Scaring up a crowd

Kansas City’s love affair with the Blades has seemingly gone ice cold. Attendance is waning, and the team is on the brink of finding a new hockey haven about 350 miles south in Oklahoma City. Yet an hour’s drive west on Interstate 70 will reveal a city involved in a heated love affair with its ice-skating gladiators.

Granted, the Topeka Scarecrows and the Blades average roughly the same amount of people — 6,000 or so — through the turnstiles per game, but in the cozy confines of 7,700-seat Landon Arena, a.k.a. “The Barn,” the atmosphere is night-and-day from cavernous Kemper Arena.

So why is the state capital cawing about the ‘Crows? Scarecrows General Manager Chris Presson says that although the Blades, a triple-A team, can put a very good product on the ice, the Scarecrows, a single-A team, have an advantage not enjoyed in Kansas City. “I think we’ve been successful here because we do have the smallest market in the league. Kansas City has a lot more to offer in ways of other activities, whereas Topeka doesn’t have much to do.”

Blades Ticket Sales Manager Greg Laudick attributes the ‘Crows’ success in part to the fact that the sport is in only its second season in the state capital. “Topeka is still in the honeymoon stage, which I’d say is the first three years. You can tell how good a team is going to be after (that).”

Laudick says the Blades, now in their 10th year in Kansas City, were blessed with success right off the bat — winning the Turner Cup in the team’s second season and reaching the finals again in 1995.

“I still have faith in the KC market. We need to find the right marketing strategy and get people back, because they did come out in droves the first seven years and the team made great money,” Laudick says.

Presson is concerned the sport may be a flash in the pan in Topeka as well: “Any time you put a new franchise in a new city in a very small market you always have to worry about that. We’ve got to provide entertainment that people are going to want to come back and see, so it’s not the same old thing every year.”

Whether it’s Scarecrows mascot Haywire’s antics, pucks thrown by fans onto the ice during intermission, or a skating session with the team following the game, there’s plenty to keep fans enthralled with the sport.

“I’m 74 years old, and this is the only sport I really love,” said ‘Crows fan Eva Mason.

And it’s not just the periodic brawls that keep the fans coming back, according to at least one fan. “It’s just fun and it’s fast. There’s a lot of speed and a lot of skill. I think you can out-finesse a guy (rather than fight). I prefer that,” said Craig Brockmeier.

The fans didn’t leave disappointed Dec. 26. The Scarecrows captured a 5-2 victory against the Wichita Thunder — a win that ran Topeka’s record to 6-0 this season against the team’s intrastate rivals.

Scarecrows goalie Rod Branch, who earned star of the game honors while stopping 24 of 26 shots, says the fans have really come to understand and appreciate the sport. “Everything about (Topeka) is nice — it’s a little more relaxed. You couldn’t ask for a better place to play, and the fans top all that off by giving us the support they do and making it so much more fun to go out there.”

And the star goalie feels the players feed off all that crowd support. “The way the fans affect the game is in the players’ heads and the players’ hearts. If they take a hold of a player, he can feel the same way and give it back to the fans.”

Halfway through the team’s second season, the Scarecrows linger near the top of the Central Hockey League’s (CHL) Western Division, and although that success is nice, Presson says, it’s only part of the allure. “As far as (the CHL’s) comparison with other leagues, we don’t have as good of a product on the ice as the Blades, but that’s almost better because it creates more exciting hockey — more goals are scored, it’s more up and down and fast-paced.”

The ‘Crows’ Presson remains confident that, through a fresh approach, the team will make it past the honeymoon to have a lengthy and successful marriage with the city of Topeka. “I came from a very successful franchise (the Oklahoma City Blazers), having spent six years there, and I happened to be lucky enough to be with that franchise from the very start. I get the same feeling from this franchise.”

Although hockey in the heartland seems secure in Topeka, Kansas City’s hold on the sport is much more tenuous. Oklahoma City’s City Council is expected to vote later this month whether to upgrade to an International Hockey League franchise or keep its CHL team.

Blades Ticket Sales Manager Greg Laudick says the team’s move is not a sure thing, and he hopes Kansas City continues to be home for years to come. “Everybody here in the office does not want to go to Oklahoma City. We’ve got a lot of loyal fans here, and we definitely want to stay.”

Categories: A&E