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.

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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.

 

Wheeling Nailers vs. Cincinatti Cyclones (preseason): The Bridge

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Welcome to WheelingThe way I travel to hockey games is somewhat flawed.  Too often, I pull in to town only an hour or two before a game, which doesn’t give much time to get the real feel of a city.  I roam around, looking at what I can look at, maybe grab a meal rather than being subjected to arena food, then head to the game before warm-ups.

Wheeling, WV was the same way, which is too bad.  There has to be more to Wheeling than the downtown area, where the WesBanco Arena resides, would lead you to believe.

The Wheeling Nailers have the distinction of being the longest-serving team in the ECHL, now starting their 23rd season.  This puts them past the Johnstown Chiefs who moved to Greenville, SC a few years ago.  Wikipedia adds to that record:

The Nailers are the oldest surviving minor league franchise below the level of the American Hockey League, with unbroken continuity of franchise and never having missed a season of play.

As you pull in to Wheeling, you might wonder if anything like a hockey team exists in the downtown area.  Wheeling looks like an old school industrial New England town, and much like the small towns you see built on industry along a river, it’s seen better times.  Is it fair to say this, when I only got an hour or so before the game to walk around?  I think so. Obviously, there is a lot more to the city, but here is what I saw.

One of the things you notice first about Wheeling is the buildings.  These are buildings that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Chicago and Denver.  If they were in downtown Denver, they would fetch a nice price on the market.  But the next thing you notice is the plywood over the windows and doors.

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Walking around, I wondered if these places should be saved, or if they could be saved.  What could Wheeling do with these spaces?  Can they even be used anymore?

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I don’t know what to make of these two.  Are they even in use?

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All over town, you see for sale and for lease signs.  But somehow, they still have a hockey team that has survived 23 years.

In the middle of the Ohio River, across from WesBanco Arena is Wheeling Island, where the football stadium and the casino is.

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What is interesting about Wheeling Island is how you get there, across the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.

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As the sign says, it was built as part of the National Road. You can read more about that here.  It’s one of the most defining things about the city.

The Victoria Theater, West Virginia’s oldest theater and longest running show.

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One more thing about Wheeling.  I saw this sign in a few places.

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So at least something is happening in town.  I hope they can make a difference.

Let’s go to the game. Welcome to the WesBanco Arena.

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The house I lived in until I was six in Burnsville, MN had a design you don’t see that often, certainly not in houses built today.  You walked up steps to a front door that was between the upper and lower levels.  Upstairs was the main living areas, downstairs was the basement. That is what the WesBanco Arena is like.  You walk up the main steps to the concourse then up to the seating or down to the ice surface.  It’s sounds rather unremarkable, until experience it.

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As it was my first time at a Nailers home game, I was a little confused as to where to go.  They couldn’t possibly want me to go up there, right?  I kept looking at the doors along the concourse that were on the ice side.  I almost asked someone where the seats were when I finally recognized the sign section numbers for what it was.

Finally, I found the ice.

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The arena is lit by florescent lights.  They take a bit to warm up, but nothing like how long it take some smaller arenas.  Still, it casts an interesting glow to the ice.

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Before we get to the game, we need to talk about the concourse. If the buildings around Wheeling harken back to a better time for the city, the arena celebrates those times in sport history for the city.  The arena is home to the  Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Sports Museum and the OVAC Hall of Fame.  In larger arenas like the XCEL Energy Center in Minnesota, you will see some celebration of local sports.  They have nothing on the WesBanco Arena.

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Everywhere you turn, there is some plaque or photo or banner honoring someone who did something years ago.

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The other thing of note is prints of paintings celebrating some of the history surrounding Wheeling, such as this one, titled French Expansion Of The Ohio Valley.

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You really get a sense of being there, eh?  Not everyone in the painting is all that happy about what is going on.

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This seems like a good time to move back inside to the game.

There were three things that defined this game for me: The absolute craziness that happened in the slot on both ends, the casualness of Wheeling’s goaltending, and the forechecking of Cincinnati, which eventually led to Wheeling boosting their forechecking game.

Let’s see some of that craziness.

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And a bit of the casualness.

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What is he looking at?

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Two injuries of note.  The ref took a pass that deflected off a stick to the side of his head.  He was OK and stayed in the game.  And Shayne Taker of the Cyclones had the most awkward fall I have ever seen.

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More action!  You can click on any of the photos to embiggen. Embiggen is totally a word.

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The in-game / in-crowd announcer is very excited.

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Glass banger.

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The Nailers have two mascots, a beaver named Buck and a dog named Spike.  One is the stuff of nightmares, but I will let you decide which.

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More action.

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No fights, but plenty of scrums.

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Your final, Your Wheeling Nailers fall to Your Cincinnati Cyclones, 5-3.  Game sheet is here.  The crowd for this game was sparse, but it was a preseason game, and they announced that the home opener has already sold four thousand tickets.

