The ice is frozen and the boards have been installed around the rink.
The only things Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall needs now are fans to fill the historic venue.
On Sunday, the Albany Devils host the Adirondack Phantoms at 4 p.m. in the first of five New Jersey Devils minor-league hockey games at the hall this season.
For die-hard hockey fans, this day has been five years in the making. They’ve counted the lonely days since the ECHL’s Boardwalk Bullies were sold and moved to Stockton, Calif., in 2005.
“I’m still not over them leaving,” said Egg Harbor City resident Travis Hughes, 21, who writes for the Philadelphia Flyers fan website BroadStreetHockey.com.
But there is something that keeps Hughes and many former Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies fans going.
“I think it was clear from the press conference, the Devils are thinking about bringing a farm team here,” Hughes said.
At the press conference in March, New Jersey Devils officials said they would like to have an NHL exhibition game between the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers at the hall.
Consider these five games a test. If the hall is filled, there will likely be more and more of these events back in Atlantic City and even possibly a franchise.
It all starts this weekend.
“Our goal is to get events in the hall. Get people to fill our restaurants and hotel rooms,” said Caesars Entertainment Eastern Division President Don Marrandino, who was instrumental in bringing the Devils’ farm teams to Atlantic City. “This is driving tourism to town in a time when we need it.”
Flyers fans who go to Sunday’s game may also get a chance to see goaltender Michael Leighton, who is on a conditioning assignment with Adirondack. Leighton has been recovering from Oct. 11 back surgery.
Marrandino and his staff have worked with local community business and union leaders to support the hockey games, and they have been receptive, Marrandino said. They have purchased tickets for children’s groups and youth hockey leagues in the area.
Tickets range $15 to $25 for adults and $10 to $25 for children between ages 2-12 and senior citizens 65 and older, which makes it a far cheaper night than attending an NHL game where tickets prices are $50 and higher.
“We need some diversified entertainment,” Marrandino said. “This is a great chance by supporting something.”
Boardwalk Hall was home to the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies for four seasons. The Bullies were in the ECHL, which is professional hockey, but two levels down from the NHL.
The Bullies did well on the ice, winning the Kelly Cup in 2003, but that success didn’t spill over to the stands.
In the team’s four seasons, Atlantic City’s attendance dropped each year, and in its final season, the Bullies averaged 2,453 fans, which was the fifth lowest in the league. Boardwalk Hall has a capacity of 10,820 for hockey and basketball games.
Although no one is saying what it will take to be a successful night, the attendance figure is likely in the 5,000 range, but there could be some leeway.
In its first season in its current venue — when teams usually draw well — Albany is last in the AHL, averaging just 2,687 fans in 10 games. The league average is 4,775.
Boardwalk Hall was a favorite for many of the athletes that passed through town. They enjoyed the area with a few of the players staying long after the team left.
Boardwalk Hall also offers one of the better facilities in minor-league hockey.
“You can’t beat the facility as far as the locker rooms, especially for minor-league professional hockey,” said former Bullie Ian Walterson, who works at Oceanside Wellness and Sport in Egg Harbor Township. “Hopefully, show teams that are interested in coming down what the facility is like. Hopefully, the community supports it. Show that they can produce a fan base.”
One of the benefits of having a team like the American Hockey League’s Albany Devils is the opportunity to see current and future NHL stars. The AHL is just one level removed from the top level of the sport, and the quality of play should be better than what Bullies fans saw five years ago.
“With all four Albany Devils games, there are going to be guys who were either in the NHL or going to be in the NHL some day,” Hughes said. “It’s a pretty big opportunity for the fans.”
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