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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Yes Virginia, There Is Pro Hockey

That's right, while Bettman, Goodenow, and a bunch of other guys in suits ensure the demise of the NHL as we know it, there's minor league hockey being played all across North America. Here in the 310, the closest minor league team is the Long Beach Ice Dogs, so tonight, I made the trip down to the LBC to attend my first hockey game (UCLA excluded, of course) since last season's conference quarterfinal between the Flyers and Devils.

The Ice Dogs play in the ECHL, which is hockey's equivalent of AA baseball - it's two steps down from what once was the NHL, and one step below the AHL, the highest minor league level. Although I'd been to AHL games in a few different cities, I'd never been to an ECHL game before, so I was curious to see what the play would be like.

I was very pleasantly surprised at the speed of the game. This might have something to do with the fact that the only hockey I've seen in person has been UCLA's games, and that even on TV, college hockey (or any hockey) is shown very infrequently in SoCal. I suppose that shouldn't have come as a surprise - after all, the Ice Dogs have the best record in their conference, and their opponents, the Idaho Steelheads, are the defending Kelly Cup champions.

I recognized a couple of names on Idaho's roster - goalie Frank Doyle, who used to play for Maine (he beat Cornell 3-2 in the semifinal of their winter tournament in Florida my senior year), and former Flyer Billy Tibbetts. Tibbetts is an interesting story. If you look at his stats, you'll notice that he has a mysterious four-year stretch in his career where he didn't play any hockey at all. That's because he was incarcerated for statutory rape. I've heard various stories from various sources about the story of what happened, and I'm not about to guess at which is correct. Tibbetts is interesting in the sporting world, though, because upon his release from prison, he had to register as a sex offender. This made trading him from the Penguins difficult - he had to remain in state, which is why the Flyers got him on the cheap. Tibbetts is an enforcer, make no mistake about it - his career NHL stats are 82 games, 2 goals, 8 assists, 269 penalty minutes. He's also been on the move constantly since getting out of prison - he's played for 10 teams in three different leagues in the five years since his release. I guess he somehow got the sex offender registration thing worked out. And this season, he's leading all ECHL forwards in penalty minutes (though he's racked them up with three different teams). Surprisingly, Tibbetts had an assist tonight and no penalties.

There was one fight in the game, although I missed it, because it was in the first 10 minutes of the game, and traffic in L.A....well, you know. I was surprised at how much the players struggled to bury the puck, because the goalies didn't strike me as playing particularly well. There were plenty of shots that missed the net, and aside from a quick burst in the middle of the second period where Idaho scored on two straight shots and the Ice Dogs countered with a goal of their own, there was no scoring at all. In fact, there was hardly any shooting. The final shot count was just 21-19, Idaho.

It was nice to see some pro hockey, though, regardless of the lack of offensive firepower. And I was able to pick up a cheap seat for $9 ($2 off the regular price with a student discount), although parking cost $8, which was kind of ridiculous.

At the risk of sounding somewhat elitist here, perhaps the most disappointing thing I saw all night was the striking proportion of overweight and obese people in the crowd. Perhaps you'd figure that a sporting event might draw people who lead an active lifestyle, but it certainly didn't seem the case here. Morgan Spurlock should consider a sequel to Super Size Me set at minor league hockey games. Everywhere you looked, people were shoveling really disgusting arena food into their pieholes. I mean, this stuff looked worse than the usual arena food. I'm usually down for a dog and a beer at a baseball game, but come on, when the Wienerschnitzel napkins say, "The diet you can't lose on," what are you supposed to think? I was hungry, but when I walked around the place during the second intermission, all I found was a dismal selection of overpriced, grease-soaked food. I couldn't bring myself to spend over $10 on a hot dog, pretzel, and soda (and that would have been one of the cheaper and healthier alternatives available), so I just skipped eating dinner at the arena altogether.

All in all, though, I enjoyed myself. It's hard not to - after all, it's a hockey game, and hockey is awesome, no matter what everyone else in America says. Hey, I even saw someone wearing a Krzysztof Wieckowski Ice Dogs jersey. Any place where someone's sporting a jersey of a guy I saw play for Cornell is alright by me. So I'll be back, hopefully this year. The Ice Dogs look poised to make the playoffs, and I might have to jump on the bandwagon for that, because the No Hockey League won't be giving me my annual springtime fix of playoff hockey.


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