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One last thing to note.  Meg and I decided to drive across the bridge after the game, to see what was on the other side.  It was fairly dark, so we didn’t get much of a feel of what Wheeling Island was like, aside from not-well-lit.  We saw some darker residential areas, then suddenly the casino with its surrounding wall.  As we were leaving, we stopped at a coffee shop that said it was open until two AM for something to drink on the way home.  The front door of the coffee shop had a buzzer to be let in, much like what you might see at a check cashing place.  To get out, we had to push a button to unlock the door.  It’s something I had never seen before on a place like that. We left an got in the car, the neighborhood looking a little more dangerous than when we went in.  To the east, the bridge, downtown Wheeling, and reminders of better times.

Thin Air: Welcome Back, NHL

Some hockey notes after the first day of the NHL regular season:

– Well, that was fun.

– Tommy Wingels got two goals last night, and nary a mention of his efforts.  His second goal was quite nice.  But he’s Tommy Wingels, so he won’t get the credit he deserves.  Still, the Sharks got their “revenge” last night, if you can call one game, even if it is a shutout, revenge.

– If you watched NBC Sports Net for both games last night, the Bruins – Flyers game was crisp and tight compared to the Kings – Sharks game.  Neither west coast team could complete a pass to save their life.  I’m sure this will clean up soon enough.

– During a commercial break, NBCSN ran an ad for (insert forgotten sponsor here) that was 30 seconds of explaining hockey.  It was hockey 101, and as awful as it was for those of us who get what icing and offsides are, it must have been soul-crushing for Mike Milbury.  I’m not a fan of his blustering, but even he doesn’t deserve that kind of punishment.  Explaining hockey to the masses isn’t his job, and yes, I know he is a media guy explaining hockey to the masses.  We, as fans, don’t deserve this either.  Please, turn it off. Frog. Fraud.

– Milbury also said there needs to be an end to fighting.  Of all the things you wouldn’t have expected from opening night, this was maybe top of the list.  He said the injuries are too much, that too many guys are getting concussions.  I wonder, given his previous comments, if this opinion sticks.  I think it’s great that he has changed his mind.  It shows he’s thinking about things.  Malcolm Gladwell would be proud.

Greg Wyshynski wrote a post addressing what is seen as a conflict of interest in the “Chris Pronger to the NHL Player Safety Department” rumor.  According to Greg, it’s not a conflict of interest because Pronger isn’t really a player, even though he is still paid as a player.  He doesn’t play, so no problem.  Also, this:

Q. OK, so let me proffer this: What if I don’t want Chris Pronger in Player Safety because I think he’s an insufferable [expletive]?

Now you’re making sense.

OK, that might be a wee bit of a factor shaping opinions on this.  Wysh make a few arguments that make sense and one involving Marc Savard that makes no sense.  There is some other stuff thrown in as well of little consequence.

All of this is cheap window dressing to state my own opinion.  Simply put, taking a paycheck from a team and the league simultaneously is wrong.  It is a conflict of interest to take a paycheck from both sides of a collective bargaining agreement.  Pick a side of the table.  Change sides of the table.  But you can’t sit on both sides.  No matter how I feel about Pronger, this is a situation that shouldn’t happen.  There are other people who could do the job.  If he wants to when he is off the Flyer’s payroll, great. Until then, no.

– I’m off to Wheeling, WV for a Wheeling Nailers game.  The Nailers just surpassed the Johnstown Chiefs, who moved out of Johnstown a few years ago, as the longest operating ECHL franchise with 23 years.  In the business of minor league hockey, that’s a good run.  Also on the docket this month, Dayton, OH, Toledo, OH, and maybe some Ft. Wayne Comets.  If you are in the area, let me know.

Beckford-Tseu Alaska Aces GW Jersey: Merry Christmas to Me

One of the great things about shopping for me on christmas is that you can’t go wrong with a jersey (unless it’s a Wings jersey, then forget it, you are dead to me). This one is a fine example of what works:

Chris Beckford-Tseu Game Worn 2007-08 Alaska Aces

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First off, I don’t have any jerseys of this color.

Second, I saw Mr. Beckford-Tseu at St. Louis Blues training camp, and thought he had great work ethic. I liked his play.

Third, he won a Kelly Cup in the ECHL.

Fourth, can you imagine the travel this jersey has seen?

Fifth, it has a Union sponsor patch and the 20th Anniversary of the ECHL patch. See?

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Sixth, his name is huge.

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Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year, eh?

note: I am going to see the Aces on my west coast hockey tour, but not as many times, thanks to the Fresno Falcons folding.

