As anybody that witnesses it, hockey is a great sport. A great sport to play, a great sport to watch and our goal's been to get people to try it. We've done a lot of things to get people here and sometimes it's something other than the hockey. Then they get here, they see the sport and fall in love with it, which also helps grow it.
Grow the Condors brand, the Oilers brand and the sport of hockey in general while continuing to increase our value to the community. There's a pride factor in there but also, it's just good for the citizens who live here and in the surrounding areas.
That's been the plan and that's why sometimes we're a little bit outside the box.
We want people to experience the game and at the end of the day, have an enjoyable time for their entertainment dollar.
A Central Valley city with hockey history, fuelled by oil production and agriculture. Home to 380,000 residents, honky-tonk bars and the American Hockey League's Bakersfield Condors. Birthplace of the Bakersfield Sound, a form of country music cultivated in the 1950s pioneered by artists Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
A Kern County township kept amused by both artistic and athletic acts. The sound of the city lives at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, a music venue and museum along Sillect Ave. On Thursday, the Bakerbilly Sound perform. They close with Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield" while nearby, at the Rabobank Convention Center where the Condors play, The Great 48 Bluegrass Jam begins. Groups gather in the hotel's lobby and elevators, jamming hour after hour even if fire alarms sound.
An area with a desert climate, providing competitive hockey as civic entertainment for almost as long as the Bakersfield Sound has strummed. The Bakersfield Oilers first arrived on the South Cali hockey scene from 1940-42. In 1962-63 it was the Bakersfield Kernels of the California Hockey League, skating at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, a theatre with an awkward setup. The Bakersfield Fog of the West Coast Hockey League entered the WCHL as one of six original members in 1995. The Fog rebranded in 1998, moving into Rabobank Arena as the Bakersfield Condors. The club remained in the WCHL until 2003 when they joined the ECHL. In 2015, as part of a new AHL Pacific Division expansion, the Condors were announced as the Edmonton Oilers AHL affiliate.
A non-traditional hockey market with non-traditional modes of advertisement. Responsible for developing hockey careers, forging community ties and evolving minor-league promotions. If 20 years of Condors hockey has proved to people anything, it's that marketing, entertainment and fun are not exclusive.
Charlie Sheen and Puffy Shirt Night. Star Wars jerseys, Lord of the Rings jerseys, prison inmate jumpsuit jerseys and Santa Claus jerseys. Hosts of Let It Fly Fridays, where fans toss packaged undergarments onto the ice following the first goal of the game, then have it donated to local charities. An organization that offers provocative giveaway items like plungers and rolls of toilet paper stamped with rival logos on them. A club whose in-house hype man is Phyllis Hansen, the Dancing Granny. At the third TV timeout of every third period, she gets up and busts a move, gaining enough fanfare to earn her own bobblehead night.
This is the Bakersfield Condors, the organization that has the most fun.
And this is Condorstown.
Bakersfield Condors President Matthew Riley finishes chatting about the history of the Condors. He's divulged into the 20-year minor-league past of the team and his two decades with the organization. He's touched on his foray into minor-league baseball, including his time with the Chattanooga Lookouts and Mobile Baybears. He's talked about what he learned from his prior experiences, like how to a promote AA or AAA competition and the unique approaches taken to do so.
He pops up and looks left, to the dark wooden shelf against his office wall, grabbing objects from the top level. First, Mr. Potato Head geared in hockey equipment. "We did the first-ever Mr. Potato Head hockey version, complete with the black eye," says Riley, moving on to other items in his vicinity. They happen to be bathroom accessories, giveaways at past home games. "The toilet plunger with the Stockton logo on the business side," says Riley, pointing to the placement of the logo, "that's very important."
He hides behind a Charlie Sheen cut-out face for a second then shows off a small, unadorned aluminum stick. It happens to be the Festivus Pole from Seinfeld Puffy Shirt Night. He places it down then palms a signed red, white and blue volleyball. When USA Olympic beach volleyball silver medallists Jennifer Kessy and April Ross visited, the Condors created a court on the ice and built the event as the first-ever on-ice beach volleyball game.
Condorstown became Charlietown on Charlie Sheen Night. The idea popped into Riley's head at the gym, when every TV in front of every treadmill, bike and elliptical displayed the actor. Tiger blood margaritas were served and bowling shirts were encouraged. Those who could provide clean bills of health got free tickets to the game.
Seinfeld Puffy Shirt Night paid homage to the sitcom's "The Puffy Shirt" episode. The Condors wore ruffled, pirate-like jerseys from the show. A Kramer impersonator acted among the crowd and player name bars read 'Jackie Chiles,' or 'Low Talker,' and other fictional character names.
