Hockey Stangs settle in JLC

JIM KERNAGHAN -- Free Press Sports Columnist

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

The first step toward a changing London sports landscape will be taken tomorrow night at the John Labatt Centre.

It's not just that the Western Mustangs hockey team will open its season there against Waterloo Warriors. The Western team established a Canadian university record crowd for a JLC game last January, so it's not that.

What's different is that the game, the first of all 12 Mustangs regular season home games at the JLC, presents the likelihood of a new sports pecking order in town.

Traditionally, fan following has the major junior Knights way out front, the football Mustangs next and then a long drop to everyone else.

The move from Thompson arena has the potential to revamp the entire dynamic and put the hockey Mustangs in No. 2 spot among London sports attractions.

"Our three-year plan calls for 9,000 fans a game," Western athletic director Mike Lysko said. "We could even reach 5,000 a game by the end of this season."

A bold assertion, considering tomorrow's game probably won't do much more than 2,000 in light of a ticketing snafu Lysko admits cropped up. Tickets are scaled $6 to $12.

The ticket problems relate to the group sales with the JLC's new ticket agency, Lysko said. "There've been some challenges, but we're working on them."

Tomorrow's crowd likely won't approach the 5,230 for Western's record toe-in-the-water test of the JLC against Lakehead Thunderwolves, but will top anything in recent years at the campus arena.

Comparing the draw of the two UWO teams is comparing apples and oranges. The gridiron team has four regular season games at TD Waterhouse Stadium and every game matching the record 10,788 Homecoming crowd won't outdraw a well-marketed hockey team with 12 home games.

But it's not only the numbers themselves that can change the sports scene. Playing in the attractive confines of the JLC, hockey head coach Clarke Singer says, probably will be a boon to recruiting.

"We primarily recruit OHL guys," he said. "Many of them have played there to full houses against the Knights, so they're familiar with the JLC."

Which speaks to what attracts fans in the first place. Nothing does it as effectively as winning. At the JLC, the hockey Mustangs become a more attractive proposition for top players.

There have been negative murmurs around campus about taking the team downtown from venerable Thompson arena in the first place. Thompson is functional, well maintained . . . and in the wrong place.

Access and parking are just a couple of reasons why the team attracted fewer than 400 paid fans a game last season.

The hockey team has been described as London's best-kept sports secret so many times it has to rate as the world's most publicized best-kept secret. Nailing down a rental agreement only last summer did not permit a very long marketing thrust, but the players themselves have been doing their part.

"They've been out wearing their jerseys selling tickets and putting up posters," Singer said. "They're doing as much as they can to increase our visibility."

But nothing can replace winning. The Mustangs didn't have their finest hour at the JLC last January, bowing to Lakehead 8-4.

Singer said that was part of the reason the Mustangs went on to win the Ontario title. It came in the midst of a tough patch, when Singer and some players were returning from the World University Games and the team was slumping. "That adversity helped us in the long run."


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