Thunderbirds Hockey: A Fan Experience Unlike Any Other

Thunderbirds hockey: A fan experience unlike any other

By Patrick Ferlise of the Winston-Salem Journal | pferlise@wsjournal.com

Winston-Salem, NC - As spectators rushed up the aisles to their seats with tickets in hand, Alexandra Yarbrough stood at a table next to the ice eagerly awaiting the puck drop just minutes away.

The 20-year-old from Davie County had a front-row seat to one of the most intense shows in Winston-Salem on New Year's Eve — the last matchup of a three-game series between the Carolina Thunderbirds and the Cornwall Nationals of Canada at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex.

Wearing a long-sleeved, bright red jersey, Yarbrough gazed from her table next to the ice in the stadium's VIP section, watching players zoom by chasing the puck and checking each other into the wall just feet away.

Only a plexiglass partition separated her from the thud of Thunderbird defensemen as they threw their bodies into the Nationals forwards looking for their next goal. It was an experience Yarbrough thought Winston-Salem had been missing for some time.

"Our city finally has a team to cheer for again," said Yarbrough, who attended the game with her father, Gary, 57, and a friend, Kirby Black, 24. "I think you can really tell by how packed it is here tonight that we've all been missing hockey."

It's no secret hockey has a rocky past in Winston-Salem, with nine teams attempting to forge successful seasons in the area since 1973. But the Thunderbirds have worked to provide a fan experience unlike any other in professional sports around the Piedmont Triad in their first year of play. With the $8 base price for one ticket, fans can experience the perks of going to an NHL or American Hockey League game — with a unique twist — for less than the cost of going to a movie.

And that's the business model Federal Hockey League Commissioner Don Kirnan sold to city officials when he started exploring the idea of bringing a team to Winston-Salem in 2014, after hosting a game at the Annex between the Danville Dashers and Watertown Wolves that March to test fan interest.

The league's average operating costs are some of the lowest out of the five hockey organizations in North America. It takes $500,000 to start a team in the Federal Hockey League, roughly one-fifth of the cost to start a franchise in the East Coast Hockey League and less than one-sixth to join the American Hockey League. 

"That's what we told the city: If you have a team from one of the bigger leagues, it probably wouldn't be sustainable because there's too much to lose," said Kirnan. "You might have 50,000 people that want to go to a game, but tickets are probably $200, and it's unreasonable for the average person who's simply interested in hockey to go regularly."

A unique atmosphere on the ice

And it's made for regulars like Yarbrough. The action on the ice is entertaining, but the post-game fun really caught her eye.

At the end of each game, fans can skate with Thunderbirds players for an hour on the ice where they just played. 

"You really get to learn from them, and they even have a hockey night where they teach you about the game," said Yarbrough. "It's just incredible that Winston-Salem finally has a team to put all their love toward." 

It isn't the only interaction between fans and players. 

After a game Jan. 19 against the Dashers, more than 50 spectators exchanged laughs and stories about what they saw on the ice. The bright red leaf of a LaBatt Blue cart with several taps was the meeting place in the same section Yarbrough stood on New Year's Eve.

It's an experience fans can't get in other leagues, as players are shuffled off the ice to the locker rooms after games. And it's a sight defenseman Jay Kenney noticed the first time when he was traded to the Thunderbirds after the Nationals, an Ontario-based FHL team he played with for two seasons, folded in February.

Meetings at the beer cart with devoted fans have given the Boston native and other players like him somewhat of a celebrity status.  

"I've never been a part of something this big, honestly ... This is the team to beat and the reason why I wanted to come here," said Kenney, who will travel to Boston after the playoffs to complete the remainder of the school year. "Every fan is devoted — we've had numbers on my other teams — and it's not like a line of people you never see again. These people want to introduce themselves and you become friends.

"There's nothing like that in the league." 

History helps the hockey brand

The experience of local stardom might be new to Kenney, but it's a familiar sight to Joe Curran, who was a center for the Thunderbirds for several seasons at Memorial Coliseum before its demolition in 1986. He played at the Annex with the Winston-Salem Icehawks in 1998 prior to the franchise's move to Glens Falls, N.Y. 

