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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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?
Tutus seemed to also be the rage here.
Before we get to the game, a modest proposal.
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.
Game on. Let’s see some action.
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.
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.
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.
That can’t be legal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a long night for the Blues.
Around the far corner of the rink are the rowdy fans. You knew there would be rowdy fans in this crowd, right?
They keep track of the action. The signs taped to the glass are night words of encouragement, they are hand-made rosters.
Note number 22, “Paulie the traitor Morris.” Here he is.
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.
The many goals of the second period.
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.
Bombers goalie Billy Sias didn’t have a lot of work, facing only fourteen shots, but he still looked good.
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.
Things were generally friendly after the game. What can you do?
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.
The players came out and signed stuff for the fans.
Your final 16-0 West Bend Bombers. The game sheet is here.
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.