Originally created 04/18/99

South warming to hockey



ATLANTA -- When the Atlanta Flames pulled up stakes in 1980 and moved to hockey-friendly Calgary, the National Hockey League gave up on what was then its lone Southern outpost.

But when the expansion Atlanta Thrashers drop the puck this fall in a new arena, Georgia's capital city will be just the latest of a host of NHL teams to plant roots in a region foreign to the ice-field sport only a decade ago.

In fact, the Thrashers will become the fourth professional hockey team in Georgia alone.

Augusta, Macon and Columbus are part of a network of minor-league teams that have spread the sport across the South, from North Carolina and Florida to Louisiana and Texas.

"As we bring the sport to these markets, people are falling in love with it," said Gerry Helper, vice president of communications for the Nashville Predators, a first-year NHL expansion team averaging more than 16,000 fans per game in a market one-third Atlanta's size. "It's a great game."

With nearly 93 percent of its seats occupied during the average home game, Nashville is one of three Southern NHL teams playing to fuller arenas than the league average.

Of the other two, the Tampa Bay Lightning has been the NHL's doormat all season, while the Carolina Hurricanes play in a temporary home in Greensboro, N.C., nearly 80 miles from a new arena being built in Raleigh, N.C.

The East Coast Hockey League has gone even further than the NHL in embracing the South.

Twenty of the minor league's 27 teams during the just-completed 1998-99 season were based in the region, as were eight of its 10 most successful franchises in terms of filling seats -- including the first-year Augusta Lynx.

One of the key differences in the region abandoned by the Flames nearly 20 years ago that helps explain the growth of hockey is the increase in population fueled by the migration of Northerners into the Sun Belt.

Metro Atlanta's population has soared from 1.2 million in 1980 to 3.8 million today.

"The majority of people who have come to Atlanta have come from outside of the South ... from places where hockey is very strong and the NHL is thriving," said Derek Schiller, vice president of sales and marketing for the Thrashers.

Another factor driving pro hockey's popularity in the South is the spread of youth hockey from its Northern and Canadian roots into Southern communities, a trend that began in the aftermath of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's historic upset of the mighty Soviet Union.

Later, with ice rinks still scarce in many parts of the South, the development of in-line skates made it possible, and later fashionable, for children to play roller hockey.

"I see kids out in my subdivision all the time Rollerblading around," said Tim Ecclestone, a winger with the Flames from 1974-80 who now owns a restaurant in Alpharetta. "I know they'll start tugging at their parents saying, `Take me to a game."'

The South's lack of familiarity with hockey poses a unique challenge for the sport's promoters. The Predators have responded by educating fans on the game's rules and strategies, with free one-hour classroom sessions before games, and by special promotions.

"Our promotions people have made every game an event," Mr. Helper said. "This has been the place to be in Nashville."

But enthusiasts say nothing promotes hockey like the sport itself.

"Once people have seen a game, they usually come back," said Joe Zydlo, radio broadcaster for the ECHL's Jacksonville Lizard Kings.

"With its speed and skating skills ... ice hockey to me is the most exciting sport you can watch live," added Ron Bielewicz of Martinez, president of the Augusta Lynx Booster Club. "Other sports have players standing around. In hockey, everybody's moving all the time. That generates excitement."

Mr. Bielewicz is a native of Pittsburgh, so he comes by his love for hockey naturally. But he says the booster club's percentage of Southerners grew as the Lynx' first season progressed.

"In the beginning, there were a lot of Northern transplants who were familiar with the game," he said. "Over the course of the season, it probably went from 70-30 (Northerners) to 60-40, or even 50-50."

Jerry Canaan, the Lynx' director of media relations and radio broadcaster, compares the physical play in hockey to football, a sport near and dear to Southern hearts.

"You have to be as tough or tougher," he said. "These guys get hurt, go get stitched up and come right back out."

The Thrashers would do well to emulate the Lynx' first-year success. Augusta finished the season playing to more than 82 percent of the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center's capacity, fourth in the ECHL.

Atlanta appears to be off to a good start. With the start of the season still nearly six months away, the team has sold more than 12,000 season tickets. Mr. Schiller said NHL officials expect the new Thrashers merchandise line, unveiled last month, to be among the league leaders in sales.

"It may not have been time yet for the Flames to succeed," said Frank Brown, an NHL spokesman. "(But) we have enormous confidence about the Thrashers ... It's a different time in sports."