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Ice Hawks’ move to Rochester pays off in fans and wins

By Ben Pherson

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Nick Fatis has seen the lean years. As head coach of the Minnesota Ice Hawks for the past eight seasons, Fatis was around for the early days when fewer than 20 fans were in the stands.

Those days, when the Ice Hawks were based in Le Sueur, Minn., weren’t pretty.

The Ice Hawks rarely won games, and owner Michael "Doc" Fatis, who is Nick’s father, struggled to keep the team financially above water.

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Doc Fatis founded the Ice Hawks along with Mike Backlund during the 1996-1997 season. At the time, the league franchise fee in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League was about $5,000.

Two years into the franchise’s existence, Backlund left the organization and Doc Fatis took over as the team’s lone owner.

After struggling to gain popularity in Le Sueur for six seasons, the Ice Hawks noticed an opening in Rochester.

The Mustangs had just left town, so in 2002, the Fatis family moved the team to Rochester and into the Rochester Recreation Center.

"Best thing Doc has ever done," Nick Fatis said.

Looking up

Support in the community didn’t happen overnight. Nick Fatis said many Rochester hockey fans felt betrayed when the Mustangs left town.

"People were hurt, and I don’t think they wanted to get attached for fear that we’d leave, too," he said. "Your pride as a community is kind of tarnished when something like that happens. I think in a way we’ve spent years trying to prove we’re not the Mustangs and we’re not going anywhere."

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The first season (2002-2003) in Rochester wasn’t great. The team lost more than it won, and Nick Fatis estimates only about 200 fans attended games regularly.

Still, 200 fans was a drastic improvement over the Le Sueur days.

"We were in a bad situation in Le Sueur. The town was too small for a hockey team; it’d be like Spring Valley getting a team," Nick Fatis said.

During the Ice Hawks’ second season in Rochester, attendance nearly doubled. Nick Fatis said he’s seen a steady increase in fan support since that first year, and this season, the Ice Hawks averaged nearly 1,400 fans per home game.

Hooked on Ice hawks

"There were days in Le Sueur when we didn’t know if anyone would show up," Nick Fatis said. "Now, we have the best fans in the league. The support from this community has been tremendous."

The Ice Hawks even have their own fan club — the Hawks Nest. About 30 Hawks Nest members travel to every road game, and for most home games, about 100 Hawks Nest members are in the stands.

Hawks Nest president Craig Ugland has attended nearly every Ice Hawks game for the past four years. The Ice Hawks have become his second family.

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"I think that once you attend an Ice Hawks game, you get hooked," Ugland said. "It’s kind of like an addiction. It gets in your blood. For eight months of the year, this is my family."

Ugland, along with a large contingent of fans and family members, will travel with the Ice Hawks this week to the Junior A, Tier III national championships in Marlborough, Mass. Though a plane ticket cost him nearly $500, not to mention a hotel room for the week, Ugland said he wouldn’t miss the chance to support the Ice Hawks at nationals.

"I want to do everything I can to give these kids any little advantage. They’ve worked hard, and they deserve it," Ugland said.

Wanted: Even more fans

While fan support has been great, Doc Fatis said it always can be better. He’s constantly working on new promotions and other ways to attract people to the Rec Center.

"We’re geared toward kids and the families, so we do things to bring those people to the rink," Doc Fatis said.

One promotion that has helped greatly is "Skate with the Hawks." After every Ice Hawks home game, fans are allowed to skate on the ice with the players. Every player participates, and fans can meet and get autographs from their favorite Ice Hawks.

"I think that’s one of the smartest things Doc has ever done," Nick Fatis said. "It makes it more personal. Fans can get to know the players."

Ugland agreed.

"It’s like we have a pro team in town, but unlike a pro team, you get to be friends with your favorite players," Ugland said.

As attendance has increased, so has the team’s success on the ice. The Ice Hawks’ record has improved every season they’ve been in Rochester. They have won four consecutive Minnesota Junior Hockey League Bush Cup titles, and they’ve advanced to the national tournament five straight seasons.

Still, success at the gate and on the ice hasn’t translated into advertising dollars. The team has struggled to gain corporate support in Rochester, and advertising revenue isn’t at an ideal rate, Nick Fatis said.

Paying their way

With little corporate support — which comes in the form of advertising on the boards at the Rec Center and in the team’s program — players are forced to pay a fee of $3,000 to be a member of the Ice Hawks. That fee covers travel expenses, ice time, meals and housing (players live with host families, and they receive a small stipend to house a player). Players must buy most of their equipment. Any warm-up gear or team apparel also is purchased by the players.

Nick and Doc Fatis would love to see that fee closer to the Junior A, Tier III minimum of $1,000. But right now, it’s just not possible. Also, though $3,000 may sound expensive, the Ice Hawks player fee is among the lowest in Junior A, Tier III hockey.

"Probably the toughest thing is having to ask the kids to pay to go to nationals," Nick Fatis said. "Hopefully, some day it will get to the point where we don’t have to do that."

Doc Fatis runs the team as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. Any money he receives goes back into the team; he does not take a salary.

Nick Fatis is the only person on staff with the Ice Hawks who earns a salary. Assistant coach Corey Dubois isn’t paid; neither is equipment manager Jim Vold. Game-night staff members and scouts are volunteers.

"Because we’re a nonprofit, we’re never going to make money, but that’s never been our goal," Doc Fatis said. "The best you can do is break even. But still, with more corporate support, we could buy these kids nicer things. I think we do a lot for the kids, but we could always do more."

So what’s in it for Doc Fatis?

"Seeing people have fun at the games is probably the biggest high for me," he said. "I love meeting the fans and conversing with them at the games. Plus my grandkids are there now, so that’s nice, too. Honestly, it’s like hosting a big party. You just want everyone to have a good time and enjoy themselves. When I see that happening, I feel pretty good."

While entertaining the people of Rochester is important, the ultimate goal for Doc and Nick Fatis is to move their players on to a higher level of hockey, whether that be a Junior A, Tier II team or a Division I or Division III college team.

"We’ve always moved a lot of kids on," Nick Fatis said. "But we’re getting better and better. The league is getting better, the players are getting better, everything is getting better. I think, for us, a lot of that is because of the support we’ve had here in Rochester. Other teams don’t get the support we have. We’re really lucky; this town has been very good to us, and we’re always trying to return the favor."

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