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IN DEPTH: Welcome to Condorstown

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers
Nobody has more fun.

That’s the marketing slogan of the Bakersfield Condors. But it’s more than just a slogan. It’s a guideline for minor league hockey in the Southern Californian valley.

The Condors are known for fun promotions which catch the eye of the entire hockey world. Promotions like Seinfeld jersey night, which had the players dressed in puffy shirts with names on the back such as “ASSMAN”, “KRAMER” and “CRAZY JOE DAVOLA” were talked about on nearly every sports media outlet out there.

There have also been on-ice incidents like an actual condor getting spooked during the anthem and flying into the team’s bench, which has a regular appearance on Top 10 highlight reels. Or publicity stunts like having a parrot sing the national anthem.

Bakersfield entered into the Oilers universe after the team purchased the ECHL organization in January 2014. Then in January 2015, the American Hockey League announced a new Pacific Division which would consist of five brand-new teams based in California. Suddenly, the Edmonton Oilers were very closely linked with the most fun hockey organization on the planet.
Hockey in Bakersfield has come a long way from the now ironically-named Bakersfield Oilers of the semi-pro Pacific Southwest League. The Oilers gave way to the Bakersfield Fog, who played in a theatre-style setup at the old Bakersfield Convention Center. The Fog played in the West Coast Hockey League and eventually became the Condors.

“We’re going into our 18th season,” said Condors President Matt Riley. “I’ve been there the whole time. I came out to Bakersfield when there was a hole in the ground and they were building what was then Centennial Garden and what is now Rabobank Arena. I was in the West Coast Hockey League, the ECHL and now the American Hockey League.”

The Fog were really the first shot at professional hockey in the Bakersfield area and they had some name recognition with their first head coach being Wayne’s brother Keith Gretzky. But hockey didn’t truly take off until the Fog became the Condors.
A live condor gets loose during the national anthem at a game in Bakersfield several years ago. (Condors TV)
“It’s crazy to see how well it’s gone with our fan base and how ingrained in the community we are in Southern California, which obviously is not indigenous to hockey,” Riley exclaimed. “Now you’ve got people that came to Condors games as kids and now they’re adults and they have kids. And that’s pretty cool to see that evolution and how that works through the generations.”

Getting the fans to buy into hockey in the first place in a region where it was largely an unknown sport was a difficult task. And that’s where the promotions came in. Riley borrowed from his background in Minor League Baseball and applied it to hockey.

“I worked in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Mobile, Alabama (among other places). Minor League Baseball is very focused on the promotional side, family entertainment and community involvement. That’s kind of where I came from. When we came out to Bakersfield, we took those same concepts and it’s just a different game. Instead of baseball, it’s hockey.

“In Bakersfield, especially 18 years ago, there’s only X number of hockey fans and to rely on those hockey fans to sustain yourself just wasn’t practical. We were really focused on the community. At the beginning you do jersey giveaways and things like that to draw fans out and to draw families out. Then after awhile, you keep pushing the envelope and do more things. We were the first team to do a Mr. Potato Head giveaway where he was dressed in hockey gear and he had a black eye.”

The Condors continued to push the envelope more and more as they strived to get creative with some of their promotions.

“We always want to see what other teams are doing and then tweak that so it works for us. We were probably one of the first teams in the States to do a Teddy Bear Toss and now it’s awesome. Things like that throughout the year, we’re really proud of. Especially jerseys.

“A lot of the speciality jerseys are geared towards the military and U.S.A. and patriotic enthusiasm. We like to say Bakersfield isn’t Hockey Town, it’s Condorstown. People might not necessarily be hockey fans, but they’re Condors fans and that’s how they’ve grown up.”
The Condors have had a Teddy Bear Toss night for 17 straight seasons. (photo by Mark Nessia / Condors)

Some of those jerseys really put the Condors on the map, gaining national media attention. One of the more well-known was last season’s Seinfeld jerseys. Riley gave some insight into how the idea for that particular promotion came about.

“We do brainstorm a lot. A lot of it is things that are going on in the world. The Seinfeld night came from a few of us at night texting back and forth with some ideas, watching TV and watching an episode of Seinfeld. By the time you know it, you come into the office the next day with 20 ideas and you’re ready to roll and we’re all excited about it,” said Riley. “How can we one-up ourselves? What can we do better than somebody else is doing or what can we do better than what we’re doing?”

Some of their more eye-catching stunts included offering a contract to Canadian singer Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson jerseys (with one white glove) and a Charlie Sheen night which offered “Tiger Blood” Margaritas and free admission to any fan who provided a clean drug test.