The five-year anniversary of Cirque du Condorstown is this February. when the Las Vegas Wranglers rolled into Condorstown on Feb. 8, 2013, The club simulated the worldwide theatrical production of Cirque du Soleil by presenting contortionists, hanging aerialists and stilt-walkers to the game. A real condor, named Queen Victoria, was on hand at the event and raised mayhem during the national anthem. The vulture dropped from its perch to the ice, then flapped its way to the Condors' bench, eventually exiting through the dressing room tunnel.
"The condor will be back," said Riley. "We'll see what Queen Victoria does."
By now, it's not uncommon knowledge: the Bakersfield Condors know how to promote, and many of the club's marketing ploys have received publicity -- national and international.
"We've certainly got a lot of coverage," said Riley.
Charlie Sheen Night drew reporters from LA and when the franchise half-heartedly offered Justin Bieber an AHL contract, it circulated around Europe.
"Some of the ideas you throw out and think, 'This is going to be the greatest idea in the world,' and then it just duds," said the Condors' president. "Other stuff, you're like, 'Yeah, I guess.' The Bieber thing was one of them… All we did was put out a press release saying we're going to offer Justin Bieber a contract because he had practiced with the Leafs. We were getting texts and emails from people not only the United States and North America but even Germany and Europe."
Who could forget the Condorstown Outdoor Classic, the second outdoor AHL game played in California? It went viral when the Condors and Ontario Reign played through a second-period downpour. Neither club threw in the towel, so despite drenched equipment, the show went on. "It doesn't rain in Bakersfield or very rarely does it rain," recalled Riley. "So, we have a two-and-a-half-week event and it rained almost every day. It was good because we ended up getting a tremendous amount of exposure with it going viral. On the other hand, it kept a lot of people away."
The zany marketing tactics aren't intended to create media buzz. They have, and sometimes do, but the driving force behind the organization's unique ideas are to enliven hockey within the community and grow the sport.
"It really came from the need to be successful in a southern, non-traditional market," said Riley. "There's not a lot of people that play hockey and there's not a whole lot of traditional hockey fans per capita. So, how do we get fans? We can't relocate people. We have to turn them into hockey fans and Condors fans."
Hockey's established itself in Kern County. In a city that's doubled in size over the past 25 years, the opportunity to continue spurring involvement and excitement remains.
"They've always been good at bringing in kids' programs, celebrities and special events," said Alan Tandy, City Manager of Bakersfield and a season-seat holder for over 20 years. "The thing that's got more heavily underway this year is appealing to young audiences and adding to the audience space. Growing it from a pure family and kid orientation to a product that's enjoyed by young adults as well."
As a result of over many years of operation as a Californian hockey franchise, the organization has developed its identity.
"We don't call it 'Hockeytown,'" said Riley. "That's taken. We call it 'Condorstown.' A part of that is the community involvement and the stuff we do with schools, in the community, charities and the promotions.
"It all ties in."
"As a market, it's great for the American Hockey League," said Bakersfield Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming, sitting in one of the city's newest spots, Cafe Smitten. "It's had a minor-league pro team for 20 years now and we're celebrating our 20th anniversary."
Bakersfield is an area of agriculture and also a farmhand. Yes, the band Korn hails from the city and yes, the county produces an abundance of crops, but the organization itself cultivates hockey careers of prospective National Hockey League players. The current Oilers roster features a handful of former Condors. Jujhar Khaira, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl and Jesse Puljujarvi are among them. They've traveled the development path of the AHL, applying what they've learned to the NHL.
Many Condors from the current roster hope to do the same. Young rearguard rookies Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha have joined the professional ranks for their first full campaign this season, handling big minutes from the get-go. They became members of Edmonton's franchise based on their potential and are guided by the Condors' staff.
"All the good habits that a good defenceman needs to have in order to be successful are the things we try to teach them," said Fleming of the three blueliners. "To keep the game as simple as possible, to move the puck quickly and to go back for pucks quickly."
Making the jump to pro means going from facing 16 and 20-year-olds to primed professionals. For most prospects, growth is developed in the minors and helps the transition to the NHL level.
"These guys, and most guys, have had success either at the college ranks or at the junior ranks and have probably been the best players on their team at that point," said Fleming, detailing the intricacies players endure. "They've gotten away with things that they're not going to get away with down here because there's separation between the really good players of those levels and the marginal players -- huge separation. The gap gets tighter and tighter between those type of players the further you go along your professional career.
"Understanding that the things you got away with in junior or college ranks, you're not going to get away with. Trying to break those habits through a lot of teaching, a lot of video and a lot of trial and error."
Residents of Condorstown have watched players come up the ranks.
"The most exciting thing about that for me and the other fans is looking at Edmonton's box score and seeing five, six or seven guys that used to be here," said Tandy.
"Some nights, I've seen as many as five points scored by former Bakersfield players. People here enjoy tracking it and following through, watching the career development of people we used to watch here in our town."