Regular Cannon readers will need to bear with me today, because this story really isn't about the Blue Jackets - or at least it isn't directly.
However, it is about the state of a hockey team in Ohio, and what an uncertain future might hold for it, so I hope you'll bear with me and see why I think this is a story worth following for any Ohio hockey fans.
On Thursday, July 8, 2010, the city of Cleveland had their heart publicly and violently broken by LeBron James. A favorite son, he'd turned them into a sports destination with the Cavaliers, and his rising tide had lifted quite a few boats - including the return of minor league professional hockey in the form of the Lake Erie Monsters.
Cleveland, much like Columbus, has supported professional hockey at one level or another almost since the sport's entry into the US, ever since the Cleveland (Hockey) Indians first skated onto Cuyahoga ice in the 1920s. Since that time, teams have come and gone (sometimes at an alarming rate), but have always kept some presence in the Cleveland sports fan's mind.
In Lake Erie's case, though, the team is uniquely linked to the Cavaliers, as they are owned by Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert, and share a great deal of infrastructure and logistical support off the ice, including ticket sales reps and other front office staff.
So with one half of the linked organizations suffering an incredible blow this offseason, what does the future hold for the Monsters?
First off, some recent history of Cleveland hockey, thanks to friend of the blog Skraut:
When the IHL folded operations at the end of the 2000-2001 season Cleveland lost the Lumberjacks, a hard fighting team with strong fan appeal built over the previous 9 seasons thanks to the tireless efforts of owner Larry Gordon. The "Jacks" were famous for publicity stunts which brought in crowds large enough to make Richfield Coliseum, and later the Gund Arena, seem not so empty. Unfortunately due to the competition between the IHL and the AHL, the team switched affiliations 4 times in the final 3 years of its existence. A lack of continuity in the front office, and on the bench finally eroded some of the fanbase, and the Jacks were not selected to be one of the few IHL teams to merge in with the AHL.
Cavs and San Jose Sharks owner at that time Gordon Gund took control of the Kentucky Thoroughblades and brought them to Cleveland naming them the Cleveland Barons after the 1970's NHL franchise and the AHL franchise of the same name which competed in the city from the 1930's to the 70's. Unfortunately Gordon Gund just assumed he could put a team in his building and have it be successful without any promotion, sponsorship, or community ties. The fans treated the team with the same indifference that the owner did, and the team routinely played games with 500 fans in a 21,000 seat arena. The place just felt like a tomb, the on ice product was horrible, with the team only making the playoffs once, and fans stayed away in droves. Eventually the San Jose Sharks moved the team to Worcester Mass. in 2006.
After the 2006-2007 season without hockey, new Cavs owner Dan Gilbert purchased the dormant Utah AHL franchise and brought it to Cleveland, and has done a fantastic job rejuvenating hockey in Cleveland. Attendance is up near the top of the AHL, with the Monsters having 4 of the top 5 attended games league wide their first year. Gilbert makes sure to promote the Lake Erie Monsters at Cavs games, and will routinely bring Cavs players to LEM games to sign autographs and promote the Monsters. Many of the old favorites from the Lumberjacks have returned and the excitement is back.
Since the team's arrival in Cleveland as the AHL affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, the team has used the Cavaliers as selling point to drive attendance, and also offered themselves as the lower costing alternative for a family who would love to take their wife and kids to a game. Monsters ticket prices, even on game days, can be had for as little as $10 a seat, while Cavs tickets start at $29. (LEM tickets also have the advantage of only being sold for the lower bowl of the Q, while the cheap seats at the Cavs games put you in the nosebleed seats of the upper deck.)
This means that in the crowds attending, perhaps 1/3 are the die-hards, and 2/3 are folks looking for a chance to get out of the house, let their kids have fun at the game, and perhaps Dad will go check out the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or see what's on the TVs in the concourse. Of those die hards, most are fans of the team, not of any particular player, thanks to the high turnover in AHL squads, which should hopefully help to shield them from too many lost sales due to roster changes.
