Cover Story: Checkers power play
CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The Panthers didn't do so well. The Bobcats weren't much better. But we actually do have a playoff team.
The Charlotte Checkers are making a serious run at a championship. Who knew that Charlotte is a hockey town?
In case you haven't noticed, the Charlotte Checkers are good. Really good. The home team is making a run at the Calder Cup, the biggest prize in the American Hockey League.
Game four was Wednesday night in Uptown Charlotte.
Can the south really embrace hockey? There's a segment of the population that is and that piece of the pie is getting bigger. The caliber of play has certainly gotten better.
Almost by accident Charlotte got a hockey franchise 55 years ago and now they're on a tear.
Some call it football on skates. And fans eat it up.
Amid fanfare last year the owner of the Charlotte Checkers Michael Kahn announced he'd acquired an A-H-L team from Albany, New York. He was bringing them south and renaming them the Checkers letting go the East Coast Hockey League franchise.
Now, one step down from the National Hockey League and affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh (their logo is incorporated into the Checkers) it's brought a higher level of play to Time Warner Cable Arena.
Is the club making money? One official said, "We're getting closer to that opportunity."
And they're getting closer to selling out the arena which would have been unthinkable a few years back.
Average attendance now is 6,312 per game, which is in the top tier in the league. It's above where they were as an ECHL team (5,518 per game.)
On weekends the Checkers have had crowds that top 12,000.
Checkers Chief Operating Officer Tera Black says, "The product itself has sold itself. It's been phenomenal the level of play on the ice."
Corporate sponsorships are up 33-percent. Season ticket sales climbed 45-percent higher over last year.
And the Checkers reached out to the community in a way no other local pro sports team has raising money to buy a home for 11-year old Zach Bennett a boy with a rare genetic disorder whom the team adopted in Albany and moved him and his family south.
"This situation spoke to us very loud and clear. We needed to figure out a way to get those two entities back together and so we moved on it," said Black.
Though they'll never have the kind of punch the Panthers have on the economy, with 40 home games and thousands of fans in the stands Jeff Beaver of the Charlotte Sports Commission says, "You keep bringing in 5, 6, 7-thousand a night for home games here it adds up. It's not the biggest but it's very consistent and very important to the entire community."
But will the south embrace hockey? Checkers' original owner Carl Scheer added, "It's hard to get minor league hockey support at the playoff level. But if they continue to win through the finals.. you'll see the crowds come and the excitement generated."
And right now there's a ton of excitement.
Of Charlotte's four major pro sports teams the Checkers are the only ones to have won a playoff game in the last six years.
Right now they're up 2-1 in the second round of the playoffs in a best-of-seven series. There are two more rounds.
How did we get hockey by accident? 55 years ago the Baltimore Clippers arena burned to the ground. The team needed a temporary place to play. They came south and played in the brand-new Coliseum on Independence Boulevard.
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