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Whalers’ new management shoots for more fans in stands: ‘It’s in Plymouth, it’s going to be in Plymouth’

Having known Peter Karmanos for some 30 years, Mark Craig is eminently qualified to put the Plymouth Whalers owner's comments in context.

Late last week, the Whalers' introduction of Craig and Don Elland as general manager and coach, replacing Mike Vellucci, was overshadowed by the owner's comments about the club's support in the Detroit area. ("If we continue to draw a couple thousand people a game, we’re going to take a look at some options.") The gist of it was that Karmanos, one of the OHL's longest-serving owners, was simply rallying the troops. Stability on the ice — Plymouth's OHL-best 23 consecutive playoff appearances — is nice. Keeping the status quo in the stands, where the Whalers have typically been around 16th in a 20-team league in attendance, is not.

"I think Pete was sending us the message more than anything else," says Craig, who has jumped back into junior hockey after a long and successful career in the automotive industry. "Certainly we do know that he can't continue this forever. We've got a job to do. We've got to sell a small-market team in a large market. We've done a good job of that over the years, but I think he wants us to get better. And Pete, that's what he does, he drives it.

"I've known Mr. Karmanos for 30 years, and his commitment to Detroit-area hockey and to junior hockey is renowned," says the 61-year-old Craig, who ran the Windsor Compuware Spitfires in the 1980s when Karmanos owned the club on the other side of the Detroit River. "He was the first one to move his business downtown and build a brand-new building in the centre of town. He's so Detroit.

"Some of it's been misconstrued. I think the goal, and I think what Pete was trying to do, is take this new management team that's been put in place and make sure we understand that for his commitment, and his financial commitment to continue, we'll need to find a way to continue to drive junior hockey in this town and make the Whalers a bigger part of it."

'We're a small-market team where we used to be a big-market team'

According to HockeyAttendance.com, Plymouth has averaged between 2,478 and 2,850 fans per game during the past five seasons. It's far from a Brampton Battalion situation. At the same time, though, more than half of OHL teams are reaping benefits from either a move to a new arena or a significant renovation.

"He [Karmanos] has put a lot of money and time and sweat into it," says Vellucci, who became assistant GM and director of hockey operations of the Karmanos-owned Carolina Hurricanes in April but has retained the title of being the Whalers' governor during this transition period. "It gets to the point of where, 'how much more does he want to do it?' " That's all it was.

"It's in Plymouth, it's going to be in Plymouth," adds Vellucci. "We want to sell more tickets. We need more fan support. The league is getting bigger and bigger every year and we're a small-market team where we used to be a big-market team. That's the point Mr. Karmanos tried to make.

"We need to try to get up into the middle of the OHL as far as the market goes."

Craig says the franchise's focus will be on repeat customers. Retain the core support, but tap deeper into that casual fanbase; pique its interest in a team that currently has 23 alumni on NHL rosters.

"We have this base group, first of all, that are rabid," Craig says. "They're here every night. They do it all.

"What we need to do is take those fans who show up for a game or two games and get them back. I'm a firm believer that in all sports, that when people start to identify with the players is when they start to come back. Our players are young kids driving for a dream, they play with the passion. Some of what we need to do is sell what these kids are striving for. A lot of that is getting people to know them. A lot of that is getting people here 3-4-5 times, and once they relate to the kids, and that's when it will become an every-Friday-night thing for them."

Craig was around the Whalers for the last several seasons, becoming a valued confidant for Vellucci. Essentially, Plymouth will have familiar faces in two of Vellucci's former jobs.

"Mark Craig is a great hire," Vellucci says. "He's very knowledgeable of the league and has had some experience in the league. I've used him as a sounding board for several years on a lot of things that I've done there. That's what I think is the biggest key out of this whole thing. Mark is already familiar with the players and the team and Donny, the players are going to know him after his time as an assistant coach."

Plymouth extended its playoff appearance streak despite having one of the OHL's youngest teams, with 15 first-year players. Sophomore Alex Nedeljkovic authored an OHL goaltender of the year campaign. The Ohio native, along with 18-year-old right wing Connor Chatham and 17-year-old defenceman Josh Wesley, were all invited to last week's NHL combine. With continued development, Plymouth has a chance to jump back into the top half of the Western Conference.

"We have a good base group, we're excited about that," Craig says. "We had a good draft, we're excited about that, we probably have a few holes to fill in that I don't think we have the scoring. I think we're going to be good defensively and we're throwing probably the best goalie in junior hockey in the net. We're going to have do something to get more offence."

The easy conclusion would be to jump to conclusions based on Karmanos' remarks and the void left by Vellucci moving up to a NHL job. Plymouth has a challenge, but it's tackling it with Craig and Elland, who are steeped in hockey in Michigan and understand the OHL's value to the area.

"We have good people in place to focus on growing this," Craig says.

"The message was more for our management team. We also want to tell the community, 'we need to have your support.' "

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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