Put a fork in it. Augusta is

Put a fork in it. Augusta is not a hockey town. How many teams are going to set up shop here before word gets around. Trying to ram hockey down our throats with give/aways, alternative entertainment, bands, pretty girls holding score cards is not going to do it. Either fans like hockey for what it is and support it or they don't. Owners should just cut their loses and hit the road before they spend themselves into banktuptcy.

SlapShot2
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SlapShot2 12/11/10 - 02:00 am
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I agree with Hatfield. I

I agree with Hatfield. I think the hockey team should ask the Greenjackets for advice. There attendance has really grown over the last couple of years and it more than Thursdays. Every Friday and Saturday the baseball team has nice crowds.

whoopeefan
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whoopeefan 12/11/10 - 10:59 pm
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I live just south of Macon

I live just south of Macon and have been to 2 Riverhawk games so far. After the Whoopee and the Trax folded, I have to travel to Augusta, Columbus or Gwinnett to see Hockey. I still see probably 15 games a year, but I saw 40 games a year when the team was in Macon. I'm just saying that if you've got friends to take to games to show them, do it. It sux to have to travel 2 hours every time you want to see a game.

Rambo1
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Rambo1 12/12/10 - 06:00 pm
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Thank you for bringing hockey

Thank you for bringing hockey back to Augusta, Ga. First of all, I think it is a very good ideal for the owner's to be in the crowd. I am a hgue hockey fan and I try to go to all the home games and what I hear people saying around me is let's see if they are still here in a year! Although it will not be a quick fix, but if people would just give it a chance it could be awesome for Augusta. The Riverhawks are doing great by reaching out to the community. One of my favorite things they do, is when they win a home game the entire team comes out to center ice and raises their sticks to the fans! This is awesome and shows the fans that they appreciate them and their support. I think more families would attend if prices were a bit lower - maybe you could do a "family night" with discounted tickets for them. I really hope the Riverhawks are here to stay! "WE BELIEVE" Go Hawks!!

Hockeyfan
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Hockeyfan 12/13/10 - 08:46 am
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I'm not a local so I don't

I'm not a local so I don't know the arrangements with the vendors. What seems to work most places I've been is "cheap beer night." People will come in for the beer and might actually find out they like hockey.

akmoose
117
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akmoose 12/13/10 - 10:10 am
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Rambo1 - YES!!!!!!!!!

Rambo1 - YES!!!!!!!!!

akmoose
117
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akmoose 12/13/10 - 10:14 am
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Incidentally, I spoke with

Incidentally, I spoke with Mrs. Kerzner the other night. She's a lovely woman and I'm so saddened by the bad taste the former franchise has left in everyone's mouths. The new team should NOT have to suffer for poor management or choices before. THIS team is really trying and should be given a chance.

There was a comment in the Rants & Raves saying Augusta isn't Canada....that was pretty silly. The Thrashers do AMAZING in Atlanta and there are many many southern and midwestern cities that have successful hockey teams and attendance.
Hockey - ice - COLD...you prepare for such just as you do for the Masters or the drag boat races, you dress accordingly, bring a blanket, they serve hot chocolate and coffee as well.

SlapShot2
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SlapShot2 12/13/10 - 01:20 pm
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Its reality...this team will

Its reality...this team will suffer, for a while, due to prior ownerships groups. I saw where the new owners fired the GM after the first weekend. I feel bad for the person but it showed me that the new owners arent going to let a bad situation get worse. I like that approach. The new owners are do the little things that non diehard fans like, so I congratulate them. And section 101 is overated.

colga87
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colga87 12/13/10 - 09:24 pm
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Seven of us from Columbus sat

Seven of us from Columbus sat together the other night. Even with a loss we enjoyed the game; meeting and talking to Hawks fans; the music through a great sound system and the refreshments. However, who ever decided to put cup holders on the seats made a big mistake! I wish the schedule makers had added more Augusta trips to our away games. We'll be back next year.

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