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Michele O'Brien looked up from her vantage point to the rows of seats farthest away at the top of the new Enmarket Arena.
"There's not a bad seat in here," O'Brien said. "The nosebleeds are not nosebleeds here. They're not that high. There will be no bloody noses."
Take it from O'Brien, who is not a medical professional, though she is in health insurance sales.
She is originally from Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes and a lot of frozen water in rink form. She knows her ice hockey.
Viva Las Vegas!: Savannah Ghost Pirates hockey officials announce NHL affiliation
So when she moved to Savannah in August 2021 — always peak season for Northerners to get accustomed to the Hostess City's searing temperatures — and learned the city was getting a professional ice hockey team this October, she knew what to do.
Get a place in town with industrial-strength air conditioning, sure. She also bought in to the Savannah Ghost Pirates.
O'Brien attended a event Thursday for the Ghost Pirates, an expansion franchise in the ECHL, a Double-A-level minor league. The team announced their first head coach (Rick Bennett) and affiliates in the top-level NHL (Vegas Golden Knights) and next-rung-down AHL (Henderson Silver Knights).
Season-ticket holders like O'Brien and others took the opportunity to check out the arena's seating for hockey. The building has a maximum capacity at 9,500 with a seating plan of 7,000 to 7,500 for hockey games. That's relatively cozy confines in this league, with fans closer the action than in several barns with 10,500-plus seating. The only nosebleeds at Enmarket Arena could come from physical play on the ice.
O'Brien sat four rows up from the concrete floor, just to the right of what will be center ice.
"I want to sit near center ice and close enough you can hear when they hit the boards, hear the ice and feel the cool coming off the ice," said O'Brien, 47. "That's part of hockey."
We're gettin' lucky as we officially announce our NHL affiliate the @GoldenKnights, our AHL affiliate, the @HSKnights, and our Head Coach Rick Bennett! 🎲
Full Details | https://t.co/eZ2bA2pvfZ | @enmarketarena pic.twitter.com/No3jEeuiLo
— Savannah Ghost Pirates (@SavGhostPirates) May 19, 2022
O'Brien gets into it, speaking about the fast pace of play and line changes on the fly, of the sounds of skates cutting the ice, and even officials' whistles.
"If you can get close to the action, it's so much more fun to watch than trying to watch the puck on a TV screen," O'Brien said. "I know (TV game coverage) had the flaming puck; they tried it.
"It's just not the same to get the feel of it."
Not a hockey fan?: Here's why seeing Savannah's new team in person could change your mind
Welcome to Las Vegas East
We would have to use our imaginations at that moment. From the fourth row, O'Brien had an unobstructed view of a working casino on the main floor, with gambling chips changing hands, showgirls dancing and a recording of Elvis Presley crooning "Viva Las Vegas" over the speaker system.
The Ghost Pirates had taken the Vegas theme and run with it. The casino was all in fun — no real money but chances to win prizes.
The Golden Knights, through their American Hockey League affiliate Silver Knights, will be stocking Savannah with prospects. Team president Bob Ohrablo, a veteran front-office executive in this league, expects five to eight players on the roster at a time.
Players with higher ceilings improve the talent level. Referencing Savannah Mayor Van Johnson's public pledge/order to field a team that whips up on the other Southern cities in the league, Ohrablo understands the club has one chance to make a first impression in a new market.
"It's all about winning. We've got to win," he said about the partnership with Vegas, a winner since it was an expansion franchise in 2017-18. "We had to choose the team that we felt would get us into that winning column as quickly as possible.
"The mayor's putting us under a lot of pressure," he said with an unseen wink (possibly). "We really felt we needed to get a team that would help us win right off the bat. We have all the confidence in the world Vegas can help us do that."
Ghost Pirates CEO and majority owner Andy Kaufmann agreed. Once you get past the splashy images evoked by Las Vegas, there's work to be done.
"It's fun. Vegas is a fun city. 'Vegas baby,' and 'what happens in Vegas' and the fun things," Kaufmann said. "The reality is from a sheer hockey operations standpoint, it's a huge get for the Ghost Pirates organization and the city of Savannah. It's a huge deal. In hockey circles, it was a big surprise in a positive way. No one saw it coming. We're expansion, on the opposite coast."
Watching young players develop and, for some, make it all the way to top is one of the charms of minor league sports, said Stuart Schippereit, 73. He saw it growing up in Columbus, Ohio, which had a Triple-A baseball affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"I think it's a great thing because you can see kids as they start and then they move up," said the Savannah resident. "Sports is a 20- to 25-year process where you watch kids go though the minors and go to the bigs. You get to watch them perform in the baseball in the World Series, hockey in the Stanley Cup. To be able to be a part of that, to see that in the beginning, is unparalleled.
"Savannah is on the cusp of that kind of long-term, wonderful relationship," said Schippereit, who attended Thursday's event with his wife Janet Van Tuyl.
Winning over new fans
Savannah's Kurt and Dawn Kuster are not hockey fans — yet — but were scouting seating locations on the cusp of finalizing four season tickets. Ohrablo said Thursday that about 3,500 season tickets already have been sold for the new season, adding that the figure led the league.
"I know there's a lot of action at these corners, by the goal," said Kurt Kuster, a huge football fan raised in Ohio and a Savannah a resident since 1988.
"I'm excited. I am not (a hockey fan) but I think it'll be a lot of fun to get involved," said Dawn Kuster, a Georgia native.
She said the couple was in Tampa and caught a Lightning game and experienced how much fun the fans were having, including themselves.
"When we saw hockey was coming here, we said we need to get in on this. This will be a lot of fun for our family," she said, noting the team incorporating popular colors and Savannah's colorful history of ghosts and pirates.
"I think it was very clever. I think they did their homework," Dawn Kuster said. "I think it's really going to be supported by the community."
O'Brien is relatively new in town but sees indications that it will embrace pro hockey like it has the Savannah Bananas' brand of baseball at Grayson Stadium.
"If I judge it by all the (Ghost Pirates) magnets and stickers I've seen on cars, and then everybody I've seen here buying all the merchandise," O'Brien said, "they're going to love it."
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 already finding hockey fans at Enmarket Arena