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When Savannah loves its sports, it really loves its sports.
The Ghost Pirates, Savannah's new professional ice hockey team, is 3 for 3 in selling out Enmarket Arena this season. Granted, it's a very — very — small sample size compared to, say, the Savannah Bananas baseball organization's run of selling out games since its inaugural campaign in the summer of 2016.
Still, the Hostess City has been a perfect host for its first pro hockey franchise in its new facility. The seating capacity for hockey is officially 6,876, and that's the number reported by the team three times so far to the ECHL, a 28-team minor league likened to Double-A in baseball.
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Savannah, which doesn't have the largest arena in the league, ranks fifth in average attendance (right: 6,876) through Sunday's games. Only Tulsa (8,797 average, 17,000 capacity), Jacksonville (7,946; about 8,500), Fort Wayne (7,659; 10,500) and Toledo (7,094; 8,000) were ahead of Savannah, and a much, much larger tourist mecca in Orlando (6,325; 17,000) was in sixth.
Though not expecting sellouts for an entire season, this battle of supply vs. demand is a good problem to have. So it's a positive development for those hockey-starved or just curious Savannahians to hear from one of the arena's top brass that help could be on the way.
"We're looking at areas we could add seating for all events," said Peter Luukko, Chairman of OVG360, a division of the Oak View Group, which manages and operates Enmarket Arena. "That's been an issue for us. The building's been so popular for concerts, hockey and other events, we're looking to find a way to add seats. That is a priority of ours."
Luukko made those comments on Nov. 7, two days after witnessing the Ghost Pirates' home debut. Part of his job — a very good part — with Oak View Group is observing how the new buildings handle operations, including opening nights.
OVG operates and manages more than 200 properties across North America, including the homes to NHL teams at PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh Penguins) and three new facilities in Mullett Arena (Arizona Coyotes as well as Arizona State University in an unusual arrangement), Climate Pledge Arena (Seattle Kraken) and UBS Arena (New York Islanders).
The Kraken and Islanders are playing in 17,000-plus-seat arenas for hockey, but Enmarket Arena is not far off for what it offers fans, Luukko said.
"It's really the experience of a National Hockey League game, but in a smaller-capacity arena," he said, and that's a good thing in terms of optimal sight lines and being closer to the action.
Luukko attended opening night along with team ownership and staff; arena personnel; ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin; officials from the Ghost Pirates' NHL affiliate, the Vegas Golden Knights; and 6,876 customers.
Luukko watched it all with a unique perspective, and we mean watched it all, from A to Zamboni. From parking lot traffic to customer service at arena entry points to traffic on the concourses, at concessions and the merchandise store, to the rink conditions, locker room amenities, all of it.
He's a hockey man under that corporate executive suit. The Boston native has been a hockey player, coach and executive, formerly helped run the Philadelphia Flyers and currently is the executive chairman of the Florida Panthers.
His son, Nick Luukko, just so you know, is head coach and director of hockey operations of the ECHL's Jacksonville Icemen franchise — which shares ownership as well as South Division residency with Savannah. So it's a small hockey world.
Savannah's first night 'very well done'
Peter Luukko gave high marks to the entire operation on opening night.
"First of all, the hockey ops folks took care of the play on the ice, which was fantastic," he said. "The business folks did a great job with in-game presentation. It was very well done."
He spoke with the hockey people about ice conditions, that there were no odd bounces off of the glass and boards. The off-ice officials were on top of things, too. The lighting and sound systems and the videoboards all had to be glitch-free.
There were no preseason games at Enmarket Arena, so the test drive was the real test.
"Especially in your first game, maybe there's some rough edges or so. We didn't seem to see any of that," Luukko said. "The (ECHL) commissioner Ryan Crelin was here. He said this was one of the best openers he'd ever seen, which was a good litmus test."
The bottom line is the fans' experience. There already were ice hockey fans in Savannah — likely from somewhere else — but there has not been pro ice hockey here.
The Savannah Civic Center had hosted the annual Enmarket Savannah Hockey Classic for college club teams from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Florida State. The event, which for this coming Jan. 13-14 has moved to Enmarket Arena, features intense competition between rival squads juiced by an electric atmosphere from passionate (and some juiced) fans of their schools.
That event is arguably more social than hockey-driven for many fans. Now there's hockey weekly in Savannah and a learning curve to hurdle. The Ghost Pirates want to be more than a novelty or annual calendar event; they want Savannah to root for its hockey team.
"It was outstanding," Luukko said of the atmosphere on Nov. 5. "The building was electric. The fans were loud."
They were loud at the right times — not a given with novice attendees.
"They were booing penalties against the team; they were cheering, obviously, for goals and big hits. It was fun to watch. The attentiveness of the crowd was really impressive."
There's only one chance to make a first impression, and home openers, especially, can put more pressure on teams to perform. That certainly could have been the dynamic for the Ghost Pirates as they skated onto fresh ice before a new audience.
"The home opener in a new facility is tough on the home team," Luukko said. "Players can almost get over-amped, trying too hard, too early. Running around trying to make things happen, not sticking to their systems. Frankly, it's hard to win in your home opener."
— Savannah Ghost Pirates (@SavGhostPirates) November 8, 2022
Ghost Pirates win big for openers
The Ghost Pirates didn't disappoint after a scoreless first period, piling it on for a 5-1 victory over the Greenville (S.C.) Swamp Rabbits. Savannah had a 5-2-2-0 record through Sunday for 12 points, tied for second most behind Florida in the South Division.
"I've got to say, (head coach) Rick Bennett and the players certainly came prepared to play," Luukko said. "They had a plan and executed that plan and looked very good on the ice."
Everything off the ice looked very good as well to Luukko. He did note lines for food and beverages, and florescent green-and-black merchandise flying off the shelves to the point where some items sold out. The same already is true of the online merchandise store.
Restocking inventory was on the to-do list, "which is a real good problem to have," said Luukko, noting no major changes, only that "fine-tuning" was necessary.
Luukko said staffers were monitoring the lines, where a stopwatch was more functional than an hour glass.
"The key is you're always going to get lines between (hockey) periods because everybody empties out," he said. "It's always the question of what is that speed? Are people getting through the lines in a proper fashion?"
Menu selection is customized to each arena's market, so Savannah's preferences are minded, but sports fans generally are hungry for traditional ballpark fare.
"I think the key is there are certain comfort foods that are important, but how do you package that hot dog? Is it the best hot dog? Do you have the best chicken fingers? Do you do cool things with the items?" Luukko said. "That's what's important. Do you have a good local flavor, which we do have. That's some pretty good stuff."
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A fan's experience at a facility with a nine-figure pricetag can be swayed by the cost and quality of chicken fingers. Luukko said the arena's operators are always making adjustments, looking for ways to improve the experience with new products and other facets.
"I'm sure there are things we need to do better," he said.
He said that since the arena opened at the start of the year, they've had time and a number of events to "sort of work out the bugs there."
"The question being the first game, I think it was an overwhelming success," Luukko said. "We're always looking to make adjustments based on what we see and the fans see and the operations people see. We're constantly looking to do things better and we're not afraid to make changes. I think that's the important thing: you never stay satisfied."
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at email@example.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Ghost Pirates ice hockey ECHL team as viewed by Peter Luukko