READING, Pa. – Perhaps the hockey gods were big fans of the ECHL’s westward expansion.
Something about the Double-A hockey league has caught the fancy of the higher beings, because they’ve sent their blessing this way.
“Certainly, I think this year the stars are aligned more with us,” said ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna. “Last year it was like Murphy’s Law.”
During the 2003 Kelly Cup playoffs, none of the league’s top eight attendance leaders advanced beyond the first round.
The 2004 postseason has already made up for last year’s bust.
Not only did seven of the eight highest-drawing teams make the playoffs, but the attendance leader in three of the four divisions has reached the conference finals.
The ECHL couldn’t have asked for a better final four.
Florida, second behind eliminated Alaska in average postseason attendance with 5,648, sold out TECO Arena Friday for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Reading. The league’s regular season attendance leader for the past four seasons drew a record-setting crowd.
Idaho, one of six former West Coast Hockey League teams to join the ECHL this season, sold out its Bank of America Centre Saturday against Gwinnett in the Western finals, giving the league four sellouts this postseason after it had failed to fill an arena last year.
Ranking third in playoff attendance with an average of 4,610, the Royals are an integral piece of the success story.
They may be attracting more than 700 fewer fans than during the regular season, but smaller draws for the playoffs are the norm in minor league sports.
“Reading has done a great job,” McKenna said. “We know they have a very solid fan base, and we’re very encouraged with the numbers we’re seeing.”
Playoffs are a tougher draw in the minor leagues because nearly half of a team’s season ticket holders don’t purchase postseason packages.
Of course teams also have significantly less time to sell individual tickets and group packages, which accounted for approximately 800 tickets per night for Reading during the regular season.
After winning Sunday’s Game 3, the Royals started their 72-hour sprint toward trying to sell out Wednesday’s Game 4, another elimination game for them.
After averaging 4,458 in their first four playoff games, the Royals and the league were encouraged by their highest draw of 5,217 on what turned out to be a warm and sunny Sunday.
This playoff crowd has been hard-core, knowledgeable and very, well, purple as the majority in attendance wear a Royals logo.
While Reading coach Derek Clancey and his players have praised the Royals faithful all season, they admit they’re a bit surprised they haven’t seen more seats filled for the team’s first playoff run.
“The way these fans here embrace hockey, I thought it would be sold out every game,” said defenseman Dean Arsene. “Even though we have, say, only 5,000 in the stands, our fans who do come are pretty active, pretty loud, which does make up for the empty seats.”
The Royals sold 1,200 tickets Monday, their biggest sales day of the playoffs, and have 4,000 sold for Wednesday, still about 2,500 away from what Clancey would like to see.
“You see the difference in their building in Game 1 and Game 2,” Clancey said of the 2,500 more fans Florida attracted from its first game. “Our fans, even with 5,000, they’re loud.
“With 7,000 in the playoffs, it would be just stupid.”