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Will The Generals Stay In The Triad?
By Brian Sine
March 20, 2002
Folks watch the Generals.
You can feel the electricity just walking into the Greensboro Coliseum. It's cool outside, but inside it's different. It's chilled, air off-the-ice cool that's part carnival and part rock show, with a splash of competitive juice.
It's the Greensboro Generals and the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League). And it's a combination that is struggling to remain in the Triad.
"I've been coming to watch hockey here for over 40 years," said Greensboro resident John Daniels, sipping his beer. "More people used to come, and the team played better when they got support."
One of those players who played harder while a younger Daniels cheered him on was defenseman Pat Kelly. Kelly was the first player inducted into the Greensboro Hall of Fame March 9.
"When I played here we packed this place to the top," an emotional Kelly said during his induction ceremony. "I know that we can make that happen again. We need your support to make that happen, Greensboro."
In the 1960s, fans flocked to the coliseum to see the Triad's newest sport. Then, seven years ago, the tradition continued with more than 6,000 fans coming to see every game of the Greensboro Generals. But today the Generals only bring in an average of 3,000 fans per game. The drop came when the Generals switched minor leagues, from the ECHL to the AHL (American Hockey League), followed by the NHL (National Hockey League) bringing the big-league Hurricanes to town until their new arena in Raleigh was finished. There was a short time when no hockey team called the Greensboro Coliseum home. Then, in 1999, Greensboro came back to the ECHL, naming their team — once again — the Generals. Some fans returned, but they didn't stay. Now, the team's front-office officials are trying to bring them back any way they can.
This year, team officials have offered everything from rock concerts after games to scheduling games in Winston-Salem to attract fans. The reason is economics. Team officials know they run a business, and they know they must show a profit in order to keep the Generals in the Triad. They have lost between $500,000 to $1 million in each of their first three seasons because of poor attendance, but team officials say are committed to at least hockey season in the Triad because they want to preserve what fans see more as a social experience than just a sporting event.
Look around any game. It's easy to see.
Kids enjoying a Generals game.
Fathers hold infants in their arms while teen-agers scramble around in social packs. A mother holds her five-year-old as he tries to scramble to touch the mascot with the over-sized head. The CEO high-fives the janitor. A court judge yells at a referee, "Have you ever been to a hockey game before?"
"Sport is where completely different people find that they are the same," David Reasor said at a recent Generals game. "We can all cheer or yell or scream together. It's just fun."
Then why have the attendance figures dropped? Every fan has a different answer.
Some fans point to the Generals' recent succession of losing seasons. Others point to the changes in the past decade in which Greensboro has had two different teams, the Monarchs and the Generals, and has had hosted teams from three very different leagues: the NHL and the minor leagues, ECHL and the AHL.
"I felt that the Hurricanes were really directed at Raleigh, not Greensboro," longtime hockey fan Steve Griffin said of the change of attitude. "We came to some of the games, but I felt like an outsider in my own coliseum."
Then there's the opinion from Generals fan Darryl Hicks. He points to switching from the ECHL to the AHL as the turning point.
"Switching to the AHL left a bad taste in some folk's mouth," said Darryl Hicks during a recent game. "A lot of people feel that the Coliseum has done us wrong, and that's why they stay away."
Griffin also thinks that the switching between leagues has hurt the team. He, for one, said he hopes they stay in the ECHL.
As he talked, the players started coming onto the ice for pre-game warm-ups. And right there, by the rink entrance, was Steve's young son, Michael. He stretched his body as far as he could reach just so he could high-five and touch every player coming out. And each time he patted a glove or tapped a helmet, Michael smiled. So did his father.
Dion Lassau in Old-Style Generals Uniform enters the Arena.
"If you want to talk to a player they are very accessible," said Griffin, watching his son. "That's one thing I like about this league as opposed to the AHL or especially the NHL. The players here remember him from game to game or if we see them afterwards."
But fans have not been coming back fast enough, and front-office officials have stepped up their efforts so Greensboro hockey will remain a Triad tradition. They have bought billboard space along 1-40 and created an ad campaign around Generals players. They have brought in local dancers and even youth hockey players to entertain crowds. Meanwhile, they have moved Generals' games to Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem to avoid weekday dates at the coliseum and expand the team's interest.
The biggest draw, though, has been the after-game concerts. The front office wanted to create a bar-type feel so they set up the stage — right in front of the will-call window leading into the arena - with a front-row reserved for season ticket holders and everyone else crowding around them on the sloped corridor.
Fans this season have heard everything from beach to heavy metal, thanks to an eclectic roster that has included Chairmen of the Board, 1980s hair band RATT and Christian band Avalon. Matter of fact, the game that drew the most people this season featured an after-game performance in January by Sister Hazel, a rock band from Florida known for such radio-ready songs as "All For You" and "Happy." More than 6,000 people attended that game.
"We want to give entertainment for all types of people," media director Arley Johnson said of the decision to include concerts after some of the games. "Hopefully people will come for a show and see (the game) and like it."
Team officials already have decided they will offer after-game concerts next season. They haven't yet officially named any of the groups they want to bring in, but some well-known acts are being considered. Ticket manager David King said he hopes to keep ticket prices of games including concerts the same, but a well-known act might bring a higher ticket price. He also said the team is toying with bringing a stage onto the ice for some acts too big for the bar-type feel outside the will-call window.
Other than post-game shows, another perk King points to is the VIP room. There, season ticket holders can mingle and meet the players.
"It's a great opportunity to connect," King said of the after-game festivities. "They can stay an hour and a half to two hours after the game. There is catered food and we have games for the kids and they can get autographs. It's a unique opportunity for fans and players to get together."
For many, the games are family events.
Take 14-year-old Emily Nurmimen of Greensboro. She comes to all the weekend games with her father. She credits him with introducing her to the sport. She tries to get there early so she can watch warm-ups and try to grab pucks that sometimes careen over the glass barrier.
Emily Nurmimen with a puck from warm-ups.
"My dad loves hockey," said Emily, holding a puck she snagged before a recent game. "I have grown to love it too. It's fast paced and energetic and exciting."
Griffin brings his whole family, too. He likes to wander around before the game seeing familiar faces and making new friends. But come game time, he finds his seat beside his two sons and his wife Renee. You can't miss them. They're the ones all wearing their own Generals jersey, with Griffin sporting a jersey from the Generals 1989-90 championship season autographed on the left shoulder by Generals player Doug Lawrence. He bought the jersey online for more than $300.
Steve Griffin & Family On the Cover of Triad Style - March 20, 2002.
Once the game starts, the Griffins tune in to the action - all for different reasons.
"I like the pucks," said Brian, the youngest son, not taking his eye off the rink in the hope of getting a jump on the next puck flying into the crowd.
"I love it," said Renee, watching Brian scramble for another puck. "It's a great family thing. You can bring your whole family and they all can have fun."
Michael said he comes for the scoring. And he has come since he was two months old, with his father, a man who wanted to give his son the same gift his father gave him.
"I came to my first game in 1963 with my dad," Steve said. "It's kind of like reliving my childhood (with son Michael). Not in a forceful way, he just really took to it like I did when my Dad used to take me."
As the scoreboard nears zero and the carpet is rolled out for someone to sing the "Star Spangled Banner," Darryl Hicks sits in his aisle seat near the top of the lower section. With soda in hand, he gets ready for another game - one more time.
"Any time you have a professional team, any of them, football, basketball, baseball, whatever. It makes the community come together," Hicks said, adding that he'll keep coming to support the Generals. "It's a definite plus for us."
Contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org