Southern fried hockey: the rise, fall and rise again of minor league hockey in the South

Stingray fans fill the coliseum during their game against Florida Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 at the North Charleston Coliseum.

A decade ago, the East Coast Hockey League's East Division consisted of teams from North Charleston, Florence, Greenville and Columbia.

Almost half of the 28 teams in the league during the 2004-05 season - 12 franchises in all - were located in what was the old Confederacy.

The Palmetto State led the way with four teams: the South Carolina Stingrays based in North Charleston, the Pee Dee Pride, the Greenville Grrrowl and the Columbia Inferno. There were more teams in South Carolina, whose population was a little more than 4 million, than in any other state in the ECHL's national footprint, which spread from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans.

Only California, with nearly 10 times the population of South Carolina, also had four teams in the ECHL.

Throw in the Charlotte Checkers and the Augusta Lynx, which sit on the South Carolina border, and there were more minor league hockey franchises per capita than anywhere in the nation.

As the new millennium began to dawn, it was clear that South Carolina was the hotbed of minor league hockey.

"Those were some pretty heady days," said former Stingrays president Darren Abbott, who joined the club as a broadcaster in 1996. "I doubt there were very many people up North who thought that minor league hockey would work in the South, especially in a place like Charleston. The fans in the area and across the entire state really embraced hockey."

Ten years later, however, there are just two professional hockey franchises left standing in South Carolina, the Stingrays and the Greenville Road Warriors.

Dwindling attendance, increasing transportation costs and a tough economy were the main culprits in the fall of hockey in the state. Still, there is hope that professional hockey will make a comeback.

The ECHL began as a five-team league in 1988 and quickly expanded to eight teams a year later with franchises mostly located in the South - six of the eight were in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

In 1993, the notion that minor league hockey could succeed in South Carolina, was, well, laughable.

But North Charleston city officials broke ground on a 10,000-seat arena off I-26 and were looking for an anchor tenant.

Enter the South Carolina Stingrays.

An ownership group made up of mostly Canadians brought ice hockey to South Carolina in 1993. Charlotte and Hampton Roads joined the ECHL the same season.

In their inaugural season, the Stingrays were successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams, routinely selling out the North Charleston Coliseum and leading the ECHL in attendance, averaging more than 9,000 fans a game.

A legal dispute and an internal squabble amongst the original ownership group was settled by the ECHL and the league sold the franchise to a group of local business leaders, including Jerry and Anita Zucker, Harvey Nathan, Lynn Bernstein and Herb Greenwald.

For the next three seasons, the Stingrays were among the highest drawing teams in minor league hockey, averaging more than 8,000 fans a game.

One of the team's star players in the early days, Rob Concannon, who played five seasons with the Stingrays, was promoted to the St. John's Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League during the 1995-96 season. After 20 games in the AHL, he asked the coaching staff to send him back to the Lowcountry.

"I was playing in front of sellout crowds every night in South Carolina," the Boston native said. "The crowds in St. John's were nowhere near as big. It was just a lot more fun to play with the Stingrays."

The success of the Stingrays on and off the ice prompted other cities to bring hockey to the state and throughout the South. Franchises in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia opened their doors.

In 1997, Florence became the second city in South Carolina to enter the ECHL. Four years later, the Columbia Inferno joined the ECHL, followed by Greenville in 2003.

"I don't think there is any question that the Stingrays organization laid the foundation for success for teams in the South," said ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna. "I think as other potential ownership groups saw the success they were having, they wanted to be a part of it and kind of rode that wave."

While the ECHL expanded its operations out West, the sport of ice hockey continued to grow in the South.

For the two seasons that South Carolina fielded four hockey teams - 2003-05 - more than 1.2 million fans passed through the turnstiles of the four franchises.

The rivalries that developed among the four teams were almost legendary.

"It was great to go into one of those rinks and be the villain," said former Stingray Dave Seitz. "As much as our fans loved us, the Stingrays were hated in Florence, Columbia and Greenville. It made it great to go into those buildings."

The close proximity among the four teams allowed fans to follow their heroes around the state.

"I can remember having a pretty vocal crowd when we played in Greenville or Charleston," said former Columbia coach Scott White. "The fan base for all four teams was pretty loyal and I know they enjoyed going to see us play on the road."

