Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Cyclones hockey preview


After rumors of its demise, team plays on

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Perhaps even a plague of locusts couldn't wipe out Cincinnati Cyclones hockey. And it's worth noting that the 17-year cicadas are coming in the spring.

Given up for dead numerous times, the Cyclones nonetheless will begin their 14th season Friday, at home against Peoria.

CYCLONES AT A GLANCE
2002-03 record: 36-29-7, third in ECHL's Northwest Division.

Years as franchise: 14th season in Cincinnati; no NHL affiliation.

Home: U.S. Bank Arena.

Last playoff appearance: 2003, lost in seven to Atlantic City in the Northern Conference finals.

Coach: Chris Cichocki (102-79-35 career); first year directing Clones.

Top talents: Mike Casselman, leading returning scorer with 53 points (16-37); Randy Petruk, sixth-year pro goalie (74-69-17 record).

Tickets: $17, $15, $9 (or $15, $12, $7.50 in season-ticket packages).

In March, they were being evicted from U.S. Bank Arena. The arena's owner, Nederlander Co. LCC, had terminated the team's lease because it said team owners failed to promote hockey. But the legal battle ended when Nederlander bought the team in June.

The franchise then had to weather an East Coast Hockey League players strike, which was settled two weeks ago.

This all follows the team moving from Cincinnati Gardens, changing leagues twice, seeing its fan base shrink, and being bought in a bankruptcy auction.

Operating with new management, a new coach and essentially a new team - just three players returned from last season - the Cyclones talk of a fresh start.

"We're not short-term. We're here for the long haul," said Matt Dunne, vice president/general manager of U.S. Bank Arena. "We believe in the team.

"We're a work in progress. We need to grow - as a team and in attendance."

Ray Harris, Nederlander's chief financial officer, told the Enquirer in June that the Cyclones need to get attendance up to at least 4,000 a game.

Documents filed by Nederlander with Hamilton County Court this spring stated the team's average paid attendance for the 2001-02 season was 1,473, less than half the figure the team reported. The team announced an average of 3,642 for 2002-03.

The Cyclones started their rebuilding by electing not to bring back Malcolm Cameron, who went 36-29-7 in his first year as coach and took the team to the Northern Conference finals.

They hired Chris Cichocki, a fan favorite from his days as a Cyclones player and assistant coach, as coach and general manager. Cichocki went 102-79-35 the past three years as coach of the Arkansas Riverblades.

The club says Cichocki and his players have begun a program of community interaction, including school visits.

The team is adding contests and giveaways during games and expanding its promotions to attract families, a market Dunne said the Cyclones hadn't targeted before. There are six Kids Clones Nights, with appearances by the likes of SpongeBob SquarePants, Spider-Man and the Powerpuff Girls.

Full, 22- and even 10-game season-ticket packages now include free parking, plus the chance to buy tickets to other events at the arena before the public on-sale dates.

Dunne and Cichocki said they have talked about developing a team that plays in a physical, entertaining style. "For a few years, that aspect hasn't been there with this team," Cichocki said.

Perhaps emblematic was Cichocki's first signing: Jeff Worlton, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound winger/defenseman who had no goals, one assist and 302 penalty minutes in 58 games last season with the Louisiana IceGators.

The four returning Cyclones are forwards Mike Casselman, Jason Norrie and Garrett Prosofsky. Casselman is the top returning scorer, with 53 points.

Goaltender Randy Petruk, who played for the Cyclones in 1997, is on a Carolina NHL contract and was assigned here. "He'll be a top-level goaltender," Cichocki said.

As much as winning, the goal this season is to recapture faith from the fan base. "We're going to bring the game back to the fans," Dunne said.

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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