Rockford IceHogs vs. Texas Stars: Trek Into Darkness

Pull the blindfold down
So your eyes can’t see
Now run as fast as you can
Through this field of trees

Editors : Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors

There are all kinds of hockey arenas out there.  Big, small, beautiful, ugly.  Some have character, some have little to no character (I’m looking at you, Ontario, California), and some have so much character, they should have their own sitcom.

The BMO Harris Bank Center….. Wait a minute, wasn’t I just here?

No, the Milwaukee Admirals play in the BMO Harris Bradley Center.  The IceHogs play in the BMO Harris Bank Center.  And what a bank center it is.

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Wow.  That’s a… That’s some… OK, I don’t know what it is.  It’s…. utilitarian looking.  Yeah, it looks like it’s… functional.

I didn’t get much of a look at the outside of the building.  I was here eight years ago when the IceHogs were a part of the UHL, and I don’t remember much about the building then either.  It’s not the prettiest of things, but considering it is a smaller arena in the middle of downtown Rockford, IL, I wasn’t expecting the Sydney Opera House.

What matters is what’s inside.  So let’s head in.

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OK, here we go.  And…. wait…

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Hold on, what….

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Did someone forget to turn the lights on?

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Surely, they can’t mean for it to be this dark in here, right?

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Oh man.  Welcome to what you can see of the BMO Harris Bank Center.  This was the darkest rink I have ever been in.  It was like being in a production of Les Miserable (and I would know).  I felt a major separation from what was happening on the ice and what was happening in the crowd.  It made the far end of the ice seem like it was in another building.  Between myself and the fans, there was us and them, and them was only a section or two over.

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The pregame had players vomited from the mouth of an angry pig.  I am all for players being vomited forth from inflatables.  There was a time when I wasn’t, but I believe I have come around.

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Once the pregame is over, the lights on the ice snap to full brightness, further alienating the crowd from the hockey.  The lights here appeared to be LED fixtures, which looked a lot better than I expected them to.

When I go to a game, I like to sit on the sides, preferably on the penalty box side.  Maybe this is conditioning from watching games on TV, but I feel close to the action at either end.  When I’m in an upper corner, the action on the far end feels very distant, and here I was five rows or so from the top of the arena.  Not where I would normally choose to sit.

The reason I didn’t sit where I usually would was that this was a free game.  Yes, you read that right, every ticket to the game was free.  I had no idea this was happening.  I had never heard of such a thing.  A professional hockey team hosting a free regular season game?  When I showed up to the BMO Harris Bank Center, I was greeted with a sign that said the game was sold out.  My heart sank, but I went to the box office and they handed me a single ticket.  My row, in fact, had only four other people sitting in it.  There were plenty of no-shows for the game.

But as I said, I was far away from the action on the other end.

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But on my end, it was a fun game.

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The most brightly lit area of the arena is the team store.

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What the heck is this?

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Speaking of the Blackhawks, the parent club for the IceHogs, they were hosting the Dallas Stars that evening, parent club to the Texas Stars.  I wonder if it was planned that way.

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Second period action.  That is Antti Raanta in net.

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Framed pictures of some past specialty jerseys.

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Is this taking the pig thing too far?

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Mmmm….. Tasty…

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Around the rink.

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This is a goal.  Good try by Stars goaltender Jack Campbell.

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Twice at breaks in the action, they played Billy Idol’s cover of Mony Mony, to which the crowd would chant “Hey-Guess-What-Your-Goalie-Sucks.”  I guess they really mean it.

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The Stars tried to make it interesting in the end, pulling within one with a few minutes left.

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Your final, the IceHogs beat the Texas Stars 3-2.  Game sheet is here. The one unusual moment was the unsportsmanlike penalty given to IceHog Pierre-Cedric Labrie at the end of the first period, for shooting the puck on net after the horn.  I’m not sure the crowd realized it happened, and there wasn’t an explanation given at the start of the period.  The IceHogs were simply starting the second killing a penalty.

I had a good time at the game.  It was, as I said, the darkest arena I have ever been in, and the hockey felt very textbook at times, but it was a solid game with a crowd that liked their hockey.  Can you ask for much more than that?

Maybe someone turn on a light switch.

How I Shoot Hockey Games

Many times, no one asks me what I use and how I photograph hockey games.  Well, finally, here is the answer to the questions no one asks me.

Before this year, I would take two cameras to a game, a Panasonic point-and-shoot like the Lumix ZS20, and a bridge camera (between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR), such as the Panasonic DMC-FZ28.  I like the Panasonic because their photos looked great for the camera.  They weren’t high-end cameras, but they worked well enough.

Now I have a  DSLR and I love it.  I got the least expensive Nikon, the D3300.  It doesn’t have some of the features of the higher end models, but it does a great job.  It’s 24MP, which is a ton.  Since I am not very close to the action, I use that resolution to crop the photos to a better size and framing.

Professional photographers set up their shots so they don’t need to fix it with cropping later.  They also have big and expensive zoom lenses that are super fast and multiple cameras to put them on.  I don’t have that luxury.  I have four lenses that do the job.

a Nikon 18-200mm VR general purpose zoom

a Nikon 50mm fast fixed lens

a Nikon 35mm fast fixed lens

a Tamron 10-24mm superwide lens

The main lens I use for game action is the 50mm.  The reason is it has an f1.8, which means it can capture a huge amount of light.  That means I can get a really fast shutter speed, which stops the motion of the game.  What I can’t do is control how close the action is.

