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Published: Monday, 4/21/2003

Good old days return

BY DAN SAEVIG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

It came to be known as the Miracle on Main Street.

Nearly 30 years after the 1974-75 expansion Toledo Goaldiggers erased the memory and financial losses of the not-so-dearly-departed Hornets with an improbable International Hockey League playoff championship run, a professional hockey team based at the Sports Arena has enjoyed a similar one-year turnaround.

Local sports historians may never mention the 2002-03 East Coast Hockey League regular-season champion Toledo Storm in the same breath as that mystical 'Diggers Turner Cup team, but on and off the ice there was another transformation along the banks of the Maumee River.

The 2001-02 edition of the Storm lost more than $500,000, according to team officials.

One year later, Storm and Sports Arena managing partner Tim Gladieux - son of the late Virgil Gladieux, the arena co-founder and Goaldiggers' owner - says that the hockey team is in position to do something it has not done since he and his four minority partners bought the franchise from Barry Soskin in 1998.

“We could show a profit,” said Gladieux, acknowledging that the Storm would have had a better chance if the team had advanced beyond the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs.

Toledo was eliminated in the second round by Cincinnati, 3 games to 1.

Profitability - the team's budget is separate from the Sports Arena, and does not include concessions income and only a portion of parking receipts - won't be determined until all the season-ending expenses are calculated.

A lengthier post-season run, when attendance picks up as the playoffs progress, would likely have guaranteed better than break-even status.

As it is, Toledo's average playoff attendance of 2,736 is the highest in the ECHL for any team that has played more than one home playoff game to date.

“Hockey goes in cycles,” Gladieux said. “The last 50 years, I can remember when we won on the ice and didn't win at the box office.”

This season, the team did both.

Buoyed by a group that improved from 26th place overall in 2001-02 to the top of the 27-team league this season, Toledo set a franchise record for regular-season gate receipts.

Storm vice president and general manager Mike Miller, now in his 14th month on the job, said that Toledo exceeded $1,040,000 in ticket sales during the regular season.

According to Miller, the previous mark was set during the 1995-96 season: $1,006,000.

There are a number of variables to take into consideration with that statistic, the most notable being that ticket prices have gone up slightly in eight seasons.

That said, Miller points out that group sales this season were strong. Since last season, the Storm increased revenue in that category by $40,000 to a total of $105,000.

Ticket lines were noticeably longer too.

Some of Toledo's best crowds came on days other than the traditionally popular Fridays and Saturdays. Miller changed an early season mid-week game from 7 p.m. to 10:30 a.m. and drew 4,150 for a contest that likely would have been attended by half of that number.

Promotional concepts were added, including bobblehead dolls and post-game skates with the players. Sunday start times were moved from 6 p.m. to 3 p.m., and the club began pushing a $36 family pack - four tickets, four food items, four soft drinks and two programs.

Improved numbers in groups and walk-ups helped offset a downturn in season-ticket holders.

At its peak, during the 1991-94 years when hockey returned after a five-year hiatus, the Storm topped out at 1,900 season tickets. Today, that total is just under 800, some 50 less than last season, Miller said.

To a fan, the most visible change from last season was the number of people actually in the building on game days. At times last year, crowds appeared to be off by 800-1,000 from announced figures.

During this regular season, Toledo averaged 4,257 per night, eighth overall in the ECHL. In 2001-02 the announced average was 4,243, 13th overall.

“We didn't do well on the ice [in 1001-02], and when people realized that we weren't going to make the playoffs, they kind of gave up on us,” Gladieux said. “People didn't come.”

Across the ECHL this season, attendance dropped from an average of 4,021 per night to 3,750. Its peak of 5,311 was reached in 1994-95.

Toledo is believed to be one of fewer than five league teams that could turn a profit. Four ECHL franchises already have announced that they will not operate next season, and more could be in the offing.

``I think it's a real testament to what a good sports town Toledo is,” Miller said. “The Mud Hens and the new ballpark last year were one of the greatest things to ever happen to Toledo. We battled that because of the perception of this 50-year-old building.

“The Martin Luther King Bridge is ripped up from one end to the other and people are still coming. I-280 has been closed at times. The economy is hurting.

“With all the negatives, including not making the playoffs two of the past three seasons, people could have said, `The heck with hockey.' Instead, they're starting to support this team.”

A life-long Toledo-area native who joined the Storm after nine seasons as the radio play-by-play voice of the NHL's New Jersey Devils, Miller knew that the most important decision that he would make would be in selecting a coach.

His future, and the future of the franchise, would depend on it.

“After last year,” Gladieux said. “There was only one way to go, and that was up.”

From the beginning, the general manager made it clear that he wanted someone with coaching experience, preferably an individual who had played and won in Toledo. Miller was looking for a person who understood the fans and the up-tempo, physical style of game that needed to be played on the small Sports Arena ice surface.

Most importantly, Miller wanted some-one who could win. Dennis Holland's contract wasn't renewed after the 2001-02 club finished at 28-34-10.

“Toledo's a bit different,” Miller said. “The department you've got to fix first is your hockey department.”

Miller's choice was Claude Noel, captain of the 1982-83 Goaldiggers' Turner Cup team. A former head coach in the ECHL and IHL, Noel had spent the last four seasons with Milwaukee of the American and International hockey leagues, where he was an assistant.

With an emphasis on teaching and on recruiting players who wanted to learn and were happy playing as a group in Toledo, Noel and assistant coach Mark Bernard did what many in the hockey world thought was impossible.

Despite playing in an aging facility and recruiting against southern teams that could offer sun, sand and golf, Toledo won its first regular-season points championship since the inaugural 1991-92 season with a mark of 47-15-10. The team lost just three times on home ice during the season.

“Claude has done an unbelievable job,” Detroit Red Wings' assistant general manager Jim Nill said. “He runs this like an NHL program.”

For his efforts, Noel was named ECHL coach of the year.

“You couldn't have told Mike Miller, Mark Bernard and myself that we would have been in this position after 72 games,” Noel said. “My objective coming in was to change things around and do well. I would never dream that doing well meant first overall.”

Noel has one year remaining on his Storm contract. NHL personnel and others have repeatedly said that the job the coach has done - a 38-point improvement from last season - supports the notion that he is overqualified for the ECHL.

After the Miracle on Main Street, the Goaldiggers enjoyed a five-year run when hockey at the Sports Arena was the place to be.

It was that way during the Storm's early years too, and management is hoping to springboard this season's on and off-ice successes into 2003-04 and beyond.

Given that a much-talked-about new arena with potential new revenue streams has yet to materialize, Toledo must focus on containing its costs while increasing income.

The Storm's budget is in the $1.8-$1.9 million range. This year, ticket revenues were supported by corporate advertising totaling $400,000 in cash and $200,000 in trade.

Despite the economic downturn, those figures equaled 2001-02 numbers.

“There's not much more [advertising space] to sell in the Sports Arena,” Miller said. “The only thing we can really improve on to generate more cash is season tickets, and that's what we're going to work on this summer.”

The Storm will increase per-game ticket prices next season by $1, to a range of $9.50 to $14.00.

A goal of 1,300-1,400 season subscribers has been set. Daunting perhaps, but arguably nothing like the challenges of one year ago.

“When I first got here, there were times I thought, `What were you thinking about, getting involved with this?”' Miller said. “But it's become such a rewarding thing. This year has been more rewarding for me than being involved with two Stanley Cup winners.

“This has been a remarkable, remarkable turnaround.”



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