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Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Iowa Heartlanders say there is room for 2 hockey teams in the Corridor

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Iowa Heartlanders say there is room for 2 hockey teams in the Corridor
Written by Publishing Team

Fans share a moment while on the ice on Friday, October 22, 2021, at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa. (Jeff Stiles/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids – Let’s get this out of the way right away.

Iowa Hartlanders don’t want Cedar Rapids RoughRiders out of business. The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders are not secretly hoping the Iowa Heartlanders will fail.

A junior hockey franchise is at the north end of the fairway and a first-year professional hockey franchise is at the south end, and they declare, at least publicly, that there is no animosity between them. They say there is room for both, and the two teams can coexist and thrive.

And while there’s only a 20-mile run, the goal (no pun intended) is to grow — or continue to grow — the sport in historically unconventional hockey areas.

“I think it’s great for both communities,” said RoughRiders coach/general manager/chairman Mark Carlson. “They are different markets. The best sport in the world in my opinion. Two great buildings. Two real good organisations.

More people are playing youth hockey. More people are watching the game live. The best sport in the world to watch it live. More growth in the game overall. More kids are playing. More people love it. It’s a win-win situation in hockey. and societies.”

“We consider them to be a very viable organization that does two things,” said Heartlanders president Brian McKenna. “They provide great entertainment there at Cedar Rapids, and they provide a great environment for developing players for college and professional programs in the future. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Coach Carlson is doing there and the work they have done over the years.”

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: Producing Future Positives and Contributing to Society

The RoughRiders have been around since 1999, when northern Wisconsin timber mogul William “Butch” Johnson transferred his United States Hockey League franchise from Mason City. Johnson’s agreement to move to Cedar Rapids was conditional on the city building its first ice rink.

The Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, now known as ImOn Ice, opened in the early 2000s. An audience of over 4,000 was the norm, though attendance has dwindled over the years as the novelty of hockey has faded and franchise ownership has changed hands several times.

Consistent, Carlson was the only head coach/GM for the RoughRiders ever, and led the team to the 2004-05 Clark Cup Championship. He turned down offers of coaching from Division I college programs, a senior junior team in Canada, an ECHL franchise and a position with the US National Team Development Program to stay here, finding his niche to work with the 16- to 20-year-old age group.

The USHL dates back to 1947 and has 16 teams in the Midwest, including at Waterloo, Dubuque, Des Moines, and Sioux City. It is the best junior tier 1 circuit in North America, and the arena that prepares college and professional hockey players.

The RoughRiders produced 29 players who went on to play in the National Hockey League, including Ross Colton, who scored the winning goal in a Stanley Cup-winning game last season for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“This town loves hockey,” Carlson said. “And I think there’s a real appreciation, frankly, that it’s not just hockey. This year has been a little different for coronavirus, but this organization is doing a lot in the community. We’re here to give back to the community, help the community to be a better community. It contributes. So it’s more than Just a snowboard game.

Iowa Heartlanders: Bringing Pro Hockey to Eastern Iowa

RoughRiders is owned by Colorado businessman Tony Sadow, whose sons played in the league and would prefer Carlson to be the face of the franchise. Sdao explored creating and bringing a second USHL team to the 5,100-seat Xtream Arena in Coralville, which officially opened in September 2020, and ultimately decided to turn it down.

Then the Coralville leaders called on Canadian businessman Dean MacDonald, who agreed to start the ECHL expansion franchise beginning in the 2021-22 season. MacDonald’s Deacon Sports and Entertainment also owns Newfoundland Growlers ECHL.

Previously known as the East Coast Hockey League but shortened to its acronym, ECHL has 27 coast-to-coast franchises in the United States and Canada. It is a mid-level professional league that dates back to 1988.

While USHL players receive no salaries, only free equipment and housing with pallet families in order to maintain their NCAA eligibility, ECHL players receive modest salaries and their homes are paid for by perks. The league has had 713 alumni in the NHL since its inception.

