Oooooooooooooooooooklahoma, where.. huh... what do we know about Oklahoma? I posed that question to six Oilers' prospects - "what do you know about Oklahoma City?" The answer was resounding and unanimous - "Nothing."
Teemu Hartikainen was caught off-guard when I asked him about about Oklahoma, he said "Actually I don't know anything about Oklahoma. I looked at the map and I think the weather must be quite hot all year. I must find out more about Oklahoma City!" Phil Cornet was in the same boat as Hartikainen. I mentioned the reputation of being home to terrible thunderstorms, tornadoes and ice storms and that clued him in: "I knew about the storms!" Cornet said. Other than that, the answer "I don't know much about the city," was a familiar refrain from all of the future Barons that talked about the city.
The closest high-level hockey has ever been to Oklahoma City is 190 miles away in Dallas, The closest that any Major Junior player would have come to Oklahoma City is the 890 miles from Plymouth, MI to Oklahoma City, so it's not shocking that these Oiler prospects would have little knowledge of this heartland haven.
Scott looked at the unbalanced schedule the AHL has put together this season, and given that AHL teams play the vast majority of their games on the weekend, Hartikainen, Cornet and the rest of the young Barons are going to have plenty of time to explore and learn about Oklahoma City.
When I spoke with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, he mentioned that downtown Oklahoma City "...has a lot of vitality to it," and talked about his city as a tourist destination: "We're fairly new to being a great city to visit. We've always been a good place to live and a great place to raise a family. But it wasn't until this decade that we've become a good place to visit...." Okay, but what mayor doesn't say something like that about his city? In this case, Mayor Cornett wasn't just blowing smoke.
The mayor's statements have been backed up by the city's rankings over the last few years. In 2008, Forbes named Oklahoma City America's most recession-proof city, citing "falling unemployment, one of the country's strongest housing markets, and solid growth in agriculture, energy and manufacturing..." as reasons the region should shine during the current downturn. In 2009, CNN ranked Oklahoma City as the best place to launch a small business startup, citing the low rents, diverse economy and deep-pocketed local investors.
Earlier this spring, Portfolio.com ranked Oklahoma City as the sixth-best city in the country for young adults, saying "The unemployment rate for young adults is lower here than anywhere but Salt Lake City and Tulsa. Oklahoma City also enjoys the nation’s third-best pace for annual income growth, a rapid 7.2 percent." Those young adults are attracted to the city by the low rents and the available jobs, and they stay in the city because of places like Bricktown, the former railroad warehouse district, recently transformed into the center of the city's entertainment scene. The Barons' home arena, The Cox Center lies directly in the heart of Bricktown (Why Bricktown? It had to be Bricktown!).
It's that thriving business climate, the location of the arena and all of those young adults that Prodigal Hockey is counting on when it comes to filling the Cox Center for at least forty nights during the 2010-11 AHL season. The Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League drew 8,000 fans per game, 1,800 of them corporate ticket holders. That was more than 27 of the 29 AHL teams averaged last season. Though the Barons are now playing second fiddle to the Oklahoma City Thunder, if Prodigal Hockey can convert the fan and corporate support for the lower-level CHL Blazers into support for the Barons, the real possibility exists that Oklahoma be among the league leaders in attendance.
Though the weather remains the largest downside (does the Cox Center have a tornado-proof room for the Barons like the Thunder have at their facility?), if the Barons can avoid the heat waves, the tornadoes, the hail storms, the thunderstorms, the floods, the ice storms and the freak blizzards, Oklahoma City should be a welcoming home.