Barry Soskin has kept a close eye on Winston-Salem.
For several years he observed its history; he considered its crowds. A fervor in the city enticed him — its readiness was undeniable, its resilience a telling tale.
Despite the instability of previous professional hockey teams — the monotonous inductions and speedy departures that supporters in the Camel City have endured — one conclusion never faltered: In Winston-Salem, hockey fans keep coming back.
For 25 years, Soskin has been an owner of professional hockey teams around the country — the Toledo Storm of the East Coast Hockey League, the Nashville Nighthawks of the Central Hockey League, the Waterloo Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League, and others.
When one of his teams played a neutral-site game in Winston-Salem a little over three years ago, nearly 2,500 fans showed up. The attendance suggested an opportunity for the seasoned franchise owner, an available market that appeared like the sudden unguarded corner of a net.
“I don’t believe that Winston-Salem has failed hockey,” Soskin said in an interview on March 17. “I believe hockey has failed Winston-Salem.”
Indeed, the relationship between the Camel City and professional hockey hasn’t been one of consistency. Since the Winston-Salem Polar Twins of the Southern Hockey League began their inaugural season in 1973, eight different teams have played here in seven different leagues. Most stuck around for one year, and no team representing a single league remained in Winston-Salem more than six seasons. It has been eight years since the Twin City Cyclones hung up their skates in 2009.
Yet despite the inconsistency, the city’s many teams have all averaged at least 1,100 fans per game.
This fall, the Carolina Thunderbirds — a name that has flittered around the city’s teams since the first Carolina Thunderbirds in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League in 1981 — will breath new life into professional hockey in Winston-Salem.
As a precursor to a team’s return, the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex — the home for the new Thunderbirds as well as many past teams — hosted two neutral-site games between the Port Huron Prowlers and the Danville Dashers on March 17 and 18. Barry Soskin owns both teams, which left the Camel City with one win apiece. On March 18, more than 2,600 attended the game.
When Soskin considers the challenges of opening a new franchise, he looks to the dynamics of the game itself. He wants to sell not only the action, but the recognition of a kinship between the lives of the players and fans who come to see them.
“It’s affordable family entertainment,” Soskin said. “You’ll see blue-collar hockey players who will bring it to you every single night. They’re working their butts off to get to the next level. It’s hard-hitting, fun, creative, fast.”
He ventured to separate the Carolina Thunderbirds from teams such as the Hurricanes, their NHL counterparts.
“I love this style of hockey,” Soskin said. “Blue-collar mentality. Hard hits, tough action in the corner, a fight or two along the way.
“The NHL is getting away from a lot of the physicality,” he continued. “But whenever there’s a fight, everybody’s standing up watching. Here the players police themselves. If it’s not going right, you’ll know it because a fight will break out.”
Off the ice, Soskin has high hopes for community relations, too.
“I look forward to [the organization] getting involved in the community, as my teams like to do,” Soskin said, referring to engagement with young kids in schools and the elderly in senior centers.
“For us to be successful,” he added, “we have to become part of you. I want this area to be proud that this team represents them.”
Soskin is well aware of the irregular, unpredictable movement haunting Winston-Salem’s hockey teams of the past. He predicts a less expensive Federal Hockey League, in which the new Thunderbirds will take part, will allow the team to stick around.
“We’re running a single-A team here that will be able to survive and thrive and be one of the better teams in the league each and every year,” Soskin said.
But with the evidence of nearly 45 years of unstable hockey teams working against him, there’s a vacuity to Soskin’s prediction that doesn’t engender much confidence.
Substantially, there’s not much in Soskin’s pledge that confirms the new Thunderbirds will be here to stay. Whether or not the team’s destiny is in Soskin’s control, there will likely be little that fans in the Triad can do. However, the owner of the new Thunderbirds may be right about one thing: The past allegiance and the high attendance for the neutral-site games suggest that it won’t be Winston-Salem that fails its team.