Oklahoma City has a rich Triple-A hockey tradition.
From 1965 to 1982 the city served as the Triple-A affiliate for NHL teams in Boston, Toronto, Minnesota and one season with Calgary.
But a lot has changed in OKC the past three decades between Triple-A hockey teams.
Oklahoma City fans are devoted to the Thunder, a widely popular NBA team.
Prodigal CEO Bob Funk Jr. runs the Barons. His family owned the Blazers for a dozen years but disbanded the Central Hockey League team four years ago. Funk replaced them a year later with the Barons, the Triple-A team affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers.
“What you've seen in this community the past two decades is higher standards for what we expect of ourselves and how we spend our money,” said OKC Mayor Mick Cornett. “I think the days of that Blazers' phenomenon are long gone.
“The city is a new place. It may seem the same buildings and same city, but it's not the same city. The challenges are different.”
The Barons, in their third year, averaged 4,155 fans their first season, but attendance has dipped to 3,500 this season, last in the 30-team American Hockey League.
“I think a lot of it is the euphoria of the Thunder. It just is,” said OKC city manager Jim Couch. “The Barons have a very strong, loyal base that's passionate, but the competition is tough.”
Getting fans to devote time to attend a hockey game or two each season is Funk's biggest challenge.
The Thunder has 41 regular-season home dates, plus the playoffs. Fans support the Sooners, Cowboys and school activities. Remington Park and casinos are additional entertainment options. So are the RedHawks once the spring season arrives.
Amid stiff competition, the Barons are attempting to build a new fan base. The Barons constantly send team representatives to schools and use digital media outlets.
“We're aging out of the hockey demo that's traditionally been here in Oklahoma City,” Funk said. “They started back in the '60s and '70s and started coming back in the '90s (with the Blazers). Those fans can only live so long. Some of them retire or move out of state.
“We've seen attrition from our Blazers season seat holders and our overall fan base. Now we have to actively recruit people in their 20s, 30s and 40s and their families. We're essentially attempting to grow a whole new base of hockey fans probably in one of the most challenging times.”
During the Barons' first season, Funk hired a marketing research company to measure hockey interest in Oklahoma City. Results indicated 200,000 people within a 50-mile radius like hockey.
“They've identified how big the market is for hockey,” said OKC special events manager Tom Anderson. “They have it down to the ZIP code. They know what their target demographic is. Prodigal is in it for long-term stability, but everyone would like the end result to be accelerated.”
Barons coach Todd Nelson is from Canada where a community's hockey team is their version of the Thunder, Cowboys or Sooners.
“The Thunder and OU and OSU football always are going to be boss here,” Nelson said. “But I've discovered when people do come to a game they enjoy it. We have a great base of hockey die-hards here. We just need to expand that.”