Iowa Heartlanders growing hockey in Johnson County
The Heartlanders, in their inaugural season, play their games at Xtream Arena in Coralville and are gaining popularity for the sport in the market.
April 12, 2022
The first puck drop of the Iowa Heartlanders’ inaugural season was observed by thousands of spectators — 4,017 to be precise, not counting the players, the staff, or the folks who keep the Xtream Arena in Coralville up and running.
The date was October 22, 2021. The clock tilted past 7:10 p.m. The Iowa Heartlanders were ready to play against their first opponent: the Kansas City Mavericks.
What happened next was described by Heartlanders broadcaster David Fine as “a beginning you couldn’t dream of.”
Twenty-five seconds into the game, Iowa forward Ryan Kuffner battled his way down the ice and knocked a puck into the left side of the net. Kuffner had just scored the first goal in franchise history.
The arena reverberated like Carver-Hawkeye Arena when 15,000 people show up to cheer on the Hawkeyes. Heartlanders fans jumped up from their seats, arms in the air. Those closer to the ice pounded on the glass, and the Heartlanders on the ice celebrated by huddling up.
David Guliano, a Family Dental Center dentist whose clinic fits mouthguards for the club’s players, says he became hooked to the Heartlanders at that moment. Then-Coralville Mayor John Lundell, who participated in the ceremonial puck drop before the contest, distinguished the night as one of the highlights of his eight years as the city’s leader.
Those who witnessed their first hockey game saw all aspects of the fastest sport on ice from prolific goals to amazing saves to egregious infractions. After the final horn boomed, marking a 7-4 Heartlanders victory, those in attendance stayed in the bowl as the skaters saluted their fans.
In an area dominated by several high-profiled University of Iowa athletic programs, the Heartlanders are trying to emerge as an organization that is growing the popularity of hockey in Johnson County.
Data visualization by Lillian Poulsen/The Daily Iowan
Coralville lands a professional hockey club
The Iowa River Landing in the 1980s was the last place a family wished to stroll through. Located on the southeast corner of the First Avenue exit on Interstate 80, an adult strip joint, a mountain of tires, and abandoned buildings marked the area.
The city hosted focus groups in the 1980s on how to grow the Coralville area. Lundell said the first issue that always came up was about that “unattractive gateway” because residents wanted a better first impression of the city for those departing off I-80.
“So, with the support of the community, the city council worked with consultants to develop a master plan and design what could possibly go down there,” Lundell said.
And 30 years later, he said, it’s come to fruition.
Now, a mixture of locally owned restaurants and bars, hotels, residential structures, retail and office space — along with a UI Health Care facility — call the Iowa River Landing home.
An arena was always in the Iowa River Landing design. Lundell said city administrators wanted a facility that could host indoor sports like basketball, volleyball, and wrestling, but also had the capacity to anchor a concert.
The community expressed interest in hockey — wanting a rink besides the one inside Coralville’s Coral Ridge Mall. So, a standard North American professional rink was inserted into the arena plan, which included the GreenState Family Fieldhouse. The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported in 2018 that the project cost $70 million. Construction started on the facility in May 2018 and was finished by September 2020.
Data visualization by Lillian Poulsen/The Daily Iowan
Coralville’s website states ArenaCo, a nonprofit communication development corporation, was formed in 2017 to operate the facility and is separate from the city. The corporation to apply for grants and tax credits.
According to The Des Moines Register, in Nov. 2020, Coralville’s bond rating was damaged because of the $76 million the city spent financing Xtream Arena, GreenState Family Fieldhouse, and the Iowa River Landing.
About 24 percent of Coralville’s tax base is reserved for tax-increment financing projects. The city’s website notes that “all debts will have associated, secured payment sources” and the city will issue general obligation bonds that will get repaid with the cash flow from the payment sources.
Under Lundell’s leadership, Coralville set out to find a hockey team that would call Xtream Arena home. They first thought about adding a United States Hockey League (USHL) organization, which is an amateur junior hockey circuit that includes teams from Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Dubuque, and Urbandale.
With four USHL members in Iowa, Coralville decided not to go in that direction and instead looked at the ECHL, a minor professional league serving as the “AA” affiliate of the NHL and which had no clubs in the Hawkeye State.
Heartlanders President and CEO Brian McKenna was born in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He said moving to Iowa is like returning to his roots.