Curran went back to his old stomping grounds to watch his first hometown FHL games on two Friday nights in February. He remembers the days of drinking beers with fans — nothing new for the Thunderbirds both old and new, but unique to professional sports.

"Mingling with the fans was always a big part of it," said Curran. "There just aren't many pro sports where you get to do things like that, even if it's just at a minor league level." 

But what sets the team apart from past franchises is the name, according to Curran. It's familiarity to past fans, who watched the Thunderbirds — then in the All-American Hockey League, Atlantic Coast Hockey League and ECHL — winning playoff championships in 1983, 1985-86 and 1988-89. 

"Back when I played we were very successful, and everyone likes a winner," said Curran. "If you win, the people will come." 

Crowd size creates an experience

And venue sizes also change with a team's operating costs, and in Kirnan's case, added to the aura of the Annex. In bigger leagues like the ECHL, stadiums can seat roughly 10,000 fans. A Federal Hockey League game has a quarter of the crowd size, putting fans like Yarbrough in close proximity to the ice. The Annex holds just 3,150 with an average attendance of close to 2,200 — the highest in the FHL.

And it doesn't take long to notice spectators get wrapped up in the action. Fans beat on the glass as the teams skate past, and the crowd erupts when players throw down their sticks to fight. Whenever helmets start flying, the stadium's music changes to songs like "Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas. 

Fans are packed into the small arena, creating a loudness echoing off the steel beams on the building's ceiling.

"With all the fans in there it makes it pretty exciting, almost like a playoff game," said Coach Brent Clarke of the Danville Dashers, whose average attendance in Illinois ranks second in the league at just over 1,000. "I have to say, it's a lot like an East Coast facility — if it had a JumboTron, it would be an East Coast arena."

Thrills for cheap 

Operating costs directly affect the fan experience. With lower overhead, prices for everything from tickets to beverages are cheaper. Tickets are $12 to sit by the glass on center ice at the Annex. If a fan wanted to watch an ECHL game between the Carolina Stingrays of North Charleston and Norfolk Admirals in Virginia, the price for the same seats would be $32 or more. 

"It's really reasonable, price wise, when you compare it to the Carolina Hurricanes or something like that," said Zach Tucker, 29, of Rural Hall, who stood just feet away from Yarbrough. "Hockey's just entertaining; I don't even really understand it half the time, but there's a lot going on and you get to see it close up here."

But for the Thunderbirds, it's all part of getting to know the community and giving fans a reason to become regulars at the Annex.

"It's easy to get them in the building for the first time, but the hardest part is to get them to come back," said Al Kessler, the Thunderbirds' Vice President of Communications and Media Relations. "That's why we're always trying new and fun ways to get people involved because fan engagement is everything."

Even the Thunderbirds' mascot, Winston, puts on a show, pretending to pick fights with fans and taunt the opposing team — going so far as mooning them on occasion with his feathery tail. But he has a tamer side, dancing with kids who don their favorite NHL jerseys in the stands during during the game. 

When the team leaves for intermission, both adults and kids can also take part in tossing items onto the ice from their seats. At a "chuck-a-puck" table set up near the front doors, fans can purchase a makeshift puck they can throw onto the rink for a chance to win a prize. Winston shuffles around on the ice to pick the winning puck, even throwing them back at fans — anything to keep them enjoying the experience.

"Anything you can think of to toss, we toss," said Kaitlyn Lusk, the Thunderbirds' Director of Game Night Operations. "We want to show everyone that our team is here to stay, and we try and do that in any way possible from getting fans excited all the way to our pricing."

But Yarbrough is simply happy to have a team back in Winston-Salem, hoping that they'll be a permanent resident. The last team she watched at the Annex was the Twin City Cyclones, which ceased operations in 2009. 

"I was devastated and I had to wait 10 more years before we got another team," said Yarbrough. "Now here I am, and I'm coming to every single game."

Photo credit: Walt Unks of the Winston-Salem Journal