By Laura Dempsey
Dayton Daily News
DAYTON, Ohio – The Dayton Bombers aren’t just about hockey anymore. Truth is, the team’s been more than hockey for a while now, and though nobody’s saying win-loss records don’t count, for minor-league feeder teams it’s all about putting people in the seats and showing them a good time.
The Bombers feel the pressure to give their paying customers an experience above and beyond skidding pucks and flaring tempers. Like the ultra-successful Dayton Dragons, the Bombers’ front office does its best to fill the schedule with special events that appeal to their target demographic: Everybody.
It’s a tall order.
“Our goal is to make sure that every game is focused on constant entertainment — on the ice and off,” said Costa Papista, who’s in his third year of co-ownership. “For every game we’ve got different themes, different events going on.
“We’ve got more sponsors, more prizes and more giveaways — there’s going to be a lot more free stuff for fans, and a lot more interactive games.”
The ice is going to see less player-to-player interaction, however, as the ECHL refs start stepping up enforcement of the rules. It’s a new standard, reflective of what took place in the NHL, with the goal of opening up the game to let the skaters skate.
That makes it a better game, said Papista, himself a former defenseman.
“The zero-tolerance enforcement is in force this year,” he said. “Refs are not allowing the play of the game to be slowed down.
“Obstruction — clutching, grabbing, hooking — is gone. It’s not tolerated anymore,” he said. “Hockey has always been fast, but it’s faster now because players aren’t being picked and hooked and held like they used to. The players are flying; they’re in constant motion.”
There’s often motion in the stands, too.
“It’s semi-organized chaos,” Papista laughed. “One of the things that differentiates Bombers hockey from, say, the movie theater, is that at a hockey game you can let your kids run around and scream and yell. It’s OK. They’re not going to get in trouble.”
Ticket prices rival those of first-run movie theaters, too: Ranging from $12 to $25, each seat in the cavernous Nutter Center has a great view.
Kids, who are defined by the Bombers as anybody younger than 18 years old, get in for $8.
“Ninety-five percent of our seats are $12 – $8 for kids,” Papista said.
Another selling point is the team members themselves, hungry hockey players who know that fan bases are built from the trenches.
“In minor-league sports, particularly hockey, our players are extremely accessible,” Papista said. “They’re really good guys. We encourage our fans to meet the players after the game.”
Throughout the year, the Bombers stick around for “skating parties,” during which fans can hit the ice on or off skates, get a few autographs, and meet a few players.”It’s a free-for-all,” Papista said. “One of the key things is that you do not have to be a big-time hockey fan to really enjoy a Dayton Bombers hockey game.”