On Oct. 15, 1998, more than 7,100 people crammed into the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center to watch the inaugural Augusta Lynx ECHL hockey game.
Fireworks and glow sticks lit up the dimmed arena, which had sold out for the first time since a Reba McEntire concert in 1995.
An editorial in The Augusta Chronicle stated "there's no reason to believe there'll be a letdown of ticket-buying for subsequent games."
Things have changed quite a bit for Augusta's pro ice hockey team in the past decade.
The Lynx's 10-year existence has been marked by a steady decline in attendance with varying degrees of success on the ice.
The Lynx ranked in the ECHL's top 12 in attendance each of their first five seasons but have been no better than 20th the past four. Last season's average turnout was 2,556 patrons per game, the lowest to date.
As the team prepares to open its 10th anniversary season at James Brown Arena on Friday, it is a franchise working to regain the energy and support that epitomized its early years.
The second-year ownership group, GOAL - which purchased the Lynx in April 2006 to keep the franchise from leaving town - spent last season rebuilding a shaky foundation that had been hurt by frequent turnover in recent years.
"The momentum of the organization was going in the wrong direction, and it took a lot more effort to reverse that momentum than we expected," co-owner and general manager Dan Troutman said. "We've certainly turned it around this year. We feel like everything's going in the right direction now, but we still have a ways to go."
According to Troutman, the team's corporate support is up approximately 25 percent from last season. Season ticket sales are up approximately 185 percent from this time last year.
That's good news for the owners, who - according to Troutman - spent more than $1 million beyond their revenues last year. Robert and Jan Burch are the majority owners.
"If you look at what we've done percentage-wise this off-season, compared to other teams in the division, we're up there at the top," said Robert Burch, who calls last season an expensive lesson.
"We're way ahead of last year now," he added. "And if we can improve even half as much as we did last year, we'll be far down the road in the direction we need to be."
That improvement - and the team's future in Augusta - depends largely on the fans. The Lynx saw a notable increase in attendance the second half of last year, and need that growth to continue.
"We've already picked up quite a few new fans, and I think we've resurrected some of the team's fans from the past," Jan Burch said. "We'll continue with our commitment as long as we can keep the support we need from the fans."
One of the biggest obstacles, according to third-year coach Bob Ferguson, who has never missed the playoffs in more than 25 seasons as a coach, is the ECHL schedule.
"Weeknights are not good for crowds. We need a better schedule if we really want to turn things around," Ferguson said. "What makes or breaks a franchise is those Tuesday and Wednesday games, when it's difficult to get people out. We fight it year after year. It's definitely a big factor."
Despite the schedule, the team has shown signs of rebounding, according to ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna.
"A lot of teams do very well starting out, and after one to three years, it starts to tail off. And I think that happened to a large extent (in Augusta)," McKenna said. "The first few years, the support was incredible, and it did tail off a little. But you're starting to see a rebound. The ownership has made very significant improvements last year and this year."
The team's ownership is urging people to come out to at least one game this season, which would go a long way in helping turn things around.
"What does it take to keep hockey here? We just need the fans to come out and enjoy it," Troutman said.
When the Lynx take the ice Friday night against the Texas Wildcatters, no one expects 7,000 people to show up. But marked improvement seems to have been made in the front office, as well as on the ice, where the Lynx are coming off their winningest season.
This season, the Lynx will go a long way in determining whether that improvement is enough to solidify hockey's future in Augusta.
Reach Steve Sanders at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DECADE OF NUMBERS
A breakdown of attendance for the Lynx since 1998, their first year:
|Season||Avg. attendance (rank)||Record||Points|
The Augusta Lynx open their 10th anniversary season Friday vs. the Texas Wildcatters at James Brown Arena. For tickets, go to www.augustalynx.com or call (706) 724-4423.