Wishing not enough for Moose

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

From the dressing room to the front office, there are more reasons for optimism surrounding the Manitoba Moose these days than there are cracks in the Winnipeg Arena concrete.

Heck, these guys should be halfway to giddy by now.

If the Moose brass had compiled a fantasy wish-list during the off-season, it would read something like this:

1. Attract more attention to your league. Check.

Thanks to the NHL Lockout, the spotlight is on the AHL like never before.

At last count, 22 games were set for live broadcast on the cable channel, Sportsnet, 11 of them featuring the Moose.

"We weren't certain to what extent it was going to put us in the spotlight," Manitoba co-owner/president Mark Chipman said yesterday. "It's caused people to take notice of the product. I don't think people would stay interested if they didn't like what they see."

Which brings us to...

2. Add some star quality. Check.

Name players like Jay Bouwmeester, Jason Spezza and Jordin Tootoo are coming to a rink near you, not to mention Manitoba's own Jason King and Alex Auld, two players who surely would have started the season with the parent Vancouver Canucks.

"You see a lot more second, third and even fourth-year players play prominent roles because of the lockout," Moose coach Randy Carlyle was saying yesterday. "Normally those players would either be on the cusp or in the NHL lineup. So overall, you've got to say the league should be better."

Of course, nobody likes a loser, so...

3. Get off to a good start. Check.

The Moose won three of their first four, all on the road, and have gone retro in the process, scoring goals at a 1980s clip.

The league's top-10 list looks like a Manitoba game program: Jason King, Peter Sarno, Jeff Heerema, Ryan Kesler and Lee Goren are all on it, King with seven goals in four games.

"That shows us how good we can be," said Kesler, who's already scored his third -- four months earlier than last year.

4. Create a buzz around the new downtown rink. Check.

Moose season-ticket sales are at 5,100, up from some 3,400 last year, due mainly to the excitement generated by the new building.

"We're not done," Chipman said.

Which brings us to the final item on the wish list.

5. The perfect home opener.

If the Moose were going to choose the perfect opponent for tonight's Arena debut, it might just be the Edmonton Road Runners, potentially the natural rival Manitoba has been looking for.

With the game on a Friday, there should be some real buzz around the old rink -- just look at what the Road Runners created in Edmonton last weekend, drawing an amazing 16,000 for their home opener and averaging 9,000 through their first four games.

Canadian hockey fans are obviously desperate for a fix, right?

Just one problem: Here in the 'Peg, our withdrawal symptoms have been fading for years.

Tonight's ticket total is at a modest 6,406, and counting.

A crowd of 7,000 would represent the smallest crowd for a Moose home opener since the AHL arrived four years ago, and advance sales for tomorrow's rematch are slower, yet.

It seems the Moose have been so focused on filling the new rink, the opening weekend may have slipped through the marketing cracks a little.

Focusing on that would probably be nitpicking, though.

Fact is, this franchise has plugged away for eight years, never quite winning the hearts of local sports fans, but refusing to quit trying.

It's learned plenty during that time, and continues to.

Today's lesson: Even when all the stars seem to be aligned, you've still got to work like hell to sell the thing.

Wishing is never enough.


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