Against the odds

ROB TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 8:01 AM ET

That the Edmonton Rush are still standing, on a sports landscape that's littered with the dried out carcasses of Aviators, Skyhawks, Sled Dogs, Ice and too many incarnations of professional soccer to count, is a success story all by itself.

And for that, owner Bruce Urban can take a bow.

It ain't easy launching an expansion team in a city with a long history of starving to death virtually any team that doesn't:

A) Play with a puck.

B) Play with a puck that has Gary Bettman's signature on it.

C) Win.

"It's a tough city," said Urban, whose National Lacrosse League entry is alive and well, having defied the odds for two and a half seasons at Rexall Place. "When you start naming teams that haven't made it here, the list is long. I guess, with the exception of the two teams that are still around (Oilers and Eskimos), everyone else is gone. Even the first shot at WHL hockey didn't make it."

Yet here are the Rush, averaging some 9,500 fans a game, with crowds that have swelled as high as 14,700, despite fielding a program that flies in the face of A, B and C.

"I guess at the start it was a bit of curiosity factor, and in every game that first year we did a lot of marketing, we'd bring in somebody for halftime entertainment every game," said Urban, who flew in the likes of Dennis Rodman, Brooke Burke, the Trailer Park Boys and a custom made Orange County Chopper to help generate a buzz.

"You'd have people who'd say, 'I'm not really into lacrosse, but let's go see the Trailer Park Boys, see how close I can get to Bubbles. A lot of times you had 9,000 or 10,000 people in the building who didn't have a clue what the rules were.

"But once they were at the game they saw that it was a pretty good experience. They had a few beers, had good seats, they could sit with four or five of their friends, which you can't do at an Oilers game, and they said maybe we'll come back. A lot of those fans stuck."

About 9,500 of them, which is middle of the pack in the NLL, pretty good for a team that's 2-6 and fantastic when compared with some of the fly-by-night teams in Edmonton that didn't even last a full season.

But it's down from 10,500 in year one and 10,800 last season, and in any business, trending down is a dangerous development.

"I thought we'd be around 13,000 average attendance by now," admits the owner. "But I thought we'd be playing .500 lacrosse by now, too."

Clearly, novelty and sizzle only last so long and only take a team so far. At some point, if a sports franchise is to evolve from fringe to mainstream, it has to deliver substance. It has to win.

That's where the Rush are now. Urban's done just about everything right off the field, but unless they start winning, further fan erosion is inevitable.

"The excuses are done," he said. "We made that clear by cleaning out the coaching staff (after an 0-5 start). I can accept (losing) in year one when you're dealing with tryout camps. But we've had three years worth of draft picks, we've had expansion drafts, they had time to try and field a competitive team.

"Now, ultimately, we need to win some games. The culture of the fan in Edmonton is winning."

New head coach and GM Bob Hamley is 2-1, including yesterday's come-from-behind overtime victory over defending NLL champion Rochester. And today, they host the NLL All-star game at Rexall Place. Two more steps, hopes Urban, in the right direction.

"In our last game of the season last year, just on the prospect of making the playoffs, we had a crowd of 14,700," he said. "That was just on the chance that we might make the playoffs.

"This is a great sports city and if we start winning, we're going to be in really good shape here.

"I can truly say that in a few years from now, if we don't have 15,000 a night I'll be surprised. People know now that this team is here to stay."


Videos

Photos