On Thursday, for the first time, there will be professional hockey played in Toronto in June as the puck drops on Game 3 of the Calder Cup playoffs.
Along with that historic first will come something that has been almost as rare when it comes to the city’s oft-neglected American Hockey League franchise: a building full of fans.
Believe it or not, the Toronto Marlies are selling out.
Despite their ties to the ever popular (and struggling) Toronto Maple Leafs, the Marlies have essentially struggled from Day 1 to fill the 8,000-seat Ricoh Coliseum, including a couple of third-round playoff games that drew little more than 2,000 fans in 2008.
Four years later, however, the team’s playoff run seems to finally be capturing the imagination of Toronto hockey fans, with Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) all expected to be full houses even with the home team trailing the series 2-0 to the Norfolk Admirals.
“The response we’re getting from our fans has been just incredible,” Michael Cosentino, the Marlies’ director of business operations, said. “It should be a really electric playoff atmosphere here.”
It’s long been said that you can’t sell anything less than the NHL in the Greater Toronto Area – even with the Leafs logo on it – and for the majority of the seven seasons the Marlies have spent in the city, that hasn’t been proven wrong.
Announced attendance figures in the team’s first five seasons hovered around 50-per-cent capacity, and even that was misleading given the building was often even emptier than that once the giveaways and no-shows are taken into account.
(The postseason proved an even tougher sell, with the Marlies averaging well under 3,000 fans a game even as their teams played in the only postseason hockey in the city the past eight years.)
While many AHL teams are seen as development outfits and tend to lose money, the Marlies were alarmingly in the red after shifting operations from St. John’s in a bid to save on travel in 2005.
It wasn’t really until the second half of this season that the team began gaining any momentum at the gate, something that has led to a 135-per-cent jump from the 2008 playoffs to roughly 6,600 fans a game.
In anticipation of the Calder Cup final, the team has even added an extra 350 seats in one end zone to increase capacity for their final three games.
Cosentino credits Leafs general manager Brian Burke and vice-president Dave Poulin with helping better tie the NHL club and Marlies together from both a development and fan perspective.
With the Leafs’ brass putting more and more emphasis on youth as the organization attempts to rebuild, the Marlies have taken advantage of all the interest.
(Whereas that 2008 playoff team’s average age was pushing 26, the current Marlies are more than two years younger and have four or five players who may join the Leafs next season.)
“We’ve been able to build that connection,” Cosentino said. “Fans know they’re going to see the players that are next in line.”
“We all feel it’s very important for the continued growth of our overall fan base,” Poulin said of promoting the Marlies. “It speaks well on and off the ice to the future of the Leafs.”
Several players said this week that the building buzz around the team is a welcome change.
“It’s a big difference,” veteran Philippe Dupuis said. “The last two teams that we faced (in Abbotsford and Oklahoma City), they had almost no one in the stands. When you played in their rink, you’re not really intimidated. The Ricoh, it’s really, really loud now. You score the first goal, and it puts a lot of pressure on the other team.”
Whether the Marlies’ playoff success translates into tangible gains for the Leafs on the ice next season remains up for debate, but what isn’t debatable is that the minor-league team’s bottom line will be significantly improved in 2012-13.
According to Cosentino, season ticket packages sold for next year are up close to 60 per cent, building off the team’s playoff success and two seasons with attendance figures that climbed by 14 per cent.
“We’ve already surpassed what we sold all of the last off-season already,” he said.
Marlies attendance since moving to Toronto