“So, corn versus potatoes, but still that same sort of environment,” McKenna said. “I like small towns, and I like friendly environments, so it’s been comfortable for me here.”
When McKenna was commissioner of the ECHL in 2018, he visited the site of Xtream Arena soon after it had broken ground. Lundell recalls McKenna’s positive impression of the Iowa River Landing and the commitment of Coralville, which led to McKenna suggesting the city needed to vie for an ECHL team.
At the 2020 ECHL All-Star Game in Wichita, Kansas, Lundell, Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth, and Think Iowa City President Josh Schamberger met with Deacon Sports and Entertainment administrators, who McKenna had introduced them to, and the league.
From that point on, the city administrators decided an ECHL franchise would be the best fit, and an expansion team for Coralville was approved in January 2021, with Deacon Sports and Entertainment as its owner.
McKenna, who retired as ECHL commissioner in 2018, was named the head of the new organization’s front office two months later. In summer 2021, the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and AHL’s Iowa Wild announced their affiliation with the Heartlanders.
“I don’t think everyone thought we were crazy,” Lundell said of putting a professional sports team in an area dominated by Hawkeye Athletics. “They admired our dedication and perseverance to make it happen. It is a relatively small market, but it’s not just Coralville, you got to practically include all of Johnson County, certainly Iowa City and North Liberty as well.
“We knew with a good professional team, we would draw a much larger distance geographically.”
Growing community support
Isaac Helgens, a Tiffin resident, said he became a hockey fan by accident. As a child, he saw actor Alan Ruck as the character Cameron Frye in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, wearingCanadian pro hockey player Gordie Howe’s jersey.
“I was like, ‘I have no idea what sport that is, but that’s the coolest jersey ever,’” Helgens told the Daily Iowan in the Xtream Arena concourse during an intermission. “And then later, I found out what it was and I watched the games and I just loved it.”
Helgens was one of the first people on the list for Heartlanders tickets. And he wasn’t the only Johnson County citizen who was ecstatic that a professional hockey club had come to Coralville.
Trisha Bartz lives in Coralville but grew up in a hockey family in Waterloo. Stephen Freeman, another Coralville resident, was raised as a Los Angeles Kings fan in southern California.
These are some of the Heartlanders’ biggest fans, who followed hockey well before the Heartlanders’ existence, and they are the foundation of the niche fanbase that’s making the franchise sustainable.
But the franchise needs new hockey fans to thrive, because Coralville — unlike St. Paul, Minnesota, or Detroit — isn’t Hockeytown, USA.
Despite its single-game attendance record on opening night, the franchise struggles to push past the 2,000 mark per game.
Of 27 ECHL teams around North America, the Heartlanders’ average of 1,961 people per game is the second-lowest attendance in the league. Wednesday games usually seat less than 1,500 spectators, but the Heartlanders have drawn more than 2,200 on Friday and Saturday nights since the end of January into an arena that holds 5,100.
For comparison, the Iowa men’s wrestling program averaged 14,905 fans during the 2021-22 season as it sold out all its duals. The ECHL average attendance for the season is about 3,898 spectators.
The organization is executing a plan to make the Heartlanders more known throughout the area.
“Because we’re a first-year team, the progress is so tangible,” Heartlanders community relations coordinator Jordan Cue said. “You truly started with nothing. So, everything that we’ve built, the fan base that we’ve built, is all because of the hard work of the staff and the players.”
The Heartlanders are involved in several initiatives to make a name for themselves in the community, though COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on certain events earlier in their inaugural season.
Whether it’s a meet-and-greet with skaters at a local Pizza Ranch, Fine interviewing players at Brick & Iron restaurant in the Iowa River Landing on Monday nights, the pen pal program at Coralville Central Elementary School, or the Learn to Play hockey initiative for children at the Coral Ridge Mall sponsored by Scheels, the Heartlanders are finding ways to get new people into Xtream Arena.
Data visualization by Lillian Poulsen/The Daily Iowan
It helps the franchise that the players who come out to these events are happy to represent the team. Fan favorites like forwards Yuki Miura and Kris Bennett and defensemen Adrien Beraldo and Alex Carlson enjoy meeting the team’s small but developing fanbase and taking pictures with them.
