Selling the Express a grassroots effort for Charles Best grad

The players in the main arena at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex are chasing balls on smooth, grey concrete but Ryan Lepper is already thinking about when that floor will be covered with ice.

For the 24-year-old Dr. Charles Best grad, hockey season has already started.

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Lepper is back in his hometown after wandering the hockey hinterlands for three years, selling ticket subscriptions in Prince George for the Western Hockey League’s Cougars and broadcasting play-by-play for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.

As the new manager of business operations for the Coquitlam Express, he has been charged with the herculean task of making the BC Hockey League team relevant in a market that mostly lives and breathes for the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.

That work started as soon as Lepper walked through the doors of the Express office, across the street from Poirier, last spring. While most people have settled into the summertime routine of golf or tennis, he has been working the phones talking with local businesses about sponsorship programs, season ticket holders about renewing and local community groups he hopes will forge connections to the team.

It can be a tough sell, Lepper said.

“The business community has so many options for them where they can spend their money,” he said. “There’s so much competition.”

Pitching a team that had 13 more wins and 27 more points than the year before, and made the playoffs, has helped ensure a more receptive audience for some of those calls, Lepper said. But it can still be a slog getting people to think ahead to hockey season when they’re more concerned about the weather forecast for the next summer weekend.

Building interest for a junior hockey team in an urban market more tuned to the nearby professional sports is a grassroots effort, he said. Already he’s reached back to his high school connections to engage his alma mater for students looking to fulfil requirements for volunteer hours with the Express. Get them involved, he reasons, and they might tell their friends about the games.

Lepper is also connected with local groups like the Royal Canadian Legion and the Girl Guides for special ticketing campaigns.

He has to be realistic, he said. The Express are unlikely to sell out the Poirier rink every home game, so he has to focus his efforts on a few showcase games in the schedule with special promotions or notable opponents, then hope some of those fans come back for more.

“If every single person comes to one or two games, eventually it’s a packed barn,” Lepper said. “You have to start small and go from there.”

Still, in the sunny summer months, selling the Express is still more theoretical than practical, Lepper said. The team’s improved performance last year has already faded from memory and nobody yet knows how this season’s incarnation will come together. 

Lepper said some new players, like the addition of seventh-round Carolina Hurricanes’ draft pick Massimo Rizzo, have the potential to bring buzz. The Express will also benefit from an older, more experienced lineup that’s likely to include several 19-year-olds.

“Experience has shown the teams with more senior players tend to do better,” Lepper said.

But until those players hit the ice, it’s hard to know. In the meantime, Lepper has ad space to sell on that ice.

• Coquitlam Express play their first of four pre-season games Aug. 25 against the Wenatchee Wild at Sungod Arena in Delta. They open the regular season Sept. 7 against the host Langley Rivermen at George Preston Arena.

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