The Cavaliers also made sure to promote the team through in-game ads during basketball games and promotions and commercials on Fox Sports Ohio to help keep the team in the mindset of Cavs fans. If the front office continues that trend, it should help keep attendance up, but if less people are watching the Cavs, and less people go to games to see the in-arena advertising, the question is not "will the LEM attendance suffer?" but "how much will their attendance suffer?"
Despite that, though, when I talked to Monsters season ticket holders, the attitude towards the team was overwhelmingly optimistic. Everyone I wrote to was more than happy to share their theories on how the future might play out, particularly Jeff Robinson, a fan I was put in touch with by Angelique of Mile High Hockey.
I DO think the entertainment value per dollar ration will go up this year. The Monsters have a terrific front office with top notch, creative people. The goofy promo nights they have planned will no doubt continue. I haven't heard of any REALLY good ones yet but, since we know since Opening Night is celebrating the AHL's 75th anniversary, the LEM are rumored to be honoring the original Barons by playing in tribute 'top hat and monocle' replica jerseys in Monster colors. Should be a jersey off their backs night too and a REALLY good time. Now, if we could only get Syracuse to play in Bulldogs jerseys from Slapshot!
The LEM people I talk to seem to genuinely like the AHL and its' 'minor league' appeal - it allows them to do stuff the NBA would frown upon, without too many consequences. (The Monsters have already paid huge fines for doing relatively minor stuff like showing a questionable goal replay on 'Q-tube', a no-no per AHL by laws...)
The Avs have not signed any big name FAs this offseason and have stuck to the game plan of re-signing their own players and building through the draft...the players the Avs have signed are more or less penciled in as Monsters. The LEM front office is extremely disappointed about not making the playoffs yet. The VP of hockey operations, Len Komoroski, intended to have a meeting with Colorado brass this off season before free agency to address the roster - the LEM feel they've done a good job of marketing the team, and they wanted to see an increase in talent. Obviously that message was received. With the losses of front line players (Sertisch, Hensick, Weiman), replacements have already been found. They may never light it up for the NHL, but they should be capable of doing something special here.
To follow that up, I had to ask both Jeff and Skraut if they felt Gilbert's public declarations that he would do everything he could to have the Cavs win a championship before the Heat did might hurt the attention given to making Lake Erie successful - and what they thought about the possibilities of the team hooking up with the Blue Jackets down the road.
I'm convinced that (Cavs owner) Gilbert's passion to make the Cavs successful post-LeBron will translate positively to the Monsters. I don't see it being quite the same situation as the Lumberjacks or Barons, but I still don't see it as being terribly good in the short term.
If hockey is EVER going to really make it in Cleveland, this is our Alamo. With the Lumberjacks and Barons, we learned that they were tenants in the building - nothing more. The Barons at least seemed to start on positive footing, with the Gund family partially owning the San Jose Sharks and wanting to bring their AHL affiliate north after the Lumberjacks left. Unfortunately, within 6 months the Gunds sold their interest in the Sharks to SVSE and you know they'd leave town as soon as possible.
Unlike the Barons, the Monsters have the arena, parking, concessions and team shop under one roof and share offices with a team and league with strong revenue streams. It doesn't and WILL NOT EVER get any better than that! I think that if the next NBA CBA drags on, and it might, the Monsters will/should help fill a void in the arena if there is a lockout by the owners of any significant length.
Personally, I would like to see the deal with COL extended. They have supplied players that have gotten better every year and look poised to make a significant jump this year. But if the rumblings of CBJ setting up camp here next year are true though, I would hardly be upset. I have been a fan of theirs since they came into existence. They too have some talent in the pipeline.