“We got a great fanbase here,” Beraldo said, who comes from Hamilton, Ontario. “It’s only the first year the team’s here and you can already see everyone loves hockey. The atmosphere when the building’s packed, it’s awesome. I think, for the years to come, it’s going to be a great spot, and the fans are only going to keep on coming, and there’s going to be more numbers of them too.”
Following a fight between Carlson Mavericks, forward Mikael Robidoux during a game on Dec. 27, Helgens designed a t-shirt using Carlson’s likeness with the phrase “Kung Fu Carlson,” which he then sold to other fans. Carlson said during a postgame interview he got a chuckle out of the shirt.
“From what I’m hearing, every player that our fans have met that I’ve read through social media, they’ve been nothing but kind, generous, [and] accepting of the fact that, you know, we’ve got a team in Coralville,” said Heartlanders fan Rik Zortman.
Zortman is one Heartlanders supporter who wasn’t a hockey fan before the franchise’s existence. After witnessing the opening night theatrics from two rows behind one of the goals, he decided to purchase half-season tickets. Next season, he will own full-season tickets.
Gugliano, the dentist who works in Coralville, was always interested in hockey, but he never had a team to root for after spending most of his life in Johnson County and struggling to find live games on TV.
Now, hockey is a family affair with his wife and four children, and he can’t stop attending games or talking about it — estimating 80 percent of what the family posts on Instagram is hockey related.
“There’s either hockey in the background or a hockey puck in the background or we’re at the arena or whatever it is,” Gugliano said.
As someone who earned his bachelor’s degree and Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the UI, Gugliano still roots for the Hawkeyes. But he hasn’t been followed them like he did for the past 20 years because of his newfound support for the Heartlanders, which he said came 100 percent from getting to know the players when he did mouthguard fittings and saw how polite they were.
With the area’s young population that includes a high concentration of families and college students, the Heartlanders market toward those in their 20s through 40s, whereas other ECHL franchises are known for an older fanbase because of their local demographics. About 60 percent of the Heartlanders’ fan base comes from the local market, Heartlanders Vice President of Ticketing Sales and Marketing Mike Pence said.
“We want Xtream Arena, we want the Iowa Heartlanders, to be the place to be,” Pence said. “When, you know, on Wednesday there’s going to be a game, or a Saturday or Sunday, it’s the place to be.”
When the Heartlanders play in their home rink, officials have organized amusement outside of the official contest, such as riding the Zambonis during intermissions. At the last game, children — and a soon-to-be married woman — took a trip around the rink.
The Heartlanders have also hosted specialty jersey nights, such as Pride Night or DC Comics Night, and those who attend can bid on players’ jerseys after the game. If they secure the highest bid, they receive the jersey and meet the specific player postgame.
Season ticket holders and group sales are key for any minor league sports organization. Before the season, Pence said the Heartlanders’ main goal was selling season tickets, which put them behind on group tickets.
But in the second half of the season, Pence said the Heartlanders are ahead of where they were with group sales compared to the beginning of the season, noting that it takes one to two months to fulfill those transactions.
“We’re appreciative of everyone that comes out,” Pence said. “We’ve probably got one of the rarest fanbases that stays to the end of the game, no matter if we’re winning or losing, which is tremendous.”
Even when the arena seats half of its 5,100 capacity, the compactness of the barn makes the crowd noise seem like it’s at full occupancy.
McKenna said COVID-19 hurt the franchise’s group sales. It saw more individual sales in its inaugural season, but he expects that to change next year when there’s consistently large groups. The organization has garnered a better understanding of where it needs to go for marketing in the community, and now more Heartlanders gear has been spotted around the area than before the season.
The Heartlanders, though seeing their fanbase grow, do not aim to become like the Fort Wayne Komets or the Toledo Walleye, their division rivals.
Those clubs are the biggest winter sport attraction in the metropolitan area and possess an average attendance of around 7,000. Heartlanders organizers recognize that Hawkeye Athletics — particularly football, basketball, and wrestling — will always be the talk of Johnson County.
Instead, the Heartlanders are there to complement the UI teams as another entertainment option for locals. They are a missing puzzle piece to the only major North American sport not represented by a Hawkeye varsity program. McKenna said the organization sees December through the end of the regular season as its niche.
“The response we’re getting from the crowds has been positive,” McKenna said. “And that’s good. There’s a community spirit here that isn’t in all markets, and that’s encouraging.”