SBJ/January 9 - 15, 2006/Other News

Cincinnati group races to get deposits to bring hockey back

The echo of hockey pucks thumping off the boards at Cincinnati Gardens isn’t heard nearly as often as it used to be.

But that doesn’t mean the Gardens is totally asleep.

Tucked into the bowels of the old arena, the offices of the Cincinnati RailRaiders were buzzing on a recent afternoon. A few fans were buying RailRaiders items from the gift shop. Others put money down for a deposit on season tickets they hope will come to fruition.

That’s the big issue these days for workers at Cincinnati’s latest pro hockey franchise. They’re trying to get season-ticket deposits for a team they don’t yet have. And the clock is ticking.

The owners of the American Hockey League franchise formerly known as the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks lost their team last year when a game of musical chairs involving NHL affiliates in the AHL left Cincinnati out of the mix.

But the owners kept possession of the franchise, even though it’s been idle this season.

Now, RailRaiders CEO Pete Robinson and his staff are racing to sell 2,000 deposits for 2006-07 season tickets in an effort to show the league and prospective NHL affiliates that Cincinnati is still a strong hockey market.

The team is more than one-third of the way there in selling refundable deposits, Robinson said, but he figures his group has about two months to generate the rest.

“Typically, by March, NHL clubs want to know where they’re going to be next year,” Robinson said.

He added that without the fans’ commitment, a franchise sale is likely.

“If it’s not done, the franchise will be sold,” Robinson said. “We don’t talk about it internally, but the league doesn’t like to have franchises sit inactive for more than a year.”

Robinson has invested plenty of money in the effort. He and his family own the franchise and the Cincinnati Gardens. They’re building a new premium-seating section and an entertainment area known as the Party Zone.

Meanwhile, the lack of a pro hockey tenant is hurting the Gardens.

The ice sheets in the arena and in the adjoining skating center both get used seven days a week by high school, youth and community leagues, Robinson said. The arena also has booked a handful of concerts, a rodeo and a circus.

“But taking out 40 to 50 hockey games a year has a big impact,” said Don Helbig, the RailRaiders’ vice president of communications and broadcasting.

Other AHL owners are pulling for Robinson and the RailRaiders.

“This league has benefited from having them involved,” said Mike Lehr, president of the AHL’s Cleveland Barons.

Lehr pointed to Robinson’s commitment to put up his own money and to keep eight employees on staff.

He figures the RailRaiders stand a good chance if the push for season-ticket deposits works.

“It’s all up to the folks down there,” he said.

Steve Watkins writes for the Cincinnati Business Courier, an affiliated publication.

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