Sat, March 02, 2024

EXCLUSIVE: Hockey insider talks chances for return to Augusta

Is another hockey team lacing up the skates in Augusta?

A man who dreamed about sports as a young boy will share his opinion and the importance of entrepreneurship to Columbia County later this week.

Andy Kaufmann, CEO of Zawyer Sports, is the guest speaker at the Feb. 8 Columbia County Chamber of Commerce’s 19th Annual Banquet. Among his holdings are East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) teams, the Jacksonville Icemen, and the Savannah Ghost Pirates.

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Kaufmann spoke with ABD about his path that started with a childhood dream and now has him in the center of the hope for a return to hockey in Augusta.

He said, through the Icemen, he became friends with people in Augusta’s hockey community, including former players for the Augusta Lynx. The associations began when plans for the new James Brown Arena, without provisions for an ice floor, were first announced.

“And they just asked me as a friend if I would hop on a call with Cedric (Johnson, Chairman of the Augusta Richmond County Coliseum Authority) and some other folks, just to tell him about our experience, in the hopes that they would add ice to the arena plans because hockey would definitely succeed.”

Kaufmann had a track record to demonstrate how hockey could return to Augusta and be successful. He said the Icemen games usually have 8,000 fans attending. In Savannah, the Ghost Pirates sold out 33 of the 36 games last season. Both cities, like Augusta, are typically seen as non-traditional locations for hockey.

The James Brown Arena was home to the Augusta Lynx from 1998 through 2009 before the team folded. Since then, metro Augusta has experienced a major influx of new residents connected to the growth of the local cyber industry and support businesses, many of whom are from areas with vibrant hockey communities.

Kaufman believes the growth and change in demographics make Augusta ripe to jump back on the ice.

“Definitely, there’s no question things are different,” he said. “Even Jacksonville really struggled to draw 2,000 a game just 10 years ago, right now at 8,300. There’s no doubt Georgia and Florida, these are really great places to move if you’re from the North or the Midwest. I think Savannah and Augusta have special things about the cities there. There’s a culture, it’s just like the community vibe, the feel like just rallying together.”

Johnson said the authority is continuing to review the nearly 40-page feasibility study on the return of hockey. Although the current plan is to build an arena without ice, using money from the $250 million Construction Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, Johnson said there would be a way to cover the addition.

“What OVG (Oak View Group, which manages the JBA and Bell Auditorium) has agreed to do is that they would put up to $10 million in for hockey,” he told ABD last week. “So, as we’ve looked at it, that should cover everything that we need.”

Johnson said part of the agreement would also include Kaufmann building a second facility for team practice and public use.

“They are planning to build a practice facility, or they had said that they would at some point in time, that won’t be right away, but they would build a practice facility and make it open to the public and do different skating options for young people.”

It is similar to what Kaufmann has done to support his teams in other cities.

“For me, my favorite thing is building these facilities, and getting kids on the ice who otherwise can’t afford it. I was one of those kids, back in the day,” he said. “And then “sled hockey,” getting folks out of wheelchairs and onto the ice. And that’s via these community centers. We’ve built one in Jacksonville, we’re building one in Savannah, we’d like to build one in Augusta as well, and then have that year-round community impact.”

Kaufmann’s enthusiasm for the teams he has developed and would like to bring to Augusta is palpable, even on a video conference. Interestingly, he said he never expected to be involved with so many teams, both hockey and baseball, but being involved in sports was a childhood dream.

How it all began

He said, by the age of nine, he knew he was not destined to be a professional athlete, but that he might have a different route into professional sports, team ownership.

“I remember just telling my dad on a train ride, just the two of us, he used to take me to work and pay me in baseball cards to assemble products. And I told him, ‘You know what, someday I’m going to buy the New York Mets’ and that’s where it all started.”

Kaufmann realized he needed to build a business to fund the dream, so he began an outdoor equipment company. As it became successful, gun maker, Smith & Wesson offered to buy the company. That gave Kaufmann enough cash to pursue his dream.

That will be the overarching theme of his speech at the chamber banquet, the importance of entrepreneurship in everyone’s life.

What to expect on February 8th

“You’ll see a three-minute intro video with a lot of hockey, you’ll enjoy that data. And then, my plan is to just kind of talk about growing up, my dream, how I got into this, just walking through the details of my company,” he said. “I was able to grow from $1.3 million in revenue to $26 million in revenue, and I was able to afford this dream. It couldn’t have happened without the spirit of entrepreneurship and busting my hump to grow businesses.”

Kaufmann said he will then turn his message back around to bringing hockey back to Augusta.

“Make sure everybody’s fired up. To make sure everybody knows there are ways to be involved as we go through the process, whether it’s the team itself, whether you’re a ticket holder, or you could be an investor.”

He has one more reason he believes he can bring hockey back to Augusta and be a success, a more intangible reason.

“There are some cities, if you love them, they love you back as a city, right? Augusta is one, that’s my vibe. You know, if you love Augusta, Augusta loves you back.”

The annual banquet is set for the Columbia County Exhibition Center in Grovetown. The showcase begins at 4:30 p.m., followed by the banquet at 6:00 p.m.

It is open to members and non-members alike. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: https://www.columbiacountychamber.com/annual-banquet/.

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