Rachel, Brandon Kisker taking stock in civic endorsement
Even before he saw them in action, Brandon Kisker favored the Rough and Ready Islanders uniforms.
The ECHL’s Stockton Thunder were to assume a temporary persona Feb. 7 and 8, 2014. It was the front office’s choice of costume for the league’s answer to a masquerade ball.
As the Alaska Aces’ guests when Anchorage observed Hockey Heritage Weekend, the Thunder were to sport a celebration of their history and the ECHL’s relationship with the NHL. Being the New York Islanders’ Double-A affiliate, they had a natural choice to checkmark all of the criteria.
Per a press release announcing the promotion, club president Brian Sandy thought back to Stockton’s welcome sign. It reads “Port of Stockton – Rough and Ready Island.”
Accordingly, the Thunder took the template of their parent club’s road white jersey. They then modified the iconic Long Island/NY/stick-and-puck shield to display their own offshore locale. To complete the local flavor, they emblazoned “STOCKTON” on the band of orange trim along the midsection.
Kisker, then a rookie commentator for the Thunder’s radio crew, was intrigued. By that point, the lifelong citizen of the Eastern Time Zone had been working in California for four months. But he elucidated his love affair with his new home through a Twitter chat with a fan named Ren.
Ren, whose handle is @ren870, wanted to settle a score. Was this upcoming promotion or a prior “Fantasy Team” jersey showcase better?
Kisker engaged in the Jan. 28, 2014 chat with this reply: “Rough & Ready no doubt. It’s such a unique thing and pays such a great tribute to both affiliate and city. #loveit #sandydidgood.”
The dialogue carried on for four more posts apiece. It proved to be a preemptively refreshing inside chat among natural-born and naturalized Stockton citizens. A week-plus later, the concept failed to resonate among the host Aces fan base.
“To an outsider, those jerseys were meaningless and lame,” Kisker conceded in an interview with Pucks and Recreation. “I can’t tell you how many tweets we had that picked on the name. But what locals know is that Rough and Ready Island is actually a real island here in Stockton.”
The island’s history began late in World War II as a naval base. It has since transitioned to a private-sector shipping port. In addition to foreign trade, the site connects Stockton with the likes of Oakland and Sacramento.
The port’s past and present purposes also make it a symbolic inlet to understanding an undersized, underpublicized California city. For Kisker and his wife, Rachel, underappreciated is another operative term.
“When you Google Stockton, very little comes up that is positive,” said Brandon, now the play-by-play announcer for the AHL’s Heat. “People assume there’s nothing to do in our community.”
Rachel Kisker (nee Saiger), the Heat’s membership retention executive, seeks to solve that scurvy of knowledge day and night. Her official bio’s job description entails ensuring “a memorable time at Stockton Heat games and special events.”
Beyond Stockton Arena, both Kiskers are keen on illuminating all of their adopted home’s attractions. In 2015, while staying through the transition of hockey franchises, they pursued certification in the Stockton Ambassador Program. The program is one of 41 chapters of the Certified Tourism Ambassador™ network, which covers 17 states plus Bermuda.
“It tends to be people connected in the tourism industry,” said Brandon of the program’s membership. “However, we felt that it could also help fans who come to our games by providing them excellent service and recommendations on where to go before and after games — and if they’re staying in town, any other fun things they can do in the area to keep them occupied.”
Since 2013, the Visit Stockton tourism bureau has offered four-hour seminars on the city’s fundamentals and finer points. That class, along with marathons of homework, will culminate in a test.
To date, the Kiskers plus retail/promotions director Rob Cvetan have passed the course, allowing them to represent the Heat as local CTAs™. Five colleagues are hoping to join in the club that already boasts 495 members in total.
“When Visit Stockton offered the program to us, we immediately saw value,” Rachel told Pucks and Rec. “And as native Ohioans, it gave us a chance to learn more about the history surrounding our arena and team.”
Fish out of fresh water
Brandon Kisker and Rachel Saiger missed intersecting early in life. They each spent portions of their respective upbringings in Cincinnati and along Lake Erie. Brandon was born in Buffalo, N.Y., then raised in the Queen City. Rachel returned for college after being born there and raised in metropolitan Cleveland.
They finally converged upon enrolling in the electronic media studies program at the University of Cincinnati. They overlapped in a class for the 2010-11 academic year, and teamed up on an assigned interview.
As fans of Cincinnati’s edition of Oktoberfest, they surprised few by selecting Dr. Manfred K. Wolfram, who directed a study-abroad program in Germany, as their subject. In the interview, Wolfram peddled modern Munich as a recreational and educational tourist destination.