But the Seinfeld promotion truly highlights the Condors tenure in the ECHL with not only having the team wear “Puffy Shirt” jerseys, but also a marble rye shootout in the intermission, a chuck-a-puck with a Festivus Pole as the ultimate prize and post-game interviews conducted by Wendel Meldrum, the actress who played the “Low Talker” -- Kramer’s girlfriend who convinces Jerry to wear the puffy shirt.

Bakersfield had truly mastered the art of minor league hockey at the ECHL level. For them, there was only one place to go: up.
This season, the American Hockey League went from zero teams in California to five as a major shift in league geography saw the addition of the Condors, San Diego Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, Stockton Heat and Ontario Reign.

“It’s something that was largely driven by the NHL California teams,” Riley stated. “The Ducks, Kings and Sharks. They’ve had their AHL affiliates on the other side of the United States, which isn’t ideal. To have your top prospects in close proximity is always a plus. They kind of drove the train and with Bakersfield being owned by Edmonton and being on the western half of the continent (it made sense).”

The addition of five teams as opposed to one or two also made sense as it enabled the California teams to not only have a much easier travel schedule, but also a reduced schedule overall. The California teams only play a 68-game season with final league standings calculated by winning percentage and not total points.

“You can’t have one team out west or even three teams out west, you need a group to make it work,” Riley continued. “So it just kind of evolved and the timing was right. We got some great markets with Bakersfield and Ontario and Stockton. It was great to get San Diego back because they were a rival of Condors for so many years. So many great games and match-ups and now to have them as a rival, it’s great for our fan base.”

The Condors President also added that the addition of the American Hockey League markets to the region has helped to increase the NHL’s footprint in the area as well.

“The NHL awareness is so much more in markets like us and San Diego. They’re not only paying attention to the Kings, but the Oilers, the Ducks and all those rivalries.”

The transition to California from Oklahoma has been positively well-received by the players and coaching staff as well.

“The fans, the support we’ve received, the front-office staff. It’s gone from one good setup to another good setup. It’s been outstanding,” said Condors head coach Gerry Fleming. “The travel is outstanding. We’re so centrally located in Bakersfield. Our furthest trip is four hours away. We don’t have as many flights; we don’t have (any) three-in-threes which is good. It allows us to do a little more video and a little more teaching. Guys get their rest. You can’t understate the value of rest. Hockey’s a tough, demanding game. Not only physically but mentally. To be able to step back that extra day to regroup and recharge and let your body heal has been important to us.”
The San Jose Barracuda are one of the five new California-based AHL franchises this season. (Mark Nessia)
Condors captain Ryan Hamilton spent a couple of seasons in Oklahoma City and has been pleased with the transition to Bakersfield.

“It’s been great. Bakersfield is a great city. We’ve gotten really great fan support. My family and I are very happy. We’re really enjoying our experience and same with the other fellows,” Hamilton said. “A lot of California road trips so we’re at home a lot, which is nice.”

Defenceman Jordan Oesterle echoed the comments of his captain.

“City-wise, it’s been a bit of an adjustment. Oklahoma City there’s a lot to do. It’s a big city but a small atmosphere,” he said. “It was nice to have things to do whenever you wanted but it’s been nice. All of the guys are liking Bakersfield. It’s a little bit warmer. But travel-wise it’s been night and day way better. Oklahoma City it was like we were getting on a plane once a week, travelling all day to play (places like) Charlotte. Our closest bus ride was Austin and that was five hours away. And now our longest bus ride is four hours.”

The fan response in Bakersfield to a higher level of hockey has also been extremely positive, according to Matt Riley.

“The hardcore fans get it, the folks who come all the time. It’s going to be an ongoing educational process. We have seen a little bit of a spike in attendance and so-forth. All that is good and I look forward to seeing that continue as the education process continues to realize how awesome this is that this is in Bakersfield. 25 years ago there wasn’t even ice available and now you’ve got a team that’s one step away from the National Hockey League,” Riley began.

“Ever since we learned we were going to be a part of the AHL it’s been a continuous education process. You know, ‘hey we’re one step away from the NHL.’ These guys are going to be playing in Bakersfield one night and then the next night they’re going to be playing at Staples Centre or playing at Rexall Place.”

And certainly, Condors fans who have tuned into the Edmonton Oilers have seen some great contributors who are familiar faces already. Leon Draisaitl has been one of the NHL’s top power forwards since joining Edmonton from Bakersfield and many nights Darnell Nurse is logging the most minutes on the Oilers blueline.

“The future is so bright for the Oilers and the fact that former Condors are a part of it and are going to continue to be more a part of it.”

