Hitting the Ice • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Hitting the Ice

Hockey isn’t a major blip on the radar of Northwest Indiana sports fans. But given the less than stellar seasons exhibited thus far by the NFL’s Chicago Bears and NBA’s Chicago Bulls—and spring training for the Cubs and White Sox still a few weeks away—fans might want to reconsider.

According to executives with Chicago’s two professional hockey teams, there is no reason why the region’s sports fans who love baseball, football and basketball can’t embrace hockey—even if they don’t know the difference between a blue line and face-off. Hockey is fast, it’s a contact sport, and like baseball it’s better appreciated in person than it is on television.

Chicago’s two professional hockey teams are ready to explain to new fans what a blue line and a face-off are, and even a power play. What’s more, both of them happen to be riding a wave of success right now.

The American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves are the defending Calder Cup champions (they also won in 2002 and won two Turner Cup titles when they were a member of the International Hockey League), and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks sport one of the youngest and best teams in the NHL this yea. The Blackhawks are in first place in the Central Division of the Western Conference.

Curt Gruber, vice president of business development for the minor league Wolves, says the team markets itself as a low-cost alternative to other professional sports.

“We are a cost-effective alternative,” says Gruber. “Hockey fans know who we are.” Gruber says he doesn’t know how many season ticket holders live in Northwest Indiana, but he considers the region a vital part of the team’s fan base.

The Wolves, who play home games in the 16,000-seat Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., north of Chicago near O’Hare Airport, draw between 5,000 and 6,000 fans a game.

“One thing we pride ourselves on is family,” says Gruber. He said the team promotes itself as a fun, family outing by offering a package of four tickets, four drinks and four hot dogs for $84. And at home Saturday games, the team hosts a free party for early arrivals.

Gruber says the Wolves have reached out to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well as other community and youth groups. The goal, says Gruber, is to turn a night at a Wolves game into an event.

With the Girl Scouts, for instance, Gruber said the team is putting together a promotion through the Calumet Council’s office in Merrillville. “There’s a lot of stuff you can do,” says Gruber, “and that speaks to the full experience of going to a Wolves game.”

He says he’s convinced that once first-time fans see a game in person they will want to come back. “There is no bad seat at Allstate Arena,” says Gruber. “Here, you can get closer to the glass for less money than anywhere else.”

The team, which is 16 years old, has won four championships, and that has helped the team market the Wolves, says Gruber.

This year, the Wolves are advertising heavily on Chicago television and radio (which is seen and heard throughout Northwest Indiana). In addition, Gruber says the Wolves have a marketing relationship with two Northwest Indiana ice rinks to promote youth hockey—the Midwest Training and Ice Center in Dyer and the Ice Box in South Bend.

Along with the experience at the arena before the game and between periods, Gruber says fans can see some pretty good hockey. One of the stars of the Wolves is Chris Chelios, a former NHL All-Star with the Blackhawks.

Dave Knickerbocker, senior executive director/marketing and business development for the Blackhawks, says there are plenty of hockey fans in Northwest Indiana.

Statistics compiled by the Blackhawks show that 3.5 percent of the team’s season ticket holders in the 20,500-seat United Center are from Northwest Indiana, while about 6 percent of single-game ticket buyers are from the region. The United Center, which also is home to the Chicago Bulls, is just west of the loop in downtown Chicago.

“We look at Northwest Indiana as a great opportunity,” says Knickerbocker. “We’ve noticed they are big high school basketball and football fans, but we think hockey is a perfect fit.” He cites league studies show that 92 percent of football fans also are hockey fans.

“Northwest Indiana is important to us,” says Knickerbocker. “Earlier this year, we had Ben Eager (a current Blackhawks player) and Stan Mikita (a retired Blackhawks player and Hall of Famer) out at a Gary SouthShore RailCats game for Blackhawks Night. They signed autographs, threw out the first pitch there and we had bats with the Blackhawks logo on them.”

The Blackhawks haven’t won the NHL’s Stanley Cup since 1961, but this year have concentrated on building a young, athletic team. So far, it’s paying off in wins and raising fans’ hopes for another Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks have won only three Stanley Cups since the team entered the NHL as one of the league’s original six franchises in 1926.

Since the start of the season, Knickerbocker says the team has signed its three top players—Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane—to contract extensions. Toews and Kane are just 21 and Keith is 25.

By locking the three stars up for five more years at a combined contract of more than $130 million, the Blackhawks have sent a message to fans that the team is willing to do what it takes to win.

And, says Knickerbocker, fans are responding. The team is averaging close to a sellout for every home game. Even with that increase in attendance, he says there are tickets still available, with upper level seats as low as $25 if purchased in advance.

“It’s been a tremendous year for us. These young players are the faces of our team. They get it. They’re just kids, but they’re good kids and they respond to the fans.”

The Blackhawks heavily promote the team on Chicago television, especially on WGN-TV and on Comcast Sports Chicago, a local network that covers college and professional sports teams.

“The numbers show our television audience is growing, and we think some of those people who experience the Blackhawks on television are coming to the games to experience it in person,” says Knickerbocker.

“All we need is for people to experience this product once and we have them,” he says. “When I’m asked about the demographics of hockey fans, I tell people we go after everybody. We have a very loyal fan base, and some of them have been with us forever.”


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