116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CORALVILLE — This is a bold venture, to be sure, putting a professional hockey team in a relatively small market with a big university, daring to offer 36 nights of sports that doesn’t involve anything called the Iowa Hawkeyes.
You can’t gauge the long-term prospects of the Iowa Heartlanders by their Opening Night, but what you can say with certainty is that the 4,017 people in 5,100-seat Xtream Arena Friday night were enjoying the new kid in town.
They immediately adopted the Heartlanders as their own, cheering hard for them and having no time for those miserable wretches known as the Kansas City Mavericks.
The enthusiasm was immediately heightened when the home team’s Ryan Kuffner, a Princeton graduate who played in Germany last year, scored 25 seconds into the game.
Friday’s crowd was a collection of hockey hard-cores who trekked a distance to get here and local newbies to the sport.
“I can’t believe how fast they are,” I heard a member of the second group say. Before the game, people in the first group could have told them that was what they would witness.
“It’s fast-paced and physical,” said Rene Perez, who made a 4 1/2-hour drive to Coralville with her friend, Jennifer Van Velzen. Both are from Independence, Mo., the city outside Kansas City that is the Mavericks’ home.
The two wore Mavericks jerseys. One had the name “Thelma” on the back, the other “Louise.”
“There will be about 50 of us here,” Van Velzen said before the game, and sure enough, the Mavericks were well-represented.
Is this what will happen in Iowa City-Coralville, with people gung-ho enough about the Heartlanders to follow them to other ECHL outposts like Kansas City and Kalamazoo?
First, the team must endear itself to the public enough to fill its own arena. So far, so good.
“I think the crowd enjoyed it,” Heartlanders President Kevin McKenna said during the final minutes of his team’s win, which featured fans gleefully singing “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” to the Mavericks.
“We’re going to have to put a competitive product on the ice and continue to refine our entertainment product (between periods and during timeouts). We’ll work hard to do that and try to carve a niche in the market.”
The arena is perfect for this. Every seat is close to the action. Concession stands and restrooms are near every seating section.
“It’s great to see River Landing packed,” said Dr. David Gugliano of Coralville, a Heartlander jersey-wearing hockey fan whose Family Dental Center is partnered with the Heartlanders. “Between the Hawkeyes and this, it will be a fun winter. I think this will be a slow burn with people once it catches on here.”
Many of the people here Friday had already caught the burn. At least eight different NHL teams had their jerseys worn by fans, as well as the now-defunct Quad City Mallards, a minor-league team that had the Quad Cities enthralled two decades ago.
Presumably, everyone wearing Cedar Rapids RoughRiders jerseys were at the Riders’ game in Cedar Rapids at the same time as this one. Their Friday crowd at ImOn Ice Arena was 1,232. The Riders have returned after being on hiatus last season because of derecho damage to the arena.
The Riders’ franchise has been an enduring one, dating to 1999, but has never had hockey competition in its market until now. The Heartlanders and Riders will play on the same night 14 more times between now and April.
Sports winter in Iowa City-Coralville, however, means Hawkeyes men’s basketball, women’s basketball and wrestling. The first always draws five-digit crowds, and the latter two have big preseason buzz and two years ago, their most-recent season with fans allowed to attend.
Does that leave enough room for the Heartlanders? It just might. In a spot where some fans left the arena Friday, a security person was thanking them for coming and asking them if they had a good time.
The answers were resoundingly positive, with people assuring him they would be back.
Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, hello.
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