On the ice, the 17th season for the Grand Rapids Griffins was a good one: The team qualified for the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009.
It was a good season for the business office, too. The Griffins finished fourth in attendance in the 30-team league by drawing roughly 290,000 to its home games at Van Andel Arena. The club averaged more than 7,600 paying customers per game, topping much larger markets such as Houston, Milwaukee and hockey-crazed Toronto in ticket sales.
“We thought that midway through the season this team could be special. They’re a very good hockey team, well coached with veteran leadership and good character in the room. In early December, the team was in first place and has been there ever since,” said Tim Gortsema, Griffins senior vice president of business operations.
Gortsema said he and his staff began considering a marketing plan and promotional options for a playoff push in December, and got to work on both in earnest about a month ago when it became apparent this team was very special.
“To a certain extent this was unfamiliar territory — at least, as of recent memory in terms of talking about selling a marketing plan,” he said.
Gortsema said the front office has been very pleased with first-year head coach Jeff Blashill. Blashill coached Western Michigan University in the now defunct CCHA and brought the Broncos to collegiate prominence in a single season. He then went to the Detroit Red Wings as an assistant to Mike Babcock for a campaign before he arrived here last fall.
“I think one of the best attributes that Jeff brings to the table is that he has coached in the collegiate environment and he has coached in juniors, and he can connect with the younger guys. He knows kind of when to push guys; he knows when to back it off. He has the credibility of having coached for the Wings, so he has been a great fit,” said Gortsema.
That fit and a strong season, despite consistent player call-ups to the Wings, led to the attendance figure — and not just on weekends. Winning Wednesdays drew more than 5,000 to the arena this past year when 3,000 was the norm in previous seasons.
“Overall, it was great and was awesome on so many different fronts. In terms of the hockey team, we’ve had a good one that has been competitive all year. So that has been first and foremost. From a ticket-sales standpoint, any of our metrics, I would say, are up,” said Gortsema.
“Ticket sales are up probably 7 percent, corporate sales are up 7 or 8 percent. For the first time in the franchise’s history, we’ll do $1 million in group ticket sales, which is a phenomenal threshold to hit. This will be our third consecutive year of attendance increase and it’ll be six out of the last seven,” he added.
“There is only one other team in the American Hockey League that has a better long-term trend line than us. So of the 30 teams in the AHL, Hershey (Pa.) will have an attendance increase this year, and that will be 10 out of 10 for them. After Hershey, we would be the next highest in consistent growth pattern.”
Gortsema said Friday home games probably were the best attended, with the highly popular $1 beer and $1 hot dog promotion from 6-8 p.m. leading the turnstile charge. Saturday games, which also were loaded with promotions, came in a close second. “It’s a weekend-driven league,” he said.
The beer and hot dog promotion will continue at all home playoff games, but the price will rise to $2. Playoff tickets also will go up by $1. It’s an increase the AHL mandates because the players get paid from gate receipts during the Calder Cup run.
The team plans to hand out rally towels to those who attend the first home playoff game. The date for that game and the team’s first-round playoff schedule hadn’t been set as of this writing but should be known soon.
“There are challenges in the playoffs, and the main challenge is not knowing your dates — when you’re going to play and who you’re going to play. Like I mentioned, we had group sales of $1 million this year and it’s hard to move groups in the playoffs because of not having that advance notice. So we’ll rely heavily on our social media to get the word out because of the tight turnaround,” said Gortsema of the team’s Facebook following and e-mail list.
Gortsema also said the sponsors are on-board for the playoffs. “We’ll probably have a handful of new sponsors that will be playoff specific, but, generally speaking, the sponsors that we have during the regular season will continue through the playoffs.”
The furthest the Griffins have gone in a playoff hunt came in 2000. The team was in the old International Hockey League then and faced the Chicago Wolves in the Turner Cup finals. Chicago won and Gortsema said it was tough to watch the Wolves raise the cup on Van Andel ice.
“It’s a lot more fun to come to work when the team is playing well,” he said, “and you’re putting good crowds and good people in the building.”