116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CORALVILLE — The folks that came to Iowa Heartlanders games this season had a good time.
Now the focus is on getting more of those folks.
The first-year ECHL club finished its home schedule last week with three games. It has been on the road in Texas for three this week and weekend against the Allen Americans to officially close season number one.
Despite not making the playoffs, there are positives. For one, Xtream Arena is new and by all accounts a good place to watch hockey.
“I attended opening night and several games throughout the season,” said Vaughn Costello of Iowa City. “The arena itself is phenomenal and has a great atmosphere when games are well attended. There is a good variety of ticket prices, and there really isn’t a bad seat in the arena.”
The game itself also is a draw, according to other fans. Hockey is best watched live, for sure, and many people in the south end of the Corridor have never been introduced to it.
It was surprising how many people said they’d never seen the sport live, despite a team (the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders) having been 20 minutes or so up the road for the last 20-plus years.
“I like the fast-paced nature of the game, really unlike any other sport,” said John Mathias of Iowa City. “There is constant action. The occasional fights are fun, the beer is cold, and we can go from our driveway to our seats to watch a professional sports team in about 10 minutes.”
The ECHL labels itself as Double-A hockey. Each team has an affiliation with a National Hockey League club, though there actually are very few players on ECHL teams who are property of NHL teams.
The American Hockey League is the top minor league in the sport, with many players on each team who already have played in the NHL. The Iowa Wild in Des Moines are in the AHL.
Below the ECHL is the Southern Professional Hockey League, of which the Quad Cities Storm in Moline, Ill., are a member. Contrarily, the RoughRiders are a junior hockey team in the United States Hockey League, younger kids generally 16 to 20 who are not paid in order to keep college eligibility.
“I attended seven or eight games this season for the Heartlanders,” said Nate Burrows of Cedar Rapids. “I honestly preferred going down to Coralville to see a hockey game rather than see a game in Cedar Rapids. The overall style of hockey is a better product.”
The Heartlanders are 26th out of 27 teams in the ECHL in attendance, averaging 1,961 fans in their 36 home games. Only Wheeling (1,653) is behind them.
Everyone else in the league averaged 2,000 or more, led by Toledo (7,332), Fort Wayne (6,818) and Jacksonville (6,333). Quite frankly, 1,961 fans per game is not going to pay the bills, but the franchise is committed to growing the sport in a non-hockey market.
“It’s a very unique experience,” said Heartlanders goaltender Trevin Kozlowski. “We’re obviously in an area that’s dominated by U of Iowa sports and everything. Credit to them for amazing programs and facilities and sports teams there. They always do well, regardless of sport. We’re kind of that niche little market with hockey. But the positive of kind of having that first-year team is that we’re building a lot of personal and close relationships with the fans.
“We want them to come out and support us, but we want to be able to make the experience enjoyable for them. That way they tell their friends about it and they tell their friends. etc. I’ve gotten to know some members of the community quite extensively, just by having the franchise be so open and willing to accept different people, people who may not have ever seen a hockey game before this year. So that’s been pretty special.”
Those people who had never seen a hockey game before this year agree that it’s been special.
“The product on the ice improved all season long, and was even more enjoyable as I began to know the roster better,” Costello said. “Their social-media team did a great job with promotions and updates, so it was easy to follow along, even if I didn’t attend. I was a very modest hockey fan before, but it’s safe to say the Heartlanders have grown my interest.”
“I don't want to take for granted what we have in Iowa City with Hawkeye athletics,” Mathias said. “But having a professional team in town is new, and it's fun.”
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