Don’t let Albany Devils disappear like the Choppers did

They left out the Albany Choppers. How could they forget the Albany Choppers?
Regardless the effort of community leaders, if more average fans don't come out, there is a good chance the Albany Devils will move after this coming season.
Regardless the effort of community leaders, if more average fans don't come out, there is a good chance the Albany Devils will move after this coming season.

They left out the Albany Choppers. How could they forget the Albany Choppers?

A presentation this week on pro hockey over the past quarter-century in the immediate Albany area cited three teams: The Capital District Islanders (1990-93), the Albany River Rats (1993-2010) and the Albany Devils (2010–present).

Omitted was any mention of the Choppers, an International Hockey League team that could not even make it through its inaugural 1990-91 season at a cavernous (and empty) pre-curtain Knickerbocker Arena before folding. Things were so bad at the end that the team had to borrow tape from opposing teams to prep sticks.

Yeah, they were forgettable.

The presentation was part of a gathering of civic and business leaders at the Times Union Center, designed to drum up support and attendance for the Albany Devils. It was a good crowd for a Wednesday morning breakfast.

Or a Wednesday night Devils’ game.

OK, that was a cheap shot. Two minutes for roughing.

But attendance at Devils’ games is an issue that has to be addressed — as in now. While the eyes of the Capital Region sports world is on today’s Opening Day of Saratoga Race Course, the AHL hockey season looms. And it could be the last one in our area (Glens Falls is now an ECHL town) unless more fans start showing up.

These civic leaders are sincere about keeping the team — which, make no mistake, can bolt the Capital Region after the upcoming season. The local convention and visitors bureau pegs the local annual economic impact of having the franchise at $17.1 million.

But the Devils, much like their predecessors, the River Rats, have never drawn. The Devils have been in the bottom five in attendance every year they’ve been here, and dead last twice. As Yogi Berra may have said (who knows with Yogi quotes?): “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?”

A host of business leaders and pols — including Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan in her own Albany Devils jersey — pitched business people to buy season tickets.

“It’s not just because I love hockey,” she said. “It’s good for economic development. It’s good for business.”

Times Union Center General Manager Bob Belber told the 100-plus leaders, “I want to stress the fact the Albany Devils have never threatened to leave.” But the fact is they don’t have to: If fans don’t show up to increase the bottom line, the attraction of other markets expected to be open in 2016 may be too strong to pass up.

There is a reason there is a one-year deal in place between the team and arena: It’s time for the region to put up, or wave goodbye.

Hence the pitch by the leaders and team CEO Chris Ciceri for businesses to buy season tickets in bulk. Several marketing partnerships were unveiled. These deals will help — but they will not determine the fate of the franchise, and AHL hockey, in Albany.

You will.

It will come down to rank-and-file fans. It’s on them, read: you.

You want minor league hockey in town? Come out. If you don’t, well, like Yogi says, you can stay home.

There is no doubt there is a rich hockey tradition in the Capital Region, dating back to the success of RPI hockey in the 1950s through Union’s national title in 2014. And there is also a pro hockey component to that history, with the Adirondack Red Wings and River Rats both winning Calder Cup titles.

So we like hockey. But do we like it enough to support two Division I programs, and the American Hockey League? Now keep in mind that behind the National Hockey League, the AHL is in the argument for the second-best hockey league in the world, along with the KHL in Russia, the SHL in Sweden and Liiga, the Finnish Elite League. More than half these players go on to the NHL. These are world-class athletes. That should matter.

And yet the minor league baseball team in Troy, playing at one of the lowest rungs of pro ball, consistently outdraws the hockey team by more than 1,000 a night.

OK, different sport. And going to the ballpark on a nice July night beats going to downtown Albany in February. (And don’t discount the importance of free vs. paid parking.) But there is no comparison between the levels of competition: Outside of the jockeys and polo players of Saratoga, these are the most advanced athletes in their sport who play in the Capital Region.

And they draw a mere couple of thousand diehards. You can blame the team, blame the arena, blame the neighborhood, blame the parking. You can blame ticket prices — which sounds tinny when you compare the cost to an NHL ticket. Eventually, though, it comes back to the fan. If the interest isn’t there, so be it. If there is, it has to be demonstrated.

The suits can have all the power breakfasts they want — and kudos to them for trying. But this will come down to you. If you and others come out enough this season, that will buy the region at least several more years of top-flight pro hockey in town.

If not, the Devils will go the way of the Albany Choppers.

Categories: Sports

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