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Triple-A hockey is the ticket in Oklahoma City, CEO says

BY MIKE BALDWIN Published: April 28, 2013
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Four years ago Bob Funk Jr. made a commitment to bring Triple-A hockey to Oklahoma City.

Funk is CEO of Prodigal, which runs the Barons, the Triple-A team for the Edmonton Oilers.

In their third season, the Barons rank near the bottom of the American Hockey League in attendance. Funk, though, is confident the fledgling franchise eventually will develop the type of fan base that will provide hockey stability in the market for years to come.

The primary reason Funk disbanded the Oklahoma City Blazers, a popular Central Hockey League team that had a successful 17-year run, was Funk believed the majority of OKC sports fans prefer Triple-A hockey.

“This community and hockey fans deserve it first and foremost,” Funk said.

“We’re going to provide high-level hockey and be involved in the community. This was a long-term investment for us to do the right thing for Oklahoma City.”

Edmonton pays players’ salaries. Funk assumes the financial risk for the franchise.

The Oilers signed a five-year deal that runs through 2015 with the city of Oklahoma City and Prodigal.

NHL Hall of Famer Kevin Lowe, the Oilers president of hockey operations, anticipates picking up the option to extend the deal through 2018.

“We’re very pleased with everything we have here,” Lowe said. “We really love the city. I mean that wholeheartedly. It’s very similar to Edmonton. What drives the economy (oil and gas) and the people are very similar. A little less snow.

“Our players really like it here. That’s the most important thing.”

The Barons have averaged between 3,500 and 4,200 fans their first three seasons. To try and boost attendance, Funk in recent months made two significant hires, two businessmen with extensive minor league hockey experience.

Jon Beilstein, executive vice president of sales, was hired in August.

Beilstein brought in Sam Bays, who spent seven years in the Dallas Stars system. Bays will oversee ticket sales.

Beilstein, who was instrumental in building a successful AHL franchise in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the key is selling the overall experience.

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