Checkers thriving under Canes' affiliation

Staff writerJanuary 5, 2011 

— Had the Charlotte Checkers had Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk and Brett Carson in their lineup Saturday night, they might have beaten the Binghamton Senators.

It was the "Winter Hat Classic." A crowd of 9,800 turned out at Time Warner Cable Arena - the first 3,000 getting a free toque - and a victory would have been another selling point in the team's first American Hockey League season.

But Dalpe, Boychuk and Carson were needed by the Carolina Hurricanes. Recalled last week by the Canes, the three were a part of a 6-3 win Saturday over the New Jersey Devils at the RBC Center, and Dalpe scored his first NHL goal.

Such is the nature of the new affiliation between the Hurricanes and the Checkers. It's also a relationship that thus far is working well on both hockey sides.

"The marriage of the Hurricanes and Charlotte Checkers has been successful," said Tera Black, the Checkers' chief operating officer. "The Checkers brand was strong, but we made some changes, including the color scheme of our uniforms, to reflect the Hurricanes' product and help Charlotte identify with the change. I think it has been phenomenal."

The Checkers competed for 17 years in the East Coast Hockey League. But owner Michael Kahn, who bought the Checkers in 2006, now has an AHL franchise. That's a step up, akin to having Triple-A baseball, offering a new cast of players and a stronger brand of hockey.

Their affiliation with the Hurricanes has brought the Checkers young NHL prospects such as Dalpe and Boychuk, but also Drayson Bowman and Chris Terry, goaltender Mike Murphy and defenseman Michal Jordan, who shares the same name - minus an "e" - as one of the city's most famous citizens.

"They have a number of players who will be playing for the Hurricanes in the next few years and are a part of our future," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said.

Many of the Checkers players competed for the Albany River Rats of the AHL the last few seasons when the Rats were the Canes' top minor-league affiliate. But the move from Albany, N.Y., to Charlotte this year has been a popular one among players.

"Charlotte is a beautiful city, and we have a great fan base," goaltender Justin Pogge said. "We have a terrific staff here that puts on a lot of special events and special nights to bring people out. It's a good atmosphere to play hockey."

The Checkers averaged 5,739 fans in their first 17 home games, ranking ninth in attendance among 30 AHL teams. The Albany Devils, now affiliated with New Jersey Devils, were last (2,770.)

A crowd of 12,512 turned out for the Checkers' Oct. 15 home opener against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Time Warner Cable Arena.

"Coming here, we really didn't know what to expect," Carson, a defenseman who played for both the Hurricanes and River Rats last season. "We had the big crowd the first night, which doesn't happen too often in the American League.

"The fans in Albany were loyal. We just didn't get as many people to games as we have here. It's been good."

Black said the Checkers had an increase of 69 percent in season-ticket revenue from last season. Corporate sponsorship revenue has shown a 35 percent increase, she said.

"I think our corporate partners notice and appreciate the difference in the hockey product," she said.

One benchmark in the AHL is that $2 million in ticket revenue marks a successful season. Black said the Checkers have a three-year plan to reach that mark, saying the team did not want to spike ticket prices this season.

Black said an agreement with Time Warner Cable will result in some of the Checkers games being televised. The first, she said, would be Jan. 14 against the Manchester (N.H.) Monarchs and would be available on Time Warner Cable in the Triangle.

Some of the players have taken in a Carolina Panthers or Bobcats game in their free time. Many have found places to live Uptown. Some ride the train to the arena ("Two stops, and we're there," Carson said) and a few players even use longboards to scurry through the streets.

"I think everyone has adjusted pretty well," Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said. "At first, no one knew where the rink was, the practice rink, where to live. Now all that's tucked away."

Daniels and the players constantly promote the team. It's something that's expected to help the team carve out its sports niche in a city that has the Panthers and Bobcats.

"The owner, Michael Kahn, believes in getting out in the community and putting that Checkers name out there," Daniels said. "The (players) are more than willing to do a radio spot or TV commercial or help youth hockey practices.

"When you're in a market like this, with football and basketball and NASCAR, you've got to get your name out there."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-839-8945

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