By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
The is coming! The is coming! This could be the start of something big for hockey fans in Oklahoma.
The stars have aligned and the is coming to the Center for the first Tulsa Classic, a preseason game between Dallas and the Florida Panthers on Sept. 22. Hockey people are hoping the event will rival the annual visit of the ’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Maybe we can get to a point where it turns into something a little more consistent’’ says Dallas Stars assistant general manager Mark Janko. ‘’We’ll see how it goes, but that would be the thought, maybe a perennial thing. We know we have a lot of Stars fans in Oklahoma and Tulsa.’’
The Thunder has played nine preseason games at the Center and the last six have attracted more than 16,000 fans. Four have been sellouts and arena officials are anticipating similar numbers for the .
“We’re not sold out, but we’re very close to it,’’ says Meghan Blood, director of marketing for the Center. “Our plan was to get the first game here, and we’re always looking for new events and this is a good way to increase hockey’s fan base in Tulsa.
“The Thunder comes here every year, and we would love that for hockey. Dallas is helping us get the word out to their fans about the game and they want to expand their fan base in Tulsa. Getting the word out will also be a big help to Taylor Hall.’’
Hall, general manager of the ’s Tulsa Oilers, agrees. It seems as though the coming to town would equal a win-win-win situation
“I think the awareness is going to be incredible. People will be coming to the Center who have never been to one of our games,’’ Hall says. “Any kind of increased awareness about hockey is huge for us. Usually in September football is just ramping up and to get people to the Center to watch hockey gives us a faster start from a marketing standpoint.
“I’m hoping this will be like the exhibition games. Several Thunder games have done very well and I’m hoping this game will be similar. They’ve sold a lot of tickets and there is a real buzz about it.’’
Apparently, many Oilers fans have started buzzing around in anticipation of the Classic. One of them is Oilers season ticket holder Daryle Fox.
“Everybody I’ve talked to is going, a lot of season ticket holders,’’ says Fox. “They’re hitting the advertising pretty hard on television and radio and some of them coming will be Dallas fans (making the trip to Tulsa). I think the game will encourage more people to come (to see hockey) and that’s a good thing. Seeing the highest level you can get will draw fans. It’s pretty cool that it’s here and everybody I know is enthusiastic.’’
To make the game possible, there were a few hitches to overcome. The staff made unnamed adjustments to the rink to bring it up to standards and Dallas needed to recruit an opponent.
“We did work on some details and one of them was to get another team to come to Oklahoma,’’ says Janko. “In terms of exposure and allowing more of our fan base to actually see the Stars, it was worth it. The Center has been fabulous from day one and I think this will be a great partnership for us.’’
The Tulsa Classic features a pair of teams searching to make the Stanley Cup playoffs after near misses last season. Florida finished a point out of postseason while the Stars were three points shy of advancing.
Captain Jamie Benn’s 79 points led Dallas in scoring along with Tyler Sequin’s 78, including 40 goals that tied him for sixth in the league. Goalie Ben Bishop’s five shutouts tied for sixth in the . Aleksander Barkov scored 78 points to lead the Panthers and goalie Roberto Luongo ranked third in the league with a .929 save percentage.
While the chance to see some of world’s top flight skaters playing at the pinnacle of competition is expected to be a guaranteed success for Tulsa; attendance at the Classic will serve as a gauge.
“This is a large undertaking (financially),’’ Hall says. “We were hopeful over the last number of years we could attract a game because the Center gets a lot of major concerts, the game, and the tournament. They have incredibly huge events, and it was on their bucket list to get an game. They have a great marketing team that accomplished it.
“The Stars are only four hours down the road and a lot of fans watch them on television. It was a smart move for the Stars and the Center (to stage the Classic) and a majority of our fan base and season ticket holders will be there. For outlying fans, having a chance to see an game and the Center, you couldn’t ask for a better scenario.’’