Real men who brave contests of grit and brawn wear two things on their feet at the Lubbock Municipal Coliseum - spurs or hockey blades.
Real men who brave contests of grit and brawn wear two things on
their feet at the Lubbock Municipal Coliseum - spurs or hockey
Dirt and ice alternately cover the arena floor, depending on whether a
rodeo is in town or the Lubbock Cotton Kings have a home game.
Across the flat plains and rugged hills of West Texas, ponds seldom
freeze hard enough to support a puck, much less a 200-pound hockey
player. Pro hockey in the Lone Star State would seem an unlikely
juxtaposition. But Rick Kozuback saw things differently.
Kozuback, former coach of Phoenix’s now-defunct International Hockey
League franchise, assembled a group of Canadian investors in 1994 with
an eye toward purchasing an established minor league team. Increased
exposure to hockey via all-sports cable channels fueled a proliferation
of minor league clubs in untraditional markets in the first half of the
decade, and more than 90 now play nationally. But it took a Texas-size
dose of grass-roots PR for this league to take off.
The East Coast Hockey League, for example, started franchises in
Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia in 1988. Like the Texas clubs,
ECHL organizations are analogous to Double-A minor league baseball. ’Our
teams traditionally do very well in markets where they are the main
show,’ says ECHL’s assistant communications director Jamie Fabos.
Working with minor-league marketing budgets, the teams depend heavily on
grass-roots PR. ’If you can get more positive publicity from players
going to read to second graders, that’s probably more valuable than an
ad you’re running on the radio,’ he says.
By the time Kozuback and his group began shopping for teams, asking
prices had soared. Starting a new league in a hockey-deprived region
made more sense financially.
Texans revere few things as highly as football. Kozuback thought the
equally brutal northern sport could extend ’Friday night lights’ into
the winter months and bridge the gap between the football and baseball
seasons. His group identified cities with populations between 200,000
and one million, arenas of adequate size and fierce high school or
college rivalries. Five teams in Texas and one in New Mexico hit the ice
for the Arizona-based Western Professional Hockey League during its
inaugural 1996 season.
But the PR campaign began well before the first puck dropped. WPHL
officials spent months explaining their plans to chambers of commerce
and Rotary clubs, creating awareness through roller hockey clinics and
cementing partnerships with radio and TV stations. Coaches and players
worked the malls, county fairs, parades and rodeos. Serious TV and
billboard advertising didn’t kick in until two or three months before
the season started. Name-the-team contests resulted in colorful mascots,
such as the Fort Worth Brahmas, Corpus Christi Ice Rays, El Paso
Buzzards and Shreveport Mudbugs.
The Central Texas Stampede and the Waco Wizards faced off in the
league’s first game at the Bell County Expo Center, not far from Fort
Hood. The contest drew about 2,000 curious onlookers. ’After the first
two periods, half the crowd got up to leave,’ recalls Steve Cherwonak,
WPHL scheduling and media services director. Employees rushed to the
exits to let them know the game wasn’t over. At the end of the third
period, many fans stayed in their seats waiting for a fourth.
Educating fans meant more than just explaining the three-period concept,
though. The league conducted clinics, developed a ’Hockey 101’ brochure
and forged relationships with local reporters to pique the locals’
Fans of the Austin Ice Bats, one of the oldest and most successful
franchises, now can analyze power plays and debate the nuances of the
neutral-zone trap, while new teams like the Cotton Kings find educating
fans to be a bit easier than their predecessors did.
Students flocking to Texas Tech from places like Amarillo and San Angelo
bring minor-league hockey knowledge with them, but Lubbock PR and
broadcasting director Chris Due gives the NHL champion Dallas Stars
credit for expanding the fan base exponentially. ’When they went to the
Stanley Cup, that was the biggest thing we could ask for,’ Due says.
Cotton King organizers threw a game-watching party during the playoffs,
which let them explain things like on-glass signage to potential
Likewise, minor league interest provides a boon for the major league
team, says Dallas Stars media relations director Larry Kelly. ’We see
people come in from around the southwest to see what the NHL is all
about,’ he notes. Every Stars game this season has sold out.
PR off the ice
In contrast to their often-aloof NHL counterparts, WPHL players must pay
more than lip service to their fans. WPHL contracts require players to
make up to three public appearances a week. ’We are big believers in
getting players to stay after the games and meet the fans,’ Kozuback
Most visit supporters in VIP lounges or stay on the ice for open
Few of the league’s 300 players mind the exposure, since many wouldn’t
play hockey for a living otherwise. ’If a 12-year-old kid can’t get the
autograph of his favorite player, then we’re doing something wrong,’
The players usually get star treatment in the cities they represent.
’They don’t have a perception that they are too good to talk to people
or sign autographs,’ says Odessa Jackalopes’ booster club president
Robin Smith. ’They are excited about being in the community and
providing entertainment.’ His group sponsors monthly team dinners and
helps new players settle in to new homes. Each team is allowed 14 visas,
fostering quite a bit of Canadian/Texan cultural exchange.
A big part of WPHL’s outreach is aimed at its youngest fans. The WPHL’s
junior reporter program lets youngsters ’cover’ games and interview
players for articles on the league Web site. Jackalopes officials visit
schools to talk about drug awareness and physical fitness while
outlining basic rules of the game, says GM Monty Hoppel. ’Many of these
children will become season ticket holders,’ Cherwonak adds.
In four years, the WPHL has grown to 16 teams in Texas, Louisiana,
Arkansas and New Mexico, but it still faces challenges. The Waco and
Abilene teams lost their franchises in December due to poor staffing and
inadequate capitalization, but Kozuback is quick to note that a Tucson
club has been added and two more start-ups are expected next year. While
new ice rinks have opened in some WPHL cities, other teams can practice
only when their coliseums aren’t being used for other, more traditional
purposes. A rodeo in Lubbock recently forced the Cotton Kings to commute
to Odessa for workouts.
Kelly and Cherwonak agree Texan hockey is here to stay, its popularity
underscored by the growth of recreational leagues. PR and community
relations will continue to be important tools in appealing to the next
generation of Sunbelt hockey fans, notes Cherwonak, who hopes someday a
6-foot-2 inch, 200-pound West Texas farm boy might be inspired to play
for the Stars instead of the Cowboys.