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'Hockey at the Beach'? : Ice Dogs Shoot for Fans With Feisty Play, Wacky Promotions

November 24, 1996|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — It's ice hockey in the Long Beach Arena and the scout from the Montreal Canadiens, a team that for many is the embodiment of professional hockey's rich history, is aghast.

It isn't the oversized beach ball that bounces onto the ice and stops the action. It isn't the Beach Boys song played during player introductions or the surfer band setting up in the lobby. It isn't even the motorized water skis offered as giveaways in a sport more suited to snowmobiles.

No, what astonishes scout Pierre Dorion is the sight of manic Generation X radio sports jock Scott Ferrall doing his national call-in show live from a platform set up at one end of the arena. Juiced up by rock 'n' roll and cheered on by dozens of fans, Ferrall dances, plays air guitar, screams and cracks jokes--all in competition with the action on the ice.

"You'd never have a guy talking like that during a game in Montreal," said the amazed Dorion. "In Montreal, hockey is the religion."

But "Hockey at the Beach," as it is being promoted in Long Beach, is not so much a religion as it is a gamble--for the city as well as the owners of the Ice Dogs, who moved the team from Los Angeles earlier this year.

Maggie and Barry Kemp paid about $5 million for the team, and the city invested at least $3.5 million in arena improvements and advertising.

The city's investment could go up by a few hundred thousand dollars if the team does not sell the 3,000 season tickets municipal leaders have guaranteed.

In a city with a deficit in the millions, a police headquarters that badly needs updating and parks scratching for dollars, the deal was both a political and financial risk.

But city leaders say the risk is worth taking because they see the team as a key part of the renaissance of downtown Long Beach. "We want them to succeed in the worst way," said Mayor Beverly O'Neill.

Seven weeks into the season the crowds have been disappointingly low, averaging 2,481 in the 11,131-seat arena, the worst attendance in the 19-team International Hockey League and well below the 6,000 Kemp said he needs to break even.

But so far neither city officials nor team owners are panicking.

"I am not even remotely discouraged," said Kemp, the producer and creator of "Coach" and other television shows. "We knew it would take time."

*

Part of the reason for Kemp's optimism is that even though the crowds are small, those who do attend make up for it with their enthusiasm.

They yell, they dance in the aisles and they hiss and boo opposing team players.

"At the first game, when people were waving Ice Dogs signs and the music was blasting, the person next to me said, 'Is this really happening in Long Beach?' " said Curtis Tani, a 36-year-old administrator in the city manager's office. Tani said his children, a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, love the games, too, but for different reasons: They like to look for the team mascot, Spike, listen to the rock music and hit the snack stand.

Success in converting such fans has allowed the IHL, a notch below the better-established National Hockey League, to undergo dramatic expansion in recent years.

Getting established in other warm-weather cities, the league loves to mix traditional hockey culture with local customs. In Orlando, Fla., the team is called the Solar Bears and its mascot wears sunglasses. So, when hat tricks are scored by the home team in Orlando, its fans throw plastic sunglasses onto the ice instead of caps.

Spike, the Long Beach team's bulldog mascot, seems to pop up all over town. The team has sent players to community events, libraries and schools. It has conducted sports camps and plastered ads on buses and billboards.

"Everywhere I go people are talking about the Ice Dogs," said Newfoundland-born winger Todd Gillingham, who played for the team in Los Angeles and, before that, when it was the San Diego Gulls. "I just wish they'd start coming to the games."

Among the problems faced by the Ice Dogs is competition for hockey fans with the Kings in Los Angeles and the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim and the glut of other entertainment and recreational opportunities in Southern California.

Not helping was a string of early losses at home.

*

The Ice Dogs are a mix of young players trying to move up, veterans who have already played in the NHL who see it as a last chance to revive their careers, and seasoned IHL stars who may be a step too slow or an inch too short to compete in hockey's top echelon.

But the quality of players is good enough to bring a steady stream of scouts like Dorion to Long Beach.

Attracting much of the attention is winger Robert Dome, a native of Slovakia who, at 17, is the youngest player in the IHL. Many believe he will be a top draft choice when he turns 18 next year and becomes eligible for the NHL draft. Many of the fans are still getting to know the players and the game.

"We really don't understand the game," said Debby McClelland, attending a game against the Utah Grizzlies with a friend. Even so, she said she has been to three games so far and is hooked. "I really like the action."

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