Oklahoma City, OK - Just across West Reno Avenue from the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City is the Chesapeake Energy Arena. It's where the NBA's OKC Thunder call home.
As I walked to the rink on Friday evening to attend the Barons' opener of a four-game homestand, a party on the street's dividing line and entrance to the Cox Center was the area's main draw. Ramped up with live music, impromptu basketball games and the Thunder's blue and orange colours as far as I could see, I knew the Barons would be in tough to compete, attendance-wise, that night.
Once inside and I settled in my seat in the arena's press box, I glanced down at a crowd of 3,146. But to my astonishment, it seemed like much more. The Barons' faithful were a loud, rambunctious group that adores their team like no other I've seen. It was a moment in which I could see the potential growing before my eyes, as Oklahoma City's only hockey team has already captured the spirit of the state's die-hard fanbase.
Upon my arrival in OKC, I had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with Mayor Mick Cornett. Cornett was a longtime sports reporter in the area before being elected to the city's council in 2001, and later as the mayor in 2004. Like no one else I could speak to, he had the greatest pulse on his city's culture and underlying passion for the game of hockey.
"For all other sports, there's competition. But when it comes to hockey, the Barons own the market," Cornett explained. "I think that's the advantage the Barons have. For anyone who cares about it, they're going to generate that enthusiasm toward this one team. There's not a high school or college team, or really an NHL team that people gravitate towards, so they can put all their energy and enthusiasm toward that sport into them."
Football is the state's No. 1 sport, but basketball has made a charge since the arrival of the NBA in 2008. But prior to the Thunder's lease at Chesapeake, Oklahoma City had another pro hockey team play in the same building, routinely drawing crowds of 8,000+ as the CHL's OKC Blazers served the sport.
The team did well, on the ice (winning nine regular-season division titles, including seven straight, and the CHL's Ray Miron President's Cup in 2001) and in the stands, proving that the market does exist and that winning always helps.
"I think what would really help, long-term, is an extended post-season run," Cornett said. "In a case like that, you'll draw additional fans who might not go to a regular season game, but they hear about the playoffs and that might build a little enthusiasm. It's about bringing in that casual fan that might get hooked on the game. That's how hockey has worked here. The people that love hockey are adamant about it. They're not casual fans, they're into it.
"The Barons' opportunity here is to bring in more casual fans."
THE DIE-HARD FAN
The Oklahoma City Blazers originally existed between 1965 and 1977 and returned in 1992 (much like the Edmonton Oil Kings' recent reincarnation); that's when longtime season ticket holder Mark Hendrick became hooked on the game.
Hendrick grew up in OKC, but never much liked football. It's been hockey or nothing.
"The late start to the NBA season has certainly hurt the attendance this year," he said, looking out at the seating bowl prior to the Barons' Saturday night game vs. Grand Rapids. "Die-hard hockey fans are here on those nights when the Thunder are playing, but we lose the casual walk-in that might have come when there isn't a basketball game going on across the street.
"But I think attendance will pick up. It's a matter of time, and having a winning team always helps. Having a Calder Cup to cheer about would make it even easier."
The Barons currently average about 3,100 fans per game at the Cox Convention Center (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Hendrick has had season tickets since the 1960s when the Blazers were the Boston Bruins' farm club. He agreed that the level of play is better now than it ever has been, which means passion for the sport won't be hard to come by. As it stands, there's a simple missing ingredient that all Oklahomans can get behind.
"It's all about winning here in Oklahoma," he said with a laugh. "We've got a great team here. We've got a winning team with a good attitude. The more we win, the more people will talk about it. It's really tough with a winning basketball team across the street, but if it weren't for the success of the Blazers, I don't think we'd have a basketball team here at all, to be honest.
"The Blazers got off to such a great start and were very successful, but then Hurricane Katrina happened in New Orleans and that gave that team (the NBA's New Orleans Hornets) the opportunity to come up here and play. When they played here, they sold out all the time and Oklahoma got a taste for that. It set the stage for the Thunder to come in and reap the rewards.
"The Barons are on their way. A long post-season run and maybe a championship will bring people in, no question."
Like any upstart club, challenges persist; but advantages and the craft in grabbing hold of them will help guide the Barons' success. And there are plenty of opportunities to do so, argued the mayor.
"We're a city where the housing prices are very affordable, there's no road congestion and, interestingly, there's a lot of disposable income -- our salaries are above the national average and our cost of living is about 90-percent of the national average. So there's this income bubble and people have money for nice restaurants and hockey tickets.
"We're succeeding right now because we have a lot of highly-educated 20-somethings gravitating toward our city, who are looking to get out of an extremely hectic situation elsewhere."
Since the Barons' arrival last season, Cornett has attended four games and is a big fan, as you'd expect. He wishes he could attend more, but his duties (and time allotment) as the city's mayor, prevents that. But he still makes an effort to see as much as he can, while still upholding his professional obligations.
"I live downtown and I'm able to come over, so it's not unusual to poke my head in and see the nature of the game, the crowd and make sure the building looks as it should," he said. "We've put a couple million dollars into upgrading the building, so I have an oversight role. But I love the game, I love what the Barons are doing, and most importantly, I love how they've integrated into our community as local ambassadors."
