“Hockeytown North” heats up Centre Ice: With its front office reorganized, the North Stars works to net sponsorships

Traverse City – There is one place where, even in the final precious days of summer, no one cares if you talk about winter: Centre Ice.

The skating complex off Hammond Road in East Bay Township is home to the Detroit Red Wings' training camp, amateur hockey leagues, figure skating groups, and the Junior A Hockey Club, the Traverse City North Stars. Combined, these interests make up "Hockeytown North," a catchy name just coined by the new administrative team in the North Stars' front office.

The name aims to build on the "Hockeytown" brand used to promote Detroit, but it isn't the only thing that's new at Centre Ice. Since the end of last season, North Stars Owner Steve Fournier has completely rebuilt the marketing side of his organization. Rick Deneweth, developer of Copper Ridge, has been brought in as director of business affairs. Three West, a local real estate, consulting, and development firm owned by Kevin Endres has been brought in to take advantage of the branding and corporate sponsorship opportunities the team affords, and Stephanie Endres is the business manager, overseeing day-to-day details. Together, they aim to bring "cohesion" to an already talented team.

"We've got a great product to sell now and if we're going to take it to the next level, it has to be run more like a business," Fournier said. "We have this tremendous asset that we've underutilized."

Despite drawing as many as 400,000 visitors a year, having a 12-5-4 third season, and playing host to some of the hottest young hockey talent in the nation – in 2007 the top two NHL draft picks played at Centre Ice against the North Stars – the facility has not enjoyed the same level of exposure that, say, Wuerful Park, home of the Beach Bums baseball team, has. Part of that is just game logistics – hockey is a faster sport than baseball with little time for novelty events. But with talk of a semi-pro football team starting up in Traverse City next summer, and with local high school sports also commanding plenty of attention, the local sports entertainment market is becoming an increasingly competitive one.

Fournier says Hockeytown North deserves to be a big part of that market for both fans and corporate dollars. That's exactly why he brought in new management. It might still be 80 degrees outside, but for him the upcoming North Stars season – and the chance to see if the changes he's made will have the desired effect – can't come soon enough. Just walking in the front door of Centre Ice under the massive Stanley Cup graphic tells you something's definitely in the air, and it's not snowflakes.

"Oh, that's the buzz," says Fournier. "You can really sense the excitement around here. People have no idea of the level of hockey talent we've got in this building, of the pace of the games here, but I'll tell you what, they're about to find out."

While Deneweth has helped streamline accounting, scheduling and other business practices for the team, Endres has identified several opportunities for increased corporate sponsorship. He and Fournier have been unveiling these over the summer months in private meetings with interested area businesses. The handshaking is working. The group sold 15 season tables at $1,500 each in two weeks.

In one such meeting, Fournier and Endres explained these opportunities in detail to Tanya Wildfong, director of marketing for the area's largest excavating company, Elmer's. They range from game intermission opportunities ($200), to in-ice logos ($2,000), to uniform patches ($4,000) and corporate theme nights for 200 people ($2,500). The facility has the "eyeballs" businesses are looking for, Endres said. According to statistics provided to the North Stars from Center Ice, between 350,000 and 400,000 people used the facility in the 2007-2008 season. For her part, Wildfong took notes during the meeting and asked questions about demographics.

"It's an affluent market," Endres said. "You'd be surprised at the amount of business that gets done at the hockey rink."

"The statistics are great," said Wildfong, despite the fact that she readily admitted at the beginning of the meeting she's not a hockey fan. "I think it's a lot smarter, what you've done here. Numbers are a big thing and so is pricing. Basically, we're looking for opportunities that can get our message out to the people that use our services."

Endres said the club is willing to get creative, and suggested Elmer's could schedule a corporate theme night on a North Stars home game and park a couple heavy equipment vehicles out front, hang banners in the parking lot, and have a special giveaway for fans.

Other enhancements have gone beyond marketing and involve permanent changes to the facility itself. In 2007 Centre Ice applied for and received a liquor license and the facility now runs the rink-side Polar Bear Club and the Read Line Lounge on the second floor. Both serve alcohol and only allow those 21 and older, but also provide opportunities for fans and corporate sponsors to conduct business in a casual but exciting atmosphere.

"'Let's go get a beer' sounds a lot more professional for businesses bringing clients to a game than, 'Hey, can I buy you a pop and a candy bar?'" said Endres.

Ask Fournier what his hopes are for the 2008-09 season, though, and the true hockey fan emerges and the talk of ice logos, or accounting practices, or corporate theme nights disappear. Fournier's expectations revolve around the roster of twenty-five 16 to 20 year -olds who make up the North Stars' roster, and the skill of their head coach and general manager, Anthony Palumbo. Fournier says he would like to see the team make the play-offs. Now that you mention it, being considered as title contenders in the NAHL North Division isn't out of the question, either. Fournier says he'd like to see the players get scholarships to Division One colleges and even go on to play in the NHL.

Ask Coach Palumbo about his hopes for the season, and you'll get a one-word answer: "Winning."

The team's first home game is September 27. Season tickets are still available. BN