By Zach Dionne
It's about more than the sport, if the recently rebranded Fayetteville Marksmen hockey team shoots their shot right. "Our mission is to get people into the building for every reason other than hockey," new co-owner and team president Jeff Longo told the North State Journal in May. "Then, the hockey speaks for itself."
I had a chance to meet with CEO and majority owner Chuck Norris (not that one, although he does have a favorite Chuck Norris Fact, "the one where he won the World Series of Poker with an Uno card.") He spoke eagerly and with crystal clarity about how those intentions are shaping up for the Southern Professional Hockey League squad known since 2002 as the Fayetteville FireAntz. The 47-year-old Charlotte-based business owner, developer, and contractor started off by saying he knows we have 500 to 1,000 "pretty hardcore" hockey-heads in town.
"Fayetteville as a whole has 200,000-plus very casual fans. We have to bring them out actually, entertain them, and ensure they have a good time," Norris said. "That's where we’ve failed in the last few years.”
Last year, Fayetteville hockey had the lowest attendance in the league. The Marksmen are competing against restaurants, movies, and nightclubs, whatever it is people are spending their discretionary income on. Norris said, “We want to make it easier for them to come and spend it at the Crown Coliseum.” He cites the value of coming to a game. “They've got to feel like they got more than what they paid for."
The word "community" came up a lot in our talk, which isn't a surprise when the team's new name proudly, pointedly salutes Fort Bragg. After growing up in Michigan, Norris served at Bragg for four years—"one of the greatest experiences of my life," he enthused—and stayed in the city for nearly 20. He commended the Army base as "the city's cornerstone" and the first thing he associates with Fayetteville. Back when he first mulled purchasing the team, he knew rechristening the FireAntz would be his first move.
"Looking at what these kids do when they go to fight for our country—and they defend our freedoms and democracy all over the world— I feel like it's the least I could do," he said. "The Fayetteville Marksmen—it pays homage to our city and the most unbelievable elite fighting soldiers anywhere on the planet. They reside here in our community. Those are our fans, as well."
It’s interesting to note that (almost on the eerie side of things), onetime coach John Marks' men did win the FireAntz's sole SPHL championship in 2007. (Get it…? Marksmen.)
On the fuzzier side, the team's new fox mascot represents not only toughness, but a cunning sensibility, qualities which are not only for hockey players, but also teaching valuable lessons to the younger generations in our community.
Welcome to the Crown
The Crown Coliseum, celebrating its 20th birthday this year, can welcome nearly 10,000 fans, far above the average minor league hockey facility. That's a pro and a con: the Marksmen have space to pack it out, but sparse attendance makes it tricky to foster that sports-arena atmosphere. Midweek games will be touch-and-go. On Fridays and Saturdays, Norris aims to draw 7,500 or even 9,000-plus.
One of Fayetteville's hockey bona fides, he says, is that nine out of the ten biggest crowds in SPHL history have been at the Crown.
"We have one of the best venues in the southeast United States," Norris said. "I will argue that to the death with anybody: we have one of the finest facilities, and absolutely the best venue staff running. These guys are rock stars, man. They really are."
Norris has been delighted to find that the Southern Professional Hockey League, founded in 2004 and boasting ten teams from as many states, has an uncommonly familial atmosphere. "We all look out for each other, we all want each other to succeed. We don't directly compete with each other in any kind of way except for on the ice," he said. "We consider ourselves business partners. The success or failure of the Fayetteville franchise reflects on every other franchise and owner in the league."
Other team owners—particularly Virginia's Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs and Alabama's Huntsville Havoc—have been "unbelievably forthcoming, honest, and helpful to us as new owners." They've answered every query for advice "truthfully and immediately," from operating costs to salaries to marketing and merchandising.
That might explain why Norris wouldn't comment on any extant team rivalries. He did guess, though, that healthy competition will emerge with Roanoke, whom the Marksmen face about a dozen times this year, including on their October 20 season-opener at the Rail Yard Dawgs' house. Georgia's Macon Mayhem and Tennessee's Knoxville Ice Bears could also end up in the crosshairs.
In June, Nick Mazzolini, 33, was hired as head coach. His experience includes four years at Providence College and time in Italy's top league as well as Germany's second tier. As the captain of his native Alaska Aces in the 2013-14 season, he won the East Coast Hockey League's Kelly Cup. “I didn’t think a pro championship would mean so much to me, but it was special to do it in front of my hometown, the people that had helped develop me," Mazzolini said. "It’s something I want to help bring to the community of Fayetteville.”
Norris, who called Mazzolini "a family guy, honest, and hardworking," is looking at a bigger picture. "Finding somebody that's gonna put together a championship team on day one was not our top priority. Our name in the community has to be first-class. We have to earn that respect. I don't want to predict a championship in year one, but I predict that people are going to love this guy. Nick's looking forward to the challenge.”
Spotlight on the ice
As for on-ice talent, Norris spotlighted Wisconsin native Jake Hauswirth—last year's SCHL league-leader in goals scored and "arguably the best player in the entire league"—and Brad Drobot of Calgary, Canada. "The fans absolutely adore this guy. He embodies everything that Fayetteville's about: blue collar, hard working, tough.” Word is he’ll hug you off the ice, but on the ice, he’ll punch you in the face.
Ready to Faceoff
The pieces are certainly here, now it’s up to the Fayetteville Marksmen to put them together and make them glide. "The biggest thing is to get the people into the venue and entertain them in a way that they start to watch the games, become involved, and really enjoy being there," Norris said. "Then we start to have the chants, we score a goal and the guy runs around the concourse with the sign. They're really going to be impressed with the type of show we're gonna put on this season and the seasons to follow."
He talks about ten years from now, but then he comes back to right now. Norris forecasts the Marksmen's first two seasons being "big growing years," with year three when the Crown Coliseum will hit its stride, the powerfully large amount of fans, organic fan interaction with the team, the venue, the other teams in the League.
I told Norris three years isn't far off. "Nope," he said, "it's not."