If I can take two lenses in, it’s the 18-200mm zoom and the 50mm.  If I can get the 10-24mm in, great.  If I could only take one, probably the 35mm.  But the 50mm is the one I take for action.

For camera settings, I use an auto-ISO, set the minimum shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second, and the max ISO to 1600.  That keeps the shot mostly noise-free and the shutter is fast enough to freeze the action.  It also means I don’t have to do as much work to keep the shutter speed fast.  The knob on top is set to P (Program mode).  I use a center point for auto-focus, rather than a multi-point AF setting.  I have burst mode on, and can usually get six pictures off before the buffer fills up.  Also, I shoot in RAW, and not JPG format.

For processing, I haven’t used Photoshop in a little while.  I use DxO OpticsPro 10.  It does all the usual photo processing tricks, but it also corrects for lens distortion (when a lens warps the image).  It’s really neat stuff, and brings the details out of the photos.  What it does to the ice is simply amazing.  It can be hard to get the right exposure of the players on the bright ice.  DxO makes this easy.  Software doesn’t usually make me say wow.  This software does.

Here is an example.  The first image is an unprocessed image converted to JPG from a RAW image format.  The second one was corrected with DxO.  You see a lot more detail in the ice and the colors pop more in the second one.  It also looks a little sharper.  In the upper right corner of the picture, you can see how the distortion was corrected in banners on the wall.

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The last thing is that for game action, I crop photos.  A lot.  I use the 50mm lens for its speed, but that means I can’t get the exact framing I want.  I crop and adjust the framing on a lot of the photos, again in DxO.  I export with the biggest side of an image at 1500px wide at 72pixels per inch (standard non-retina display resolution).  That keeps the file size down, but it still looks good.

For example, this is converted to JPG from RAW with no corrections.

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This is the corrected version:

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Then I cropped it down to get this:

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I almost went with this, but chose the first one instead:

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I like both of the cropped versions.  I just wanted something a little different and wanted to highlight the puck under the pad.

My photos are nowhere near as good as the ones real sports photography pros get.  I don’t have their gear nor their experience.  As my gear shows, you don’t need super expensive gear to get decent results.  My 50mm lens cost $216 new.  That’s dirt cheap.

But also, I’m going for something different.  I’m not looking for the perfect photo.  I’m not going for that one moment.  I like to get a sense of the place, the crowd, and the game.  I want to capture the experience.  I want to take people to the arena.

Hopefully, you enjoy coming along for the ride.

West Bend Bombers vs. Monroe Blues: Somebody Scream

The road to Hell is paved.  It leads up US-45 in Wisconsin, takes exit 68 to Pleasant Drive, then a right on South Main.  There, in a small building set neatly into a hill, lies the Kettle Moraine Ice Center.  It’s gatekeepers dress in Blaze Orange.  They know your weaknesses.

For the Monroe Blues on Saturday night, Hell took the form of 200 feet by 85 feet of ice, and while lasting only sixty minutes of game time, it will likely stick with the players forever.

For the rest of us, it was a jaw-dropping display of domination in hockey.

Welcome to Hell.  I mean, the Kettle Moraine Ice Center.

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The Kettle Moraine IC is home to the West Bend Bombers, of the Great Lakes Hockey League.  Founded in 1937, the GLHL is not a pro league.  Here is how they describe themselves:

All GLHL franchises are non-profit organizations organized by volunteer in their local communities. The teams compete in a 20-30 game regular season schedule starting as early as October and finishing as late as April each year.

The GLHL features players above the age of 18 who have college hockey, junior hockey, and semi-pro experience in other leagues. This provides a unique opportunity for players to continue playing hockey in a meaningful, competitive environment.

The league follows USA Hockey rules, with games featuring three 20 minute stop time periods. It is the ONLY traveling full check adult amateur hockey league in the United States.

So it’s high level beer league hockey?  I wouldn’t say that, but it isn’t a high level pro league.  The players have skills, there is checking involved, but there is also the cautiousness of people who have to be at work on Monday, and the in a few cases, the physiques of people who have desk jobs rather than athletic gigs.

As you would expect from a team that plays in the GLHL, their rink is not an arena.  Much like the Janesville Jets, they play in a rec rink, but this one is a little bigger.

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You still have seating on only one side of the ice, and there are less rows, but the place seems like it can handle a bigger crowd.

(as ever, click any photo to make it bigger)

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Rather than the walkway around the rink running in front of the seating area, here it runs above and behind the fans.  The first row of seats is against the glass, with your feet at the top of the boards.  With the netting protecting the crowd from flying pucks running the length of the ice, it was either sit close and deal with the glass or back and deal with the netting.  I chose close.

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When it came to talking pictures, the glass was a challenge.  The camera wasn’t sure where to focus, on the action on the ice or the reflection on the glass.  Some of these are going to have those reflections.  That’s the way it goes.

The lobby of the Kettle looks like any other rec rink.  The game ticket cost five dollars, unless you wore blaze orange (I call it hunter orange).  Then your ticket was two dollars.

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I saw a list of home games with a promotions schedule.  Other than the first and last home game of the season and veterans appreciation night (where veterans get in free), there was some reason every game that a ticket would be discounted to two dollars.  That means the season could cost you around $30 to attend.

If you are used to four-dollar bottles of water and six-dollar hot dogs, brace yourself.

