They're a big Hit

CAMERON MAXWELL -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 6:25 AM ET

The phones are heating up in the Calgary Hitmen ticket office. Thanks to the NHL lockout and the threat of no local pro hockey this season, Calgary's Western Hockey League club has already exceeded last year's season-ticket sales.

The club has sold 4,500 packages to date, over 200 more than last season. And with the season kicking off tonight in Red Deer (7:30 p.m.), the Hitmen are hoping to see a further rise in ticket sales.

"The goal is to get up to 6,000 and we're quite a ways from that but every phone call is a sale, which is a good problem, so we're extremely busy and we're a little overwhelmed," said Dan Cezar, director of ticket sales for the Hitmen.

"That's the goal we've set and we're hoping to get there. And besides season tickets, we're selling just a ton of packages and flex-packs. We're always busy at this time of year but never this busy."

And Cezar said if there is no NHL next month, when its season is supposed to start, he expects a spike in demand for Hitmen ducats, too.

Hitmen players and coaching staff are also hoping to see large numbers of fans filling the 'Dome as the NHL and the players' association try to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement.

"We're hoping people do come out and watch us and we do see a big jump in attendance," said Hitmen GM and bench boss Kelly Kisio. "But until that happens we'll keep pushing people to come out and watch our games."

The Hitmen are ranked No. 3 in Canada and No. 1 in the WHL. And a winning team would go a long way in terms of boosting fan support.

"Hopefully, we start off hot here and attract some people and get some more buzz going for our hockey team," Kisio said.

Calgary's home-opener is Sunday ('Dome, 2:30 p.m.) against Red Deer and Cezar expects more than 10,000 fans will be on hand.

"We'll see a spike of interest in Vancouver and Calgary for a couple of reasons," said WHL commissioner Ron Robison, adding the last NHL work stoppage in 2004 didn't affect the league at all. "One is the absence of any NHL hockey in those cities and also the fact that two of the top-ranked teams this year are the Hitmen and the Giants, so the timing couldn't be better in terms of interest in those large centres. And that's certainly where we're going to focus our attention."

The WHL also stands to benefit from the lockout with a new TV deal. The major junior league yesterday announced a three-year TV broadcasting contract with Shaw Cablesystems that will see the Calgary-based communications company offer 55 WHL games throughout western Canada, including 12 Hitmen contests.

While it's good timing for the WHL in terms of getting a potentially larger audience, the league and Shaw had been working on it for two years.

"It doesn't (directly) relate to the NHL lockout, it's coincidental as we've been working on this for a while," said Robison.


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