Friday 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.
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.
There are no scary skeleton mascots coming to take your soul. There are two hens, a cat and a fish.
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.
They have a goal horn that came off a cargo ship.
They have a craft beer bar.
They have bins and bins of pucks to sell.
And they have jerseys. So many jerseys.
Here is a rack of game-worn jerseys for sale in the main gift shop. That’s a lot of gamers.
How about a Christmas sweater jersey?
And yes, they had hockey.
This is a save.
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.
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.