It has been just over a year since the Worcester Railers were formally accepted into the ECHL to begin play for the 2017-18 season. The first puck drop at DCU Center is now in sight with less than eight months remaining until Opening Night.
“Reality has started to set in and there is a light at the end of the tunnel now that we are in the same calendar year when we will start playing,” Railers’ President Mike Myers said. “There’s excitement in the office every day which is all I can ask for. We’ve followed a very strict road map from the start and we are exactly where we planned to be when we got this thing started.”
That road map has included ensuring the team is front and center at as many events in central Massachusetts as possible.
“We unveiled our mascot, Trax, on July 30, and he has been to five or six events every week since then, well in excess of 150,” Myers said. “We took the approach from the get go that we wanted people in the community to think we were playing this season. So, we’ve been to every imaginable event with our staff and mascot and we’ve made donations like we were actually on the ice this season.
“We believe it is important to be relevant and to stay in the public eye every month.”
Helping the team to stay at the forefront of people’s mind has been the hiring of Eric Lindquist as the team’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing. Lindquist spent eight seasons with the Worcester Sharks of the American Hockey League, and that experience has served the Railers well over the last several months.
“We’ve had overwhelming support since day one,” said Myers. “One of the biggest hires we made was bringing Eric Lindquist in to handle the marketing and public relations. He was here with the Sharks and he has the contacts in the market to help us keep our name in the paper. We constantly have a story running somewhere thanks to all of his contacts. Everything that we have been doing has been leading up to keeping us relevant even though we are not playing this season.”
Another tactical decision made by the team’s management was to hire a coach in September, more than a year before the team takes the ice for the first time.
Jamie Russell brings a blend of professional and collegiate experience to Worcester serving as head coach of the Elmira Jackals for two seasons from 2014-16, and over 20 years of experience in the college ranks prior to that.
“We made a very calculated decision to hire a coach in September for a reason,” Myers said. “The biggest reason was to market to the hockey world and let people know that we are here. We put him to work right away in terms of locking up an NHL/AHL affiliation and he’s been scouting all year so that he can go into the free agent period this summer and know who he is going to go after and have his roster structure in place early.”
“A lot of my work early on was securing an affiliation, and now being a part of their discussions for the 2017-18 season in identifying players they would like to either sign themselves or assign to us,” Rusell said. “We’ve had great support from them so far and they will help to solidify our roster with some contracted players.”
That early work on the NHL/AHL affiliation allowed Russell to find the right fit for his coaching style, and kept Myers focused on the task at hand of building up the team’s business operations.
Russell’s work paid off as the Railers have secured an affiliation, which will be announced at the conclusion of the 2016-17 ECHL season.
The early hiring has also given Russell a head start on the scouting process for the Railers’ first squad. He has been hitting the road often since October, taking in as many hockey games as he can, and letting prospective players know what they can expect.
“I’ve seen upwards of 70 games this season, mainly college games in Hockey East, the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey, but I’ve also seen some ECHL games, mainly when the western teams have come to the northeast, as well as some AHL games,” he said. “Our message has been well received by everyone that I’ve spoken to. I’m just trying to get our message out to players and agents what our vision is, and that is to be successful and to ultimately bring a Kelly Cup title to Worcester.”
Both Myers and Russell sang the praises of Railers’ owner Cliff Rucker, who has worked tirelessly to give the Railers all the pieces they need to be successful both on and off the ice.
Rucker is developing a 38,000 square-foot facility which will not only include the team’s practice rink, but will also house multiple retail and restaurant facilities when it opens later this year.
“We really believe that Worcester is going to quickly become a destination city for ECHL players, Russell said. “We have five AHL teams within two hours of us which will help to facilitate call-ups, and the set-up here with what Cliff is doing with the practice rink and the apartment is phenomenal. Players will want to play here once they see all that we have to offer.”
Myers is appreciative of the support the team has received, not only locally, from around the ECHL as well.
“One of my biggest fears was coming into an unfamiliar league and not knowing anyone,” he said. “But the support we have received from the League Office to the Board of Governors has been phenomenal. I’ve been impressed with everyone that I have met so far and Cliff has been extraordinary and the city’s support has been great.
“The real fun piece is that it is not a hard sell right now,” he continued. “We are blessed with good corporate and fan support and Cliff’s willingness to take that approach has been key in our whole operation.”
As the days dwindle and the 2017-18 season gets even closer, the Railers will finally get to see all of their hard work pay off.