Former RoughRiders defender Riese Zmolek played for the Heartlanders this season and is currently with the Des Moines’ Iowa Wild in the MHL at the top minor league level. Every ECHL franchise has an NHL affiliation, although very few players in the league are actually on NHL contracts.

The Heartlanders are affiliated with the Minnesota Wild, and own the team of defender Fedor Gordeyev. Striker Ryan Kavner played 10 games in 2018-19 with the Detroit Red Wings.

So there are nuts and bolts about the two franchises and the level of hockey they offer.

Build a fan base

From the perspective of just a game on the ice until Friday, the Heartlanders scored a 9-14-3-1 record, the last 22 points in the division, which is unexpected for any first-year club. Most other ECHL teams have a base of returning players with professional experience.

The RoughRiders also started basically from scratch given that they took leave from the USHL last season due to a derecho in August 2020 making their yard uninhabitable. They had a 12-12-1-0 record, 24 points in their standings and placed them fifth in their eight-team league.

From an off-ice perspective, the clubs have an almost identical presence. RoughRiders average 1,848 fans during their first 12 home games (4th in the USHL) to 1,827 in 16 home games for Heartlanders (25th in ECHL).

Clubs have had similar home dates seven times so far this season. The Heartlanders have outpaced the RoughRiders on four of those dates.

“I think we’ve had a tremendous response after we’ve been gone for a year,” said Carlson. “We’ve had a lot of big crowds this year, a lot of really good environments, we feel like that. We always say, right, we feel like it’s one of the best buildings in hockey… We want to thank our fans for their support and making it a tough place to play for an opponent.” “.

McKenna also appreciates the voraciousness of his club’s fan base, although he admits that he wishes the fan base was larger. The Heartlanders drew 4,017 fans in their regular season opener in late October, but since then they’ve averaged just 1,681.

A former ECHL commissioner with 35 years of professional sports experience, McKenna has been appointed by MacDonald to lead the fledgling franchise.

“Slower than I expected,” McKenna said. “As an employee, we’re still learning the market. It’s unique from a traditional media point of view. We’re here in Iowa City, but most radio and TV and newspapers come from elsewhere. In other words, it’s Cedar Rapids, it’s Waterloo, it’s the Quad Cities, it’s Dubuque, wherever he is. We’re just part of that.

“So there’s been a learning curve there for me and others, in terms of how to approach that. Digital marketing, social media, that kind of thing is very important, and we’re still learning and figuring our way through that as well.”

McKenna said his hope is the crowds will grow now that University of Iowa football is over, though there are still Hawkeyes basketball battling it out, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic that appears to be spreading again.

This is a cloud hanging over both franchises in the new year. The Heartlanders were missing some players and head coach Jerry Fleming after he tested positive for the virus, and two road games last weekend were postponed due to the team’s outbreak.

“We are trying to bring a new team, a new brand, a new level of hockey to the region,” said McKenna. “People who go out and watch seem to appreciate it, but there wasn’t an overwhelming group of hockey fans in the market before we arrived. So it took a while to sell it on the entertainment side only. Enjoy the facility, enjoy the surrounding developments.”

“I hope they come back if they enjoy the matches.”

Carlson attended Fleming’s press conference, attended a game at Heartlanders and spoke with McKenna. He was upset that anyone might think that having two hockey franchises in such close proximity would be a downside.

McKenna agreed.

“We consider it complementary,” he said. “We want them to succeed, we want them to attract fans, have a fan base. We also want the same thing here. Sometimes you’ll see fans go back and forth, which is healthy too. But when we look at the zip codes for the fans who buy tickets here, Our fan base…we get a few people from Cedar Rapids, but it’s not overwhelming.Most of them are from a 15-20 mile radius from here in Iowa City and Coralville, and that’s what we want to grow.

“They have a great product and level of hockey. We want to work with them, as well as the other rookie teams here and Iowa Wild, just in terms of growing the sport, especially at the grassroots level. I think if we can all get involved and do that, this is an opportunity for everyone to be successful.”

Comments: jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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