ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna sees nothing but a bright future for pro hockey in Toledo.
McKenna, who attended Friday night's game at the Huntington Center between the Walleye and the Bakersfield Condors, said the traditional fan base is adding new members.
“The die hard, traditional fans that supported the Storm over the years are still here,” McKenna said. “But the Walleye have introduced hockey to a whole new group of fans. So now you have the combination, and that is very healthy.”
Entering Friday night's games, Toledo ranked third in the league in average attendance with 5,467 per game. A total of 49,206 spectators had attended nine games at the downtown arena. Friday night, a lively crowd of 4,792, consisting of many children along with others sporting Goaldigger jerseys, saw Toledo defeat Bakersfield 4-3.
“The casual fans that have been introduced to hockey now will eventually become hard core supporters as well,” McKenna said.
McKenna, who is in his ninth season, said he enjoyed attending games at the old Sports Arena. But he said the new arena is a top notch facility.
“It's among the top three or four in the league no doubt,” McKenna said. “It's a big league facility. The sight lines and the amenities are terrific. The food, the suites, everything is very, very impressive. It's fun and entertaining.”
The commissioner said the ECHL missed having a Toledo representative in the league for two seasons before it returned last year.
“But the hiatus just whet the fans' appetite,” McKenna said. “With two years to prepare, the Walleye staff did an outstanding job introducing the Walleye brand to the marketplace. All around it has worked out well. [League officials] are very happy with how things have worked out here.”
As for the league overall, McKenna said the ECHL is the only minor hockey league to have increased its attendance the last three years. The league has averaged more than 4,000 fans per game the last six seasons, including 4,019 per game this year.
“As a group, the 19 teams are stronger than we've ever been,” he said. “We have a strong entity, and we are well positioned for some eventual growth.”
He said Chicago will have a franchise coming in next year, but he said “beyond that, there is nothing firm.”
McKenna also said he is proud more than 400 players have gone from the ECHL to play in the NHL including a record 52 in 2008-09.
“Almost half the players will play in the AHL and some will continue to climb to the NHL,” he said. “We are a very vital link to that chain of development.”
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