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The Iowan Daily | Iowa Heartlanders develop hockey in Johnson County

Tiffin resident Isaac Helgens said he became a hockey fan by accident. As a child, he saw actor Alan Ruck portray the character of Cameron Frye in the 1986 film. Ferris Bueller’s day offwearing the jersey of Canadian professional hockey player Gordie Howe.

“I was like, ‘I have no idea what sport this is, but this is the coolest jersey ever,'” Helgens told the Daily Iowan in the Xtream Arena lobby during an intermission. “And then later I found out what it was and watched the games and loved it.”

Helgens was one of the first people on the Heartlanders ticket list. And he wasn’t the only Johnson County resident who was thrilled that a professional hockey club had come to Coralville.

Trisha Bartz lives in Coralville but grew up in a hockey family in Waterloo. Stephen Freeman, another Coralville resident, grew up as a Los Angeles Kings fan in Southern California.

Illustration by Isaac Goffin. Photo by Daniel McGregor-Huyer.

They are some of the Heartlanders’ biggest fans, following hockey long before the Heartlanders existed, and they are the foundation of the niche fanbase that makes the franchise enduring.

But the franchise needs new hockey fans to thrive, because Coralville – unlike St. Paul, Minnesota or Detroit – is not Hockeytown, USA.

Despite its opening night single-game attendance record, the franchise struggled to top the 2,000-per-game mark.

Of 27 ECHL teams in North America, the Heartlanders’ average of 1,961 people per game is the second-lowest attendance in the league. Wednesday games typically see fewer than 1,500 spectators, but the Heartlanders have drawn more than 2,200 on Friday and Saturday nights since late January in an arena that holds 5,100.

For comparison, Iowa’s men’s wrestling program averaged 14,905 fans in the 2021-22 season as it sold out all of its duels. ECHL’s average attendance for the season is approximately 3,898 spectators.

The organization is executing a plan to publicize the Heartlanders throughout the region.

“Because we’re a freshman team, the progress is so tangible,” Heartlanders community relations coordinator Jordan Cue said. “You really started with nothing. So everything we’ve built, the fanbase we’ve built, is because of the hard work of the staff and the players.

The Heartlanders are involved in several initiatives to make a name for themselves in the community, although COVID-19 restrictions put some events on hold earlier in their inaugural season.

Whether it’s meeting skaters at a local Pizza Ranch, intricate player interviews at the Brick & Iron restaurant in Iowa River Landing on Monday nights, the pen pal program at Coralville Elementary School Central or the Learn to Play Hockey initiative. for kids at the Scheels-sponsored Coral Ridge Mall, the Heartlanders are finding ways to bring new people to Xtream Arena.

Data visualization by Lillian Poulsen/The Daily Iowan

It helps the franchise that players who attend these events are happy to represent the team. Fan favorites like strikers Yuki Miura and Kris Bennett and defenders Adrien Beraldo and Alex Carlson enjoy meeting the team’s small but developing fans and taking pictures with them.

“We have a great fanbase here,” said Beraldo, who is from Hamilton, Ont. “It’s only the first year the team has been here and you can already see that everyone loves hockey. The atmosphere when the building is packed is great. I think for years to come it’s going to be a great place, and the fans will keep coming, and there will be more too.

After a fight between Carlson Mavericks and forward Mikael Robidoux in a game on December 27, Helgens designed a Carlson t-shirt with the phrase “Kung Fu Carlson”, which he then sold to other fans. Carlson said in a post-match interview that he had a chuckle with the jersey.

“From what I hear, every player our fans have met and read about on social media, they’ve been nothing but kind, generous, [and] come to terms with the fact that, you know, we have a team in Coralville,” Heartlanders fan Rik Zortman said.

Zortman is a Heartlanders fan who was not a hockey fan before the franchise existed. After watching the opening night theatrical performance from two rows behind one of the goals, he decided to purchase half-season tickets. Next season he will own full season tickets.

Gugliano, the dentist who works in Coralville, has always been interested in hockey, but he never had a team after spending most of his life in Johnson County and struggling to find live games in television.

Today, hockey is a family affair with his wife and four children, and he can’t help but go to games or talk about them. He estimates that 80% of what the family posts on Instagram is hockey-related.

“There’s either hockey in the background, or a hockey puck in the background, or we’re in the arena or whatever,” Gugliano said.

Illustration by Isaac Goffin. Photo by Jerod Ringwald.

As someone who earned his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in dental surgery from IU, Gugliano is still rooting for the Hawkeyes. But he hasn’t followed them like he has for the past 20 years due to his newfound support for the Heartlanders, which he says came 100% from knowing the players when he made adjustments to mouthguards and saw how polished they were.

With the region’s youthful population that includes a high concentration of families and students, Heartlanders target those between the ages of 20 and 40, while other ECHL franchises are known for an older fan base due to their local demographics. About 60% of the Heartlanders fan base comes from the local market, said Mike Pence, vice president of ticket sales and marketing for the Heartlanders.

“We want Xtream Arena, we want the Iowa Heartlanders to be the place to be,” Pence said. “When, you know, Wednesday there’s a game, or Saturday or Sunday, that’s the place to be.”

When the Heartlanders play at their rink, officials have provided entertainment outside of the official contest, such as riding the Zambonis during intermission. During the last game, children – and a soon-to-be married woman – circled the rink.

The Heartlanders have also held specialty jersey nights, such as Pride Night or DC Comics Night, and those who attend can bid on players’ jerseys after the game. If they get the highest bid, they receive the jersey and meet the specific player after the match.

Season ticket holders and group sales are essential for any minor league sports organization. Ahead of the season, Pence said the Heartlanders’ main goal was to sell season tickets, which kept them behind on group tickets.

But in the second half of the season, Pence said the Heartlanders were ahead of where they were with group sales compared to the start of the season, noting that it takes one to two months to complete these transactions. .

“We appreciate everyone who comes out,” Pence said. “We probably have one of the rarest fanbases that sticks around until the end of the game whether we win or lose, which is great.”

Even when the arena can accommodate half of its 5,100 capacity, the barn’s compactness makes the crowd sound feel like it’s at full capacity.

McKenna said COVID-19 had hurt the franchise group’s sales. He saw more individual sales in his inaugural season, but he expects that to change next year when there are still big groups. The organization has gained a better understanding of where it needs to go for community marketing, and now more Heartlanders gear has been spotted in the area than before the season.

The Heartlanders, while seeing their fanbase grow, aren’t aiming to become like the Fort Wayne Komets or the Toledo Walleye, their division rivals.

These clubs are the biggest winter sports attraction in the metropolitan area and have an average attendance of around 7,000 people. Heartlanders organizers recognize that Hawkeye Athletics — especially football, basketball and wrestling — will always be the talk of Johnson County.

Instead, Heartlanders are there to supplement UI teams as another entertainment option for the locals. They are a missing piece of the puzzle of the only major North American sport not represented by a Hawkeye college program. McKenna said the organization views December through the end of the regular season as its window.

“The response we’re getting from the crowd has been positive,” McKenna said. ” And it’s good. There’s a community spirit here that isn’t present in every market, and that’s encouraging.