"They've done some wonderful work in being part of our business community and they're very well respected in it," Cornett said. "People want pro hockey to succeed here. We want the highest level that we can support. The current relationship is something we're very proud of and we're protective of it. We want them to do well, we want to support it and we love to win championships. But sometimes that's out of our control."
In order to get to that championship degree, the right people need to be along for the ride, both on the ice and off. The Barons participate in several local programs, including Habitat for Humanity and other in-house ventures spearheaded by the organization and its players.
"We have a new program called Barons Buddies," said General Manager Bill Scott. "We've teamed up with the Special Olympics of Oklahoma, and three times a year we do various events. We've gone bowling, and we have a game coming up next week. That's been really, really good for our guys. Each player is assigned a Special Olympian, they're their buddies for the year, they hang out with them and they've really formed some special bonds.
"You kind of need to do it so you can get your name your name out there, but that's not our intention. The guys want to be involved in the community and get to know the people of Oklahoma City."
Bryan Helmer (right) tours the Barons locker room with a Helmer's Hero (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Other programs include the Barons Blood Drive, which happened on Saturday prior to puck drop vs. Grand Rapids, and Helmer's Heroes -- an initiative that Barons captain Bryan Helmer is proud to operate.
"Bryan has season tickets that he gives away to children with special needs, as they're in tough situations," Scott said. "They get to come to the game, watch in his seats and then get a tour of our locker room with their parents afterward. They absolutely love it and it really speaks to Bryan's incredible leadership.
"Bryan is a special, special player and a special person. He didn't have a place to play (last year). With a guy like that, it wasn't because guys weren't calling him -- he wanted to get into the right situation because he's in the later stages of his career. We were looking for a little more leadership in our locker room at that time, and he was a guy we had our eye on. He came in and really took over our dressing room, the team's attitude, and he brought the guys together. He's continued that again this year."
Helmer, 39, is a veteran of more than 1,000 AHL games; and just last season, he became the league's all-time leading scorer among defencemen. As a reward for his accomplishment and constant service to the Barons organization, an extra-special gift was presented to him and his family.
"When I broke the record last year, they gave us a trip to Disneyland," he said, grinning ear-to-ear. "That's one of the classiest things an organization has ever done for me. My time in Oklahoma City has been really, really good. I was sitting at home last year and they came calling, and I'm so happy they did. It's been an amazing experience and I couldn't ask for anything better."
Helmer is a veteran of 19 pro seasons, including a brief collection in which he played 146 NHL games between the Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals. He's also won three Calder Cup championships, and was awarded the AHL's President's Award for becoming the league's all-time top-scoring blueliner. Just as he'd been a leader in the community, he's a consummate pro in the locker room and on the ice.
"I want to show the younger guys how to be a pro; not only on the ice, but off the ice as well," Helmer said. "If they have any concerns, I want them to come to me so I can give them some advice about my experiences when I was younger. If they can take something out of that, put it towards their career and build on it, they can then take it to the next level, which is the NHL."
THE PEOPLE & PERSONALITIES
As Helmer alluded to, making the NHL is everyone's goal at this level. So when the Oilers declared a rebuilding process several years ago, Oklahoma City was a priority of equal importance to the orange and blue's on-ice success. In order to make both happen, skilled and experienced personnel needed to be in place to help make the transition and growth to the top as seamless as possible.
Matt Mitchell (right) has worked in pro hockey for 20+ years and in over 1,500 games (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Matt Mitchell, the Barons' Head Equipment Manager, is one of them. He's worked in the business for almost 20 years in various capacities, ranging across North America's three pro leagues (ECHL, AHL and NHL). As he explains, OKC has been a great landing point in helping to culture a winning environment among a league primarily dedicated to development.
"It's the best organization I've ever had the pleasure to work with," Mitchell said. "It's fun to come to the rink every day. For a couple years where I was working, it wasn't. We have a good time, we appreciate and treat each other with respect and that's good. It creates a great environment.
"I'm from Binghamton, New York, so it's a little far from home and I'd like to be a little closer, but that's okay. We have a six-year-old son and now he's settling in; we live in a neighbourhood about 20 miles north of here. There are kids everywhere and there are a lot of things to do. It's a nice place to live -- if you can get away from the tornadoes. I haven't seen any, but we had a little scare last year and had to go to the shelter for about an hour and a half.
"Other than that, the weather's unbelievable," he laughed.
Throughout his storied and extensive career in hockey (he recently worked his 1,500th game with a pro squad), Mitchell has seen it all. But perhaps most importantly, he's seen what it takes for a team to become one; to galvanize itself, grow and develop as a unit en route to better days. It's a tale not only told on the ice, but behind the bench as well. And it takes the right people, the right personalities, to make it happen.
"They saw what it was like to lose," he said, looking back at last season's opening-round exit in a six-game series loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs. "We lost as a team, probably a series that we should have won. Those guys had a bad taste in their mouth from Day 1 at camp and wanted to set out with something to prove this year, and it's shown.
