East Carolina has carved out a strong niche with hockey fans from all areas on campus as they work towards a DIII Nationals bid.
The typical trip from a vehicle to an ice rink is done one way; quickly. At least that’s the way it’s done in the slush and snow of a traditional hockey market. Things are done differently at East Carolina University.
ECU has seen a growing faction of their fans getting to games early to set up shop and tailgate prior to Pirates home games. It is a practice that has begun to grow over the past few seasons and includes a regular group of friends, family members and ECU hockey alums.
According to team president Barron Sluder, the tailgating trend began prior to his arrival last season, but has grown with the team’s success this year. He notes that fans usually begin to congregate around 6:00 prior to enjoying the ECU contest and heading out on the town for the night. Sluder added that ECU’s prime starting times – usually between 7:00 and 8:00 – sets up well as many popular bars and restaurants in the Greenville area get crowded shortly after the typical end time for ECU games. The greatest benefit, however, is felt by the players on the ice.
“It is intimidating for the visiting team to come in and see a mass of fans in the parking lot coming in the game,” Sluder said. “It’s a pump up for us too when we’re walking into the building around all of our friends.”
While it isn’t necessarily the type of rope line seen at SEC football games or in Edmonton, the Pirates do get to experience one of the more unique welcomes to their home rink in the ACHA. Through the use of social media, Sluder has managed to pull on the interests from a hockey fan base many traditional hockey minds may be surprised to find.
Despite being in what’s considered to be a non-traditional market. Capitals, Hurricanes and many other NHL fans are prevalent at ECU and many are drawn to Pirates games due to their desire to see the product in person.
“Everyone says Carolina isn’t the spot for hockey but when you come down here and see the players coming in and out, they want to be playing at ECU or NC State or even the Junior Hurricanes program,” Sluder said of the overall hockey culture. “It’s not a bad place for hockey. It’s definitely developing.”
Often the most popular draws are opponents who have more name value due to national coverage of other sports – North Carolina State, for example. However, Sluder has noticed the hockey culture developing to the point where people just want to get out and see a game.
“There are a lot of Hurricanes fans but you see [other teams] as well. It helps having fans from other places bringing their knowledge of hockey in,” Sluder said. “Some people just want to see a hockey game, but if you have a [big name school], the place will be packed.”
Success on the ice has been a major marketing point for the team as a rough season in Sluder’s first year aided in declining attendance. However, a quick 7-1-0 start has helped to inject interest on campus as the success on the ice is helping to draw fans to the games.
“We’re trying to build the reputation that we’re a good team and the fans have responded to that,” Sluder added. “It’s something we want to build on.”
ECU will have the chance to do just that at the DIII level this season as they’re hot on the heels of South Carolina, Christopher Newport and Central Florida for the top record in the South region as October is set to wrap up.
The Pirates next biggest challenge might just be finding a way to bring their tailgating boosters along with them to the National Tournament.