The Detroit Free Press describes how once known as a “goon league,” the ECHL used to rely heavily on journeyman players, living out their final days on the ice by brawling with each other and pandering for the crowd. It was cheap shots and a cheap date, something that resembled the Federal League in the 1977 cult classic “Slap Shot.”
But times have changed. While there is still fighting in the ECHL, the league is now much more of a developmental system for the NHL and its primary minor outfit, the American Hockey League. The ECHL is more analogous to Double-A baseball with 23 franchises tucked into midsize cities throughout the nation.
“First and foremost, the talent level in the league has gone up tremendously,” Trenton general manager Rich Lisk said. “I would say there are 11-to-13 (former ECHL) guys that are under contract to the NHL, where normally we would have five or six. You see the numbers have jumped up. The level of play has definitely, definitely gone up.”
But how do you market that these days? Even without much competition for the hockey dollar, most of these ECHL cities are not thriving metropolises, and let’s face it, the ECHL game is neither as fast nor as crisp as an NHL or even an AHL game. But there is action, there is atmosphere, and with a little cost-conscious creativity, the league is making it work.
“If you compare the first five (home) games of last year to the first five games of this year, we’re up 15%,” Lisk said. “We’re up 20% in season tickets. We’re up to about 800 season tickets. My goal is to get it to a thousand by the end of this year.”
It’s a distinct possibility. Without competition from the Flyers, Devils, and New York Rangers, the Titans are experiencing the best of both worlds. There are the true ECHL fans, the loyal bunch that will still be in the building after the lockout. And there are also the NHL fans, who Lisk believes are “testing the waters.”