The Oklahoma City Barons' timing couldn't be better to be the Triple-A affiliate of an NHL team in the midst of a youth movement that's gaining traction.
During the NHL lockout, the Cox Convention Center will be home of perhaps the best minor league hockey team this season.
But how much will a roster stocked with Edmonton Oilers' first- and second-round draft picks help attendance?
Oklahoma City finished 26th in the 30-team American Hockey League last year in attendance.
Barons' officials are unsure how much of a spike they'll get from rising NHL stars such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.
“It's certainly brought a lot of attention to our team, no question about it, with prospects like that down here,” said Jon Beilstein, the Barons executive vice president of sales. “It should help, especially for people that know the level of hockey that's going to be played in Oklahoma City.”
Beilstein, who was hired during the summer, was instrumental in rebuilding attendance in Grand Rapids (Mich.), which had the benefit of a new arena.
The Barons averaged 3,684 fans last season. They sold around 1,900 season tickets and will be about the same this year.
Beilstein's focus is long term. He said the key to steadily building attendance is to put on a show.
“We're introducing some people to hockey for the first time,” Beilstein said. “Above and beyond the hockey, what we have to do is work very hard to make sure the overall experience on and off the ice meets and greets our fans.”
Using the slogan “Think Outside the Ball,” the Barons will give away a dozen cars, including a Dodge Challenger at Friday's home opener, plus an additional 11 cars at every Saturday home game.
The team is trying to get businesses, schools and others to give hockey a try.
The Barons are bringing in entertainment. They've scheduled theme nights. There will be additional giveaways.
“We'll add game elements like pyro,” Beilstein said. “What drives attendance, especially in markets like this, is the overall experience. If you have a smile when you leave, you can't wait to come back and maybe don't remember the score, then we did our job.”
There could be an attendance spike simply because the Barons' brand is entering the third season since replacing the popular Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League.
“When we got here a lot of people didn't know what we were, yet,” said Barons general manager Bill Scott. “They were used to the old team (Blazers) from the Central Hockey League. That name obviously had been branded around here for a number of years.
“People now know who the Barons are and that they had great success on the ice last year. Our office is doing a good job of branding our team and getting our players out in the community.”
Scott said he's seen similar situations in other markets.
“You wish in Year 1 you had 10,000 people at every game, but that's not the reality of minor league hockey. That's wishful thinking,” Scott said. “Historically, in most AHL cities, that's not the way it goes. Usually you build up.”
During the NHL lockout, American Hockey League games probably would be instant sellouts in Canada or traditional hockey markets in the U.S. In fact, some Edmonton fans might make the long trek to Oklahoma City to watch the Oilers' stars of the future.
Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini is confident attendance will improve.
“Bob Funk Jr., has done a great job of putting a marketing, sales team together that should take this group to the next level,” Tambellini said.
The bottom line: Edmonton officials are ecstatic with the partnership with OKC and Prodigal Hockey, which operates the Oilers-owned franchise.
“I'm so proud of the work that Bill Scott and (coach) Todd Nelson have done,” Tambellini said. “This is one of the most professional minor league teams that you're going to encounter.
“The players love it here. They'll speak to what it means to play in Oklahoma City. We have no difficulty recruiting (players) to come to this city.”
The subplot the next few weeks is whether Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle and a talented young team can impact attendance in the middle of football season and when the NBA's Thunder start its season.
We'll find out soon enough.
The Barons (1-1-0) do not hit the road again until Nov. 4. The home opener Friday night against San Antonio begins a seven-game homestand over a two-week span at the Cox Center.