September 4, 2017

Worcester Railers plan to succeed where others failed

PHOTOS/NATHAN FISKE
Railers President Michael Myers is a former executive from the Worcester Sharks, planning to use his first-hand knowledge to build a sustainable minor league hockey team in the city.

Anyone could be excused for thinking the Worcester Railers already took to the ice long ago.

Trax, the minor league hockey team's mascot, has attended events throughout the city for the better part of a year. The Railers are a major sponsor of the POW! WOW! Worcester art mural project and gave $250,000 to the EcoTarium to get its blue and gray colors painted on the museum's Explorer Express Train.

When pitching the idea of an expansion team to the ECHL, Cliff Rucker touted Worcester's economic growth and his commitment to being part of the community.

Railers Owner Cliff Rucker is building a two-rink athletic facility in the Canal District, a restaurant called Railers Tavern across from the DCU Center, and bought a stake in The Palladium to help boost the downtown concert hall's events schedule.

As the Railers become the third Worcester minor league hockey team since 1994 when the puck drops on their inaugural season on Oct. 14, all these community and economic efforts are part of a larger plan to succeed where their predecessors – the Sharks and the IceCats – failed, especially as the Railers face the greater pressure of moving down a tier in the hockey hierarchy.

"We're not just a team," said Railers President Michael Myers, surrounded by a wall of hockey jerseys and a shelf lined with bobblehead dolls in his DCU Center office. "And how do you prove that to someone before you've dropped a puck?"

Positive early returns

The proactive outreach effort, including sponsorships and business partnerships, is working. The team, has sold nearly 1,500 season tickets so far, beating what the Sharks sold in their final year, and has sold more corporate advertising and sponsorships than anyone else in its league, Myers said.

Rucker was awarded the new franchise by its league – the ECHL – in early 2016, convincing the commissioner of the ECHL, Brian McKenna, he had what the league was looking for: a long-term commitment and community involvement from ownership in a growing market with good demographics.

"We've been very impressed," McKenna said.

When the Railers came to announce their $250,000 partnership with the EcoTarium, the museum's president, Joe Cox, said children ran up to see Trax, instantly recognizing the team mascot.

"They hadn't even played a single game yet," Cox said. "It's amazing just what a huge impact they've had in such a short period of time."

Worcester, a sports town?

Worcester has an up-and-down history with minor-league sports, and the Railers will start play as city leaders court the Pawtucket Red Sox to move here into a proposed new ballpark.

The Worcester Tornadoes had an eight-year run in minor-league baseball until the team was folded in 2012 because the owner wasn't paying league bills. The Worcester Bravehearts have had more success in their four seasons, and this year ranked seventh nationally among collegiate-league teams in attendance.

Worcester got its first modern hockey team in 1994 when Roy Boe bought the Springfield Indians and moved the team east. By the end of the 2004-'05 season, the St. Louis Blues – the IceCats' NHL parent club – bought the team and moved it to Peoria, Ill. In 2006, the San Jose Sharks moved their AHL affiliate from Cleveland to Worcester, before leaving in 2015 as the AHL shifted five teams to the West Coast to be closer to their parent clubs.

Two other cities – Manchester, N.H. and Norfolk, Va. – experienced this one-step drop in the hockey hierarchy from the AHL to the ECHL and haven't fared well. The Manchester Monarchs, regularly in the top half of AHL attendance, had an 18-percent drop the first season, and then another 23 percent in the next. The Norfolk Admirals saw a 37-percent drop in their first ECHL season last year.

ECHL teams regularly play to 57 percent of their arenas' capacity and hardly a season or two goes by without a team moving, giving up ownership or suspending operations.

"I promise it's not going to happen here," Railer President Myers said confidently.

Being part of the community

The Railers are different, focusing much more on off-ice involvement, Myers said.

Few, if any, minor league teams have a related public sports facility or a branded restaurant like the Railers do.

"The real thing for me was the integration into the community," said Rucker.

Rucker comes to Worcester without the experience of owning a team but has had success in several businesses. Rucker, who has a bachelor's in international relations from Tufts University, owns and runs three companies: NFS Leasing, which leases medical, construction, computer and other equipment; Fulcrum FxT, an asset management company; and Porzia Properties, which owns retail spaces in Massachusetts and other eastern states.

Like Boe, the IceCats owner, Rucker is an out-of-towner without a strong connection with the city, but he's had strong inroads to the community since the Railers were announced almost two years ago.

"If it was just a business opportunity, it wasn't of as much interest to me because I could do that anywhere in the country," Rucker said.

After all this time, with the first puck-drop just over a month away, Rucker admits to getting more excited. For once, trips to Worcester will be for pleasure again, and not so much business.

"I hope that I'll give myself an opportunity to relish that opportunity because it's been a long road," he said. "I'd like to be able to come to the games and be a fan."

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