It’s a warm Friday night in the middle of May, the sun is shining, the temperature is in the 90’s, and summer is right around the corner. What was the hottest ticket in the city of Austin? Playoff tickets for the Texas Stars vs. the Hamilton Bulldogs in Game 4 of their American Hockey League (AHL) Western Conference Final.
Over 6,000 of the Texas Stars’ proudest fans packed the new Cedar Park Center to witness the AHL’s best player, Jamie Benn, carry his Texas Stars team to a 2-1 victory over the Bulldogs.
Where did this love of hockey in Central Texas come from?
In June 2007, the city of Cedar Park announced that plans for a new multi-purpose arena were being finalized. Rumors swirled that one of the existing professional sport franchises, The Austin Toros of the National Basketball Association-D League, or the Austin Wranglers of the Arena Football League, would move into this new arena. Neither was true as the arena was actually built for a new hockey team. Apparently, the Dallas Stars, a National Hockey League (NHL) team, saw this opportunity and started talks to move their AHL affiliate, the Iowa Stars, to Austin. With a team here in Austin, it would be easier for Dallas to transport players between the AHL and NHL. The move made sense for all parties.
Construction started and the official papers for the Iowa Stars to be relocated to the Austin area began Fall of 2008. In summer 2009, advertisements could be seen around the city with the slogan, “Here Come the Stars”, the coaching staff and rosters were finalized, and the 2009-2010 home schedule was released.
Saturday, October 3, 2009, the Texas Stars played their first official game at the Cedar Park Center against their in-state rivals, the San Antonio Rampage. A near sell-out crowd of 6,221 packed the new arena to witness a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory.
From there, the Texas Stars were a team destined for greatness with a quickly growing fan base. Professional teams in the Austin area have a strong first game attendance; however, lose out towards the middle of the season. This would not be the case for this Stars.
Although hockey is a foreign concept to natives of Central Texas, and the Stars play a majority of their games during the University of Texas Football season, this does not stop fans from coming out and filling up the arena on a nightly basis. Against these odds, the Texas Stars’ Ticket Department was able to fill up the arena on a nightly occurrence. In fact, the Stars did not have just one sellout game – they had three games of over 6,800 people in attendance!
Overall, for the 2009 season, Texas ranked in the middle of the AHL in average attendance with 5,355. With an overall sell out being 6,853, the Cedar Park Center was 78% full on average for their 40 home games. The seemingly “middle of the road” ranking does not take other AHL teams’ arena size or relative percentage full into consideration, which would create a more accurate comparison. However, one advantage of the smaller venue is that there is not a bad seat in the Cedar Park Center, providing fans an up-close and personal look at the game.
Currently, the Stars are in the midst of a run at the AHL’s title, the Calder Cup. And, similarly to the regular season, attendance has been strong throughout the playoffs. In fact, the Stars are near the top of the league in playoff attendance.
Even when the team is away from Austin, fans are treated to watch parties that have taken place either at local businesses in Cedar Park or at the Cedar Park Center itself. Stars fans have created a strong Facebook page where they keep each other updated when they cannot make the games.
The 2009 season has been a perfect way to jump-start interest in hockey here in Central Texas. The team is playing great, the venue is phenomenal, and the front office is first-class. From the ushers and vendors at the Cedar Park Center, to the Marketing and Sales office, they treat their patrons with respect and importance. Hopefully, the Stars can continue their fairytale run at the Calder Cup.
When the plans were drawn up in 2007 to bring a hockey team to Central Texas, people probably laughed when told hockey would be hot in the Austin area. However, hockey is definitely in the house.By T.J. McAloon