The threat of losing your team has become part of being a fan of minor league hockey. Teams move or fold every season. Dayton hockey fans are no stranger to this after losing two teams over four years before the Demonz showed up in 2012 to fill the hockey void.
In 2009, after ownership struggles which may have helped to contribute to a downturn in fan support, the Dayton Bombers folded after an 18-season run in the ECHL. The Bombers were a stalwart at the Double-A level, moving from Hara to the modern 10,000-seat Nutter Center five years in.
Even before the Bombers collapse was official, the Dayton Gems were announced for the 2009-2010 season of the (new) International Hockey League, to play at Hara Arena. Perhaps it was a bad omen for the team when in that first season, the IHL stripped the club away from its initial owner and mounted a campaign to find a local group to take the team over and then having the IHL folded into another Double-A level league, the Central Hockey League, after the season’s conclusion. I wrote about the fall of the Dayton Gems in May of 2012.
The Gems lasted three seasons at Hara Arena, folded at the completion of the 09-10 season after its ownership group failed to secure additional investors. In each of the Gems two seasons in the CHL, they averaged no more than 2,500 fans. Franchise stability is important to fans and clearly the Gems never had it. Just like the Gems immediately stepped in after the Bombers ended, the Gems ending was coupled with the announcement of a team in the Single-A level Federal Hockey League would take Hara’s ice for the 2012-2013 season. The Brooklyn Aviators would become the Dayton Demonz.
Note: The team was originally called the Devils but shortly before the start of the season had to change after a certain pro team raised legal objections to it.
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Due to the smaller crowds, only one of the two concession stands will be open. All the basics (hot dogs, nachos, popcorn) are available at decent prices. I was surprised by the high quality of the food, the hot dogs and nachos well-stocked with a decent mild salsa, standard yellow nacho cheese, and if you want them, a sizable helping of jalapenos were both some of the better arena food items that I've tried lately, and they were actually hot.
To offset the crowds somewhat, there is a pizza stand on the opposite side of the main concourse. A bit pricey at $3.75 a slice, but they serve local chain Cassano's, a much better choice than what many arenas serve.
All beer was $5 for 16 oz., and in addition to the big domestics they served Ohio newcomer and cult favorite Yuengling on draft.
Old. Time. Hockey. The Federal Hockey League is Single-A level, so the quality of play will vary. Luckily for Dayton, the Demonz have been lighting up the competition and, so far during their inaugural season, had only lost once (in OT, no less) at Hara. With the lighter crowd, there's less ambient noise during play so you can hear the players on the ice as well as most comments yelled out from fans. People were ready to call out the opposition for any transgression and were brutal to the refs. They were equally tough on their own team if there was a perceived lack of effort.
With that clarity, it was funny to watch a visiting player mock the crowd on his way to the penalty box, further angering the Demonz fans after he injured a Dayton player.
A low drop ceiling helps to amplify the crowd and when the fans show up it can be a pretty loud place. The center hung scoreboard is basic, akin to what you'd see in a nice high school gym. A video board sits in the north end zone, but wasn't in use during my most recent visit. The first row of seats sits roughly a foot higher than the top of the dasher boards, giving all the seats a great vantage point from nearly every angle.
Hara hasn't had much more than a paint job upgraded in the last few decades. The seats are wooden and aren't as wide as what most people are accustomed to. Squeezing in the seat made me rethink the nachos and soda. Hara is almost fifty years old, it's a no-frills barn, but appears to be well-kept. The staff are really friendly, the concessions crew are all pleasant and chatty and security conversed with the die-hards in their sections. You could tell there's a real community of people here.
The arena sits in Trotwood, a town on Dayton's westside. Basically, it's a bedroom community for Dayton. There's not much around the arena except a couple car lots, some industrial businesses and empty lots. You'll have to venture back towards Dayton to get to any decent bars or entertainment.
What they lack in numbers, Dayton hockey fans attempt to make up in passion. These folks have already suffered through losing two teams in the last four years so I understand why the ranks are a bit thin these days. I will say those that remain are still die-hards, and seem to really care about supporting their local team, whomever that may be. In the crowd you'll notice jerseys representing every era in Dayton's modern hockey history. There's a real community in the stands, people dash from section to section to socialize with friends across the arena.
I noticed that recently the local booster club raised money when a team's players were left without a team owner. The Cape Cod Bluefins were folded in November after its owner cited too much competition in its region, The players regrouped and the team is now based out of Central New York. When the booster club found out Bluefins players were making the trek to Dayton in their own vehicles, they took up a collection to help offset the costs the visitors incurred. It's unfortunate that local fans have to contend with watching hockey in a league with that kind of uncertainty, but good to see them rally around the sport they love.
The Hara complex is in Trotwood, a community about 15 minutes northwest of downtown Dayton. From Exit 58 (Needmore Road) on I-75, the arena is about 4 miles to the west. There's a large surface parking lot surrounding the complex and parking is $4.
Tickets range from $12.50 for the sections nearest Center Ice, $9.50 for the corners, and $7.50 for the end zones. Kids tickets are always $7.50. It's an appropriate price point for the competition level.
One point for the continuing fandom of Dayton hockey fans. They've been through a lot and deserve better than a league that loses teams mid-season.
For local hockey fans, it's nice the Demonz are here. While Hara could definitely use some updating, it's still better than no hockey at all. In the FHL, the Demonz are alone on an island, around 1,000 miles from any other team in the league. Obviously, the league has issues with stability so it's anybody's guess what the league may look like next year.
I don't mean to disparage the Demonz organization, because they seem to be trying their best to put out a great on-ice product while remaining an affordable night out, but Dayton hockey fans deserve more. There's too much history of minor league hockey in this town (with the original Dayton Gems that opened Hara Arena in 1964) for this current situation. Hopefully, even if the FHL falls apart, the Demonz can last and keep the sport around for the faithful fans here.
It may be a pipe dream, but a new arena may be what it takes to invigorate the fanbase. You can look at what Toledo, Ohio did. In 2007, the city tore down the 70-year old home of the ECHL's Toledo Storm, the Toledo Sports Arena, replacing it with the beautiful Huntington Center (2009), which became home of a new ECHL team, the Walleye. The Walleye have drawn extremely well and have brought some excitement back to that market. I hope the same can happen for Dayton someday soon.
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