Friday, May 07, 2010

Baltimore Hockey History: The Last Baltimore Hockey Team....For Now

Two years after the Skipjacks left for Portland, Maine; Bob Teck and Alan Gertner thought it would be time to bring some kind of hockey back to the area, because they had thought it was for the best. These two pump millions of dollars to get the Bandits off the ground. They also had the backing of the Disney Corporation, who designed the raccoon logo and jerseys that were worn on-ice (As an aside, anyone with a lead on where to get one of these jerseys-- let me know). With that kind of clout and the mentality that they would be able to provide a good atmosphere for the fans, there was a positive vibe for the team to come through the struggles and actually make Baltimore more than a hockey footnote.

The ideology was superb to start. Teck said that with over 30 area high schools having teams and kids playing in the streets, it was the right time in order to expand the landscape of popularity. The ownership team learned, also, from the mistakes of the past. An article done by current NFL Network contributer Jason LaCanfora about the new team showed what the Bandits team had learned from what the Skipjacks could not.

The Baltimore Bandits will market extensively and promote the sport. The Skipjacks did little in those areas to boost the team. Bob Leffler, whose ad agency handled the Skipjacks, now works for the Bandits. He said the new ownership is consumed with making hockey work.

"Gertec is putting together a massive marketing campaign," Leffler said. "They are dedicated to spending $1 million to advertising. The last time we had that kind of financial support was with the Blast [of the Major Indoor Soccer League] in the mid-'80s. They were drawing 11,000 fans a game then."

Bandits merchandise has been in stores since mid-July, the team already has begun advertising on Orioles radio broadcasts and it is negotiating with three local radio stations for broadcast rights. It will focus its campaign on television and billboard advertising in the coming months.

You could see that these guys were waiting for the money to start rolling in for this team. You have to spend money to make money, right?? Right??

In any case, there was a big buzz around the new team. The purple, silver, and black was ready to hit the ice and maybe erase the entire loss of the Skipjacks, even though the Jacks were beloved for the past decade. The Bandits had a backing from a major corporation and seemed to be primed to be a big success.

The first season on ice, there were ups and downs, but the fans seemed to turn out at the start. I, myself, along with Papa Stan Wazz were partial season ticket holders because it was a little bit closer than traveling to Landover to watch the Capitals play. The team had their finesse guys, but also the bruisers. The likes of Jeremy Stevenson and Peter Leboutillier had over 200 PIMs on the season, while Dwayne Norris, Mike Maneluk, Slava Butsayev, and Steven King were lighting up the score sheet. The likes of Darren Van Impe and J-F Jomphe were chartering between the AHL and NHL, as Denny Lambert became a folk hero as he moved down to Baltimore after his Anaheim dreams didn't pan out. Another folk hero was Mike O'Neill, who set an AHL record for playing 74 games in a season in the 1995-96 season.

While the Bandits finished with a 33-36-9 record and third in the Southern Division. They made the playoffs, although everyone but two teams made the playoffs. They were able to upset the Hershey Bears 3-games-to-2 in the first round and lost in seven games to the other underdog Syracuse Crunch, who finished last in their division. The on-ice product seemed to be there, but it's off-ice where things started to go horribly wrong.

Three-quarters through the season, the ownership trust of Teck and Gertner was in trouble. They had unpaid debt to a number of groups. The team owed their parent team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, $500,000, as well; they owed the AHL $100,000 of the $1 million franchise fee. The duo of Teck and Gertner decided to hand over the team, not even out of their first year, to Mike Caggiano; a Northern Virginia businessman, who went to school in Baltimore and owned the Potomac Cannons baseball team to some success. Teck and Gertner made more bad decisions than good, but when it comes to an expansion team-- you have to make good decisions through and through; especially in an uneasy market. Caggiano gave his confidence that the team would stay in the city and would be on even ground after management and financial re-structuring.

The second season had as much turmoil on the ice as they were off the ice. On the ice, there was a coaching change as Walt Kyle was replaced with Moe Mantha as Kyle went to Anaheim. There were a lot of changes with the likes of O'Neill, Norris, Butsayev, and the other notable gone to other pastures. Craig Reichert, Mike LeClerc, and David Sacco held up the offense and they had five guys with over 20 goals on the season, including Bob Wren, Sean Pronger, and Igor Nikulin added with Reichert and LeClerc. The goaltending of Mike Bales and Tom Askey couldn't fulfill the workload that O'Neill had left, which led to struggles from the team. Even with all of that, the Bandits finished up with a 30-37-10 record, but lost in the first round as the Philadelphia Phantoms dominated the Bandits in a three-game sweep.

Things were much worse off the ice, as debt continued to pile-up. After the 1995-96 season, the Bandits were $1.6 million in debt, but it rose to $3.7 million after the 1996-97 season, including owing the AHL more than $500,000 in franchise costs, their billboard people over $30,000, the audio/visual team over $3,000, and their jersey people $5,000 for lettering the jerseys. Caggiano realized he was over his head and looked to sell the team. Some of the shareholders tried to stop any sale because they though insider debt would be recouped, but that didn't seem to be the case. The team was eventually sold to the owners of the Cincinnati Gardens and the team became the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. In the state-of-the-franchise report, Caggiano said that they did all they could in order to save the franchise.

Even more over, the Bandits were having issues with the schedule. They often were bumped by the owners of the building to give preference to the Baltimore Spirit indoor soccer team over any Bandits games that could take place. That brought the attendance and general interest down because of it. Caggiano went against the city council many times trying to lobby for a new arena for the team, as the Baltimore Arena lacked what a professional team needed. Caggiano also went as far as going to the AHL and trying to relocate the Bandits' playoff games to Hershey, Pennsylvania because of the Spirit locking up dates in the Baltimore Arena. It did not happen, but it was an interesting proposition. Of course, that left a bad taste in the mouth of the city council, thus support dwindled; which helped along the demise.

It only took two seasons for this team to go into the crapper and really was one of the first of the rotating teams the AHL had gone through. The Bandits were one of the many teams to not last long in their area and relocate-- along with the Kentucky Thoroughblades, Carolina Monarchs, PEI Senators, and Cornwall Aces to name a few. While there is still shuffling today, it's not as wide-spread it seems.

The ownership to start had a lot of promise for the team. They did all they could to make hockey a mainstay in the Baltimore landscape, but there could have been a lot of sidetracking with he Ravens coming into the NFL and the poorly processed marketing campaigns. While the sport on the grassroots level has become popular through time, the actual professional game has never and may never take off as it should or could in the Baltimore area. Especially with the popularity of the Capitals, the time could never be better for hockey in the area. Yet, with the lack of a new arena and support from outside interests-- the time-frame will close shut before anything tangible and realistically comes to be.

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