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The beer was pretty cheap as well, but the line for the concessions was longer than the line for beer.  This is Wisconsin hockey?

The crowd was almost as colorful as the blaze orange that they wore.  This guy ran the goal siren.  He told me it came out of a 1940s fire engine, and that he built the switch box himself.  Yes, those are jumper cables from a car jump-starter.  What could possibly go wrong?

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Tutus seemed to also be the rage here.

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Before we get to the game, a modest proposal.

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I have seen a proposal at a game go horribly wrong.  This one went horribly well.  They actually gave the guy the mic, which I didn’t think was a good idea.  He made a very short speech about making a promise to this woman.  It was almost like a professional wrestler proposing at Summer Slam.  She said yes.

With that out of the way, the players were ready, I was ready, and the ref, he was a little on the fence about it.

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Game on.  Let’s see some action.

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This is a checking league, but the checking is not like what you see in the professional leagues.  Checking in this league does not mean finishing your check.  It’s simply a hit to get the other player off the puck. There were some big hits, but there were also different choices being made about hitting the player or playing the puck.  Guys were still playing the body, but ‘finishing your check’ was less frequent than what is seen at the upper levels.

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While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was a good balance.  It’s not MMA, it’s not extreme devastation, but it’s still hitting.  And frankly, the West Bend Bombers didn’t need to do a ton of hitting.  All they needed was skating and passing, which they had plenty of.

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The Bombers are also a big team.  They were on average a head taller than the Monroe Blues.  Whoever built this team knew what he was looking for.  They were big and quick.

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That can’t be legal.

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What about fighting?  The league runs off USA Hockey rules, and has USA Hockey refs. Fighting is rare, and carries a heftier penalty than a professional league does.  There was one fight, which was more like a pummeling by Bomber Andy Parrot after he was cross-checked twice in the face by Blues player Alex Landen.  Parrot got a good cross-check in himself, but after he took his second one to the head, he decided to drop the gloves.  It was as one-sided as a fight gets.

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Hell can look like many things.  French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre said in No Exit that hell was other people.  Hell, to the Monroe Blues, is a 16-0 blowout loss.  It doesn’t get much worse than that.

After the first period, the Blues were only down 2-0, but the shots on goal favored the Bombers 24-2.  Nearly all the action happened in the Blues end of the ice.

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After that, things went from bad to worse.  After the fifth goal, something happened that I had never seen before.  The goaltender for the Blues pulled himself.

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I don’t know if, at this level, there is a real coach for these teams, but I had never seen a goalie skate off like this without prompting.  He was done, but math tells us that the Bombers are not.  There are still eleven goals to come.

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It was a long night for the Blues.

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Around the far corner of the rink are the rowdy fans.  You knew there would be rowdy fans in this crowd, right?

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They keep track of the action.  The signs taped to the glass are night words of encouragement, they are hand-made rosters.

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Note number 22, “Paulie the traitor Morris.”  Here he is.

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Morris used to play for the Bombers, but changed teams.  The crowd let him have it early and often.  Of all the demoralized players at the end of the game, number 22 looked the saddest.  The shoulders slumped, he stopped skating.  I wanted to know what was going though his mind.

Back to the action.

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The many goals of the second period.

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Like it or not, sixty minutes of hockey has to be played in some fashion.  The only mercy rules usually have to deal with whether or not the clock is put into run time, where the play may stop but the clock keeps going.  If you are on the losing side of a score like this, you stay out there, do what you can and try to laugh it off later.

If you are the team on top, you still have to play hockey.  You may not celebrate as hard, but you still skate, you still shoot, and if you are the West Bend Bombers, you still score.

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Bombers goalie Billy Sias didn’t have a lot of work, facing only fourteen shots, but he still looked good.

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At the game, I sat next to Anne, who comes from Appleton, WI.  She wanted me to pass on this message to Fox Cities Ice Dogs fans.

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Things were generally friendly after the game.  What can you do?

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There was almost no yelling a the refs.  There was the usual grumbling over a missed call or two, but none of the vitriol you see at a professional game.  Perhaps it’s the lack of stakes in an amateur league, maybe the USA Hockey aspect of it, but it was really nice.  I didn’t miss it.

After the game, it was party time.  For the refs, at least.  They earned it.

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The players came out and signed stuff for the fans.

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Your final 16-0 West Bend Bombers.  The game sheet is here.

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I would come back for more GLHL hockey.  I had a great time here.  The fans were fun, the hockey was solid, and the value is unbeatable.  No, it isn’t the NHL, it isn’t the minors, and it isn’t junior hockey.  But it’s something you can get behind, a team to root for, and if you catch it on the right night, it can be hell on ice.

At least for one team.

Janesville Jets vs Austin Bruins: Close For Comfort

When you go to a minor league hockey game, you are almost guaranteed to be seated in an arena, or some sort of professional facility.  Many are old and decaying, many have a certain character and uniqueness that came from the era they were built in.  But with few exceptions (Danbury comes to mind), you will see your hockey in an arena.

Jump to the American junior leagues and that guarantee goes away.  You still have arenas that are professional buildings – at what scale could be questioned – but you also have teams that play in re-purposed rec rinks.  The Keystone Ice Miners and their cavernous home is one.  The Janesville Jets and the Janesville Ice Arena is another.

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To call it an arena is generous.  It’s a rec rink.  This is not a slam on the practice of hosting a team in a rec rink.  You dance with the one you brought, or maybe, you skate at the one you got.  Junior hockey plays where the rinks and the fans are.  Preferably, the travel is reasonable, but if you have a place to put a team, you plunk it down and go.

