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Privateers set up shop in Watertown

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Nicole Kirnan knows the drawing power of hockey in the north country.

After all, the former St. Lawrence University hockey standout has been involved in the game for most of her life.

Kirnan, who competed on the U.S. Junior National team in 1996, served as an assistant captain with the Saints in her senior season (2000-01) as she helped lead the team to the first women’s NCAA Championship game in the sport. She went on to become head coach at Manhattanville College for five seasons, developing the program as a national power and later represented the ECAC on the NCAA Championships committee.

“I’ve been in hockey all my life and my family is in the hockey business,” said Kirnan, who also owns a hockey camp, clinic and private skating business. “So its only natural that I’m in the business as well, it means a lot to me.”

Now as owner of the Thousand Islands Privateers of the Federal Hockey League, Kirnan is looking forward to the franchise’s move to Watertown from Alexandria Bay as her first priority was to keep the team in the region.

Coming off both a challenging and somewhat controversial season in the Federal Hockey League, the Privateers hope to sail into calmer waters as they will call the municipal arena at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds home beginning this upcoming season.

A charter league member, the Thousand Island Privateers played the past two seasons at the Bonnie Castle Recreation Center in Alexandria Bay.

“We knew we had to move, it was just a matter of where,” Kirnan said. “So that led us to a search of the whole Northeast, with obviously our preference being to stay in the north country where our fans are, because it takes a lot of time and a lot of resources to build a fan base and a following and to create a niche in the community.”

But now with the franchise, which will retain its team name with its red-and black-color scheme, making the move 30 miles south to Watertown, Kirnan hopes this will lead to a growing fan base — while still drawing its followers from the Alexandria Bay and its surrounding communities.

“Before people from Watertown had to drive up there to see us play and it was a little (farther) for people from Fort Drum as well,” she said. “So we’re hoping that our loyal fans from the river communities on both the Canadian side and the American side will continue to watch us, but also we’ll be able to build more of a fan base since it will be more convenient for people from the city of Watertown and Fort Drum to attend our games.”

With a change in the schedule the Privateers will play 60 games, eight more than last season, including four more home games (30).

Kirnan received official approval from the Watertown City Council on June 11 for a six-month franchise agreement, allowing the Privateers to move to the Fairgrounds’ arena.

The facility’s seating capacity is far less than the arena in Alexandria Bay, “around 1,400 compared to 2,500 to 3,000” but should provide a more “intimate” setting to watch a hockey game.

“I think it’s a great arena, a totally different feel from the Bonnie Castle,” she said. “It’s got strong roots in the community has far as history with a lot of events there and because the fans are so close to the action, it’s going to create an exciting atmosphere and the fact that there’s not a bad seat in the house is a real positive thing.”

After receiving the go-ahead from the city, it’s been “full speed ahead” for the Privateers franchise, particularly in its marketing approach.

“It’s really the grass roots kind of marketing that we focus on,” she said. “We do the usual promotions on TV and radio, we really feel that by building the personal relationships between the fans and the players, that’s what is going to guide us to long-term success.”

With the move, the Privateers will have more population to draw from in city, which has a variety of restaurants and pubs.

“In a way our marketing effort has become more focused,” Kirnan said. “Before we were more of a destination, we had to try and attract people from Watertown to come 30 miles to a game or get people from Fort Drum to come 18 miles to a game. Now we’re right on a busy street, we hope that just more the convenience factor makes our product more easily accessible. People can go to dinner and then the game’s right there.”

The Privateers went 32-17 last season, finishing in second place, advancing to the semifinals against the Danbury Whalers. Yet part of the campaign was marred by several on-ice incidents with their rivals, the Akwesasne Warriors, including a bench-clearing brawl, in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series. State troopers needed to be called in to break up the melee, with 6 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the final game, won 6-2 by the Privateers.

Earlier in the season, 14 Thousand Islands players boycotted their game on Feb. 10 in protest that the league had not disciplined the Akwesasne team enough following a spearing incident against a Cape Cod Fins player on Jan. 14. Those Privateers and coach Marc LeFebvre quit or were fired and the league still took no action, forcing Kirnan to sign new players to complement the five remaining on the roster.

While the Akwesasne team wasn’t voted out of the league, it chose not to return to the FHL because of financial issues, according to league commissioner Don Kirnan.

The Privateers also faced challenges off the ice last season, as Nicole Kirnan had to lease and then run the Bonnie Castle Arena and restaurant just so her team could stay afloat and play out the season.

“That was sure some season, but we survived it,” she said.

Two of the issues on the table before Thousand Islands’ contract agreement with the city was finalized was ice time and locker room availability at the arena. With the deal, team will have the use of a locker room, but players must remove their equipment to let high school teams use the facilities; and additional locker rooms will be provided to opposing teams and officials.

“We understand that the first year is not going to be ideal for everybody,” she said. “We’re just very happy that we’ve gotten to a place where it will work well enough for everybody. Hopefully we all have a great year together in this facility and the community really supports the team and we’re able to give back to the community.”

The Privateers will release their schedule in the coming weeks and begin its “international” search for a head coach and players to complement their 2012-13 roster, which may include returning players who re-sign with the club.

“We will have a lot of exciting announcements over the next week or two,” said Kirnan, who expects ticket prices at the Fairgrounds arena to be “comparable” to those in Alexandria Bay. “Now we’re now moving full speed ahead toward the season with marketing and selling corporate partnerships and season tickets and all the things we need to do. It is exciting and we’re very happy to be here.”

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