The Maryland Black Bears season ended on Saturday much the way their first series of the season ended– with an overtime loss but one that was a thriller. While their record wasn’t the best thing to write home about, the first season of the Black Bears could be considered somewhat of a success off the ice, while the on-ice product does need just a bit of work.
One of the biggest things for an expansion team is building a fan base, building something that will stick and reside with the community. Junior hockey is nothing if there’s no community to stick by it and support it. Through going to the games, the billets who house these out of town players and make them feel comfortable in their experience. It’s also about the ownership and front office being embedded in the community and wanting to grow the team, but also help the area as a whole be better.
The season had plenty of exciting moments to it, with some ups, some downs, and some sideways. From Marek Wazny’s getting the franchise’s first goal three minutes into the first game or Luke Mountain’s late tying goal this past weekend to end the season, there was a lot to talk about. There were viral videos of celebrations, highlight reel goals and saves, and a community built around the area from virtually nothing.
For me, that’s what sticks out amongst this whole season. Later this week, I’ll get to the actual on-ice product, but the fact that for an area that’s not recognized as much as a hockey heavy area– the people turned out to Piney Orchard and the hockey community was brought out in force. The biggest thing the Black Bears did was get the surrounding youth hockey clubs involved. They didn’t just keep to the Nelson Hockey club, but branched out to Bowie, Howard, Baltimore, and more teams from the area. It truly made it feel like the different club teams were united by one common thread in the Black Bears.
To build this fan-base up from scratch in as little time as they did it is truly something and shows that word-of-mouth worked out for people. Maryland closed out the season with a total attendance of 11,118 for 30 home games, which works out to an average of 373 for each game– which may not seem like much; but it ranked them at third in the East Division and for a rink where the capacity is around the 350 mark (I can’t find the “official” capacity), it’s a great turnout.
The team also got it right with having entertainment between the hockey action with some solid intermission happenings, great in-period participation, as well as the fish toss after the first goal and the staple chuck-a-puck after the game. Obviously, the in-game entertainment is as crucial as the game itself for people experiencing the event. They checked all the boxes for what was needed for this team to get people talking about and get some coverage for the team in the community and grow it more.
But from the first series to the last series and all in between, the Black Bears created much more for the state of Maryland when it comes to hockey than just wins and losses. It bonded together a community that usually just stuck to their own areas of the state. It brought together fans and gave them some decent hockey to watch while giving the youth players something to aspire to when it comes to growing their own game trying to get to the NAHL level.