Brandon went on to intern with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The two otherwise remained in Ohio until the Thunder came calling. With the offer, he was effectively two steps away from his dream of filling an NHL booth full-time.
Hockey still needed to grow on Rachel almost as much as the new region would on both of them. But she followed Brandon out west and joined him at Stockton Arena as the Thunder’s inside sales representative. She has since ascended the ladder in her department, and now says, “We’re chasing an NHL dream.”
With the Kisker and Saiger families back in the Buckeye State, the two households’ long-distance breakaways united via necessity. But together, they took a rapid liking to the bevy of taco trucks, homegrown fruits and the annual Asparagus Festival. (“Be sure to get your asparagus ice cream and your deep-fried asparagus,” said Brandon, endorsing the event.)
By the end of their first season with the Thunder, Kisker and Saiger’s comfort zones had expanded to self-explanatory lengths. Rather than return to their old home for as long as possible, they ventured further west to Hawaii. Brandon punctuated the vacation by taking Rachel to the top of a Big Island volcano, where he popped the question.
They wed two summers later — on July 16, 2016 — at a German-inspired ceremony in Cincinnati. They subsequently jetted across the other great pond to honeymoon in Munich.
“Brandon and I love to travel,” said Rachel. “I’d like to think we bring some flavor from each place we visit to our lives.”
By the time of their wedding, they had elevated to Triple-A in their respective lines of work. And they were fully trained to tout Stockton’s offerings to prospective residents and vacationers.
“We’ve done a lot of growing in this city,” said Brandon. “To the point that I will always have fond memories of my time spent here with her.”
In their final season, the Stockton Thunder had two intrastate rivals in Bakersfield and Ontario. They gave way to the Heat — the Calgary Flames’ new partner — as part of the AHL’s push to the Pacific.
With the Triple-A league fulfilling NHL clubs’ desires for closer-range affiliates, the Golden State gained five franchises. Bakersfield (Edmonton) and Ontario (Los Angeles) joined Stockton in its upgrade from the ECHL. San Diego and San Jose became the development bases for the Ducks and Sharks, respectively.
With Bakersfield and San Jose, in particular, the Kiskers have more radiant opportunities to employ their tourism pitching prowess. The Bakersfield Condors have enjoyed a natural rivalry with Stockton, a fellow Central Valley community roughly four hours away. The addition of the San Jose Barracuda one hour away in the Bay Area opens more avenues.
“Most of the people here are Sharks fans,” Brandon notes. And with a 12-game Stockton-San Jose season series, there is ample interaction between the regional fan bases. When the Heat are the hosts, the locals have the harder sell, at least on paper.
“Visit Stockton definitely does a good job welcoming tourists in and helping educate the community about the Heat,” said Rachel. “I think the longer the AHL is in Stockton, the more people will travel out for it. We do have fans from Bakersfield and San Jose come in for games. And after their first visit to the city, we see a lot of them returning for all of our team’s matchups.”
There is just as much give as there is take. Brandon feels obliged to learn about the greater Central Valley and the nearby Bay Area in his side gig. And as the team broadcaster, he constantly interacts with players and coaches who come in with as little familiarity as he had circa 2013. Except many of the young players have the disadvantage of not having found a soul mate to join them.
At best, the new players have the same initial geographic barrier as the Kiskers did. Only three Americans have suited up for Stockton this season, with no Californians. The other players outside the Canadian majority include three Swedes plus one Belarussian, Czech and Slovak apiece.
“It certainly is an adjustment for some of these guys,” Brandon said. “So I do my best to help them out by giving them ideas on places to go, eat, live while also making sure they understand and realize the areas of the city that aren’t in their best interest.”
Yes, even as a communications employee, Brandon will not take C-cuts around every flaw. Stockton has had its reasons to scramble for a reputational redress, especially within the last five years.
If you took Brandon and Rachel’s challenge to Google the city’s name on Nov. 22, unflattering headlines leaped out. The first three news results, listed horizontally with mugshots over the text, concerned two sagas of manhunt and arrest. The outlets relaying those stories were from San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento.
Most of Stockton’s local TV reportage comes from stations based in Sacramento, more than 40 miles away. As a result, it lacks the luxury of more intimate everyday scrutiny Cincinnati might receive.
But Rachel, for one, was broader-minded when she joined her then-boyfriend on the uncharted ground. “We knew from experience with Cincinnati and other cities that there is bad and good everywhere,” she said.
