In their nine seasons of existence, the Worcester Sharks never sold out the DCU Center. The closest the American Hockey League club ever came to a sellout was in February 2012, when the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski spiked a puck at center ice. Even that spectacle left the crowd more than 2,000 tickets short of a packed house.
The Sharks’ AHL predecessor, the Worcester IceCats, did slightly better. The team registered two sellouts, both in 1995, during its decade in the city.
Attendance declined in each of the Sharks’ final three seasons in Worcester. In the club’s final season here before moving to California in 2014-15, the average paid attendance was 3,847, which ranked in the bottom third of the AHL.
The NHL’s San Jose Sharks didn’t move their AHL affiliate out of Worcester because of attendance issues. They wanted their minor-league team to join them on the West Coast. But there weren’t many Worcester fans showing up to prove they wanted the team to stay, either.
This week, professional hockey returns to Central Massachusetts for the first time in more than two years. The Worcester Railers open their first season as an ECHL (formerly East Coast Hockey League) expansion team on Saturday, Oct. 14, when they host the Manchester Monarchs.
The Railers hope that in one game, they can achieve what the Sharks never did and fill the 12,316-seat DCU Center.
“We’ve already got about 10,000 tickets allotted for opening night,” said Eric Lindquist, the Railers’ vice president of marketing and communications and radio announcer, early last week. “We’ve got 1,600 season tickets sold and we’re in the top three in the ECHL in corporate sales. It’s been a perfect storm of everything that’s going on to get ready for opening night.”
Lindquist also worked for the Worcester Sharks in a similar role and said the Railers can connect with the city in a way that previous teams never did.
There have been two attempts over the last two decades to make AHL hockey work in Worcester. The IceCats called Worcester home from 1994 to 2005, but moved to Peoria, Ill., to be closer to their NHL affiliate St. Louis Blues. The Sharks played here from 2006 to 2015 before heading west.
Both the IceCats and Sharks were buried under the nearby success of the NHL’s Boston Bruins and the AHL’s Providence Bruins.
Central Mass. hockey fans are like fans in most of New England — they root for the Bruins. Two-plus years ago, if you wanted to watch minor-league hockey, why pay to go to a Worcester Sharks game and see some San Jose prospects when Providence is only an hour away?
Featuring Boston’s top prospects, the Providence Bruins are routinely near the top of the AHL in attendance, while the Worcester Sharks ranked 23rd out of 30 clubs in their final season.
The Railers play at a level below the AHL — the ECHL is similar to Double-A baseball, and many of its players face long odds of reaching the NHL. The club is affiliated with the NHL’s New York Islanders and AHL’s Bridgeport Sounders, two teams to which most local hockey fans otherwise have no attachment.
Yet with Railers owner and founder Cliff Rucker’s investment in the community, there’s belief that the third time will be the charm in Worcester.
“The Sharks did a lot of great things well, but there wasn’t an owner there who was able to set up a foundation,” Lindquist said. “They weren’t able to give financially the way we were early on. It’s been a tremendous asset.
“It’s more that we’re investing in Worcester, and a rising tide raises all ships,” he said, parroting an oft-repeated Rucker axiom.
Related: Q&A with Cliff Rucker
Rucker owns the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center that opened in September, with hopes that it will bridge the gap between the Railers and the city. The public can skate at the $18 million facility, which has already hosted school programs.
In addition to the Railers using the Ice Center as a practice facility — training camp started there last week — several youth and college teams will call it home, including Becker College, Worcester State University, Worcester Academy, St. Peter-Marian, the Worcester Junior Railers, and Junior Crusaders. Located in the burgeoning Canal District, the rink is surrounded by stores and restaurants.
Lindquist said Rucker has donated, through the Railers, more than $250,000 in the community over the past 18 months. With the Railers at the heart of the investment, the franchise has an opportunity to grow into Worcester’s team, rather than just an affiliate from some faraway city that happens to play here.
“To be successful in the ECHL, you need good ownership,” head coach and General Manager Jamie Russell said. “Cliff has really wanted to do things in a first-class way.”
The Ice Center is about a half-mile walk from the DCU Center — and an even shorter stroll from the players’ main living quarters at The Edge at Union Station.
Lindquist envisions families spending a day downtown to skate, have a meal and take in a Railers game. The Ice Center offers public skating daily at $5 per skater, and Railers tickets start at $15.
“It’s about trying to make Worcester a destination for a night out,” said Lindquist, who went with the AHL Sharks when they moved to San Jose, California; he returned last year. He said the city had transformed into a more vibrant community in his time away, and is more suitable for a pro hockey team now.
Russell was hired to guide the team in September 2016, and spent last season traveling to minor-league and college games to find players for the Railers. In the summer free-agent recruiting season, Russell said it wasn’t difficult to persuade players to come to Worcester, in large part because of the city’s central location between AHL and NHL outposts, and the Railers’ proximity to its affiliates in Bridgeport and New York state.
“The DCU is a fantastic facility, and the geography of Worcester and the opportunity for players to be seen and be wanted is very attractive to players,” Russell said.
Local college hockey fans will recognize a couple names on the Railers’ roster in Springfield natives Barry Almeida and T.J. Syner, who played at Boston College and UMass, respectively. Holden native Connor Doherty, a rookie who played at Sacred Heart the last four years, is on the training camp roster.
With players getting called up to the AHL routinely, and possibly even the NHL, more local players could cycle through the Railers’ roster this season.
“We’re looking at it as we’re a community-based effort,” Lindquist said. “What I mean by that is with local ownership, I use the [Future Collegiate Baseball League’s] Worcester Bravehearts as an example. I went to several games and I’m not sure if I can name two or three Bravehearts players. But it was a great time and great entertainment value. With the Railers, the players that we have here will not be owned or operated by San Jose [like the Sharks].”
Rucker saw the ability to control more of the ECHL product as a significant factor for both his enterprise and the city.
In April, the North Shore-based entrepreneur told the Sun, “In the AHL, the players, the coaches, all the hockey personnel are under contract to the NHL team, so you as an owner, essentially, are limited to the business aspect of it. If I really wanted to impact the community, owning a business didn’t seem to be the right model. The offshoot of that is we want to put a good hockey product out there — that’s really important.
“The ECHL has NHL affiliates, which will allow you to get NHL-caliber players, but it’s about a third of the team, so two-thirds of the team is under contract to you, one-third of the team in under contract to an NHL club. That mix had a nice appeal to me.”
“There’s a sense of identity,” Lindquist said, “and I think it’s a team that fans will be able to identify with.”
Dan Cagen is a reporter with seven years of experience covering all levels of sports, from the Little League World Series to the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup run, when his stories appeared nationally in GateHouse Media publications. Dan interned at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and previously worked for the MetroWest Daily News and its sister publications. The Boston College graduate currently writes about business technology at TechTarget. He can be reached at email@example.com.