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Burgeoning Barons

by Jen Sharpe / Edmonton Oilers
Todd Nelson was named Oklahoma City Barons head coach earlier this summer. His assistant coach, Gerry Fleming, will share duties behind the bench.

If Edmonton hockey fans are excited about signs the new NHL season is ramping up, imagine what hockey fans in Oklahoma City are experiencing.

The countdown is on for the start of the city's first American Hockey League season, and all hands are on deck as the organization preps for the historic puck drop.

The Oklahoma City Barons, the Oilers primary affiliate, are scheduled to open their inaugural season October 9, 2010, but there's more to playing pro hockey than setting the schedule and strapping on some skates. Arena upgrades, locker room renovations, ticket sales, staffing, and -- of course -- finalizing the opening roster are on the agenda.

According to Josh Evans, Barons Director of Communications, it's "very, very busy in Oklahoma."

"Every day that ticks by, it's another day where we've got to work and prepare and make sure our timelines are in order have all these items fall into place and be prepared for anything that's thrown at us," he explains. "We are re-evaluating everything that we did -- from the vendors that we used, to the program, to the way that we're going to shoot the games, to game ops -- everything gets looked at again, even if we think we did it really, really well, just to make sure that it is top notch."

With their renewed focus on prospect development, the Oilers have set the bar high for the Barons. Big names like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Linus Omark, and Chris Vande Velde are moving up the organizational ranks and Oilers management will rely on the farm team to foster their future stars.

Edmontonians may wonder how the team's young prospects will thrive in the southern city, but Oklahoma has a proud hockey history. Starting in 1965, the Oklahoma City Blazers played a combined 27 seasons in the Central Hockey League, drawing large crowds of hockey-hungry fans.

The Barons are confident residents will embrace the new team.

"There are a lot of interested parties that either recently moved here and aren't familiar with our history or are excited the American Hockey League is coming," Evans explains. "Some have lived here for a while and liked hockey but maybe didn't come to many games before and are looking forward to seeing the new product. We will have some people testing the water, so it will be our job to put on a good show.

"We'll see an increase in quality of play, speed, and strength in the athletes, and we want there to be a mirrored increase in our game presentation, customer service, and the way that we work with the season ticket holders. We don't control the show on the ice, but we know we need to entertain them from the minute they walk in the door."

The Cox Convention Center is undergoing many renovations to prepare for the inaugural Oklahoma City Barons season this October.
Customer experience is important to the success of any franchise, but many improvements are being done behind the scenes. To attain -- and surpass -- the AHL standard, Cox Convention Center is undergoing a complete locker room renovation, installing new ice-making equipment, and receiving a face-lift in other key public and private areas.

Barrie Stafford, Oilers Director of Special Projects, is overseeing the locker room renovations. With nearly 2,200 games over 29 seasons as Oilers Equipment Manager on his resume, Stafford is an expert on the set-up and deployment of an efficient hockey dressing room. From sticks to shaving kits, the work environment for Barons players, coaches, management, and training staff is being meticulously planned, organized, and implemented.

"The locker rooms were dated, and part of the agreement as partners with the Oilers was [Barons management] had to bring this locker room up to standard -- up to NHL standard is what I'm trying to do, in relative terms," says Stafford.

With the constraints of size and resources, the Barons dressing room will not rival the Oilers' den (which was renovated in 2007), but Stafford is eager to craft one of the best team facilities in the AHL.

"Our total space that we use is about 10,000 feet in Edmonton, which basically set a standard for a practical size for any NHL team," he explains. "For Oklahoma City, it's all relative. The square footage is about 4,000 feet, and then you can also add another 1,500 square feet for the weight room.

The Barons' home and away jerseys are unveiled in Oklahoma City earlier this year.
"The Manitoba Moose facility, that would set a standard for the rest of the League. We're going to be comparable to the Moose, maybe not in square footage and size, but as far as the standard of the room, the practicality of the room."

Stafford is earning his frequent flyer miles with over half-a-dozen trips to Oklahoma over the past few months, and while he sees changes and improvements on every visit, he insists he's most impressed by the people he meets. Barons staff are among the best he's worked with, he says, and the people around town are friendly and genuine hockey fans.

"I can tell you that right from the very first time I went to Oklahoma City, I could feel that there is a buzz in the air relating to hockey. There's a lot of excitement in the building, in the centre downtown, and they're very aware that the team is coming, that the AHL is coming. It's very encouraging to see," he says.

"The people in Edmonton would be impressed -- it's just a really cool place to be."

According to Evans, the Barons goal is to be a success on and off the ice and be a source of pride for Oilers fans and management.

"The potential exists for some great players to come through Oklahoma City, and we're going to do everything we can, with the way that they're treated in the community and within the club, to get them ready for the NHL," he says.

"We also know that the players who might be here may not be here for very long. It's going to be fun for us to talk about the possibilities that can exist for our team and for our fans. It's very exciting."

Stay tuned to throughout the coming season for updates on Oilers prospects in Oklahoma City.
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