West Coast Hockey Tour Monkey Wrench 1: Fresno Falcons Fold

My West Coast Hockey Tour has hit it’s first scheduling hiccup, as the Fresno Falcons, part of the ECHL, folded today due to financial issues. This is the second team to fold mid-season in the ECHL (the Augusta Lynx being the first of the season). Fans of the Falcons thought they could save the team from extinction by going to city hall today, but there was no stopping this.  The team was reportedly losing $10,000 dollars a game.  This is small change compared to teams like the Coyotes (who can’t even remember where they put their wallets), but to an operation as small as this, it’s huge money.

This leaves me with some room on my plate. What should I do now to fill the gap? Two days off between Bakersfield and Stockton. Maybe a stop in Fresno to talk to the mourning fans?

Update: Please take the time to read the comments below.  There is some good stuff.

Finally, A Team I Like Wins!!!

After all the disappointment the hockey season, along with a few other sports this year, have brought, it’s about time someone I wanted to win a championship came through for me.

The Cincinnati Cyclones beat the Las Vegas Wranglers 3-1 last night to win the ECHL Kelly Cup four games to two. The Cyclones are a great story, shutting down for a few years, then coming back after the AHL abandoned the city for good. The Cyclones were barely drawing over a thousand fans a game, but this year, they had the best record in the ECHL, and stormed through the league (55-12-1-4 for 115 points). Last night, they won in front of 12,722 fans, the largest crowd in ECHL playoff history.

Cincinnati has it’s own bit of minor league hockey history:

It is the first time in 35 years that a Cincinnati pro hockey team has competed in its league finals. The last team to compete for a championship was the 1973 Cincinnati Swords, which captured the AHL’s Calder Cup in five games over Nova Scotia. It was the first time since April 3, 1955—that a champion from the Queen City was crowned in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Mohawks won a seventh game against the Troy Bruins for the IHL’s Turner Cup championship.

And of course, Cincinnati was home to the WHA Cincinnati Stingers. You still see some of the old jerseys floating around
The Cyclones are the first minor league team I ever saw, and they helped get me hooked. I even own a jersey:

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This would be Dean Stork’s jersey, who is the assistant coach of the team.

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Congratulations, Cyclones.

Minor League Update

So, the Cup has been handed out, but there are still some championships being played out. The Cincinnati Cyclones are up 3 games to 2 against the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL, and the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins are down 3 games to none to the Chicago Wolves in the AHL. After that, some stuff is going on.

The Youngstown Steelhounds found out they are not going to be part of the Central Hockey League, via a press release. As anything with hockey, it seems that money is the problem. The Steelhounds had already started selling season tickets for next year, so that puts them in a bad situation. The fans aren’t happy.

The Iowa Stars are no longer the Iowa Stars, after they have dropped their affiliation with Dallas, and have picked up the Anaheim Ducks as the new parent team. A new name, logo, and team colors should be coming soon.

The Austin Ice Bats (Central Hockey League) isn’t playing nest season, due to a lack of rink. Why should you care? Do you enjoy books? The book Zamboni Rodeo was about the Ice Bats, and while not a storied franchise, they have earned their spot. They may be better off, though. I skated with the team after a game, and it was the absolute worst ice I have ever been on.

The IHL (the make believe version of the International Hockey League) has announced their schedule for next season, which means they are still sticking with six teams. Unless the Steelhounds are able to get in there, this should be an embarrassment. While they may not tickle the radar of fans of the NHL, teams like the Fort Wayne Komets, Kalamazoo Wings, and the Flint Generals are as important, not only to the cities where they reside, but also in the grand scheme of hockey. These are teams that have a history, have persevered, and have fans just a as passionate as any team in the NHL.

Nothing new about Colorado Eagles player Les Borsheim, but the doctors are saying his surgery went well. After that, time will tell.

Expect more updates from the wacky world of minor league hockey, the best value on ice, through the offseason.

Gwinnett vs South Carolina: ECHL in Goergia

I had thought that live hockey games would be over for the season after my trip to Tulsa, OK. After all, I am currently in Atlanta, and moving on to Tampa, FL in two weeks, not exactly places that are steeping in post season action. But a check of the schedule, and a local visitors guide showed that the Gwinnett Gladiators had a hope, a dream, and a home game about 30 miles away. With Monday being my day off, how could I say no?

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Welcome to Gwinnett Arena, which is nice building, but a little sterile. It looks like a lot of modern arenas, but only at a smaller size. The parking is ample, with only one exit to the parking lot. And this…
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is the longest damn wait for a stoplight, with the shortest payoff in green light time. Seriously, eight cars got in on one green light, and we waited forever for the next cycle. This picture was taken while I was making the turn. I put my life in danger for you.

The ECHL is in playoff mode right now (see their bracket here), and the Gladiators are already facing elimination. The South Carolina Stingrays were up two games to none in a best of five (only in the minors) series, and this was the first game in Gwinnett. The mood was somber when we entered the building, and I would say it was the quietest I had ever heard a crowd outside a hockey arena. There was no buzz, there was no chatter, there were no cowbells. There was nothing. It felt like a death march.

