Bill McLeod admits the going was tough at first.
Those Macon folks didn't take to ice hockey right off, but McLeod gradually found out what would bring fans to Macon Whoopee games last season.
"People love to dance," said McLeod, president of the Macon Whoopee, who averaged 3,641 fans in their first year in the Central Hockey League. "People come here for mainly entertainment. You entertain them, they'll come back."
On Thursday, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority voted to spend almost $1 million to build an ice floor, clearing the final obstacle for the Raleigh IceCaps of the East Coast Hockey League to move to Augusta for the 1998-99 season. The team will play in Raleigh this season, beginning its season with training camp on Oct. 4 and the regular season at Florence, S.C., on Oct. 16.
The IceCaps are moving because the National Hockey League's Carolina Hurricanes, formerly the Hartford Whalers, have moved to play in Greensboro, N.C., the next two seasons and then in a new facility shared with North Carolina State University in Raleigh by 1999.
Over its 10-year history, the ECHL has evolved into one of the top minor-league systems in professional hockey with more than 80 players having moved on to the NHL, the game's highest level. During last season, 46 ECHL alumni appeared in NHL games, including St. Louis Blues forward Harry York and Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Patrick Lalime, who were named NHL Rookie of the Month for November and December, respectively.
Its equivalent in baseball is considered to be Double-A, just two steps away from the NHL. The Augusta GreenJackets play in the low-A South Atlantic League. The Central Hockey League's baseball equivalent is advanced-A.
The ECHL is a 25-team league that includes teams in 10 states, mostly in the Southeast. The IceCaps play in the Southeast Division with the Charlotte (N.C.) Checkers, Jacksonville (Fla.) Lizard Kings, Pee Dee (Florence, S.C.) Pride, South Carolina (Charleston, S.C.) Stingrays and Tallahassee (Fla.) Tiger Sharks.
This year, the IceCaps will be affiliated with the NHL's New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators.
McLeod said the Whoopee averaged 3,641 fans for 35 home dates in the 7,000-seat Macon Coliseum last season, and such a number could make for a successful financial season for the IceCaps.
They will need to average 2,518 fans over 38 home games in the 6,600-seat Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center to break even. Last season, Raleigh averaged 3,091 fans per game, third worst in the league, at 5,700-seat Dorton Arena on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. The Louisiana IceGators of Lafayette, La., led the ECHL with an average of 11,433 fans at the CajunDome last season. Charleston, S.C., was second at 7,442 fans per game. The ECHL average was 5,273 fans per game.
Will that be a problem in Augusta?
"It's a delicate marketing thing," McLeod said. "The team wasn't marketed too well before I bought it, but we adapted to the Macon market and now we're a hot ticket. We're very popular."
McLeod said his team has already sold 1,200 season tickets for the upcoming season, compared to 500 last year. The Macon Braves, who also play in the SAL, sold only 300 season tickets this year.
In Columbus, Ga., the Cottonmouths of the Central Hockey League drew an average of 4,303 fans last season in their first year. Fans were even allowed to name the Zamboni, a machine that polishes and shaves the ice. The result: "Bubba-Boni."
"It'll work (in Augusta), I would think," McLeod said. "I don't know the market, but I would believe it's the same as Macon. We've got an excellent lease with the city on the rink and we're indebted to the mayor and city council here. If it's like that in Augusta, and they entertain the people who come to the games, it'll go."