In January of 2013, the Central Hockey League announced that they had a letter of intent from Brampton, Ontario are to start up a new team in time for the 2013-14 season. The team would be the first from Canada to join the CHL and when the lease was signed with the Powerade Centre, the Brampton Beast were born. The Beast were tapped to replace the departing Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, who left for North Bay, Ontario due to declining attendance and lack of revenue. For a new, unknown minor league hockey team to enter an already crowded market in the Southern Ontario area there is risk — risk Gregg Rosen and Cary Kaplan were willing to take. Though the Brampton area is very well-versed in hockey, the CHL was a bit of an unknown in the area.
Hockey is a cutthroat industry in Southern Ontario, especially in order to get people in the arena. The Powerade Centre has been averaging around half-capacity with the Beast as the tenant with an average of 2,233 in 2013-14 and 2,574 in 2014-15 for the 5,000-seat facility. With the Maple Leafs, Toronto Marlies, Mississauga Steelheads, and Guelph Storm in the area bidding for the hockey dollar, the newest kid in town Beast are definitely at a disadvantage when it comes to trying to get people through the gate.
“Though over 50% of the league is from Canada, the Central League was and the ECHL is a virtual unknown to the area,” said Kaplan, president and general manager of the Beast in a phone interview with me this week. “People were very familiar with the Battalion and the OHL, as they were here 15 years. The knowledge of hockey in the area is primarily of the Ontario Hockey League and the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s a process to get people to show them how great the hockey is.”
As the CHL was fading away, the Beast and remaining six teams moved to the ECHL. This made the Beast the second Canadian team in the ECHL with the Victoria Salmon Kings being the first (Victoria lasted from 2004 to 2011). With a quick adjustment to the new rules in the ECHL in terms of rosters and a more competitive landscape, the second season was a bit of a disappointment. However, one could chalk that up to the travel this team had to endure in the CHL and then the first year of the ECHL.
“The first two seasons were hard on us travel-wise,” stated Kaplan. “Outside of Alaska, who flies to their games, we had the longest travel distance in the ECHL last season. A majority of our travel were 15-16-hour bus rides. The new realignment is tremendous for us as there are a number of team within a reasonable travel time, including Elmira and Toledo who are only about four hours away. We’ll really see the difference in February and March when it becomes a real grind for the players.”
Outside of the divisional and conference realignment, the Beast will have their first NHL affiliation thanks to the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had previously had an ECHL affiliate with the Wheeling Nailers, but with the new one team/one affiliation rule, the Beast were able to pick up the historic franchise.
“The Canadiens are the most storied franchise in the NHL. We had a number of options for affiliations and were evaluating last year, but Montreal has been first-class to us from that process and to Day One of the agreement,” said Kaplan. “They have been extremely open and this is a team which will maximize the number of prospects they have. They believe in development in the way they build their franchise. That means some really good players will be in Brampton this year. Our home-opening weekend will have four or five Canadiens’ prospects under contract in Brampton.”
The Beast are working hard on getting the community more involved. For example, the Beast recently played an international friendly game against the National Ice Hockey Team of India. Brampton has the largest Indian community outside of India and the team hopes that by seeing Indian players will attract more interest from parts of the community that aren’t traditionally hockey fans.
However, Kaplan mentioned the process didn’t come completely from the Beast. “It wasn’t initially our idea. We were approached six months ago from representatives of the India national team. We had 1,000 people at the game and half of those people had never been to one of our games before while many had never been to a hockey game period. We were happy with the success in helping not only build the national program of India, but also to get people familiar with our team. We hope to make it an annual event.”
On top of that, the Beast have a different approach when it comes to drawing people into Powerade Centre. Kaplan mentioned that the game is only a hour long, but people are there for two-and-a-half. The question becomes, how do you keep them engaged??
“We don’t market hockey. The traditional concept is to market hockey, but we market entertainment,” Kaplan shared. “We want to show that there’s no quiet time and that there’s a tremendous family atmosphere in coming here. With 36 home games, we want 36 theme nights with different promotions like theme jerseys or money-back guarantees. We want to show them that we are not your normal hockey game.”
Kaplan went on, “We have a philosophy here and that’s One Team, Two Goals. Those goals are to win championships and sell out the arena. We have 5,000 seats and we want to get closer and closer to that. We don’t feel that far away, but every family and company is one at the time. We don’t want to say to make the playoffs, we want to win championships. We don’t say we want to get 3,500 a game, we sell out the Powerade Centre and make it a very hard ticket to get.”
Despite two losses on opening weekend, there’s a lot of talent on the roster with 2013-14 ECHL scoring leader Brandon Marino and former Kelly Cup champion Yannick Tifu being signed in the summer, not to mention having Canadiens prospect Stefan Fournier and Canadiens’ camp stand-out Angelo Miceli at their disposal starting this weekend. The Beast get a chance to make their mark in the Greater Toronto Area, as they make their home debut this Friday against Adirondack, as well as 10 of their next 13 in the friendly confines of the Powerade Centre.