"I can't say enough good things about (Head Coach) Todd (Nelson). We don't have enough time," Mitchell laughed. "I worked with some really good coaches in my 20 years -- Brent Sutter, Al Hill, Colin Campbell, I even worked with (Oilers Coordinator of Player Development) Billy Moores in New York when Kevin Lowe was a player there -- I've worked with a lot of coaches, but he's right at the top.
"They're players' coaches. The guys buy into the system real well and they listen to what they're preaching and what we're accomplishing. I've seen the other side, too, where coaches are real hard on guys. In this day and age, the game has changed so much that I think it's real important to have a coaching staff that's in tune with the players' game. I can't think of any other people I'd rather work for."
Assistant Coach Rocky Thompson writes out instructions during Barons practice (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
GM Bill Scott agreed, adding that his coaches needed to have that personable quality when working with younger players. So far, it's arrow-up as the Barons have eclipsed last year's win total with eight games to play (41-18-9) record, leading the AHL's Western Conference by an incredible eight points over the second-best Toronto Marlies.
"Amazing people, No. 1," he said of Nelson and assistant coaches Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson. "That's not always why you hire someone, but they're great people and they've got a tremendous coaching ability. They've done a phenomenal job with our group here.
[Nelson has] an amazing pulse for the locker room, he understands when the guys are tired, he understands when they need to be pushed, and he understands when he shouldn't lean on them quite so much, and he's really a great leader on our coaching staff.
"All of our coaches are very personable," Scott added. "Some teams employ the good cop-bad cop method, but we don't really have that. It's an open door policy with our guys, and it's an honest critique of their play, never anything personal. We've communicated that to the players, they've bought into it and they can approach any coach at any time and ask about their game; ask why they're not playing or not playing enough, and they're going to get a straight-up, honest answer and a way to improve so they can get back to playing how they want to."
The personable and open door policy that Scott, Mitchell and others touched on was showcased prior to Saturday's morning skate. Tyler Pitlick, who wanted some additional one-on-one time, requested that Fleming and Thompson help him with some game-simulated drills; the coaches obliged, working diligently with the 20-year-old for 15 minutes before his teammates hit the ice.
"I don't know if that's what I set out to do, but I hope that I am," Thompson laughed, noting his label as a players' coach. "When you be yourself, you can't go wrong. I was given great advice early on in my career: don't try to be someone you're not. I love being here, I love having fun, I love working out with our guys and I love practicing and teaching the game. This game is very important to me."
Thompson's pro career ended in 2007 when he notched a goal, eight points and 127 penalty minutes with the AHL's Peoria Rivermen. He also got the opportunity to skate in 25 NHL games between the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers, but his roots always tied back to the Edmonton Oilers organization.
So much so, in fact, that he played at Rexall Place as a member of the AHL's Edmonton Roadrunners during the 2004-05 campaign when the NHL was locked out. Since then, he's held assistant coaching positions with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings from 2007 to 2010, then moving on to the Barons when they set up shop last season in Oklahoma City.
Along with Fleming's extensive coaching resume and playing career, Thompson believes they provide the right spice and complement to Nelson's style as a head coach.
"He's a great guy," Thompson said of Nelson. "He's really good to work for and that's half the battle, not only from a player's standpoint in wanting to come to the rink, but as a coach, too. We want to come here and have fun. Winning makes it a lot easier, but it's pleasant to work with Gerry and Todd, even when things aren't going so well. We have a smile on our face, we can be hard when we need to be, but at the same time, we're always in control. We all think we complement one another very well. It's a great environment to be a part of and to work for, and I think that translates onto the ice as well.
"When you're having a good time at the rink, you work harder, your mind is clearer and you're not in a rush to go home at the end of the day or the end of the year," he added, noting that it's a philosophy shared by both the players and coaches. "You want to stay and accomplish what you started and set out to do at the beginning of the year. That's what wins championships and that's where we going."
Whether it's the veterans on the ice, behind the bench or in a manager's role, where they're going is up with the greatest goals in mind. And with the Barons holding the West's top seed and showing no signs of slowing down heading into the post-season, hopes and expectations are at their highest.
"We're playing really well right now," Helmer explained. "Our goalies have to be a big part of our post-season push. I've been on several championship teams, and on all three teams, our goalies have been our best players all three times. Both Yann (Danis) and J.P. (LeNeveu) are certainly capable of that. They'll rise to the challenge and they'll be there for us when we need them. We've got a good mix and we work really well as a team. When we do that, we can go a long way."
When the Oklahoma City Thunder debuted in 2008, riding the wave of momentum created by the New Orleans Hornets, they were the Western Conference's worst team, winning only 20 games. Ranked 28th in the NBA, the Chesapeake Energy Arena was only 78.2-percent full.
Today, they're the West's best team, packing the same building to 100-percent capacity each and every night while hundreds of others watch the game on a giant, outdoor HD screen on the arena's north side where the Cox's entrances are.
If what I've heard and have been told is true, the Barons will soon be playing in front of larger crowds in the very near future. But so far, the club has proven it's become one of the AHL's best organizations on the ice, off of it, and soon in the hearts and minds of Oklahomans as an appreciation for hockey is reborn.
All the right pieces, people and personalities are in place to make it happen.