The Janesville Ice Arena is on par with a few of the rec rinks I’ve played in.  There isn’t much of a lobby and half of the surrounding area around the ice is off limits to the public, so space is limited.  When you have 453 people in the rink, it becomes difficult to find space to move around it.

453?  Really?  It seemed like more than that.  And here is why.  The place is small.

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More than once, a puck that was cleared high hit the ceiling and play was stopped.

The seating area is small, and the upper seats look a little obstructed.

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Sit too high up and the beams will cut off your line of sight.  So you sit lower, but the angle of the seats to the action is such that you strain to see over the crowd around you.

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For instance, the kids above are participating in a contest on the walkway around the rink.  I’m in the third row, the people in front of the shot are in the second.  You see how weird it is to watch the game here.  Also, see that netting?  It is in front of the entire seating area.  So we were safe from flying pucks, but the clearest view you got was through the glass.  Every seat in the place was a compromise.

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Unfortunately, that also meant that my camera wanted to auto-focus on the partitions rather than the action on the ice.  I corrected this after I realized what was going on, but it caused many shots to look like this:

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Those are some nice looking stanchions.  So getting good shots of the action was a challenge.  Here is what I got that I liked.

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Much of the action to my right was obscured, so most of the shots are to my left.

This is a hefty screen shot.

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You know you are in Wisconsin when they sell cheese curds at the game.

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That kid on the left?  Here he is in the air guitar contest.

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The mascot is either super cute or the stuff of nightmares.

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I’m going with nightmares.

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This was not a goal. (click to make bigger)

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Someone at the rink is an Avalanche fan.

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When it was time for chuck-a-puck, they untied and lowered the netting around the seating area.

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The locker room is right there, next to the concession stand and entrance. RIGHT THERE.

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Speaking of concessions, the bottle of water I bought was $1.50.  I did not see what beer prices were.  The value of junior hockey.

Speaking of value, they had game worn jerseys on sale for $100.  That’s dirt cheap.  I thought of it, but before I could make up my mind, the merch room closed.  Probably for the best.

More action!

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Away fans.

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The quote.

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I encourage you to look at the game sheet for this one.  With 1:36 left in the third period, with the game tied at one, Janesville took two roughing minors to Ausitn’s single roughing minor, giving Austin a power play.  The coach was not pleased at all.

There are times when you see a coach behind a bench and know that he is a hot head.  He’s stalking the bench, yelling at everyone, waiving his arms wildly.  Some coaches know when to rein it in, to get control of themselves.  Some use it as an act.  This was not one of those coaches, at least not tonight.

After one Austin player and two Janesville players sat down in the bench, a third Janesville player joined them.  The official announcement came over the PA, Janesville was called for an Abuse of Official minor.  The coach had done himself in.

Refs take a fair amount of abuse all the time in hockey.  They are yelled at for most calls, even for the most obvious and gratuitous of infractions leading to the call.  Lower level refs take it just as much as upper level refs.  I felt this ref did a good job throughout the game. He was in control of the game in the positive way.  He listened to players, talked to players, and knew when he wasn’t going to listen to any more complaining and got on with the game.  He didn’t call a perfect game, but he called a good and fair game.

I don’t know what was said to the ref.  The benches were on the other side of the ice, and the glass was between myself and the action. After watching the ref all night and seeing the coach’s behavior before the call, my benefit of the doubt goes to the ref.  Whatever was said, it crossed the line.  The five-on-four power play was now a five-on-three.

I don’t need to tell you Austin scored, do I?  I don’t need to tell you the game ended 2-1 Bruins, right?  It was destiny at that point.

The coach was not pleased after the game, and let the ref know it.

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Look at the fan walking by on the right.  The coach is STILL going off after walking to the other bench to shake the hand of the opposing coach, and this fan doesn’t even take notice.  Perhaps this is a regular thing.

I know people like this, who will cut their face off despite their nose when it comes to arguing with a ref.  There is nothing you can do to tell them they are wrong, whether you are the ref or a teammate or someone watching the game.  When they are wronged, they can’t be convinced or calmed down.  I wonder how often this has happened to this coach.  I doubt it’s the first or last.

The final, well, I already said, 2-1 Ausitn.  A fun game with lots of closeup action and an unusual ending.

I had a great time watching a game with 453 of my closest friends.

Milwaukee Admirals vs. Iowa Wild: You Shall Not Pass

Last night I returned to an unlikely arena, the Milwaukee Admirals home, the BMO Harris Bradley Center.  Not because it has such and unwieldy name, but because the last time I was here, I didn’t expect to return.  One change of lifestyle later (traveling all the time – ALL THE TIME), and here I am.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center (there has to be something better to call it) is also the home of the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA team that no one has heard of.  The owners of the Bucks want a new arena, and they want the fans to pay for it, because that’s the way things work when it comes to arenas and sports teams.  The building is 26 years old, and it isn’t the prettiest thing ever, but it’s not bad.  Of course, that depends on who you ask.  From the Milwaukee Business Journal:

For years, officials from the Milwaukee Bucks, team owner Herb Kohl and other city leaders have claimed that the city’s downtown basketball arena is outdated and not fit for an NBA team. On Wednesday, a top NBA official, soon to be the league’s top executive, made the case clear.

