The concourse at the North Charleston Coliseum was jammed with hockey fans as new South Carolina Stingrays owner Todd Halloran tried to make his way closer to the NHL’s Stanley Cup.
The Stanley Cup was on display courtesy of former Stingrays head coach Jason Fitzsimmons, who is a scout for the Washington Capitals. Fans were lined up more than 200-deep to get a photo with the iconic trophy.
On the ice, the Stingrays had just scored again and were leading in-state rival Greenville by a couple of goals with a period left to be played.
It was opening night for the Stingrays, the first with Halloran as the principle owner, and it couldn’t have gone much better.
“Opening night was special for me,” Halloran said. “I was able to share that with old friends, new friends and my family. It was a good crowd, we were winning and my 85-year-old hockey-addict dad, who was a goalie when they didn’t wear masks, was there to share that with me. That’s a night I won’t forget for a long time.”
Halloran, already a successful businessman in his own right, had been searching for the right opportunity to invest in a professional hockey franchise. When the Stingrays came on the market, Halloran did his research, vetted the team and the league, and purchased the ECHL franchise from Anita and Jonathan Zucker last August.
There were plenty of ups and downs on and off the ice during that first season. The Stingrays made the Kelly Cup Playoffs again. They had an increase in attendance and revenue.
They also had a miserable February that saw South Carolina win just one game in the entire month. Days after the Stingrays were bounced from the playoffs by Orlando in the first round, Halloran made a coaching change, replacing first-year head coach Spiros Anastas with assistant coach Steve Bergin.
Now he's ready to look ahead to his second season as a team owner.
“It was a ton of fun and a lot of work and a real learning experience for me,” Halloran said. “I’m very passionate about this. It’s a unique intersection of a small business, a sport I enjoy and community engagement. That’s unique, I think to have something that hits on three of those components. Personally, I have a real interest in making sure this franchise thrives.”
One of the first things Halloran did when he took over last summer was to bring in more employees to the front office to help with marketing and ticket sales. The extra bodies paid off. Attendance was at a nine-year high this season at 4,250 per game. Revenue, including corporate sponsorships, was also up from a year ago.
“I expected the attendance to go up and that’s going to be our goal every year,” Halloran said. “That doesn’t happen because of the competitiveness of the team or because there’s a new owner. I think they happen because we’re trying to do the right things in terms of growing the fan base and growing the stature of this organization in the community. That starts with people and we invested in people. We’ve got a long way to go, but it was a nice start.”
There were plenty of highlights for Halloran during the season. Besides opening night, the final weekend series against Atlanta, when South Carolina had to sweep the Gladiators to earn a playoff spot, was tops on his list.
“The last weekend, knowing what was at stake and going up against a team that you win, you’re in, you lose, they are in,” Halloran said “It was a character weekend for the team. To be able to win all three games was terrific. I was happy for the guys and the coaching staff.”
Because Halloran isn’t from the Lowcountry and didn’t have ties to the community until he bought the team, there have been persistent rumors that he plans to eventually relocate the franchise to the Northeast.
Halloran insists nothing could be further from the truth.
Halloran, who grew up in Boston and now lives in Connecticut, has repeatedly said having the team in the Charleston market was what made the club so attractive.
“Look at it from a macroeconomic perspective,” Halloran said. “The area has above average growth, great job creation, an influx of people, lots of small businesses. I think economically, this is a vibrant market, and this is a good place to have a business. From a purely business perspective, why would you want to move from Charleston. This should be a really successful market.”
The fact that South Carolina doesn’t have a major pro sports franchise plays into its favor as well.
“It’s a market that has all of those tailwinds, but doesn’t have a major league sports team,” he said. “South Carolina and Clemson are the closest to being major league franchises. When you think about the position of a minor league franchise, we’re positioned pretty nicely. It doesn’t make any sense to move the team and I think it can work in this market. There’s plenty of hockey in the Northeast. My hope is that the team will be here for a long, long time.”
Halloran inherited a three-year lease with the North Charleston Coliseum when he took over the team. The current lease limits the team’s ability to generate revenue from parking and concessions and has been a source of contention between the club and the arena in the past. Halloran is doing his best to mend fences and believes that the two sides have a better working relationship after this season.
“The lease is for one year with two one-year options,” Halloran said. “I am in discussion with the city. I met with (North Charleston) Mayor (Keith) Summey three or four times and he is a supporter of Stingrays hockey. We’ve had some great conversations. We’ve talked about our common interests. We want to configure things so we’re rowing in the same direction so that there are more win-wins for both of us.
“I fundamentally believe we need the coliseum’s cooperation to make us successful because the fan experience begins when they pull into the parking lot and go to the box office and the concession stand. We don’t have a lot of control over that. I want to make sure that we’re all working together.”
Halloran spent part of the season traveling to different venues around the ECHL.
“One thing I noticed was that when you walked into some of the other arenas, you knew who played there,” Halloran said. “From team logos, to action pictures, to hall of fame walls, there was something with a team identity around the arena. It felt like a real home arena. I think we could do more in that regard.”
If Halloran has a complaint about the coliseum, it’s that the arena does not offer fans a chance to socialize and watch the game at the same time away from their seats.
“A lot of the venues I was at have an open floor or balcony where fans can socialize, eat something, have a drink and not miss the game,” Halloran said. “We’re competing against so many different entertainment options that being social, being interactive with each other, having something to eat or drink and still being able to watch the game is part of the fan experience.
"It would be great to have a concourse where people could come together and mingle and watch the game. I think the North Charleston Coliseum compares favorably in many regards to other venues around the league. The size is appropriate, the amenities are good, but every venue could be better.”
Despite making the playoffs for the 25th time in the franchise’s 26-year history, the team felt a coaching change was needed. Anastas was the first head coach since Rick Vaive, the club’s first head coach, with no connections to the team prior to his arrival. Bergin, who replaces Anastas, has been with the organization for three years.
“I don’t think expectations are too high and success for me is measured by different things,” Halloran said. “I give the coaching staff a lot of credit for turning around a very difficult February and getting us into position to get a playoff spot. On paper, it was a fairly successful season.
"It was a winning record and we made the playoffs. But the evaluation of a team and an organization isn’t about just metrics. ... It’s about fit and philosophies and there has to be chemistry. At times there wasn’t chemistry on the ice, in the locker room and between front office and the coaching staff.”
Just a few more things Halloran says will be different when he experiences his second opening night with the Stingrays.