Friday, October 22, 2004

Cyclones backers switch loyalty to (gasp!) Ducks



By Ryan Ernst
Enquirer staff writer

[photo]
Rick Rieman (right) of Greenhills and his son Noah, 7, diehard Cincinnati Cyclones hockey fans, have bought a block of 20 games featuring the Mighty Ducks hockey team at Cincinnati Gardens. They pose here with Buster the Mighty Duck mascot.
The Enquirer/JEFF SWINGER

Imagine having to switch allegiances to your sworn enemy, then receiving a bill for it.

Welcome to the morality play that has become life as a Cincinnati Cyclones fan.

Longtime supporters of the recently defunct minor-league hockey team are now being courted by the remaining team in town, the Mighty Ducks, who open their home schedule Saturday against Rochester. And the start of a new season is forcing fans to confront some pretty tough questions. What do they do without a team? What do they love more - their hockey or their Cyclones?

Don Helbig, the Mighty Ducks' vice president of communications and broadcasting, estimates that 60 percent to 65 percent of the Cyclones' hard-core, season-ticket-holding fans, have bought ticket packages with the Ducks. Still, he said some 'Clones fans refuse to even talk to ticket-sales representatives.

"It's totally unrealistic to think, because there's one team left, we're going to have sellouts every night," he said.

"You don't just follow a team for 14 years like some of them did, and then put the Cyclones jersey in the closet and put on an eggplant-(colored) one."

Fans such as Rick Rieman, who owns 15 Cyclones jerseys, would have never considered the wardrobe change. Rieman's high school buddy Rick Snapp convinced him to start going to games in 1990, the Cyclones' first season. By 1991, the two were season-ticket holders. By the third season ...

"I had found something that I loved," Rieman, now 36, said. "It was my game, and I looked at it as more than just a little franchise that was going to be gone in a couple years. We went to so many games, home and away - Knoxville, Nashville, Atlanta. We followed them around big time. The excitement was just incredible."

Rieman wasn't alone. By 1993, the Cyclones, who played in Cincinnati Gardens, led all of minor-league hockey in attendance. They also brought two things to the city no other local pro franchise did: sellouts and the playoffs.

But a move to the Crown (now U.S. Bank Arena) in 1997, along with the formation of the Ducks that same year, eventually led to smaller crowds for the Cyclones. The team's average attendance, which once hovered near 10,000, dropped to 2,204 in the 2003-04 season.

"(The front office) called a meeting with the season-ticket holders last winter," said Nancy Van Pelt, a fan so loyal she once moved from Anderson to Walnut Hills, partly to be closer to the arena. "We all wanted to talk about whether or not the team was going to come back. They acted like they didn't know, but the writing was on the wall."

April 7, it became official. The Cyclones would not be back for a 15th season. In a release, the organization said it was optimistic it would have a team for the 2005-06 season.

"At this point, we have to believe that," Cyclones fan club president Sherry Chapman said. "A lot of fans are keeping the faith with that. But if we don't hear something by April of next year, then we're pretty sure things aren't going to happen."

Some fans already have become Ducks supporters. Local radio personality, Cyclones public address announcer and admitted Ducks basher Dennis "Wildman" Walker now hosts Ducks events at his St. Bernard sports bar. "I'll always be a Cyclones guy," he said. "I worked for them for 14 years. I lived and breathed it. But you've got to move on."

Chapman and Van Pelt said they don't plan to attend Ducks games. Chapman and her husband will spend more time and money traveling. Van Pelt bought season tickets to Miami University hockey.

Others, such as Rick Rieman, couldn't let the local pro hockey scene go. Rieman recently called his friend Rick Snapp, with whom he began attending hockey games 14 years ago. He asked Snapp if he wanted to get a 20-game Ducks ticket package.

"I said, 'What?' " Snapp said of the phone call. "I thought someone hit him over the head or something."

But first Rieman, who had attended a Ducks open house geared toward wooing Cyclones fans, had to clear it with his other hockey pal, his son Noah. Rieman quickly learned the only thing harder than changing a hockey allegiance is explaining that change to a 7-year-old.

"There was really a bitter rivalry between the two teams. I always told my son, 'Don't like them,' " Rieman said of the Ducks. "But I got two tickets, one for him and one for me.

"I told him since the Cyclones are gone, we're going to watch the Ducks now. And he's OK with it."

E-mail rernst@enquirer.com




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