“One obvious issue we all have to deal with is we need a new arena in Milwaukee,” said Adam Silver, deputy National Basketball Association commissioner, speaking of the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

For more, check out the coverage on Field of Schemes.

I’ve already stated I do not care for the NBA, so it’s hard to say what I think of the arena as a basketball venue.  As a minor league hockey arena, it’s gigantic and has much more capacity and amenities than the team needs, or they are willing to use.

For instance, there are eight box office windows, four inside and four outside.  Of the four inside, one was open for will call tickets.

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Outside, there were four windows, two of which were open and selling tickets.  It was a slow and cold process.

One person in line said that at the new arena, this wouldn’t  be a problem.  I told him know it was a staffing problem, not a building problem.  When you have only half your box office open, a multimillion dollar building isn’t going to fix what a $15 an hour (but probably less) job would solve.

I’ve already been to an Admirals game, so you can read up a bit more on my first experience here.  I mostly want to share photos.

Welcome (back) to BMO Harris Bradley Center.

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Let’s just get to the action, shall we?

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This was a goal.

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This was not.

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Goalie action. This was a goal.  (Look under his pad)

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This was not.

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Could this be the best jersey in the AHL?  Maybe, but I would prefer a color I could wear more often.  That logo is awesome.

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The hallways of the arena.

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Most of the amenities were closed for the game, but the big bars were open.

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This is not the Zamboni.

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Team store.

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The Admirals lost to the Wild, 3-2.  Milwaukee gave up a goal in the first thirty seconds of the game, and struggled to gain control of the puck throughout.  They played dump-and-chase hockey most of the game, and kept dumping out of their own zone straight to the Iowa players.  It wasn’t pretty hockey.

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While I had a good time at the game, there was nothing transcendent about it.  Nothing special.  But I go to a lot of new places, and this being a repeat, there wasn’t the sense of discovery I usually have at a game.

This weekend will be different.

Johnstown, PA: Life After Slap Shot

DSC_3722jtnJohnstown, Pennsylvania is known for a few things.  One was the Great Flood of 1899, when the South Fork Dam fourteen miles away broke and water as high as twenty one feet filled the valley town, killing 2,209 people.

Another significant event that happened in Johnstown was the filming of the movie Slap Shot in 1976.  It sounds almost callous to mention the two events, the making of a movie and the flood that killed over two thousand people, in the same way, but both left their marks on the city.

Slap Shot is thought of as the greatest hockey movie of all time.  The dialog is funny, the characters are memorable, and it harkens back to what hockey was then, when the Broad Street Bullies were winning Stanley Cups with their fists.  As comical as it was, there was a part of it that was still “real life” for these players.

Slap Shot was released in 1977 to mediocre reviews and didn’t do well at the box office.  1977 was also the last year of the Johnstown Jets, the team the Charlestown Chiefs were based on.  They folded along with the NAHL, the league they played in (no relation to the current NAHL, a juniors league).  In July of ’77, Johnstown flooded again, with eight and a half feet of water taking over downtown.

Markers on the City Hall building show how high the water was.

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The city itself is a beautiful place with lovely people, and it’s slowly falling to ruin.  Looking beyond what we see in the movie, let’s take a walk around town.

(Click on any photo to see it larger)

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Johnstown has one of the steepest vehicular incline planes in the US (they claim the steepest in the world).  It caries cars and people up the hill, connecting it to the city of Westmont, sitting above Johnstown.  We will talk about Westmont later.

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The top of the inclined plane. Overlooking the city.

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The War Memorial lies to the far right, the downtown business district above that, and straight ahead, the mills that made Johnstown what it was.

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To the left is Point Stadium, where local school sports teams play, and behind it more industry.

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Near the stadium is the Johnstown Flood Museum.  After the local hospitals, it’s one of the nicest buildings in town.

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But after the stadium, the flood museum, and the many health centers and hospitals, Johnstown shows it’s wear and tear.

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Most of the pictures are of houses no longer occupied.  No trespassing signs are stapled to plywood windows to limit liability for houses that are crumbling.

This was going on around 8 pm.  Some late night demolition.

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Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be enough of this going on.  I got up early to walk around town.

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The lights are not on in these buildings. The windows are reflecting the sun.

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Catdxo

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This place still looks like it’s in business.  The building looked so interesting.

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Johnstown is full of churches, but this one, and it’s associated school building, don’t look like they have been in operation for some time.

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While these homes and buildings sit empty, nature is trying to reclaim its space.  Ivy grows over so many of the dead buildings.

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One of the mills runs the length of Clinton St. This was the old entrance to the mill.

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There is still work going on in this mill, but I’m not sure what, and it seems to be concentrated in one end.

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Continuing up Clinton St and across the river, a garage “For Rent.”  Maybe the telephone pole is for rent, because the garage does not look ready.

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More homes.

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Coming back to town, the guard shack at the mill truck entrance had a message of inspiration.

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At some point, there was a building here.

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Inside the old stores next to it.

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This was the old candy shop by the War Memorial, the one with hockey memorabilia I popped in to when I was here in 2008.  It’s gone.

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I asked someone who worked at the sub shop downtown what had happened to the candy store.  He said it just closed up, like most businesses around town.

The woman who runs A Piece of Cake downtown (which had one of the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever had) told me she was proud to have been there two and a half years.  “Most places don’t make it two and a half months,” she said.  “By the third month, you are being evicted because you can’t pay the rent.”

