The Adirondack Thunder are off to one of their best starts in franchise history, as they headed into December just six points out of first place.
A younger, faster lineup and solid goaltending are key reasons for the team’s success as the grueling, 72-game ECHL season unfolds.
But equally important, the Thunder are doing remarkably well at the box office, averaging 4,273 fans per game through the first half-dozen home dates, a remarkable figure for the league’s smallest market. They’re outdrawing every North Division rival except the Portland-based Maine Mariners.
“I just think the community has latched on because they know it’s their team,” said Dan Miner, Adirondack Hall of Fame public address announcer. “It goes from ownership to the way the guys are off the ice, too. There’s a different feel, a different vibe to the building. You look at ticket, concession and merchandise sales, everything is through the roof. People are just buying into it.”
The turnout and game night atmosphere is comparable to that of the Adirondack Red Wings’ glory days.
When the Wings left Glens Falls, many fans didn’t embrace their replacement, the IceHawks, which played in the UHL, farther down the pro hockey ladder.
But the Double-A ECHL is a bona fide development league for NHL franchises. The Thunder are affiliated with the New Jersey Devils and their Triple-A American Hockey League team, the Utica Comets.
“I think the commitment to what New Jersey and Utica have done is amazing because they’ve really gone out of their way to bolster their product,” Miner said. “The NHL has realized that you’ve got to have guys who can move up to the AHL from the ECHL and that commitment has put better plays on the ice.”
Thunder players get called up to Utica on a regular basis and several have reached the NHL such as goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who spent five years with New Jersey, now playing for the San Jose Sharks.
High-level talent and a commitment to winning count quite heavily with area fans. The Thunder brought a great deal of momentum into this year’s campaign after making the 2023 playoffs with a relentless, late-season drive up the standings capped off by dramatic win on the final day.
Joe Paterson has been a part of Adirondack pro hockey since 1980 when he played for the Red Wings en route to a lengthy NHL career. Later, he was head coach of the Adirondack Phantoms (AHL) and is on the Thunder coaching staff now.
“This community has always been a hockey hotbed,” he said. “They’re passionate about the game here. They love to see a team win and compete and this team is starting to do that.”
“It’s exciting, but it’s not only the hockey,” he said. “The off-ice staff puts together a good product every night. There’s a lot of good things going on here.”
A recent auction of specially-designed jerseys on Military Appreciation Night raised more than $25,000 to support veterans programs and services. On Dec. 2, the Thunder wore special USA jerseys to honor the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, which won a gold medal in Lake Placid by defeating a heavily-favored Soviet squad. Money from sale of those jerseys will help build a monument in Lake Placid to memorialize the team’s inspiring victory, which Sports Illustrated named the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.
The Thunder will wear special jerseys on March 9 to honor the region’s law enforcement personnel, and Stick it to Cancer nights are planned for March 29-30 with proceeds from a jersey auction benefiting the Charles R. Wood Cancer Center at Glens Falls Hospital.
For many people, the Thunder are quite simply a fun night out especially following the COVID-19 pandemic that kept people apart.
“You have a certain percentage that are die-hard hockey fans, but that’s not necessarily the priority,” Miner said. “They want to be entertained, eat, have a drink and have a good time.”
Miner’s high-energy interaction gets fans pumped up right from the opening face-off when he yells, “Are you ready? I said, ARE YOU READY?”
Loud music, on-ice activity between periods and T-shirts tossed into the stands are all part of the show. Hundreds of smiling kids get into the act during Dance Cam sessions when a camera, panning the stands, shows them having fun on the huge, overhead video screen.
Before games and during intermissions, many fans flock downstairs to socialize at newly-remodeled Heritage Hall, which underwent a million-dollar makeover this summer. Highlights include new flooring, ceilings, walls and electrical wiring along with multi-colored lighting and 70-inch flat screen televisions over a long, stone countertop bar.
This multi-purpose event space is expected to generate considerable income for Cool Inuring Arena by hosting everything from business meetings to weddings and birthday parties.
The renovation project was paid for with public and private dollars including $500,000 from Warren County and $200,000 from the City of Glens Falls.
In addition, six new luxury suites constructed last year have all been sold out for the entire Thunder hockey season, further strengthening the venue’s financial bottom line.
As the team’s popularity and fan base grows, more and more corporate sponsors have come on board including several from southern Saratoga County and the Albany area, said Jeff Mead, arena manager.
“I think we have the best fans in the league,” Thunder defenseman Matt Stief said. “They give us that extra energy, an extra boost. We’re very thankful they support us. The community is so welcoming and willing to do anything for us. It’s just a very fun place to play.”
“It’s really something when the crowd’s getting into it, they’re rooting for you and they’re loud,” forward Colin Felix said. “This is definitely a hockey town.”