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2001 - 2002
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A Season on the (B)rink
Ogi Overman - Omnibus (column)
ESP Magazine - April 17, 2002
There's no denying that the rumors exist. They've been floating around town like water lillies on an unfrozen pond for months. Their perpetrators claim that the big frozen pond on Lee St. will be devoid of a tenant come next October, that the only skaters in town will be of the amateur and in-line variety.
Yet, to paraphrase the hackneyed Mark Twain line one more time, the rumors of the Generals' demise have been greatly exaggerated. Equally trite, as Ahnold might say, "They'll be back!"
The two principals, however, who have not been overquoted happen to be the two who can shed the most light on the situation - Generals President and CEO Rocco Scarfone and Executive VP of Sales and Marketing Rick Francis. And they are the two who are more than happy to lay the rumors to rest once and for all.
Rocco Scarfone and Ric Francis
"We're here for the duration," said Scarfone in a recent interview. "I certainly didn't buy into this organization to watch it fold after a year."
Francis, who was lured here by principal owner Art Donaldson from the NHL Carolina Hurricanes, echoed those sentiments, saying, "We're all in it for the long run. Both of us came here late last June, so everyone else already had a head start on us, but with Rocco's promotional genius and my background in hockey, I think you'll see an entirely different product next season."
Scarfone, with credentials in the entertainment industry, used his contacts and expertise to launch several promotional ideas, the most visible of which was a series of postgame concerts, that boosted both attendance and awareness. Featured acts included Ratt, Sister Hazel, Marty Stuart, Chairmen of the Board and Avalon, with all producing a noticeable gate increase, the biggest being the Sister Hazel show, which drew over 6700 paying customers.
"The singles and college students came out in force for that show," said Scarfone, "and that's a clearly identifiable positive in terms of demographics. Next year that's the market to look to bring in here. They're enthusiastic and can afford that type of ticket price."
Obviously that is not the only market the Generals hope to attract in the near and/or distant future. The front office is laying the groundwork for women fans and youthful fans, as well as older fans. They held a women's clinic (sponsored by Outback Steakhouse) that had over 40 participants; former coach Graeme Townshend is conducting roller hockey clinics at Pyramids and ice hockey clinics at the Ice House; Generals University and the Kids' Club exposed 7000 kids to the sport and gave away 14,000 tickets to deserving kids; and several players are staying in Greensboro during the off-season and will help out with clinics, promotions and personal appearances.
"We feel that we have a full educational agenda that will help get kids and women interested in hockey," commented Scarfone. "All these areas are important, and our strategy is to get out in the community in every way possible. We're making a commitment toward building a winning tradition here. And getting more and more kids involved ensures our future."
Of course, courting the younger and female fan can not come at the expense of the older fan, the one who remembers the winning tradition established by the original Generals throughout the '60s.
"Absolutely not," exclaimed Francis, whose father Emil is in both the Canadian and NHL halls of fame and whose brother Bob is the coach of the NHL Phoenix Coyotes. "We want to include the old Generals players as well as the fans in every way possible. Having reunions of all the old Generals alumni like Pat Kelly and Butch McKay and all the other ones who settled down nearby is such a positive thing. We still consider them a part of the organization, and the fans just love it."
Still, as Scarfone and Francis are painfully aware, all the promotional gimmicks, business acumen, name recognition, and community involvement go for naught when the on-ice product is consistently inferior. No one — especially them — needs to be reminded that the Generals haven't been within sniffing distance of a playoff berth in any of their three years of existence. Consequently, they know that their absolute top priority for next season is to put a contender on the ice.
"You can do all the right things in terms of selling your product and servicing your fans," said Francis, "but you've still got to put some W's on the board and be competitive. If you combine a good team with everything the front office is doing off the ice, then you've got a hat trick on one page."
Echoed Scarfone, "We feel we know what to do from a player personnel standpoint. Granted, we haven't won games like we should have, but it wasn't through a lack of effort. We made a number of trades, guys retired, we had a lot of injuries, suspensions, a coaching change, but we still never gave up on the playoffs until we were mathematically eliminated."
"We had a lot of things working against us this year, but next year - for the first time ever - we won't have to play catch-up with the rest of the league. We feel we have a good nucleus of guys to build around, and then we'll bring in the best guys possible, particularly between the pipes. And we'll review the coaching situation soon and make a determination there."
A couple of situations, however, will need no further review. Although neither front office exec placed blame, it was obvious that both were less than satisfied with the affiliation with their parent club, the Carolina Hurricanes. "The teams that win in this league are the ones with strong NHL affiliations," remarked Scarfone. "You can compete for maybe two periods but they'll eventually wear you down because they have the depth of talent to do it. We just didn't get the talent we were hoping for from the Hurricanes."
He went on to say that they were talking to two NHL clubs about an affiliation for next year but declined to say which ones. "They're involved in stretch runs right now, but we'll get serious soon. Then we'll go to the NHL draft and hopefully get some things settled."
The two minced no words on the other situation, the 10 games played this season in Winston-Salem's LJVM Coliseum.
"It was an idea that just didn't pan out for us," admitted Francis. "The partnerships that we were not able to form, from a media standpoint and from a public-support standpoint, became very frustrating. Those 10 weekend games we played in Winston-Salem pulled our average attendance down to around 2900; it would've been higher if we'd played them here and had the chance to promote them here. It was very disappointing."
After our engaging and candid chat, I came away with the impression that the future of pro hockey in Greensboro is not nearly as imperiled as some have imagined. In fact, with Rocco Scarfone and Rick Francis running the show, I'd venture to say the big pond on Lee St. should remain frozen a long, long time.