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ECHL GROWING BY LEAPS AND BOUNDS

ECHL GROWING BY LEAPS AND BOUNDS

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During the 1980s, betting on the eventual success of the East Coast Hockey League was akin to a wager on the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl.

And similar odds would have accompanied a bet on the successful return of minor league ice hockey to the Greensboro Coliseum.Although there is no instant payoff on such gambles, Greensboro Monarchs owner Bill Coffey appears to be winning his two-bet parlay. With Season No. 2 just around the corner for the Monarchs, they are the locally popular defending champions of a prosperous and growing ECHL.

A few years ago, there were any number of reasons why skeptics felt the struggling ECHL was unlikely to take off.

How could they expect Southerners to embrace the lowest professional brand of what was traditionally a Northern sport? A sport in which virtually all the players and coaches hail from Canada or the northern tier of the United States.

Not only that, but minor league hockey owners are subject to numerous economic obstacles that have been removed from the path of their baseball counterparts.

An ECHL team is required to scout, sign and pay its players, coach and trainer. In addition, it must cover their travel expenses. By contrast, a Class AA or Class A minor league baseball team like the Greensboro Hornets has none of those concerns. Its major league affiliate pays the salaries and expenses of the manager, at least one coach, a trainer and 19 players on a 25-man roster.

Playing facilities and concessions represent other significant balance-sheet differences between the two sports.

The Coliseum charges the Monarchs a rental fee equivalent to 12 percent of their ticket sales. The Coliseum also pockets all concessions and parking profits. The Hornets, on the other hand, pay a flat annual rental fee of $15,000 at War Memorial Stadium. They are entitled to all profits on concessions estimated at $3-4 per spectator and parking fees that total at $300 per game. Not only that, but the Monarchs play less than half of the Hornets' 72 home games.

Consequently, the price of hockey tickets is significantly higher than that of baseball tickets and a hockey owner can afford few promotional discounts.

All those factors lengthened the odds against the ECHL and its owners.

Yet, as it turns out, a strong market for hockey has emerged in this part of the country during the last couple of years.

As recently as the 1988-89 season, the ECHL numbered just five teams. Then it expanded to eight, including the Monarchs.

Now, three more franchises have been added for the coming season in Cincinnati, Louisville and Richmond, bringing the total to 11.

Three additional teams in Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Richmond have enlisted to join in 1991-92. And Coffey says the league has room for two more before reaching a ceiling figure of 16.

The expansion fee charged this year's new owners was $100,000. Last year's figure was $50,000. Two years ago, it was $25,000.

``The league took a giant step last season,' Coffey says. ``Its total attendance figure was 918,000 and six of the eight teams made profits.'

The ECHL's Hampton Roads expansion franchise drew 192,000 spectators to Norfolk's Scope. It was the fourth-highest attendance figure in minor league hockey last season. The Monarchs finished with a total of 114,000, helped along by their success in the playoffs.

``There was no question about adding a Richmond franchise after we played one of our home games there last year,' Coffey said. ``A crowd of 9,000 showed up to watch Greensboro play Knoxville. Cincinnati and Louisville are the kind of cities we want to attract to lend more prestige and credibility to the league.'

The 11 ECHL teams will compete in two divisions during the coming season. The Monarchs will join Winston-Salem, Nashville, Knoxville, Louisville and Cincinnati in the Western Division. Hampton Roads, Richmond, Vinton, Va., Erie and Johnstown will comprise the East.

Coffey is no less enthused about the next round of expansion.

``Bill Allen, who used to own the Charlotte Checkers in the old Eastern and Southern Leagues, wants to bring a team back to the old Charlotte Coliseum,' Coffey said.

``Miles Woolf is leading the Raleigh-Durham group and they'll play at Dorton Arena until they can build a new facility.'

Still considered the lowest level of pro hockey, the ECHL is aiming to overtake the International League in the pecking order. Coffey points out that the IHL has created travel expense problems for itself by spreading franchises from Albany, N.Y., to San Diego.

And what does the restructured league bode for the Greensboro Monarchs, who will open their training camp Oct. 16 and their schedule Oct. 24?

Coffey, understated by nature, was cautious in approaching his team's debut a year ago. But since Greensboro's acceptance gained valuable momentum during its playoff run to the 1990 championship, he is less guarded in his optimism for the coming season.

``Our season ticket sales have risen from 350 last year to 1,000 so far this year,' he said. ``We've been able to double the size of our office staff and Jeff Brubaker is no longer a rookie coach when it comes to scouting and signing players.

``Most of last year's players have moved up and I don't expect more than three or four will return. John Blessman is the only one I feel sure will be back.

``So I don't know if we can carry the trophy off the ice again. But I'm confident we'll be competitive and we're aiming to average 4,500 in attendance and 150,000 for the season.'

For now, at least, the ECHL and Coffey are beating the long odds established by the skeptics in the not-so-distant past.

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