Financially, the short one-day bus trips made traveling relatively cheap for the teams. Instead of having to spend money on hotels and per diem for players, the teams were able to travel back-and-forth between cities in just a few hours.

"We could play a game at seven and be back in Charleston for last call," said Abbott, who became the Stingrays president in 2006.

The shorter trips allowed teams in smaller markets like Florence to survive.

"We started out drawing pretty well," said Joe Babik, who is the Director of Communications for the ECHL and was the director of broadcasting and public relations for the Pee Dee Pride from 2001-05. "When we had the South Carolina teams in our division, plus Augusta and Charlotte, it really helped with our bottom line. We were not having to spend as much money on travelling like the other teams in the ECHL, especially the ones out West."

There was even plans to add a fifth team in South Carolina when the Myrtle Beach Thunderboltz secured an ECHL franchise.

The good times didn't last for long.

By 2005, the novelty of the sport had begun to wear off as fans began to lose interest. The Pee Dee Pride, which routinely drew more than 120,000 fans a season, had closed their doors.

The following year, the Greenville Grrrowl ceased operations and in 2008 Columbia left the league as well.

The Stingrays were the only team from South Carolina left in the ECHL.

"I'm not sure all that many markets could support that kind of expansion that quickly and it caught up to some of our owners," McKenna said. "People in the South didn't grow up watching hockey or playing it, so I think at first they were just curious about the sport. It was somewhat of a fad."

This was also about the same time the Great Recession hit the nation and a family's entertainment dollar was stretched thin. The Stingrays were lucky to draw 5,000 fans, which would have been considered a disappointing night when the team first hit the ice. The Stingrays' annual attendance went from 311,148 in 1994 to 180,000 by 2008.

Other teams were seeing similar drops.

As attendance fell, expenses went up. Travel costs, player salaries and facility leases continued to rise.

It was a perfect storm of financial ruin for minor league hockey.

"Everyone worked so hard to make a go of it," said White, who works for the NHL's Dallas Stars. "We had a great front office in Columbia and everyone busted their butts, but at the end of the day they couldn't make it happen. It was a really sad day when the Inferno closed their doors."

In 2010, hockey returned to the upstate with the Greenville Road Warriors. The Road Warriors were formerly the Johnstown Chiefs, one of the original members of the ECHL in 1988.

The Chiefs, who drew less than 75,000 fans in their final season, moved to Greenville in hopes of starting anew. Attendance has been steady at about 3,400 per game. Greenville has actually outdrawn the Stingrays in each of the last three seasons.

"The business model has changed so much since the 1990s," said Abbott, who is now the president of the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL. "We relied so much on walk-up sales back then, and nowadays you make your money in pre-sales, corporate sales and mini-packages. Your bread and butter is always going to be season-ticket sales, but to break even you have to pre-sell your product."

A favorable lease can be the difference between success and failure in minor league sports. The Stingrays pay the North Charleston Coliseum about $6,000 per game. A 36-game home schedule can add up to some big bucks for a franchise looking just to break even.

ECHL teams like the Florida Everblades and Cincinnati Cyclones own their own buildings and have been able to sustain their success as a result.

"Having a good lease is crucial," McKenna said. "You hope you get some parking and concessions as well as part of the deal, but a good lease is vital."

Ezra Riber, who was one of the original owners of the Inferno in Columbia, paid franchise fees to the ECHL for several years after the team folded in hopes of bringing a team back to the area. He has since suspended operations, but is still hopeful to build an arena and put a team on the ice.

The Inferno played in Carolina Coliseum, but University of South Carolina officials could not come to an agreement for the continued use of the facility.

"I think Columbia is definitely a market that can work," McKenna said. "The issue there is getting a facility in place. I know (Riber) is eager to get something done and if he can get an ownership group together, I think it will work."

Having the right facility and making the game experience more like a major event are also key, McKenna said.

"The teams with the newer facilities are generally doing very well," McKenna said, pointing to Toledo and Orlando as examples.

But he said minor league fans bring higher expectations with them as well.

"They want that major league experience on a smaller scale and for minor league prices," McKenna said. "The video and audio experience, the parking, the food, they expect high quality entertainment not just on the ice but off of it as well."

McKenna said he's confident that professional hockey will return to other cities in South Carolina.

"These things go in cycles," McKenna said. "If you have a good product and market it correctly and make it a fun experience, then the fans will come. I know we'll see hockey expand again in the South."