Monday, April 12, 2004

For Cyclones, the plot took wrong twists

Ducks and downtown did in team

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Cincinnati Cyclones officials announced last week they would suspend operations for the 2004-05 season, it marked a surprising end to what had been one of the most wildly successful minor league franchises at the gate in Cincinnati history.

Cincinnati Cyclones fans used to sell out the Gardens with regularity.
(Enquirer file photo)
In the early 1990s, the Cyclones satisfied Cincinnatians who were eager for hockey - and a party atmosphere. From 1990 to 1993, sellouts of the 10,000-plus-seat Cincinnati Gardens were a regular occurrence, and almost every night there were 8,000 and 9,000 spectators.

But a series of events - the arrival of another minor league team, the breakup of the International Hockey League, and, most prominently, the club's decision in 1997 to move from the Gardens to downtown's Coliseum - hastened last week's decision. And it most likely left Cincinnati hockey fans with just one minor league team, the Mighty Ducks of the American Hockey League.

The irony is that the Cyclones left the Cincinnati Gardens in 1997 in search of something better. Downtown and the Coliseum - now US Bank Arena - had much to offer, and the team seemed poised to become a team around which winter life revolves.

But the move backfired. Massive construction along the riverfront in the late 1990s and early 2000s nearly strangled the Cyclones. People didn't want to fight traffic and parking problems.

"I think what happened is they had ambition," said Jerry Robinson, owner of the Gardens, who welcomed the Cyclones in 1990.

"They (the Cyclones management) felt there were all these single people (downtown) who wanted to go out for a drink at 5 or 5:30 and get something to eat and then go to a hockey game," Robinson said. "Me, I've always believed that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. They had a good thing going at the Gardens."

Also hurting Cyclones attendance was the presence of another hockey team, the Mighty Ducks, who thrived in the building the Cyclones vacated: the Gardens.

The Ducks' arrival was a lucky break for Robinson. He had invested in an ice-making system to bring hockey back to the Gardens, and in addition to losing the Cyclones, he was soon to lose the Xavier Musketeers basketball team to their on-campus arena, Cintas Center.

"When the Cyclones moved down to the river, the diehards went with them," said Sherry Chapman, president of the Cyclones fan club. "I didn't say 'Uh-oh' when the Cyclones moved. I said 'Uh-oh' when Jerry Robinson brought in a team right behind them."

And by the mid-1990s, a once-rosy future had bleakened considerably for the Cyclones and former owner Doug Kirchofer, who declined to comment for this story.

The owner, now the president of the Tennessee Smokies, a Double-A minor league baseball team, lost some key members of his Cyclones management team, including former pro wrestler Ron Fuller, who'd been in charge of marketing.

And the IHL was having problems. The Cyclones weren't the only team to move to bigger, glitzier, downtown arenas. Travel budgets were exploding, and the Cyclones ultimately didn't have the attendance to keep up. Neither did most IHL teams: The league folded.

The Cyclones found a home in the lower-rung 31-team East Coast Hockey League, but that didn't help. Announced attendance of 2,204 per game this season ranked last in the league.

For Pete Robinson, who is Jerry's son and the Ducks president and chief executive officer, the Cyclones' story offers some lessons.

"There was ambition to not only get into a bigger arena but to get into the entertainment sector," Pete Robinson said. "It can be difficult putting on concerts and big family shows while also trying to give good dates to the hockey team."


Reporters Neil Schmidt and Jack Murray contributed to this story.

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