Across the street from my hotel was Sheer Magic, a local barber shop.  This sign was on the front of their door.

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More mills and industry as I headed to the Heritage Discovery Center.

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The Heritage Discovery Center is a fairly skipable museum dedicated to Johnstown’s past that wasn’t centered on flooding.  It mostly covers industry and immigration.  It was low on exhibits, although the photography exhibit from inside working and closed steel mills was interesting.

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But as soon as you walk out of the building, this is across the street.

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Headed back to town, I ran into a local who bought a house and building from the local Knights of Columbus.  He took me around inside.  His plan is to refurbish it into a bed and breakfast, event room, and restore the six lane manual bowling alley in the basement.

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He has his work cut out for him.

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More from Johnstown.

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At the Hey Day Diner – a most proper name for the downtown restaurant – sits a mini shrine to the Johnstown Jets.

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There was a hockey tournament while I was in town, the Slapshot Cup.  Hockey bags and hockey players were all over downtown.

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Earlier, I mentioned Westmont, the city at the top of the incline, a place not likely to see any flooding.  What does it look like?

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Quite a bit different from the city that sits below.  No plywood, no ivy growing into the bones of buildings.  No condemned houses and rubble.

And outside of downtown, several miles away, there are your standard retail areas that cities like this need to survive.  There is a mall, but it looks like it is dying.  There is an outdoor shopping plaza with Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, and of course, a Walmart.  Cities like this don’t exist without a Walmart.

Johnstown is a city that is still figuring out its future.  The loss of industry hurt the town deeply.  The few days I spent there didn’t make the future look promising, although I know efforts are being made to turn things around.

Hopefully, like Slap Shot, there is still some fight left in the city.

 

Johnstown Tomahawks vs. Keystone Ice Miners: The Past Is The Past

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You may not realize it, but you know the Cambria County War Memorial.  You’ve seen it before, in the film Slap Shot.  The Charlestown Chiefs were based on the Johnstown Jets of the NAHL, and the War Memorial was their home.  The year Slap Shot was released, 1977, the Jets folded and the city of Johnstown flooded.

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(Clicky make biggy)

The last time I was in Johnstown, PA was February of 2008.  The financial crisis was still the apple of some Wall Street investor’s eye, and the team at the time was the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL.  You can see the posts from that trip here and here.  Inside the arena, a few things have changed since then.  Let’s go inside.

Wait, what’s this?  A hockey tournament?

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This was the fifth anniversary of the Slapshot Cup.  I took most of my arena pictures during the tournament.  That’s why the arena is so empty.

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Players bench.

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The red light at the bar seating area used to be a red Budweiser sign.  They decided to go with something more traditional.

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Ice level from the Zamboni entrance.

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The replacement glass tucked in the corner.

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This was something new, the Slap Shot Gallery.

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Click on anything to make it bigger.  Some of it is really worth it.

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Yes, the twins signed it as well.

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DSC_5314batchLet’s get to the game.

The lobby.

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The hallways.  Good crowd.

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It was the home opener, so there was the player introductions.  The turnover as players move on or age out of the juniors is tremendous, so introductions are more than a formality, they are necessary.

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What isn’t necessary is flaming steel on the ice and sparks shooting out of hockey sticks.  That’s just a special bonus.

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The away team still has to step down onto the ice at the start of the period.  Looks treacherous.

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The reason for this is the players have to cross the concourse and enter the arena the same way the fans do.  They bring out gates to keep the fans away from the players, but you can still get pretty close.  If you think the fans don’t heckle the opposing players (and especially the goalies), you would be wrong.

These guys are fired up.

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Pink jersey.

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Let’s do this.

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I included this one because I love the flex of the stick, even though this is simply a pass to the guy in the corner.  Players are so good at handling and controlling fast pucks.  I’m constantly amazed at how quickly they can control a puck and do something with it.  When you sit this close to the action at a minor league or junior game, you hear how loud the puck smacks their sticks.  It’s something you don’t get a sense of in the cavernous NHL barns.

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This was a goal, tipped in off the Tomahawks player’s stick.

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Moving on.

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What the hell happened here?

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This was a three on two that you could sense was going to lead to a goal.

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Near the end of the game, with Johnstown down two goals, a delayed penalty was called on the Ice Miners, and the puck slipped past the goaltender, which the ref waived off.  I’m guessing it was either goalie interference, or a Miner had control of the puck before it went across the line.  No explanation was given.  In the last second of play, the Tomahawks scored a goal, putting Johnstown within one.  Had the waived off goal counted, this would have tied the game.  It made for a surreal ending.

Speaking of surreal.

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Here was something I had never seen before.  The start of the third period was delayed because the drill bit used for the goal post pegs got stuck in the ice.  It took a while to get it out.  Next time, have a blowtorch handy to heat the thing up, eh?

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The final, the Johnstown Tomahawks fall to the Keystone Ice Miners, 5-4 (game sheet is here).  It was the first of a back-to-back home-and-home weekend, so the bus was leaving early for a 1:00pm  start in Connellsville. Which the Tomahawks won in the shootout, by the way.

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Compared to last time I was here (a mid-season ECHL game with a team that wasn’t doing so hot), this was a different atmosphere.  Hardly any of the “old-time hockey” feel that you would expect from a team that plays at the War Memorial.

