Oil Kings haven't taken hold in market

TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

It was, first of all, a terrific compliment to the kid.

And it was also a testimonial to the way Edmonton fans care about the Oilers.

This was more about Jordan Eberle being the Team Canada hero at the world junior championship and about his being the Oilers' first-round draft choice than it was about the Edmonton Oil Kings, who blanked Eberle's Regina Pats 1-0 at Rexall Place last night.

It was also about 2,000 free tickets to all the finalists of QuikCard Minor Hockey Week and another 2,000 kids from minor hockey teams that bought special tickets.

But at 13,765, it was an all-time record crowd for an Edmonton Oil Kings game -- even a couple hundred more than last year's CHL Prospects Game here.

At game number 127 into the rebirth of the once storied junior squad, the team had its first impact night on the Edmonton sports scene.

For Eberle, it was something to remember.

But for the Oil Kings?

Lets tell the truth, here. The Oil Kings haven't really taken hold in this market yet.

OVERPRICED

One major reason is that management of the parent Oilers overpriced the product, making Oil Kings tickets the most expensive in the WHL.

The Kings also made the same blunder as the Edmonton Ice with Northlands parking prices chasing away their customers in the last attempt to make major junior hockey fly here.

The Oil Kings finally faced that major mistake at mid-season this year by providing free parking to fans who buy tickets in advance.

The Oil Kings are claiming an average paid attendance figure of 4,767 this season, but regulars report a lot of games where they've been counting feet instead of heads. This may have a lot to do with the number of Founders Club tickets in the hands of Oiler season ticket holders.

A combination of 41 and 36 home games is a lot of hockey. But that was a legit 13,765 posteriors in the pews last night, and nothing creates attendance like having attendance.

"What it does is say you've really arrived and found a place in the landscape," said Oilers' president and CEO Pat LaForge.

"This game is four games in one for us in terms of crowd. When you get a crowd like this, it makes it a lot easier sell to get them back for another game. The biggest challenge is to get them in the building the first time," said the hockey boss who will also become a baseball boss when the deal to take over the Edmonton Cracker Cats (definitely to be renamed) is made official before the ominous deadline of Friday, Feb. 13.

Eberle's effect on the game was considerable.

"Ticket sales increased rather dramatically in the last couple days with all the media attention on Eberle," was how Oil Kings VP Nick Wilson put it.

"I think this night was really important for us. I think it goes a long way to getting us established as more than just another junior hockey product in a big hockey market."

The team hasn't been fortunate enough to have a guaranteed future NHL superstar to follow yet.

TOUTED

But 2007 bantam draft first pick Mark Pysyk, who is leading the team in ice time at age 16, is already being touted as a future NHL first-round draft pick.

And 2008 bantam draft first pick Michael St. Croix is a 15-year-old who has 80 points in 32 games in Winnipeg midget AAA and could be something special.

The goal here is to become what the Giants are in Vancouver and the Hitmen are in Calgary, with both averaging just under 10,000 a game for several seasons now.

No, the Oil Kings haven't created much of a footprint for themselves in their Edmonton re-entry yet.

And they won't, until a significant percentage of the population wakes up in the morning wanting to find out how the team fared the night before.

That probably won't happen until they get themselves into their first playoff series.

In the meantime, a happening like last night can go a long way toward getting you to that day.


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