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Professional Hockey Hits the Ice in Kent County

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Illustration by Abby Musial

It’s early on a December afternoon, and Charlie Pens Sr.’s to-do list is jammed.

Two of his Delaware Thunder hockey players are injured. Three new conscripts have arrived that day. Meanwhile, members of the Delaware Prep team are trying to get onto the rink at Harrington’s Centre Ice Arena for a practice, but nobody can locate the right key.

“It’s a crazy day,” he says.

All days are zany for Pens, who is the coach, general manager and president of the Thunder, an expansion team in the Federal Prospects Hockey League. He oversees the staff, the booster club and the medical team. “I do pretty much everything,” he says. The Thunder debuted in late October 2019, and though the team’s early results were shaky—it was in last place on this particular day—it had already generated considerable attention and a following throughout the state and beyond.

Pens confirms every game in the 700-seat arena has sold out, with people coming from all over Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. The fans have thrilled to what Pens calls a “very physical” brand of hockey. The free parking and $14 admission price don’t hurt.

“If we had 2,000 seats, we’d fill them,” Pens says. “There is a huge demand for tickets. It’s family entertainment for an affordable price.”

STATS


5

Number of countries represented on the Thunder roster: United States, Canada, Russia, Taiwan, Czech Republic.

3

Number of professional sports franchises in Delaware. The Thunder joins the Wilmington Blue Rocks and Delaware Blue Coats.

0

Number of players from Delaware on the roster.

28

Number of home games, played on Fridays and Saturdays.

500-plus

Number of Federal Professional Hockey League players who’ve advanced to higher levels, like the ECHL, AHL and European leagues.—M.B.

Pens is a Brooklyn native who has played and coached hockey his entire life. He owns Delaware Prep, the state’s only hockey academy for “skilled, committed players,” and had been thinking about starting a team “for a couple years.” Once he was awarded a franchise in the 10-team Federal League, which is at the lowest level of minor professional hockey, Pens says he needed about three to six months to get everything together. It wasn’t easy. He had to arrange housing for the roster members, who hail from a variety of countries. He sold tickets. He pitched sponsorships.

Pens reports great support from the local business community and the team’s fan club, the Thunder Pack, which has adopted a Viking theme in keeping with Thor, the god of thunder in Norse and Germanic mythology. The Pack has built a Viking ship that it sets up in the parking lot before home games, and its members tailgate around it. It’s a perfect way to get ready to watch a young, hungry team play in what Pens calls “the toughest hockey league” in North America.

“The fans are so amazingly loyal,” he says. “And the players love it.”

So does Pens, no matter how crazy things get.

PROMOTIONS GET FANS IN THE DOOR

Though the Delaware Thunder is still gaining strength and finding its way, the team is busy assembling for the 2019–20 season the life’s blood of live sports—promotions.

On Dec. 14, the team staged Star Wars Night against the Danville Dashers. The players wore Star Wars–themed jerseys, and the team auctioned off one of the game-worn sweaters after the match. The Jan. 25 game against the Watertown Wolves was First Responders Night, while the Feb. 29 contest against Elmira spotlights cancer awareness.

Then there are the ongoing promotions designed to consistently lure fans. Groups of 12 or more get shout-outs during the game, the chance for a photo with a player afterward and free popcorn. The Thunder also offers corporate suites that can hold up to 24 people. The $1,200 cost per game includes a buffet dinner, a beverage server, a visit from a “special guest” and a group mention during the game and on broadcasts.

Published as “Thunderstorm Warning” in the February 2020 issue of  Delaware Today magazine.

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