Changes could be coming to the Federal Hockey League, but the Carolina Thunderbirds are on solid ground and have found a home at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex.
Scott Brand, the general manager of the Thunderbirds, looked around Saturday night at the Annex and was pleased with the crowd. Despite a popular concert going on at Joel Coliseum at the same time and a wintry mix outside, more than 2,100 were there to watch the Thunderbirds beat the Danville (Ill.) Dashers 4-2.
Brand indicated there are expansion possibilities with the Federal Hockey League but that shouldn’t affect the Thunderbirds, who have four regular-season games left and then the playoffs.
“There will definitely be a hockey team here next year and right now we are in the Federal Hockey League,” Brand said. “There are three expansion teams the league is looking at right now but that’s about all I can say.”
The league lost one franchise during the season for financial reasons as the Cornwall Nationals from Ontario, Canada, folded. That left the FHL with five teams.
“There will definitely be some tweaking within the league,” Brand said about next season. “But I’m not at liberty to say what could happen.”
As for the Thunderbirds, Brand said the lease has been extended with the city for two more seasons.
The Annex, which holds about 3,000, has had six standing-room-only crowds this season. The Thunderbirds lead the FHL in attendance averaging 2,192 for 28 games. Their total attendance has a chance to reach close to 60,000, something Brand said exceeded his expectations.
“We automatically hit all our marks for renewal and we have loved everything about how this year has gone,” Brand said. “All the safety checks are in place and we’ll start selling season tickets for next year already.”
There has been speculation about the Thunderbirds joining the 10-team Southern Professional Hockey League. It would make sense geographically with teams from Fayetteville and Roanoke, Va.
Brand says the Southern Professional Hockey League officials would like the Annex to be updated. The 3,000-seat Annex would also be the smallest arena in the SPHL and the 2,192 average the Thunderbirds have this season would rank last in the SPHL. The average attendance of the SPHL is 3,208.
“The city is talking about getting some money for the glass and the boards,” Brand said about the rink. “They need to be upgraded.”
Attendance has been good all season, according to Brand, because it’s affordable. Parking is free and single-game tickets are as low as $10.
By comparison, it cost $20 to park for the Miranda Lambert concert that was held Saturday night at Joel Coliseum.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is we knew it was a good sports town here,” Brand said. “People responded when we invested in advertising and promotion. You have to treat the hockey with respect and if you just get people in the building they will see how fun and fast paced it can be.”
It also doesn’t hurt when fisticuffs happen on the ice, such as it did on Saturday night with three fights between the Thunderbirds and Dashers. The two teams played each other 18 times this season and from the looks of it were tired of each other, which led to the gloves coming off.
The Thunderbirds, who secured third place in the Federal Hockey League, will be in the playoffs when the regular season ends. They will play host to second-place Watertown on April 13 at 7:30 p.m. in Game 1 of the best-of-three series. The other two games, if the third game is necessary, will be in Watertown, N.Y.
Brand said next month the team will begin selling season tickets for next season.
What has also been helpful for fans who follow the team closely is the radio coverage on WTOB 980 in Winston-Salem and also WAME in Statesville. Al Kessler is the voice of the Thunderbirds, and every home and away game has been available on the radio or the team’s web site.
Brand is excited how the first season went, and is looking forward to the future.
“Season tickets will stay the same,” Brand said about pricing for next season. “And the $10 and $12 tickets will stay the same but what might change is the seating near the glass for walk-up tickets will likely increase a little bit.”
Brand also hopes the Annex could be upgraded with its lighting to make the experience for fans a lot better.
“We are working on getting more of a light show maybe for introductions and just enhancing the experience for the fans,” Brand said. “We are looking at some festive lighting.”