With already nine players having shared time between Edmonton and Bakersfield this season, another notable milestone to achieve was becoming the first American Hockey League team to skate in a game outdoors in California.
60 years ago, the thought of major professional hockey being played in California was a pipe dream never mind the thought that there could one day be a professional hockey game played outdoors in the most populous state in the U.S.A.

In 1967, the Los Angeles Kings and California Golden Seals (based in Oakland) joined the National Hockey League. The Seals later relocated but the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks eventually joined the Kings in the Golden State.

Then in 2014, the Kings faced the Ducks at Dodger Stadium in the first outdoor game in California. The game was so successful that earlier this year, the Sharks and Kings squared off at Levi’s Stadium.

With the success of the two NHL games, and now with the league’s new Pacific Division established in California, it seemed like a no-brainer to have an AHL outdoor game in California.

“This event will be a special showcase for our Pacific Division in its inaugural season,” said David Andrews, AHL President and Chief Executive Officer when the event was announced. “We look forward to this celebration of hockey outdoors and to sharing the experience with the terrific hockey fans in Northern California.”

In order to execute an outdoor event in California, you need to have ice. And while the NHL has turned outdoor ice-making into an art form since the Oilers held the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in 2003, the outdoor events in the AHL are run at the team level and not the league level. As a result, the host Stockton Heat needed to find their own icemakers. They did just that by bringing on RS-IceSports and Entertainment. Owner Rich Cubin talked about his company’s experience with making outdoor ice.

“Just about every year, we do two to three major events. We also did the NHL All-Star rink last winter in Columbus. That was the first time we introduced our ice slides. When we do the full event, and the event allows for it, we like to bring the whole winter experience to one location. And part of this event, and the brand Golden State Hockey Rush, was to do that for California,” he said. “I came up with the concept to really showcase California hockey – both recreational and professional – and move this around (each year).”

The game is the primary showcase for the ice rink in Sacramento but it’s part of a six-week hockey event called Golden State Hockey Rush.

“This isn’t about millions of dollars and pounding sponsors and all that other stuff,” said Cubin. “We make things affordable, we make things fun and we make these guys coming up through the AHL, give them a shot at an experience they may not get even if they go to the NHL. And even rec hockey, adult leagues, the fan foundation. Making it affordable for them to play so they don’t have to charge tens of thousands of dollars for an hour.”

The ice has been in since about November 20 but the process to add it started about two weeks before that.
A wide-angle look at the rink in Sacramento. (photo by Marc Ciampa)

“We’ve done it in shorter amount of times but I’d say the safe number, with a moderate staff level is two weeks,” Cubin explained when asked about the length of the ice-making process. “When you’re initially setting up your ice surface, mother nature does play a role. You typically cannot start making ice during the day in excessive sunlight or heat.

“The first thing we would do is identify and level the surface. It doesn’t have to be perfectly level, but within tolerance – about an inch off. When the surface and surface type is levelled – sometimes we do a foam foundation, sometimes we have a stage. Here, we were fortunate enough that the ground was level enough we put it right on top of the grass. It saved a lot of time and saved a lot of money and gave us the strongest ice surface you can have.”

From there, the ice crew added the water and 135,000 linear feet of refrigeration piping.

“After that, we put the boards up. After the boards are tied in and the refrigeration is tied to the rink and the chiller. Then we start the cooling process and start adding water – lots of water,” he laughed.

“We try to maintain as close to the same standards as indoors as we can. But the biggest challenge about an outdoor rink is adapting to the weather. Our chiller system is a lot more responsive than something you would have indoors. Even though it’s a temporary system. We can even bring the heat up a little bit if it’s too cold.

“There’s no cruise control for this type of situation.”

Cubin was asked about the process of creating ice in a warmer climate such as California as opposed to one that’s colder such as Boston or Detroit.

“Everyone always assumes with California, the battle’s going to be the warm, versus Boston (as an example) where we know it’s going to snow,” Cubin began.

“It’s a changing environment. Right now, we’ve been extremely cold in the evenings. We’re working in full snow gear here, in Northern California. Where in Boston, they were experiencing 75-to-80-degree weather. Here, we know we’re not going to get snow and if we did it would be an extremely rare case. But every venue has their challenges, whether it’s the field preparation, power, sight lines and then mother nature. That’s why this is reality TV and that’s what makes it exciting because no matter what the conditions are, both teams have agreed to play – as long as it’s safe – against each other and whatever nature throws at them.”

And nature certainly did throw a lot at the two teams.
Originally scheduled for Friday night, a constant downpour of rain in Sacramento that day caused the game to be moved to Saturday. Then on Saturday, warmer weather resulted in the sun melting the rink – particularly in the darker spots such as the red line and blue lines.