I think the Jackets regret (to a certain extent) not getting on board then. The possibility of cross marketing the Cavs/CBJ/LEM could be great for Ohio. I guess we'll find out this off season. What I've heard is the COL/LEM agreement is up after this year, but supposedly, a mutual option exists for them to extend their arrangement indefinitely.
Cleveland is a strange place for hockey. It is a place where having something inexpensive to do on a Friday night is important. Yet in amongst the 6,000 or so people looking for something to do, there are the 2,500 or season ticket holders who still show up to an otherwise empty arena on a Tuesday night. It is these fans who are passionate for the sport. They were the only ones there during the Barons era, and that wasn't enough to keep the team here. If the Q loses feeling of being the "it" place to be because it is no longer where the King has his court; if Gilbert focuses so much on making his guarantee happen for the Cavs that he forgets about his other team, the excitement around the Lake Erie Monsters could be lost.
For selfish reasons, I've always wanted the Monsters to be affiliated with the Blue Jackets. It seems to fit on so many levels. However realistically, I can't help wonder if right now is the wrong time. I think they could weather a switch to a CBJ affiliate, but if it was this year it may be tough with all the other distractions. If the Cavs are going to be missing the face they've had for the past 7 years it may be tough to have the entire Monsters team be different. Having SO much change is what I'm getting at.
I know there is still one more year left before it may happen, but I look back at the Lumberjacks. They thrived with a long term arrangement with the Penguins, and then floundered when they changed players and coaches every year when they were changing affiliations. It has taken some time to un-do the wrong that Gordon Gund did to Cleveland Hockey fans with the shell of a team and the poor experience that was going to a Baron's game. With this hit to the Cleveland psyche, and with the uncertainty surrounding the cash cow that let the Monsters ride on its coattails, switching NHL affiliates which involves swapping coaches, and the players the fans care about could be a further detriment to the team.
After next season may be a different story, though. The Monsters have missed the playoffs their first 3 seasons. Do it a 4th, and the fans may be ready for a change. There still is the "new Franchise Smell" with the Monsters, and things are still going pretty well with the excitement. Then again they've been riding the Cavs coattails like I mentioned. If the Cavs fall off, the excitement goes away, the excitement of switching may be good. I'm not totally sure.
Gilbert needs to keep up with the promotions. They may be gimmicky but they pack the place, bring in excitement, and keep people thinking about hockey. I sat next to a family 2 seasons ago at Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader night, the place was packed. I had spent the entire game explaining the rules to the father. At the end of the game he thanked me and told me that nothing he saw that night made sense, he still didn't understand the game, but he and the kids had fun and that they'd probably be back.
There's no doubt that the Monsters have a tough challenge ahead of them - but every indication seems to be that the challenges they face (lowered attendance, mercurial fan interest, lack of post-season appearances) are ones they've already laid the groundwork to defeat. The team's preparations for the AHL's 75th anniversary couldn't come at a better time - with so many events already in the pipeline, it should make the promotion of the team easier - particularly if the casual fan can be enticed with the chances to win prizes or see some novelty jerseys.
Even better, if the team's efforts to improve the on-ice product pay off, it should help drive the gate - if there's one lesson that Blue Jacket fans should know by heart at this point, it's that winning can and will get people into the building.
The Monsters have pulled some very good gate returns despite lacking really successful on-ice product, thanks to the Cavs and a heavy diet of promotions. With the Cavs tie-ins likely to start fading, this is a pressure situation for the LEM coaching staff. Their success could be the difference that helps to keep them financially stable while the Cavs attempt to find their way.
Should the team struggle again, however, perhaps this will be a catalyst to break ties with Colorado and explore a new relationship with Columbus as a way to re-engage their season ticket holders and encourage the CBJ fanbase in Cleveland to take the local option occasionally rather than driving down I-71, and give hockey in Cleveland another chance to succeed.
(Once again, a big thank you to Skraut, Jeff, Angelique, and several other Lake Erie season ticket holders who were good enough to answer questions while I was working on this story.)