It’s easy to build the game and the place into something it’s not.  It isn’t a movie that was filmed almost 40 years ago.  It isn’t a throwback to the old times.  It isn’t goons and characters.  It isn’t fists and cheap shots.  It isn’t line brawls and blood on the ice. It’s what hockey is now, not what it was. It’s kids looking for a chance at the big time and behaving accordingly.  This is junior hockey.

Johnstown itself is still old-time hockey.  It’s plywood windows and people who are hopeful.  It’s a downtown with small businesses and For Lease signs. It’s condemned houses in the shadows of mills that barely function.

It’s easy to write something into Johnstown that may not be there.  You can simply walk in with Slap Shot on your mind and leave with something else.  I’m an outsider, and I can only tell you what I see.  Slap Shot is what hockey may have been in Johnstown, but the hockey itself has moved on.  Johnstown itself?  I’m not so sure.

Swag Report: Dayton and Toledo

Make friends at hockey games.  That’s my word of advice for today.

In my post about the Dayton Demonz game, there is a picture of the FHL logo from one of the off-ice official’s jackets.  You can see her hand holding it straight for me.  After the game, I met up with her in the pub, and she handed me the puck on the right.

 

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The puck on the left was one I bought in the gift shop.  The one on the right was one of the three that slipped under the Zamboni doors during play.  She grabbed it for me.  Awesome, right? You can tell which one is which pretty easily in the next photo.  That’s tape and wax residue on the side of the puck.

 

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Make friends, folks.

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I bought a Toledo Walleye puck before the game, but it wasn’t as though they were going to run out of pucks to sell. They have vats of them.  This puck is very much like the Walleye experience. The graphics on the puck are gritty and flawless. Like pre-stressed jeans, they haven’t been earned. It’s manufactured.

 

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Toledo Walleye vs. Cincinnati Cyclones: Stark Contrasts

SignCroppedFriday night, I was in Dayton, OH for my first Federal Hockey League game.  The arena, the game, the fans, it was what they refer to in Slap Shot as old-time hockey.  There were a few fights.  Arguments with refs took precedence over face-offs.  The tickets were cheap.  In short, it was everything you want in a minor league hockey game.

150 miles away in Toledo, OH, the feeling was completely different.  This wasn’t your beer-swilling, fist-pumping, stained-ceiling-tile hockey game.  This was the other end of the spectrum.

Toledo is home to one of the most famous minor league sports franchises in America, aside from maybe the Durham Bulls.  The Toledo Mud Hens became part of the American fabric thanks to Jamie Farr and Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger from the TV show M*A*S*H*.  Farr, and therefore Kinger, were from Toledo, and the Mud Hens were mentioned on several occasions.  Bring up the Mud Hens to people who watched the series and you tend to get a knowing nod.

The same organization that owns the Mud Hens own the Toledo Walleye, so it’s no surprise that they run things in a professional manner.  The presentation is tight, the arena is clean, the lights are bright and everything the Dayton arena lacks is here, down to the club level bar and luxury boxes.

Welcome to the Huntington Center.

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There is no reaching over the glass.  The food options have more than one type of burger or hot dog.  There are signed photos for auction.  There is no Chuck-A-Puck.  And there is a gigantic, flying Walleye.

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There are no scary skeleton mascots coming to take your soul.  There are two hens, a cat and a fish.

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There is no announcer with questionable hair choices, nor dancing girls with questionable hair choices.  There are inflatable fish heads and yellow and blue flame-shooting machines.

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They have a goal horn that came off a cargo ship.

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They have a craft beer bar.

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They have bins and bins of pucks to sell.

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And they have jerseys.  So many jerseys.

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Here is a rack of game-worn jerseys for sale in the main gift shop.  That’s a lot of gamers.

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How about a Christmas sweater jersey?

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And yes, they had hockey.

This is a save.

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Fight face.

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Your final, the Walleye fall to the Cincinnati Cyclones, 4-1.  Cincy had two empty-netters, and even though they were  outshot 15-4 in the second period, they Cyclones owned this game, using the same forecheking game they played in Wheeling the week before.

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Which one do I prefer?  I liked the Dayton Demonz experience over the Toledo Walleye, but what I’m looking for in a game is a little different from what I would want if I were a season ticket holder.  I’ve been all over the US watching games, and some of the best times have been in places you wouldn’t expect them.  Just like the best food can come from a hole-in-the-wall joint and not the big name chef, the best hockey can turn up where you least expect it, where they don’t have to dress it up, and make it something it doesn’t need to be.

 

Dayton Demonz vs. Danville Dashers: FHL Indeed

DaytonDemonz2014012I’m not saying this to brag, but I’ve been to a lot of hockey games.  I’ve been to 20 NHL arenas, as well as two that no longer exist and one that had a team moved from it. I’ve seen all the teams on the west coast of the United States.  I took a road trip to every team in the 14-team UHL.  AHL, ECHL, SPHL, OHL, yadda yadda yadda.  Compared to some, it’s not much, but for a guy on a limited budget, it’s not bad.  One league I had never witnessed was the Federal Hockey League.

Until now.

The FHL started about five years ago in the upper northeast of the US.  It’s the lowest level of professional hockey in America, below the ECHL and the SPHL.  Expectations should be low when you go to an FHL game.

If you don’t follow minor league hockey, you may still have heard of the Federal Hockey League as the fictional league in Slap Shot.  As I understood it, the real FHL shared some of the rougher traits of the movie version, but my only evidence was stories and one severely distorted knuckle I saw on a guy who claimed to play there.

