There are no smoking, glittering spacecraft or mammoth rubber pucks descending on the Civic Center ice when the Baltimore Skipjacks hockey team is in town, unlike the high-tech ceremony that has welcomed sellout crowds to Baltimore Blast indoor soccer games.
Skipjacks hockey is a working-class sport in a working-class town, the team's fans note with almost belligerent pride. Where tweed brushes with Shetland wool at Blast games, polyester clings to sweaty, sleeveless undershirts when the Skipjacks take the ice.
"Indoor soccer is a man-made, synthetic sport," says Jeff Amdur, 32, a high school foreign languages instructor. After each Skipjack goal, Amdur charges to the rink, a red revolving light perched on top of his firefighters' hat while the scoreboard flashes "JEFF-JEFF-JEFF."
"There's no way indoor soccer is half the game this is," he says, panting after performing his ritual. "This is grass-roots hockey."
But while Blast fans often fill the 11,400-seat arena, the first-year American Hockey League franchise averaged 2,660 fans a game--second lowest in the 13-team AHL--through its first 17 home games (11-4-2).
The sparse crowds here leave fans to ponder the strange attraction of a soccer game they liken to indoor pinball and display little tolerance for other attractions. "I go to see the Capitals and it's like a morgue. I could never afford to be a Capitals fan, anyway. Season tickets here cost what it takes to park at the Capital Centre," Amdur says, scanning the near-empty arena. "I wish I knew the answer."
The Skipjacks (22-22-5, fourth place in the AHL Southern Division through games of Saturday) are a resurrection of the Baltimore Clippers, who succeeded and failed here under different names for most of 40 years. In 1976, after 14 semisuccessful years in the AHL, the Clippers succumbed to sagging attendance and lack of affiliate support.
Following a string of lowly minor league teams, Baltimore was without professional hockey between 1977 and 1979, 10 years after the Clippers could pack the Civic Center for contests with the arch-rival Hershey Bears or for the AHL playoffs, which they often reached, but never won.
In 1979, 22 Baltimore businessmen and professionals raised $100,000 and formed the Baltimore Hockey Advocates, determined to fight the odds against a minor league sport. Despite their efforts, the Clippers crumbled into a heap of debt and disappointment after one season.
Kicking in at least another $100,000, the Advocates then helped establish the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, which was set up "primarily to pay the financial obligations" of the previous league, says Advocates President John M. Haas. The team's name was changed to Skipjacks, because the owner of the Clippers trademark wanted $10,000 before selling his rights.
Little difference, though; after 1 1/2 seasons, two ACHL teams had folded and in January 1982, another quit, forcing the league to cancel 15 games and disband after a hastily called playoff series.
The Advocates had been lobbying energetically for an AHL team, but encouraging words from NHL executives proved hollow when affiliation was at hand. The Pittsburgh Penguins, whose last-place Erie, Pa., franchise stumbled through last season, finally took the gamble last summer, giving the Advocates a three-year commitment to support an AHL franchise in Baltimore and returning top-caliber minor league play to the city.
"There's going to be hockey in Baltimore for a long time to come," says Baz Bastien, general manager of the Penguins, which pays the salaries of 15 Skipjacks players. The Boston Bruins own four contracts, while the Advocates have signed two players on their own, according to Haas.
"They're only two (now, 14) points out of first place and people like to see a winner. We have a good product on the ice," Bastien said a couple of weeks ago. He echoed team officials in predicting that attendance will pick up.
Aside from having an AHL-leading number of player callups to the NHL this season, the Skipjacks were dealt the least advantageous 80-game schedule in the AHL, Haas said.
"It's a terrible situation," he said, noting the team has three Saturday night home games, while AHL granddaddy and Capitals affiliate Hershey has 23. "It's disappointing, to say the least."
Scheduling problems are just a symptom of a larger problem facing the Skipjacks, said AHL President Jack A. Butterfield. "It is extremely difficult for a minor league sport to succeed in a major league city. Our best franchises are where we are the big fish in the pond," Butterfield said.
Whoever the scapegoats, there is no disagreement that the quality of hockey on the Civic Center ice is the best it has been since the early 1970s.
"These guys are a phone call away from the National Hockey League," says Haas. "The kids are hungry; they want to advance."
Many of players are far from hungry. Salaries range from $17,000 in Advocates contracts to more than $100,000 a year for one player whose NHL contract does not call for a cut in pay when he's in the minors, Haas says.
While life in the AHL isn't as classy as in the NHL, players say they are satisfied--though they also want to see bigger turnouts.
"After two weeks in Boston, I got used to playing in front of 15,000," said forward Dave Barr, 22. "I like the big crowds."
The many callups from the Penguins and Bruins this year have hurt the team, says Coach Lou Angotti, a former Chicago Black Hawk. "It's a team sport. If you have one or two players on the front line and you lose them, it takes away from the team overall."