December 23, 2009
Last Tuesday, the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL earned both an instant YouTube classic and instant criticism from PETA when their coach encouraged two players to kill a bat that had flown onto the ice during the game. Coach Jon Cooper later labeled the controversy "Bat-Gate."
"We took are share of emails from people who weren't really crazy with how it was handled. We didn't really have a handbook for how to deal with a bat during a hockey game," recalled Terry Charles, Gamblers public relations manager. "We were concerned with some of the players' safety and the fans' safety."
Facing scrutiny from animal activists and advocates -- while stumbling into a publicity goldmine -- the Gamblers have decided to embrace the incident as most hockey fans believed they would: By asking fans to toss rubber bats on the ice after the home team scores a goal.
For a good cause, of course.
"We knew there had to be a way to make it all better," said Charles.
Thursday, Dec. 31 is the first home game for Green Bay at the Resch Center since its players struck down the winged menace. In case you've not seen it, here's the incident:
Gamblers fans have been preconditioned to gleefully toss objects on the ice for charity: teddy bears, mittens, "caps for cancer" (check out those jerseys ... wow). Sensing that fans might be bringing their own rubber bats to the game anyway in tribute to the odd incident -- ala the NHL's Florida Panthers and rubber rats in the 1990s -- the team decided to be proactive.
"So we thought, 'What the heck?' Why don't we get a toy bat, and let's make it available to fans in our team store for $2. If they want to keep it, they keep it; if they want to throw it on the ice for the first [Gamblers] goal at every home game, we'll pick them up and recycle them back into the team store [to be purchased and tossed again]," said Charles.
"They were thrilled. They had no criticism with how we handled the bat ... although they would have rather the bat wasn't killed," said Charles.
Here's the press conference, in which Gamblers President Brendan Bruss explains the campaign and gets the name of the sanctuary wrong several times:
The team is also selling sharp-looking T-shirts to commemorate "The Year of the Bat," although there's no indication on the Web site or the video above that its proceeds are going to charity.
Now, hockey fans being hockey fans, we figure there's zippy chance that the bats are flying onto the ice exclusively after the first goal. What happens if there be bats on subsequent tallies?
"Obviously, that could happen. We're hoping fans respect it and do it only after the first goal," said Charles. "If it's the second goal, the players will gently with their sticks pick up the toy bats."
Charles said he wasn't sure the team had checked with the USHL on the legality of encouraging fans to throw rubber toys on the ice after goals; assuming, you know, that the USHL has delay of game penalties for such instances on its books. He figured the team had checked with the League, but said the Gamblers "aren't expecting several hundred bats" to hit the ice and that the charitable aspect of the tradition should alleviate any scrutiny.
Clearing, the unfortunate demise of the bat has raised the Gamblers' national profile; so we asked Charles about the potential sequels. Why not kill something larger next time? Like a manatee, for instance? Or, it being Green Bay, a large cow? Why not up the ante?
"We could. Unfortunately, the poor bat fell into our laps. So we'll stick with the bats," he said. "We seriously are going to see where this takes us."
Kudos to the Gamblers for taking an uncomfortable situation and turning it into a good cause. Even if our delusions of fan promo grandeur -- Bobble-Bat Dolls! Green Bay Gamblers Whack-a-Bat Piñata Night! -- have yet to be realized.