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UAA to close most of the balcony seating for hockey

Doyle Woody

As attendance continued to plummet for UAA hockey games at Sullivan Arena the last two seasons, the building often became so quiet you could easily hear a player call for a teammate to pass the puck -- "Jordie!''

You could hear the sharp crack of a puck arriving on a stick blade.

And you could hear coaches using the game's universal language to alert their puck-carrier his team owned a 3-on-2 advantage rushing the puck -- "Three! Three! Three!''

Rarely heard was the roar of the crowd -- because there usually wasn't much of a crowd. Most nights, official attendance -- tickets sold, mind you, not even actual butts in seats -- did not reach half the 6,251 that UAA calls a capacity crowd at Sullivan. Several visiting coaches have said privately for years now that playing UAA at Sullivan feels like a neutral-site game.

Thursday, UAA announced a change in its seating policy that it hopes will create more of a home-ice advantage and pump up the atmosphere at Seawolves home games.

The school said it will close Sullivan's south balcony to fans, and close off much of the north balcony too. Most fans will be seated in the lower bowl -- Sullivan features a lower bowl completely around the rink, and balconies on the north and south sides.

The lower bowl seats 3,242, according to UAA, and the Seawolves last season averaged 2,729 fans per game, the lowest number since 1983-84, the program's first full season in Sullivan.

"First and foremost, we want to, hopefully, improve the atmosphere for our student-athletes,'' said UAA interim athletic director Tim McDiffett. "We think it has a chance to enhance the fan experience as well. You're gathered in a more confined area and have the feeling you're in a building with a better vibe.''

First-year UAA coach Matt Thomas, who said he lobbied for the change, believes cramming more fans into closer quarters will create more sound, jack up the crowd and furnish some measure of a traditional home-ice advantage.

He understands how big crowds at Sullivan can influence a game because he previously coached ECHL Stockton and played the Alaska Aces in the mostly-full building. Also, playing before raucous crowds at Stockton Arena, his Thunder teams were known for their fast, emotional starts to games, and opponents like the Aces opening talked about weathering the storm of the first 10 minutes at Stockton.

"I think it's absolutely huge,'' Thomas said. "As a player and a coach, the one thing you want to feel is the energy and the desire of the (home) crowd to ignite you. (As an opponent), right away there's a sense of intimidation, a sense of trying to keep the crowd out of it.''

UAA lists seating capacity at Sullivan as 6,251. The Aces call it 6,399.

Six rows in the north balcony will remain open to UAA season ticket-holders, McDiffett said, because some of them prefer the view from higher in the building, which permits a better survey of the entire rink. Any remaining seats in the north balcony will go to fans who buy single tickets.

McDiffett said he understands some fans may dislike sitting in lower seats, where sight lines can be distorted by plexiglass that surrounds the rink. Also, fans sitting in seats near the glass and corners do not get a clean view of the far corner on that side of the rink.

"I hear that loud and clear, and I get that concern, and it's something we took into consideration,'' McDiffett said. "We certainly appreciate the fans who have stuck with us through tough times.

"We thought we did our best to accommodate people with season tickets, and there are some single tickets up there (in the balcony). After talking to the coaching staff, we really wanted to rekindle the spirit and the atmosphere. We know this is not going to be a perfect solution. To those people, I say we're hoping to grow back into the balcony.''

McDiffett said UAA has ordered seat covers for the balcony seating it will close off and hopes those coverings arrive for its Oct. 11 season opener against Quinnipiac in the Kendall Hockey Classic at Sullivan. The coverings will cost roughly $10,000, McDiffett said.

If ticket sales warrant opening up other balcony sections of Sullivan, McDiffett said, the coverings can easily be peeled back to accommodate more fans.

"We need to create a demand for it,'' Thomas said. "In the meantime, we want to create a fun, loud and energetic atmosphere.''

Sullivan once proved a truly hostile building for Seawolves opponents, and a packed one. UAA sold out every home game in 1993-94 and 1994-95, its first two seasons in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Granted, that was before the Alaska Aces came along. The Aces last season averaged 4,783 fans per regular-season home game compared to UAA's 2,729. Of course, the Aces have forged a winning record in each of their 10 ECHL seasons and have won two Kelly Cups as league champions. The Seawolves have endured 20 consecutive losing seasons.

UAA attendance declined in five of the last six seasons, and has dropped 30.2 percent -- from an average of 3,910 per game to last season's average of 2,729 -- in that span.

Thomas said he understands winning is the quickest, most proven method of boosting attendance. He's charged with rebuilding a UAA team that last season went just 4-25-7 overall and finished last in the WCHA for a second straight season. Until things begin to turn around for the Seawolves, he said bringing fans closer together is the best way to improve the atmosphere at Sullivan for both players and fans.

"We're trying to create home-ice advantage, and the way to do that is get people together and feed off each others' energy,'' Thomas said. "We want visiting teams to come here and not like it.''

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

 


By DOYLE WOODY
dwoody@adn.com