When the Detroit Red Wings take to the Van Andel Arena ice for the second time in three years on Thursday night, there shouldn’t be an empty seat in the house — just like on Sept. 15, 2000, when the National Hockey League franchise played its first Red-White intra-squad game at the arena.
That game became the biggest fundraising event for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
This game will mark the Griffins as Detroit’s primary American Hockey League affiliate and signal the end of training camp for the Red Wings, which got underway last Thursday with a charity golf outing at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa near Traverse City.
Despite some reports that had the Red Wings franchise possibly moving its training camp to Grand Rapids, this is the sixth straight year Detroit has held camp at Centre ICE — a $6 million facility with two NHL-sized rinks and an exercise room where players work out after each practice session.
Three hundred Grand Traverse residents volunteer to work at the camp each year in order to keep the cost down, as Centre ICE is owned by a nonprofit. In fact, ICE is an acronym for Involved Citizens Enterprises, the ownership group. Founded in 1982, ICE was the driving force behind the construction of the facility that opened in April 1997.
The first day training camp tickets were made available last May, ICE sold over 6,000 in just four hours. One resident waited in line for 34 hours to buy tickets.
While at camp, the Red Wings stay at the Grand Traverse Resort. The 900-acre resort has a 660-room hotel with a number of amenities including a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
So how much is the Red Wings camp worth to the city in economic terms?
Hal VanSumeren, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Business Journal that it is hard to come up with a dollar figure from the Red Wings visit.
“I’ve never heard of a number attached to it because the tickets are primarily scooped up by people in the area. Every hotel and motel has a banner that welcomes the Red Wings and the whole community really turns out for them,” he said.
“They are treated royally when they get here. So, from that standpoint, I guess it creates a whole lot of goodwill and maybe the payback comes when the Red Wings tell other people what a great time they had in Traverse City by the fact they come back every year,” he added.
VanSumeren confirmed that KSL Recreation Inc. is taking offers on the Grand Traverse Resort. KSL, a La Quinta, Calif.-based-company, bought the resort for $45 million five years ago, but is interested in selling the complex because its business is a bit too seasonal for the firm. A potential buyer is the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, which owns the Turtle Creek Casino on Grand Traverse Bay.
If the tribe buys the resort, it plans to move the gaming business there. If that deal does go down, the Red Wings can still stay at the resort because the league doesn’t prohibit team members from gambling, only betting on sporting events.
“I am not aware of any restrictions regarding NHL teams staying at hotels that have casinos,” said Frank Brown of the NHL office in New York.
Liz Sylvia, executive assistant to American Hockey League President & CEO David Andrews, said the AHL has the same rule in place.
But should the NHL change its rule down the road, the city would be hard pressed to offer the Red Wings another site equal to the resort.
“There are a lot of facilities in Traverse City. There aren’t any, though, that have all of the facilities or the amenities that the Grand Traverse Resort has. They have a complete health club, tennis courts, a spa and all the things that would be of interest to sporting teams like the Red Wings,” said VanSumeren.
Most outsiders may think the resort’s golf course, The Bear, is the key to why the Red Wings hold camp there. But VanSumeren felt the resort’s exercise facility is the main draw.
“That would be the one thing that would be missing from any place else they would go in this region: having a health club with those kinds of facilities,” he said.
VanSumeren said the city should know by early next month if the tribe and KSL have entered into a sales agreement. He added that if the Grand Traverse Band doesn’t buy the resort, they have indicated they would build a 220-room hotel on the Turtle Creek property.
Two years ago, the Red-White intrasquad game at the arena raised $137,882 for charity, easily surpassing the game’s $110,000 goal to become the Griffins most successful charitable event ever.
Griffins Vice President of Sales and Marketing Bob Sack said season-ticket sales were on par with last year’s at more than 3,700, while the sale of mini-plans had doubled this season to 1,400.
To celebrate its new affiliation with Detroit, the AHL franchise recently took the wraps off its new jerseys that feature bolder stripes and more red, and a new third jersey patterned after the Red Wings’ home sweater that the team will wear on Friday home dates. The Griffins franchise will open its seventh season at the arena on Oct. 12.