Is Hockey In Bridgeport Dying For The Sound Tigers?

Background

In 2000, the New York Islanders and Bridgeport Sound Tigers were not a pairing. But Roy Boe, along with a group of investors and the city of Bridgeport, set up a plan to build an 8,500 seat arena located next to the city’s already three-year old ballpark. Part of that plan was to attract an American Hockey League franchise to the city.

On Sept. 20, it was official. The Sound Tigers were the 22nd franchise in the AHL. They were named after the city’s proximity to the Long Island Sound with recognition of the history of the Ringling Bros. Circus which was founded in the city by Bridgeport’s PT Barnum.

The logo was a fierce blue tiger roaring out of the water. Later that year, it was announced that Bridgeport would be the sole AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, bringing the future stars of the Islanders to Southern Connecticut.

In their first season, the team went all the way to the Calder Cup Final led by Rick DiPietro and Trent Hunter, but lost in five games to the Chicago Wolves.

Fan Support

During the first three seasons of the Sound Tigers, led by local ownership in Boe and his son Todd, attendance was averaging over 4400. Bridgeport made the playoffs in all three seasons.

After the overtime loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the 2004 Playoffs which saw the Arena at Harbor Yard filled with more Penguin fans then Sound Tiger fans, the Islanders bought the team from the Boes in the offseason.

Attendance went up during the 2004-05 season, which is partially due to the NHL Lockout and saw the Sound Tigers play a game at the Nassau Coliseum with 13,000 fans attending the game seeing their first taste of hockey for the season. Bridgeport averaged 5400 fans and was 14th in a 28 team league, the highest in team history.

The Mid-to-Late 2000’s

The following season, attendance average dipped by nearly 2,000 as Bridgeport averaged 3600 which put them 24th in a 29 team league in 2005-06.

Additionally, a Double-A team in Danbury took the hockey world by storm in a smaller arena from 2004-06 as many of the fans who once came from New Haven made the trek to Danbury which is only 45 minutes north of Bridgeport for a cheaper, tougher brand of hockey.

However, Danbury folded at the end of the season. In 2006-07, Bridgeport changed their brand, meshing with the New York Islanders. They hired Dan Marshall, a coach with no experience as he was selected by Charles Wang, not the team’s new General Manager Neil Smith.

Smith was not happy and it led to his demise. His replacement was Islanders backup goaltender Garth Snow. Bridgeport averaged 4300 in 06-07 and went down to 4100 in 07-08.

UNIONDALE, NY – OCTOBER 22: (l-r) New York Islanders partners Scott Malkin, Charles Wang and Jon Ledecky, along with general manager Garth Snow pose for a photo opportunity during a press conference at Nassau Coliseum on October 22, 2014 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Sound Tigers, who were led by President Howard Saffan, raised ticket prices and floundered above an average of 4,000 fans until the 2015-16 season. Bridgeport averaged from 4600 to 5300 between 2011-2015, including the shortened lockout season of 2012-13 where the team averaged 5300.

Modern-Day

In 2015-16, Bridgeport averaged 3900 fans, the second lowest attended season in team history. There were two more seasons sitting at 3900 and that put them in the bottom-eight in attendance in a league which was growing to California and into bigger arenas.

In 2018-19, the team went back over the 4,000 plateaux. In the handful of games played during the current 2019-20 season, the Sound Tigers are averaging just over 3,000 fans, the lowest in team history.

Some of the games, including Saturday and Sunday games, Bridgeport is getting just over 2,000 fans.

How did we get here?

In 2015, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky bought the New York Islanders which meant that they would be taking over the Sound Tigers and Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment which runs the Webster Bank Arena.

During that time, longtime Islanders executive Michael Picker replaced Howard Saffan as the President of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Under Picker, the team went more in the direction of the Islanders with the way that the team is run.

The team has been marketing the team as they have an experienced veteran in that position in original Sound Tigers employee Brian Keegan who is the last of the original employees in the front office.

You can’t really blame him for all of this: the people who once went to these games are now either moved away from the area or are going to NHL games like local markets in Boston and New York.

In Oct. 2019, Michael Picker announced his retirement as the Islanders hired Brent Rossi, who was with Pegula Sports & Entertainment running the Rochester Americans. With him, and a new operating partner in Oak View Group, the arena should be in good hands, but what about the team?

What Does The Future Hold?

When the Sound Tigers came to fruition in 2000, it was announced that they would have a 20-year lease with the City of Bridgeport.

That lease ends following the 2020-21 season.

Keep in mind that during the 2021-22 season, the Islanders are slated to go to Belmont. Does that mean the Sound Tigers are going to go to the Coliseum?

Of course, a common trend for AHL teams is to get closer to their NHL teams, you look at teams like San Jose who housed a team in Worcester, MA. and now are sharing the home arena with the Sharks.

Could the Islanders do the same by sending their AHL players to Uniondale? But, if the Sound Tigers move to Long Island, will Bridgeport get an ECHL team in return? The future is unknown, but it will certainly be unique.

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