by Marc Ciampa | AHL On The Beat Archive
Note: This is an excerpt from a story that originally ran on EdmontonOilers.com on Dec. 20, 2015
Nobody has more fun.
That’s the marketing slogan of the Bakersfield Condors. But it’s more than just a slogan. It’s a guideline for minor-league hockey in the Southern Californian valley.
The Condors are known for fun promotions which catch the eye of the entire hockey world. Promotions like Seinfeld jersey night, which had the players dressed in puffy shirts with names on the back such as “KRAMER” and “CRAZY JOE DAVOLA” were talked about on nearly every sports media outlet out there.
There have also been on-ice incidents like an actual condor getting spooked during the anthem and flying into the team’s bench, which has a regular appearance on Top 10 highlight reels. Or publicity stunts like having a parrot sing the national anthem.
Bakersfield entered into the Oilers universe after the team purchased the ECHL organization in January 2014. Then in January 2015, the American Hockey League announced a new Pacific Division which would consist of five brand-new teams based in California. Suddenly, the Edmonton Oilers were very closely linked with the most fun hockey organization on the planet.
Hockey in Bakersfield has come a long way from the now ironically-named Bakersfield Oilers of the semi-pro Pacific Southwest League. The Oilers gave way to the Bakersfield Fog, who played in a theatre-style setup at the old Bakersfield Convention Center. The Fog played in the West Coast Hockey League and eventually became the Condors.
“We’re going into our 18th season,” said Condors President Matt Riley. “I’ve been there the whole time. I came out to Bakersfield when there was a hole in the ground and they were building what was then Centennial Garden and what is now Rabobank Arena. I was in the West Coast Hockey League, the ECHL and now the American Hockey League.”
The Fog were really the first shot at professional hockey in the Bakersfield area and they had some name recognition with their first head coach being Wayne’s brother Keith Gretzky. But hockey didn’t truly take off until the Fog became the Condors. “It’s crazy to see how well it’s gone with our fan base and how ingrained in the community we are in Southern California, which obviously is not indigenous to hockey,” Riley exclaimed. “Now you’ve got people that came to Condors games as kids and now they’re adults and they have kids. And that’s pretty cool to see that evolution and how that works through the generations.”
Getting the fans to buy into hockey in the first place in a region where it was largely an unknown sport was a difficult task. And that’s where the promotions came in. Riley borrowed from his background in Minor League Baseball and applied it to hockey.
“I worked in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Mobile, Alabama (among other places). Minor League Baseball is very focused on the promotional side, family entertainment and community involvement. That’s kind of where I came from. When we came out to Bakersfield, we took those same concepts and it’s just a different game. Instead of baseball, it’s hockey.
“In Bakersfield, especially 18 years ago, there’s only X number of hockey fans and to rely on those hockey fans to sustain yourself just wasn’t practical. We were really focused on the community. At the beginning you do jersey giveaways and things like that to draw fans out and to draw families out. Then after awhile, you keep pushing the envelope and do more things. We were the first team to do a Mr. Potato Head giveaway where he was dressed in hockey gear and he had a black eye.”
The Condors continued to push the envelope more and more as they strived to get creative with some of their promotions.
“We always want to see what other teams are doing and then tweak that so it works for us. We were probably one of the first teams in the States to do a Teddy Bear Toss and now it’s awesome. Things like that throughout the year, we’re really proud of. Especially jerseys.
"A lot of the speciality jerseys are geared towards the military and U.S.A. and patriotic enthusiasm. We like to say Bakersfield isn’t Hockey Town, it’s Condorstown. People might not necessarily be hockey fans, but they’re Condors fans and that’s how they’ve grown up.”
Some of those jerseys really put the Condors on the map, gaining national media attention. One of the more well-known was last season’s Seinfeld jerseys. Riley gave some insight into how the idea for that particular promotion came about.
“We do brainstorm a lot. A lot of it is things that are going on in the world. The Seinfeld night came from a few of us at night texting back and forth with some ideas, watching TV and watching an episode of Seinfeld. By the time you know it, you come into the office the next day with 20 ideas and you’re ready to roll and we’re all excited about it,” said Riley. “How can we one-up ourselves? What can we do better than somebody else is doing or what can we do better than what we’re doing?”
Some of their more eye-catching stunts included offering a contract to Canadian singer Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson jerseys (with one white glove) and a Charlie Sheen night which offered “Tiger Blood” Margaritas and free admission to any fan who provided a clean drug test.