So it was off to Dayton, OH to find out what the FHL was like.  Dayton has a solid history of minor league hockey.  The Dayton Bombers were the most prominent of that history, playing in the ECHL for 18 years.  Before and after that, the Dayton Gems played in various incarnations.  The Gems name was reincarnated for the Central Hockey League / New IHL, but was short-lived.  All of those teams played at least some of their existence in the Hara Arena.

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Hara Arena was built in 1964.  It’s part of a sprawling complex of arenas and convention space, and the upkeep has been less than stellar. This is what greats you as you pull in to the parking lot.

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No, D Ton is not the nickname of Dayton.  The parking lot is crumbling and the buildings are a mess.  That won’t stop them from charging five dollars for parking (the ticket is only $10.50).  And yes, charging for parking when you are in the middle of nowhere is a pet peeve of mine.

Let’s all go to the lobby….

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And have ourselves a drink.  The Hara Pub is right off the lobby, and it is exactly what you want and expect from an older hockey rink bar.

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You can click on any of these photos to make them larger.

Let’s head inside the rink.

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The Hara could use more than a little paint and Spackle, but it has its charms.  For instance, seating starts above the boards.  The feet of the people in the first row is around shoulder-high with the players.

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The side glass is just a little higher than the head of the person sitting in the first row of seats as well.  We will get back to that in a bit.  The corners of the rink needed some filling in to make it safe for patrons.

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But to me, the most interesting feature of the rink were the benches. I really think you are going to want to click that to see it full-sized.

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The benches start in the defensive zones, where the benches in any other rink would end.  The are outside the bluelines, separated by seating for the fans.  That means that every change happens inside the attacking or defensive zone.   Also, the second period line changes are brutal.  I noticed the refs gave the teams a bit of latitude when making changes, but that could have been the quality of the refs, which we will get to shortly.

Here is one of the benches.

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Note the small stash of sticks at the top.  The FHL doesn’t have the budgets of the NHL, where a player might come off the ice and decide which of his three hundred dollar sticks feels better to him.  No, you are lucky to have a backup on the bench.

Last season, the Demonz won the FHL championship.  Since this was their opening night, I was expecting a banner raising or a ceremony or some pomp and circumstance.  There was none.  No banner, no big deal, just opening night player introductions and a game.  They were wearing jerseys commemorating the victory, which they auctioned off at the end of the game.

In the movie Goon, Liev Schreiber’s character, Ross Rhea, is retiring, and at his last home game, they hand him the mic to say a few words.  That was the scene at the Demonz game as one of their players retired. Thankfully, the speech was short.

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Penalty box, empty and full.

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Yes, the penalty box is open to the ice.  I was told that made things very entertaining at times.  This being the FHL, I can only imagine what that means.

Let’s get to some action.  This is not where you should be defensively.

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Meet Bonez, the lovable mascot.  Is it just me, or is he looking at me?  I’m a little scared.

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Let’s talk about the refs.  I thought the referee was pretty good.  He called a fair game, and had a good relationship with the players.  He missed one or two things, but any ref, especially in a single-ref system, is going to miss things.  And at this level, if you don’t turn a blind eye here or there, the entire game would be played at less than full strength.

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The linesmen flat-out stank.  They were the worst linesmen I have ever seen.  They called the lines well enough, but they couldn’t do anything else worth a damn.  Several times, players lost or broke sticks and the linesmen would start play leaving them on the ice.  They seemed generally unaware of what was happening around them.

Then came the first fight they had to break up.  This is 101 on how NOT to break up a hockey fight.

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This was just the beginning of the fight.  Notice the stick still being held by one of the players, trapped between them.  These two are going to fight, but the linesmen jump it and won’t back out.

This is a huge mistake.  Never, EVER, grab a fighting player from behind.  All you do is give the other player an advantage.  Get with the other linesman and push your way between the players, preferably after they have exhausted each other.

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The Danville player has a free hand to pummel the Dayton player, thanks to the linesmen.  And as if the hockey gods were wanting to let them know they did a poor job breaking this up…

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There were four fights, two at a time.  Were there any more, I’m not sure the linesmen would have survived many more.

This is the ref letting the Dayton ice crew know that the spotlight operator is being a jerk, and if he shines his light in the goalie or the refs face again, there will be issues.

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Take a look at the ice behind the net where the Zamboni doors open.  See that little gap?

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That’s just big enough for a puck to slip under.  It happened three times.

Yes, I asked, that is supposedly his real hair.

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The brand new dance crew.  They danced during the first intermission, and it took so long, the Zamboni left the ice with 1:06 left in the break (yes, I looked).  The ice was still wet when the teams took the ice, so they waited for it to set.

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Your final, Dayton wins it 4-2.

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As soon as the final buzzer went off, the fans rushed down to the short glass I mentioned earlier.  The team skated to center ice, did the now-standard salute to the crowd, then started skating toward their bench, turned up ice, and skated along the boards and GAVE EVERYONE A FIST BUMP.

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Do I need to tell you how awesome this is? I have never seen anything like it. I wish it happened everywhere.  Could you imagine this happening at an NHL game?

At the game auction, I got these pictures of the goalie.  He reminded me of Denis Lemieux, the goalie from Slap Shot, the way he moved and jumped around in the game.  Very animated

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That sums up my first FHL experience.  The level of play was better than I expected, and I saw some things I had never seen before.  Like the emperor in Gladiator, was entertained.  Unlike said emperor, I give it a thumbs up.  I’ll be back.