Added Brandon: “The people of this city are really friendly and eager to do good things for those in need. This is a big city, and crime is always an issue in big cities. But what always goes unnoticed is the good people that call this city home.
“Too many times, I have seen the media ignore positive stories in this city and instead report on another shooting. So I think for me, there was an expectation that I was coming to a very dangerous city. And in reality, it’s like any city. Be aware of your surroundings and you’ll be fine.”
As the Kiskers quickly assimilated, diversity dethroned danger as their pick for Stockton’s defining characteristic. Area Vibes gives the place an A-plus for amenities and notes that more than 11 percent of its population is African-American, more than 20 percent Asian. The Hispanic demographic nearly matches the number of residents identifying as “white alone.”
“It excited me to be around people with new and different ideas,” said Brandon.
Between that revelation and a craving among seasoned Stocktonians for improved perception, the CTA™ program was a natural step. The Stockton Ambassador Program began in April of 2013, mere months before Rachel Saiger and Brandon Kisker moved in.
By the time they were an engaged couple of ex-outsiders, the saw the interconnectivity between the program and their jobs. Engaging visiting fans was a natural incentive, but even locals are never finished learning about their community.
“We’re able to better serve our fans and make sure their whole experience is an amazing one,” said Rachel. “Oftentimes, a fan’s experience with the team starts well before they enter the arena and doesn’t end until they arrive home.
“With information about other local attractions, places to eat and even detours or alternate directions to the arena and parking, we’re able to make sure their whole experience is a great one. The more time people want to spend near the arena, the better chance they’ll want to attend more games.”
The apt adage about sports tightening a community radiates with merit in the Kiskers’ intramural and extramural endeavors. As the Heat’s communications anchor, Brandon often accompanies players to appearances at schools and other engagements. This past October, team representatives joined city government officials in a classroom to launch a joint literacy initiative.
In Rachel’s role, she ensures the regular return of those flaunting the crests and colors of other Stockton institutions. Everyone from essential public-service departments to nonprofit organizations is targeted for frequent arena visits.
Already this season, Heat games have coincided with canned-food drives and coat donations. The beloved Teddy Bear Toss — a junior and minor-league staple that never loses its luster — is set for Jan. 20. The Stockton edition partners with its United Way chapter, and involves representatives from the police, fire and education departments.
“To see the pure joy on peoples’ faces when that first Heat goal is made is priceless!” Rachel said. “I love being able to bring people out and leave them with an amazing memory not only from our team but of Stockton coming together for a cause.”
Despite his critiques of the Sacramento media’s portrayal of Stockton, Brandon counts the California capital among the “most underrated cities.” He appreciates being based in a location that is “pretty central to a lot of things.” It grants him and Rachel easy access to Sacramento, the Bay Area and numerous as-yet unexplored landmarks.
“There’s still so much we haven’t done,” he said. “Like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, et cetera.”
Once the Kiskers check those boxes, odds are the experience will amplify their informed appreciation of their city’s offerings. And Brandon has high hopes that precocious first-year mayor Michael Tubbs will accelerate and illuminate the attraction within city limits.
The age-old hockey humility bug bit Brandon long before it did Rachel. As such, he was less inclined to credit the ECHL-to-AHL upgrade for making his second job easier. He defers generous recognition to the neighboring Stockton Ports, Single-A partner of the Oakland Athletics. (Banner Island Ballpark and its tenant sit next door to the Heat’s house.) The rest goes to the visionaries in elected office and the tourism leaders.
“I’d give credit more to Mayor Tubbs on helping to reinvent Stockton,” Brandon said of His 27-year-old Honor. “And Visit Stockton for making it fun for tourists to visit this city.”
“Brandon’s passion for what he does is contagious. His eagerness to learn and help out wherever he can is such a rare quality.” – Rachel Kisker
Of Tubbs, he added, “I think the strides he is making will turn this city back around completely and restore its old glory.”
Maybe not quite as old as the naval-base days of Rough and Ready Island. That legacy will likely live but spiritually in history festivals and minor-league promotional sporting events.
But if Brandon’s optimism comes to fruition, that will mean more material for Stockton CTAs™ to cover. In turn, there could be more Kisker couples to come.
Of the test he passed in 2015, Brandon said, “there really isn’t anything too challenging, in my opinion. You just have to want to learn it.”
As far as Rachel is concerned, that principle has no better exemplar than the man who literally tells the world about their city’s highest-ranking athletic institution.
“Brandon’s passion for what he does is contagious,” she said. “And he puts his whole self into everything he does. His eagerness to learn — not just more about his position but about those around him — and help out wherever he can is such a rare quality.”