Ben Scrivens stands in the rain during Friday's delay. (photo by Mark Nessia)
“The only thing that matters with rain and snow is puck movement,” said Cubin. “On the other side of that, too, is visibility. When it’s just snowing like crazy, the players can’t see. If it’s snowing or raining excessively, the puck doesn’t move.”

The ice crew certainly worked overtime to keep the rink dry during the rain on Friday but the rain didn’t let up enough to get the game going. On Saturday, the crew covered the lines with snow to try and prevent the sun from melting the darker spots on the ice. At 2:00 it looked like the game was going to be delayed again due to the soupy condition of the ice, but some outstanding work by the ice crew had both squads on ice for warm-ups at their scheduled 4:00 p.m. time.

“We do what we can. We’ll do multiple resurfacings, the ice crew will come out and do maybe two or three extra snow clearings. But it’s whatever it takes. It’s all hands on deck and, again, everyone involved agreed to the terms so it’s a full team effort.”

It is accepted by both teams that the on-ice conditions won’t be perfect. Condors captain Ryan Hamilton played in one of the eight other AHL outdoor games back in 2012 between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Southern Ontario.

“I remember at Ivor Wynne the conditions were really bad. It was windy and the ice was getting pretty chopped up during the game,” Hamilton recalled. “I remember one corner was almost unplayable. It was almost to the point where we were debating, both teams, putting a pylon there. It was kind of an unwritten rule that if the puck is in that corner you go in hard then you slow down like old school, waiting to get the puck out of the snow bank.”
The ice crew covers the lines several hours before warm-ups to try and stave off the melting process (photo by Tom Gazzola / Oilers TV).
For this game in Sacramento, players were very pleased with the ice conditions.

“When I first heard we were doing it I wasn’t sure how it was going to go down,” said Oilers prospect Kyle Platzer. “I didn’t know how the weather was at this time of year down here. I’m really happy with the ice. I thought it was awesome. For the weather we got, I thought they did a great job.”

The Condors got off to a quick start as Platzer's centring pass from the corner of the Stockton zone bounced in off a Heat player in front and past Stockton goaltender Joni Ortio only 5:12 into the contest.

The ice continued to be very good as the period continued, with the biggest issue at the first intermission being the glass fogging up which is how it stayed for the remainder of the game despite everyone's best efforts to clear it off.

Stockton got back on even terms with 7:25 to go in the second period while on the power play. Derek Grant's shot from the right circle beat Ben Scrivens through the five hole after the Condors netminder had to quickly slide across to try and gobble up the rebound.

After two periods, shots on goal were 30-19. Stockton outshot Bakersfield 12-8 in the period with most of the Heat's shots coming in the latter half of the frame.

Stockton took the lead with 12:34 to go in the third period. Oliver Kylington whipped a low wrist shot five-hole past Scrivens to make it 2-1 for the host Heat.

That lead was doubled just over three minutes later. From the high slot, Drew Shore wired a shot top corner blocker side to put Stockton up 3-1. 

Platzer's second of the game made things interesting. His shot beat Joni Ortio top corner glove side with 3:38 to play in the contest. Following the goal, a penalty to Tyler Wotherspoon with just over two minutes to go gave the Condors a great chance to tie the game late but Stockton managed to kill it off and ultimately win the game 3-2.

Watch game highlights and Tom Gazzola's game story with post-game reaction.
“It was definitely one for the old memory bank,” Hamilton said after the game. “It was a pretty neat experience. Clearly we’re upset. We wanted those two points. Stockton played good. They’re a hard-working team and they deserved to win. In saying that, it was a crazy three days here. I think it was good team building, team bonding on the road. Especially last night, waiting to see if we were going to get it in. Then even today (with the improving ice conditions.”

Hamilton and his Condors teammates were very impressed with how much the ice improved throughout the day from the time the club arrived on site around 1:00 until they took the ice for warm-up only three hours later.

“They did an amazing job. The ice was good once they got it up and running,” he said. “All the credit to the rink staff. They did an amazing job. A bunch of us, we showed up early and were preparing for the game but on the other hand we were wondering how in the heck are they going to get this working.”

The ice essentially went from being a swimming pool to comparable with indoor rinks in terms of overall quality in a very short amount of time.

“It was amazing what they did. As soon as we took warm-up we knew it was going to be a good outdoor game and that’s what it was.”

Indeed, Stockton was able to host what turned out to be a very good outdoor game in Sacramento. If and when Bakersfield gets the opportunity to host one of their own, the bar has been set as far as American Hockey League outdoor events.

But, of course, you know that Condorstown is up for the challenge.
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