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AHL exhibition draws over 5,000 to Civic Center

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AHL exhibition draws over 5,000 to Civic Center

By GREG BROWNELL, brownell@poststar.com

Sunday, October 1, 2006 7:48 AM EDT

GLENS FALLS -- It was the most unusual -- and most important -- preseason game ever held at the Glens Falls Civic Center.

The once-hated Albany River Rats hosted an American Hockey League exhibition game on Saturday at the Civic Center in which the total attendance held far more value than the final score.

For the record, the River Rats beat the Bridgeport Sound Tigers 4-1. But the real story was the attendance -- a standing-room-only crowd of 5,026. It was probably the largest crowd for a preseason game at the Civic Center since the 1980s, if not the largest ever.

The turnout was significant because the game was billed as an opportunity to show the hockey world that Glens Falls would support another AHL team. Although no person or team has publicly shown interest in coming to Glens Falls, this was seen by many as a catalyst for starting the process of luring a new franchise.

"I'm grateful to the community for showing up to the game," Civic Center Executive Director Suzanna Bernd said. "This is an important step."

The Civic Center will go without a resident hockey team this winter for the first time since it opened in the late 1970s. The Adirondack Red Wings of the AHL played there for 20 years and the Adirondack IceHawks and Frostbite of the United Hockey League occupied the building until last spring, when they ceased operations.

For the River Rats, this was an opportunity to win over some of the area's hockey fans (the team was introduced as "your" Albany River Rats, a strange sound for anyone who followed the Wings/Rats rivalry in the 1990s). River Rats President Garen Szablewski said the team has already sold about 50 season tickets to those who used to follow the Adirondack teams.

"What our goal really is is to provide alternative hockey options until something else becomes available in Glens Falls," he said.

Landing an AHL team is likely to be a complicated process, and perhaps not an easy sell for a small town. It would involve finding an owner, a franchise and an NHL affiliate.

"In my opinion, AHL is the best option for Glens Falls because of what they were used to for 20 years with the Red Wings," Szablewski said. "I think it's difficult for the core hockey fans to accept less than American Hockey League level of play. Whether the numbers will ever work or not is something an owner and the AHL would have to reconcile. If they could attract crowds like this on a regular basis, it could be worthwhile."

Preseason games at the Civic Center during the past few decade or so had attracted only minor crowds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. But Saturday's game got a boost from those who saw it as a showcase.

About 1,000 tickets were bought and distributed by local businesses as a way to show community support. Szablewski estimated that something more than 1,000 of the fans were current River Rats fans who drove up from the Albany area. That means up to 3,000 tickets were bought individually by area fans.

That's a very encouraging figure, considering that it was a preseason game played by mostly unknown players. The only recognizable person on the ice was referee Chris Brown, a native of the Glens Falls area who is working his way up the officiating ladder.

It was a mixed crowd dotted with fans wearing jerseys of several teams -- the River Rats, the Red Wings, the Frostbite and various NHL teams. If there was any resentment about the River Rats having outlived the Red Wings, it never showed. The crowd cheered the River Rats' goals.


With the loss of the Adirondack Frostbite UHL franchise in June, this is the first season since the Jimmy Carter administration that the Glens Falls Civic Center has been without a hockey tenant.

A look at the teams that graced the rink.

Adirondack Red Wings

American Hockey League

1979-80 through 1998-99

Adirondack IceHawks

United Hockey League

1999-2000 through 2003-04

Adirondack Frostbite

United Hockey League

2004-05 through 2005-06

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I was at that game and it was one of the best games I've been to in a very long time. It was amazing how the Albany fans and Glens Falls fans came together to cheer on one team in a preseason game. I really hope they get a hockey team back for next season.

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Why did the Adirondack Red Wings fold anyway? I remember there last game against Rochester in the playoffs had only 1,000 people. :(

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The main reason is that Adirondack was owned by Detroit and they wanted to move the franchise closer to home. At the time there was a new arena planned for Rossford, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, which was destined to be the new home of the Red Wings' AHL franchise. For various reasons, Detroit management decided to take the team dormant for a season rather than play a lame-duck season in Glens Falls. The arena was never finished, so one year turned into a handful, and eventually the franchise was sold to a partnership between the San Antonio Spurs and the Florida Panthers, moved to San Antonio and became the Rampage. Meanwhile, Detroit hooked up with Grand Rapids, making for a nice in-state affiliation.

The writing had been on the wall for a few years, though. Some blame the Rats for canniballizing the southern part of the A-Wings' fan base. Others blame the growth of the AHL in which the small markets that had been its core (including a handful of Canadian Maritime teams) were slowly pushed out in favor of bigger cities like Philly and a bigger overall footprint (which translated to higher travel costs). In my mind, the real reason was a growing neglect from Detroit, much like the Devils did to Albany. For a couple years they even had a split affiliation with Tampa Bay, which had terrible prospects at the time. The fans smelled the BS and started staying away in droves... and eventually the plug was pulled.

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