They've built a winner.
Now will the fans come?
With the Florida Everblades hosting the first of three Kelly Cup finals games tonight, team officials are hoping to fill Germain Arena amid a gradual decline in attendance this year. The Everblades return from Las Vegas, where they split the opening two games of the best-of-seven series, with a chance to hoist the Kelly Cup if they can sweep the homestand.
"It's a national championship, and I hope people recognize that and the quality of hockey that we're playing," said Everblades founding partner and president Craig Brush. "We had some struggles during the season, but we knew we had a good team."
The Everblades' Kelly Cup berth has sparked some renewed interest after recording the lowest attendance average in team history. Brush said all 26 Germain Arena suites have been sold for Friday — the first time it's happened all season. And there's optimism that all 7,200 seats could be filled at some point this week, especially if the Everblades win Friday and Tuesday, giving them a chance to close out the series Wednesday.
In response, Everblades officials are pulling out a few stops for the Kelly Cup. There are plans for a "white out" tonight, with the first 2,500 fans getting free white T-shirts. Barron Collier High School's drum band will perform, and some extra pyrotechnics are in the works.
"I kind of imagine we'll be pretty close to full, if not full, on Friday," said Chris Palin, vice president of sales and marketing for the Everblades. "As we get closer to a deciding game, that's when we'll probably not have enough seats to sell. There's a chance to see, for all intent and purpose, a national championship come to Florida. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event."
An Everblades title would bring some good cheer to a Germain Arena that's been slightly less full in recent years. Since the 2006-07 season, average attendance has fallen each year, totaling a 20 percent dropoff. And postseason attendance this season has been down as well, from 5,000 per game in the regular season to 3,326 per game in the playoffs.
Brush attributes the regular season decline largely to the economy, and he believes the trend will soon halt. Group ticket sales were up about 15 percent this season, he said.
"Unless something drastic happens with the economy, I think we've kind of bottomed out in terms of attendance," Brush said.
Lower playoff attendance has been a confluence of factors, Brush added.
The Everblades haven't had home-ice advantage in any series, and six out of eight home games have been played on weekdays. One Friday outing drew 4,000 fans, and a Saturday game totaled 4,732 paying customers. The six weekday games drew an average of nearly 2,900 people.
Saturday and Sunday games weren't an option for the Kelly Cup because five Lee County schools are holding graduation ceremonies on those days.
Group tickets also are difficult to sell during the playoffs, Brush said, and the Everblades don't require season-ticket holders to buy playoff packages.
"We have a lot of snowbirds, and we don't want to force them to buy tickets they won't use," Brush said.
Everblades officials and players can still expect backing from longtime hockey diehards who have been with the team since inception.
The day before the puck drops at Germain Arena, Hill reminisced Thursday about when the stadium was "cement poles sticking out of the ground." A decade-and-a-half later, fan support has stayed strong despite the state of Southwest Florida economics, he said.
"In light of the slowdown we've had, I think attendance this year and in the playoffs has been better than any season," said Hill, of south Fort Myers. "I'd like to say we'll have the standing-room-only crowds, but I don't know if we're going to see that for a while now."
Melissa Willis, treasurer of the fan club, said attendance was bound to lag as the novelty of a new minor league hockey team waned. But if the Everblades raise the Kelly Cup, Willis expects Southwest Florida to properly celebrate.
"I want the parade," she said. "I want the whole thing."