But the Seinfeld promotion truly highlights the Condors tenure in the ECHL with not only having the team wear “Puffy Shirt” jerseys, but also a marble rye shootout in the intermission, a chuck-a-puck with a Festivus Pole as the ultimate prize and post-game interviews conducted by Wendel Meldrum, the actress who played the “Low Talker” — Kramer’s girlfriend who convinces Jerry to wear the puffy shirt.
Bakersfield had truly mastered the art of minor league hockey at the ECHL level. For them, there was only one place to go: up.
AHL MOVES WEST
This season, the American Hockey League went from zero teams in California to five as a major shift in league geography saw the addition of the Condors, San Diego Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, Stockton Heat and Ontario Reign.
“It’s something that was largely driven by the NHL California teams,” Riley stated. “The Ducks, Kings and Sharks. They’ve had their AHL affiliates on the other side of the United States, which isn’t ideal. To have your top prospects in close proximity is always a plus. They kind of drove the train and with Bakersfield being owned by Edmonton and being on the western half of the continent (it made sense).”
The addition of five teams as opposed to one or two also made sense as it enabled the California teams to not only have a much easier travel schedule, but also a reduced schedule overall. The California teams play a 68-game season with final league standings calculated by winning percentage and not total points.
“You can’t have one team out west or even three teams out west, you need a group to make it work,” Riley continued. “So it just kind of evolved and the timing was right. We got some great markets with Bakersfield and Ontario and Stockton. It was great to get San Diego back because they were a rival of Condors for so many years. So many great games and match-ups and now to have them as a rival, it’s great for our fan base.”
The Condors president also added that the addition of the American Hockey League markets to the region has helped to increase the NHL’s footprint in the area as well.
“The NHL awareness is so much more in markets like us and San Diego. They’re not only paying attention to the Kings, but the Oilers, the Ducks and all those rivalries.”
The transition to California from Oklahoma has been positively well-received by the players and coaching staff as well.
“The fans, the support we’ve received, the front-office staff. It’s gone from one good setup to another good setup. It’s been outstanding,” said Condors head coach Gerry Fleming. “The travel is outstanding. We’re so centrally located in Bakersfield. Our furthest trip is four hours away. We don’t have as many flights; we don’t have (any) three-in-threes which is good. It allows us to do a little more video and a little more teaching. Guys get their rest. You can’t understate the value of rest. Hockey’s a tough, demanding game. Not only physically but mentally. To be able to step back that extra day to regroup and recharge and let your body heal has been important to us.”
Condors captain Ryan Hamilton spent a couple of seasons in Oklahoma City and has been pleased with the transition to Bakersfield.
“It’s been great. Bakersfield is a great city. We’ve gotten really great fan support. My family and I are very happy. We’re really enjoying our experience and same with the other fellows,” Hamilton said. “A lot of California road trips so we’re at home a lot, which is nice.”
Defenceman Jordan Oesterle echoed the comments of his captain.
“City-wise, it’s been a bit of an adjustment. Oklahoma City there’s a lot to do. It’s a big city but a small atmosphere,” he said. “It was nice to have things to do whenever you wanted but it’s been nice. All of the guys are liking Bakersfield. It’s a little bit warmer. But travel-wise it’s been night and day way better. Oklahoma City it was like we were getting on a plane once a week, travelling all day to play (places like) Charlotte. Our closest bus ride was Austin and that was five hours away. And now our longest bus ride is four hours.”
The fan response in Bakersfield to a higher level of hockey has also been extremely positive, according to Matt Riley.
“The hardcore fans get it, the folks who come all the time. It’s going to be an ongoing educational process. We have seen a little bit of a spike in attendance and so-forth. All that is good and I look forward to seeing that continue as the education process continues to realize how awesome this is that this is in Bakersfield. Twenty-five years ago there wasn’t even ice available and now you’ve got a team that’s one step away from the National Hockey League,” Riley began.
“Ever since we learned we were going to be a part of the AHL it’s been a continuous education process. You know, ‘hey we’re one step away from the NHL.’ These guys are going to be playing in Bakersfield one night and then the next night they’re going to be playing at Staples Center or playing at Rexall Place.”
And certainly, Condors fans who have tuned into the Edmonton Oilers have seen some great contributors who are familiar faces already. Leon Draisaitl has been one of the NHL’s top power forwards since joining Edmonton from Bakersfield and many nights Darnell Nurse is logging the most minutes on the Oilers blueline.
“The future is so bright for the Oilers and the fact that former Condors are a part of it and are going to continue to be more a part of it.”
For the full Oilers In Depth story on the Bakersfield Condors, please visit EdmontonOilers.com