This article appeared on Chicks Who Give a Puck on September 13, 2011.
Drive a short distance north of Atlanta and you’ll find a hockey community thriving around the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL. At the forefront is team president and general manager Steve Chapman who wants people to know hockey hasn’t left the metro area.
The issue of the Atlanta Thrashers moving was unavoidable as we talked about where this leaves the Gladiators. The team recently signed a three-year lease renewal with the Arena at Gwinnett Center and is definitely not in danger of moving. Chapman was quick to dispel any rumors to the contrary, and went into some detail about the nature of the Gladiators’ previous affiliation with the Thrashers, which expired at the end of last season.
Basically, the team has operated independently of the Atlanta Spirit Group and had a working agreement with the Thrashers. On August 17, 2011 the Gladiators announced a new affiliation agreement with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Like many in the area, Chapman is not happy to see the Thrashers gone. “Atlanta lost its NHL team, which I don’t think is great for the city,” he said. “I don’t think it’s great for hockey, because the perception’s going to be is that hockey won’t work in the South and I disagree with that completely. And then lastly, people that we know have lost their jobs. I don’t think any of us takes any joy out of any of that.”
By that same token, though, the Gladiators are now the only professional hockey team in Atlanta, and have an opportunity to reach out to people who still want the sport in their lives. Chapman acknowledged that some people may not be so easily won over by the minor league product, but the Gladiators are still encouraging everyone in the community this season to come check out what they have to offer. “We’re going to try and convince people that it is a good brand of hockey,” he said.
Our conversation shifted to the state of hockey in the South, a region that many say can’t sustain the sport for reasons of climate and lack of interest. This was another thing Chapman was quick to debunk, encouraging people to stop looking at the NHL as the be all end all of hockey in the region.
He cited the ice rinks around Atlanta, which are packed with recreational and youth league teams. Public skate sessions are already filled with kids and adults alike in hockey gear fighting for extra ice time. “It’s a challenge because there aren’t enough ice rinks in Atlanta, ” he said. “You can’t get ice time and I think a lot of people don’t realize that. You could put three or four or five more ice rinks in North Metro Atlanta and they would all be phenomenally successful.”
Chapman, a Massachusetts native who has lived in the South since he was a teenager, understands that the key to developing hockey here isn’t dropping a major league team in the area, but instilling a love for the sport early on and building it up at all levels.
One of the ways the Gladiators build up public awareness is getting involved with the local community. This is done through local elementary school fundraisers, such as Hat Trick for Reading, which rewards kids who completed reading assignments with a free ticket to a Gladiators game. The team also works with local charities, the biggest being their annual Pink in the Rink breast cancer fundraiser.
“To be honest with you, that’s probably the crux of our marketing,” Chapman said. “What we hope happens from that is that [the fans] go ‘hey, these guys are really good to work with, I want to support them. They support our community and I want to go out and support them.'”
As for continuing to grow the sport in Atlanta, Chapman remains optimistic. “I have seen the sport grow so much since I moved here,” he said. “I think the sport…could have a great future in Atlanta. I think it already has a great base, but we’ve all got to work together to make sure that it continues in that direction.”