For a major sports treat, try minor league hockey

THIS JUST IN ...

December 11, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

For some crazy reason -- mostly having to do with parental duty -- I pulled myself away from the television set and the Ravens-Bengals game to go to the Baltimore Arena to watch the Baltimore Bandits play ice hockey against the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Minor-league hockey in a big league town. Sunday afternoon. I gotta be nuts.

But I gotta tell ya: I'm not fighting a crowd! In fact, I'm sitting in a seat far better than the one I paid for, and no red-coat usher gives me a hard time about it. There are fewer than 1,000 people in the place.

Pretty nice -- if you savor your privacy at sports events. Pretty grim -- if you own the hockey team.

Gee, can it be that the NFL Ravens are actually attracting sports fans away from the AHL Bandits?

Well, duh.

But let's look at some numbers.

Sunday's American Hockey League game against the Thoroughblades happened to bring the Bandits their worst attendance of the year: officially 1,394 (and that number seems inflated to me). The team actually has averaged between 3,100 and 3,200 ticket-holders per game this season. (It averaged 3,600 in 1995-1996.) That's still a long throw from the 5,000 average the Bandits need to be successful. (Mike Caggiano, the Bandits' owner since February, says he needs to do that much to make a go here -- or in the new Baltimore County coliseum he's proposed for the Lansdowne area.)

Minor league hockey has always been a hard sell in this town. But longtime fans of the bygone Clippers and Skipjacks -- they're still around, still intense, still loud and still part of the rink-side entertainment -- claim attendance was never this consistently bad.

So what's up?

1. Unlike the Spirit, the Bandits have no Saturday home dates.

2. They have 11 Friday and 16 Sunday dates. On Sundays through the fall, the Bandits are hurt by local interest in the Ravens, either at Memorial Stadium or on television. Caggiano says he anticipated some impact from the NFL, but "not to this effect, not to this magnitude." He sees clear overlap in the fans who follow the Ravens and the fans who might follow the Bandits. He's looking (and hoping) for an attendance spike after the Ravens play their last game this month.

Interest in hockey always picks up during the long, mean winter. And, most importantly, the Bandits aren't burdened this year by all those Wednesday home dates that were like warts on their 1995-1996 schedule. (Frequently, fewer than 2,000 fans showed up on hump nights.)

So what I saw Sunday could have been the absolute pits of Caggiano's adventure as the owner of an AHL team in Baltimore. Attendance was miserable. The game was great -- even though the Bandits lost with less than a minute left.

Win or lose, this isn't a bad deal, folks.

Bandits tickets are $8, $11 and $14 -- appealing prices for families. Parking for an Arena event is $5, and that's not bad either. (But I got a problem with a $3.50 soft pretzel -- 18 inches of twisted dough with a topping that looks like something the State Highway Administration spreads on icy roads.)

You still don't understand hockey? Don't let that bother. I don't either. I look at it as figure skating with testosterone. As Phil Jackman, who covers the Bandits for The Sun, puts it: "Hockey still put the puck in the net and jump-around celebrating."

A lot of longtime fans say AHL hockey is better than ever -- better players, more masterful skaters, a faster and more aggressive game (though the Bandits' record is 9-17). The uniforms are cool, too. The Bandits have a big raccoon on skates for a mascot. The kids get a kick out of it.

Of course, there's plenty of adult entertainment, too -- like the Bandits' 10-1 win over the Binghamton Rangers, which featured 10 fights, 246 penalty minutes for both teams and a meeting of bare-fisted goalies at center ice. Attendance that night, the Friday after Thanksgiving, was 3,576. And where were you? Shopping?

Next home game is Friday the 13th.

Quite a performance

Nine-year-old Brigid Myers, a fourth-grader at Bryn Mawr School, got a part as a Chinese page in the Moscow Ballet's "Nutcracker" at the Mechanic. But after practicing intensely for seven weeks, she came down with the flu and a fever Thursday, the morning of opening night. Still, she steadfastly refused to let an understudy take her part. She slept backstage until 10 minutes before curtain, went on and danced like a pro. When Brigid came off, the director had tears in her eyes. The flu persisted the entire weekend, but so did Brigid. After the final performance Sunday evening, an impressed Russian ballerina gave Brigid her pointe shoes. Brigid asked the ballerina to autograph them. "No," the ballerina said, "you wear them!"

Screen painting for kids

Hey, hon, great idea from a small local outfit called Busy Bodies -- starter screen-painting kits for kids. It's a way to extend one of our funkiest local traditions -- painting cottages and swans on window screens so neighbors can't see in -- to the next generation of Baltimoreans. Each kit, which sells for $10, comes with two 8-by-10-inch matted screens, two picture patterns, paints and a brush. On sale at HomeTown Girl in Hampden and the City Life Museums gift shop.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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