A few pictures of the lobby:
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Nice place. This place has bigger hallways than the Hartford Civic Center, and they used to have an NHL team. Oh the conveniences of modern arenas. Such as the food. Our bounty of plenty for the night:

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The one on the right should explain itself (if not, that’s a chili cheese dog), but the one on the left may need a little… understanding. That is what is called a Georgia Dog, which is a hot dog with cole slaw on it. The one on the right was the one I ordered, and I made the wrong choice. On to the game!!!!

The place was a little under populated, but is actually a healthy crowd for a minor league team, especially one that is located in a suburb.

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And they have luxury boxes. How much do you suppose it costs for a luxury box at a Gladiators game? Can’t be that much.

Scrum!!!!!

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The first period was slow, sluggish, and disorganized. While some may make snarky comments that the minors are usually that way, I love minor league games, and for the home team to come out so sluggish didn’t bode well. I figured the crowd was going to be headed home with the season over, but things started getting better late in the second.
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Fist knocking = goals, and the Gladiators got one. The Stingrays came back back to tie the game up, which is how things were left at the second intermission. I had to do something, anything, to dig this team out of the basement. This called for desperate measures.
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OK, so I have to work on my shot, but I will say that it worked. The Gladiators came back, and scored some great goals. The last goal of the game was one of the most perfect tip in goals I have ever seen. A simple shot from the high slot made the goalie jump to stop it, but a Gladiator stick had other plans, sending the puck careening down between the legs. I would call it a five hole, but can you have a five hole when you are jumping in the air? Perhaps….
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The Stingrays poured on the pressure, and kept the excitement of the game alive, even though the conclusion was inevitable. Can you ask for more from a 4-1 game?
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One of the things they do for the playoffs is hang the opposing team in effigy (and yes, that is how they put it). This is a crappy picture of it, but it was what I could do. They drop one from the rafters after each win.
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Remember, the playoffs are happening all over North America right now. Find a team near you, and see some hockey. The minor leagues need your money more than the NHL does, and they need less of it. My tickets cost $18 apiece. I could have been in the first few rows had I wanted. Go see some hockey.

Toledo Walleye: Really

Toledo, OH has been quiet on the hockey front this season, while the Toledo Storm shut down operations for the season while they await the construction of a new arena. Along with that, the Storm are undergoing an identety change. Here’s a little primer from Wikipedia:

Their franchise was bought by the Toledo Mud Hens AAA Baseball team who will operate the team, under a new name, in a new arena expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2009 season. The team is currently in suspended operations while a new arena is built for them in downtown Toledo, and was expected to return to ECHL during the 2009-2010 season. On February 20th, 2008, it was revealed that the team’s new name would be the “Toledo Walleye”[1].

So, the Mud Hens thought that Walleye was decent enough name? Did they not see the outcry and finger pointing when the Lake Erie Monsters were reported to even consider the name Walleye?

But what gets me is that the team isn’t even starting to play until the fall of 2009, a year and a half away, but they want you to buy their gear. From their homepage at www.toledowalleye.com:
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Be the first to get the new gear? What is this, Pokemon? They are a year and a half away from taking to the ice, and the “fans” should get their merch now? Aside from the colors mimicking the Denver Nuggets, a toothless yellow fish with a hockey stick is the sure source of pride for a minor league hockey team. The money for new jerseys should be pouring in.

Right now, there are 12 shirts, 5 hats, a puck, a mini-stick, and a sweatshirt listed for sale online. I can’t stress this point enough: they haven’t even played yet.

I’m going to get a puck. Nothing screams collectors item like abject failure.

More Johnstown Pictures

I took a bunch of pictures from my time at the Johnstown Chiefs, but I thought the last post was long enough. Here are some more.

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You know it’s a tough crowd when the penalty box attendant gets heckled. From behind me I heard, “You throw like a girl.”

More hot dog tossing.

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This is a “bar” (beer stand with seating) at the end of the rink. As far as I can tell, it isn’t reserved seating, and I would have gone down here for a period, except that the people next to me were into talking hockey, and I wasn’t going to give that up.
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When the away team enters or exits the ice, they have to do so next to the Chiefs bench. Look at the step they have to take getting through the doorway. I would fall on my ass with a step like that on hockey skates. I bet the crowd goes wild when it happens.
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I believe that I saw the worst Zamboni work I have ever seen at this game. To be fair, the guy didn’t have a lot of time, as between period promotions pushed the time perilously close to the start of the next period, but I have never seen, and I have been to a lot of minor league rinks, anyone have to squeegee the ice this much.
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Notice that the ice and the building are not aligned. That would give me a headache.
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That’s it from Johnstown. Next up, Flyers vs. Pens from Sunday.