By Kyle Nagel
Dayton Daily News
FAIRBORN, Ohio — During the preseason, Matt Herneisen discovered his favorite local lunch spot in Kettering’s Mamma DiSalvo’s Ristorante, a relatively short drive from his residence at Stonebridge Apartments.
Even though the Dayton Bombers forward is playing his fourth season in the Miami Valley, he hadn’t yet discovered the Italian food hot spot. Or, frankly, the perks that come with success.
“The guy in there,” Herneisen said, “he always gives me and my girlfriend a free cookie.”
While the Bombers’ front office hopes that support comes in sold tickets rather than chocolate chips, the team’s backers say that a surprising run to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals and its most successful won-loss record in five seasons could set the foundation for increased interest and backing.
Playing in an area considered unnatural for hockey, the Bombers have survived for 16 seasons, but some rebuilding was necessary in 2004 after two straight non-playoff seasons created waning interest. Now, the team’s co-owners say they are on the verge of profitability.
From the team’s first game at Hara Arena in 1991 to Tuesday’s Game 4 of the Kelly Cup Finals, the Bombers have fought for a foothold in the local sports culture. Those inside and outside the team agree that the main method for creating such a fan base is winning games, which has Bombers players and personnel optimistic about the future.
“I’ll walk into a convenience store after a game with my suit on and people will ask what’s going on,” Herneisen said. “I tell them I play for the Bombers, and they really do seem more interested to hear that name than before.”
Costa Papista (pictured), who is familiar with rebuilding teams, and Don MacAdam, a former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach, purchased the Bombers from Cincinnati businessman Tim Reilly in the summer of 2004. The team was not in good shape.
“We had two previous ownerships that kind of hurt relationships in town,” said Don Kendall, a longtime Bombers supporter whose season tickets with wife, Marge, are just behind the Dayton bench. “I know Don and Costa had a lot of doors slammed in their faces before they got a word in.”
Papista became the team’s president and MacAdam took over as coach and general manager as the Bombers went 43-86-15 in their first two seasons with the club. Off the ice it wasn’t much prettier. The pair opened their stay in Dayton with about 250 season-ticket holders and six sponsors.
As on-ice success has improved, so have business prospects. The Bombers are making their second-ever appearance in the Kelly Cup Finals while Papista said the season-ticket list is close to 1,000, although still short of the 1,500 the ECHL says is necessary to finish the season in the black.
Although the Bombers averaged 2,012 spectators in their first nine playoff home games, 4,447 people watched Game 3 on Sunday night (the Bombers trail the Idaho Steelheads 2-1 in the best-of-seven series). An improved roster and better record —37-26-9 in the regular season — mean the team can continue to recruit more talented players and keep the business phones humming. Papista said he has talked with potential investors about joining the team.
“We’re going to be profitable next year for the first time since the team has been at the Nutter Center,” Papista said. “This year, we’re pretty darn close to breaking even. That might not sound fantastic to some people in the business world, but to make this team self-sufficient would be a big accomplishment.”
Rob Garfield already owned Yellow Springs’ Garfield Logistics Inc. when he met Papista and MacAdam soon after they bought the Bombers. After watching the team go 18-47-7 in road games from 2004-06, he decided to start another business.
Negotiating with a company in Lebanon, Tenn., Garfield purchased a charter bus as the activation for his Dream Catchers Coaches Ltd. He added six beds to the 15 that existed to go with all the amenities of a motel.
“It’s pretty much a rolling bunkhouse,” Garfield said.
His main client, of course, is the Bombers, and the team benefited with a 19-13-4 regular-season road record. More than a hockey team, Garfield sees the Bombers as a spark for local businesses even if they don’t view the Miami Valley as a hockey-crazy area.
“It just goes on down the line,” Garfield said. “They sparked my business by using the bus, then I sparked Clarke Power Service by giving them my bus maintenance business. These guys are local owners. Everything they generate stays local.”
The question, though, is whether this location can generate enough interest in hockey, on any level. Mike Schemmel, president of the Dayton Bombers Youth Hockey League, believes that it can.
Schemmel said there are about 500 players involved in the Greater Dayton Youth Hockey League, but the struggle for young players is choosing hockey over football, baseball or basketball because the season can stretch into the fall and summer.
“Most of us didn’t grow up with it,” Schemmel said. “We didn’t have frozen ponds sitting around.”
But those who do support the Bombers are some of the most vocal around. Patrons of Cadillac Jack’s near the Nutter Center learned that on Wednesday night when a group gathered to watch Game 1 of the Kelly Cup Finals.
“No question they’re fanatics,” said Terry Riber, Cadillac Jack’s general manager. “I think some people looked over and said, ‘Dang, that must be a fun team.’ “