From NYHJ: No identity Crunch in Syracuse
by David Satriano/NYHJ Writer
If you’re a fan of an NHL team, you stick with that team no matter who they sign or trade for, through the Stanley Cup-winning years and the last-place years.
But it’s a little different for fans of the AHL.
Take the Syracuse Crunch, for example. In the past four years, they have been affiliated with three different NHL clubs. And while the fan base has remained constant, it has been a challenge rebranding the team and making the necessary adjustments moving from one franchise to another.
The Crunch were affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets until 2009. For the next two years, they were a partner of the Anaheim Ducks. The current affiliation with Tampa Bay, which began this season, marked the Crunch’s third NHL affiliate in four years. But since chief operating officer Jim Sarosy had gone through a similar transition two years ago, this time he knew more about what to expect.
“From a hockey point of view, it is always changing,” said Sarosy. “From an administration point of view, we had three logo changes in four years with the different affiliates. There was a lot of time and effort spent branding our image. When we changed from Columbus to Anaheim, it wasn’t as big a switch — we just had a color update to the logo — but now when we switched from Anaheim to Tampa, we’ve rebranded entirely.”
Sarosy said that even a simple matter as the color of players’ gloves was something that needed to be changed when switching affiliates.
“When an athlete makes that step to the National Hockey League for the first time, you don’t want them to change their gloves and pants,” he said. “It was important to us that we managed that.”
After signing a multiyear deal, Sarosy said he would like the Crunch to remain partners with the Lightning for an extended period of time, and he believes the Lightning are a good fit.
“As our contract was ending with Anaheim, we had the opportunity to go to Tampa,” he said. “I think after our owner met with (Lightning assistant GM) Julien Brisebois and (general manager) Steve Yzerman, the decision in what we wanted to do was very clear. They are very knowledgeable hockey people and matched up philosophy-wise with us. As the talks continued, it became sort of a no-brainer that that was the organization that we wanted to go to.”
The next logical question is how the new affiliation affects the attendance at Syracuse games. While one might think the constant changing of teams and players would be a turn-off, they’ve found that many fans of the AHL follow individual players as much as the team.
“(The attendance) has grown over the past four years, which is something we are excited about,” said Sarosy. “When you’re a fan of an American Hockey League team, it is really a little bit different than being a fan of an NHL team or a Major League Baseball team, because you have to change that much more (each year). You are kind of used to 50-percent turnover on your roster. As the kids continue to move up the pecking order, one of the cool parts about being a minor league fan is that you get to follow them in all different markets, not just in Tampa.”
Matt Taormina, who signed with the Lightning this offseason and has been playing with the Crunch during the lockout, has been around the AHL hockey scene in New York more than most. As a member of the New Jersey Devils, he played in Albany, and he played for the Binghamton Senators prior to that. He said if the first Syracuse Crunch home game was any indication, the attendance should be just fine.
The Crunch were averaging 5,247 through their first three home games, placing them right in the middle of the AHL pack. Last year they average 5,246.
“We have a big fan base,” said Taormina. “Our first game was awesome with the amount of fans we had and how loud they were. It’s tough with the lockout, but it does benefit the AHL and helps out with the fan base. New York loves their hockey.”
Taormina said he has interacted with fans, and while they might have a favorite NHL team, more of them follow players than the actual team, which makes sense since the Crunch have had so many affiliates. “Their favorite NHL team might be Buffalo or the Rangers, but now that we’ve come in, they’ve said they will start following the Lightning, and some of them have followed the Lightning,” he said. “It’s nice to hear that they are rooting for us and they are from this area but that they do follow the NHL. It’s a big support for us.”
Also helping the attendance is the NHL lockout — not just because it’s the only hockey fans can see, but the coverage has been expanded on TV, radio and in print and online media. “I think the consensus is that a majority of American Hockey League teams got two or three players that would have been in the National Hockey League if it was playing,” said Sarosy. “For us, we definitely have a lot more regional attention. By that I mean games on XM, on satellite, which we normally wouldn’t have in a year.
“The number of scouts that come to us, the number of out-of-town papers that cover us because they are covering a player (have increased). In terms of a fan uptick, where we are specifically located, if you are a fan of the Buffalo Sabres, you are probably going to watch the baby Sabres in Rochester; if you are an Ottawa fan, maybe you do make that extra hour trip down to Binghamton. There is minimal spike, but you might have 500 (a game) more people because of the National Hockey League lockout.”
So far, the transition to the Lightning organization has been a smooth one. And recent renovations to the War Memorial at Oncenter in Syracuse, where the Crunch play their home games, is even more reason for the Lightning to stick around for the long haul. “It is an older building in the AHL, and with that comes many wonderful things in the game experience,” said Sarosy, “but also what comes with that, until this recent renovation, is that we were a little behind in the behind-the-scenes area — the locker rooms, the weight room, the coaches’ rooms. There was a perfect opportunity for us to take that to where it needed to be today.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New York Hockey Journal.