By Sam Carchidi, Jersey Man Magazine
Ever wonder how the Flyers, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975 and have missed the playoffs in two of the last three years, continually sell out games at the Wells Fargo Center?
Well, some of it is because they have created a strong fan base in South Jersey, especially since they opened their Skate Zone practice facility in Voorhees in 2000.
The Skate Zone enables fans to get a close-up view of the players during their practices, training camp and prospect camp. Free of charge.
The facility has also introduced tens of thousands of people (read: future fans) to ice skating and hockey, whether through youth leagues, skating lessons or open-skating sessions.
“The rink business is a challenging one, financially and otherwise,” said Pat Ferrill, vice president of rink management and development, who oversees the Voorhees facility as well as the other three Skate Zones in the area that are owned by the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast-Spectacor. “But for us as an organization, it’s an extension of the Flyers brand and our fan-development efforts.”
Ferrill said it goes “beyond the brick and mortar” and “way beyond the typical marketing vehicles in giving the opportunity for people to participate in ice skating, participate in hockey and get to see the team up close and personal on a daily basis.”
The Flyers used to rent ice at the Coliseum, located in another part of Voorhees, before shifting their practices to the Skate Zone.
Ferrill called the Skate Zone a “bigger, more vibrant facility” than the Coliseum. “We definitely see more people come through the doors, and we definitely see an uptick in the number of people who come to catch practice and attend training camp in September.”
The Coliseum had one rink, compared to two at the Skate Zone, which also boasts bigger and more modern weight rooms and locker rooms.
“You couldn’t ask for a better facility,” said Dave Hakstol, the Flyers’ first-year coach.
There are many advantages in owning a practice facility instead of renting it, Ferrill said.
“Now we’re in a building where you can schedule the time when you need it,” he said. “So purely from an ice standpoint, you can control your own destiny as far as time [availability]. And you’re dealing with much better quality of ice standards because of our staff.”
Back when the Skate Zone was in its design stage, “people working with the team had influence on the size of the dressing room, the size of the training room, the size of the strength- and-conditioning room.” Ferrill said. The club was able to make decisions on every aspect, including the equipment room, storage, all those things, he said, adding that the $20-million facility added a roller-hockey rink about one and half years after the Skate Zone was built.
When the Skate Zone opened, “it was the premier training center in the NHL because it was new,” said Ferrill, 51, who lives in Havertown, PA. “Since then, a number of teams have built their own.”
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In addition to the Voorhees facility, Comcast-Spectacor has public rinks in Pennsauken (which opened in 1992, but was purchased by Comcast-Spectacor in 1999), Atlantic City (which opened in 1999) and Northeast Philadelphia (opened in 2001).
“We’ve really increased the opportunity for people to play hockey,” Ferrill said.
The four rinks have over 1,000 youths playing organized hockey, including 500 players in Voorhees. There are also close to 20 adult-league teams, Ferrill said.
Hockey, however, isn’t the only draw.
“Because of our expertise among our staff, we run almost all of our own programming,” Ferrill said. “For instance, right from the start, we’re kind of drawing them in with community events. Things as simple as public skating, birthday parties, group outings for schools and Boy and Girl Scouts. We kind of introduce them to skating, and we have instructional programs, so we have learn-to-skate and learn-to-play-hockey programs that teach them the basics.
“From that point, you pretty much draw them in and they start to become lifelong Flyers fans, if not participants,” he said. “And though you have recreational hockey, you’ve got competitive hockey all the way through the elite travel programs that we run. We see the number of kids who come though our program that started at a very young age at four, five or six, and they’re moving on and getting Division I college scholarships or moving up to different levels of junior hockey and college hockey—and hopefully one day professional hockey.”
The four Skate Zones have yet to produce a player who has reached the NHL, “but we are getting closer,” Ferrill said. “We have almost 60 players who have come through our programs and have received Division I scholarships over the last six or seven years.”
When a youngster plays for one of the leagues, his or her whole family usually gets involved, Ferrill said. They become Flyers fans, and they help fill the Wells Fargo Center and buy club merchandise, even during these mediocre times for the team.
“What you see is children and their families become lifelong fans of the sport, so when [a child] participates, the whole family participates and they’re much more likely to watch on television, they’re much more likely to attend games some day,” he said. “You can see an advertisement on TV, or you can walk in and try the product.”
The Skate Zone lets them do the latter.
“Hockey is obviously a pretty passionate sport, and people who get involved tend to get pretty passionate once they’ve tried it,” Ferrill said.
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The Voorhees facility has become a smooth-running fabric of the community.
In 1998, however, plans for the ice-skating arena drew bitter protest when the township decided to sell 18 wooded acres. Some residents argued that the Skate Zone would bring bright lights, unruly crowds and lower property values.
That seems like ancient history. The Skate Zone is now the proud practice home to an iconic NHL franchise.
The facility also hosts numerous other activities and is a family-friendly community center of sorts.
“We really are a little bit of everything to everybody,” Ferrill said. “We do all kinds of other things. We do some dry-floor events. We have a home show in Voorhees in March that a promoter puts on for a weekend; we’ve done wrestling, trade shows and all kinds of other special promotions and fund-raising events to bring people into the facility. So it does serve as a community center and a little bit of everything to everybody.”
It also creates some much-needed jobs.
“We’re limited in the number of full-time positions we have, but we have over 200 part-time employees working in our building, and a lot of them are 16-, 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds, teenagers who are looking for part-time work and staying active and earning a little bit of income while they are going to high school or college,” Ferrill said. “It’s a fun place to work.”
Seventeen years after some residents opposed it, the Skate Zone in Voorhees is thriving.
Now if only the big-league hockey team can become a success….