Anatomy of an American Hockey League Game in Canada

31 Aug

 

Pre Game,

I have been to a handful of Hamilton Bulldogs games over the years, Spartan considering I love hockey and live in the area. The American Hockey League in Hamilton has always seemed to me to be one of the more enigmatic relationships between city and sports franchises in Canada. I have decided to take in a game maybe I’ll walk away with a clearer understanding of what’s at work. I know what I’m not going to learn; that the AHL is quite arguably in the mix as the second best league in the world in terms of a combination of talent and where players reside in their development. Using the aforementioned premise I know it is a level of hockey that is better than major junior and a few star players per team below the NHL echelon. In writing this I’m already contradicting my self because I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon my first truism, that it is a superstar less league

We arrive early (I bring my thirteen year old nephew to his first Bulldog game, they are playing the Rockford Ice Hogs; his engagement will be a good barometer for my anecdotal study). There is a moderate line up to get in, mostly hard core fans, many of whom are adorning some form of licensed Bulldog wear. When we are allowed in we walk the corridors, wide and clean, and although I’ve no formal training in arena architecture it seems not unlike the Calgary Saddledome. My nephew keeps repeating “this is like an NHL rink” I agree, “It’s what it feels like to me too!” I decide not to dismantle his enthusiasm with a Bettmanesque breakdown of the type of upgrades the arena (rink) would need to be consistent with NHL standards.

Our pre warm up tour of the arena continues the concessions are ready and serving the occasional early customer. As we make our way around the circumference of the corridor that separates the lower and draped upper bowl I notice that they do not open concessions on the far end and a vacant Haagen Dazs portable vendor rests in front of a canteen.

I’m not looking to pick up a program but would like a game sheet- happy to find I can pick one up for a buck that has all the stats you need; basically a trimmed down version of what might be offered in the media room.

My first blush that this is Bulldog territory is re-affirmed as we enter the souvenirs store ‘the Dawg House’; it is packed and I overhear a guy who is trying on a Bulldog jersey asking (what I assume is) his spouse to take a picture, but he halts her before she has a chance to make sure the Habs logo on the shoulder are pushed back far enough so it will not be caught by the camera.

The warm up has begun, I split my time reading the stats and watching the ice. I like to look at the rosters for familiar names, high scoring stats or penalty minutes then pick them out while their warming up to see if they carry themselves in a way that reflects their stats or status. I seek out the Captains (a habit from youth that has not dissolved over time) and follow them warming up.

I scan the rosters. The stats suggest Zack Fitzgerald for the Bulldogs is a toughie, I zero in on number thirteen with the long hair, got to be a fan favorite. Kyle Beach, hmm remember him being a top prospect plucked out of the WHL, a big guy who plays with (dare I say) truculence, I don’t see him out there though, he has meager stats must be injured. Rostislav Olesz triggers my memory, a high draft pick, I spot him, he kind of looks like Jagr; big and gangly. Philippe Paradis, remember him, a former first rounder included in Jiri Tlusty deal between the Leafs and Carolina, the player I only heard about kind of  looks like Zack Fitzgerald, shaggy rock star hair, how did he end up in the Chicago system? Andrew Shaw is listed, he is a former OHL tough guy who evolved into a game changing energy player with Owen Sound, he played a key role in the Attacks Memorial Cup drive, thought he was up with the Blackhawks? Don Cherry has recently been praising him on Coaches corner. As the warm up ends Zack Fitzgerald one of the last players to leave the ice skates over to   where a couple kids are sitting on reclining Lazyboy chairs (promo) at ice level between the two team benches, he taps the glass, a nod a gap tooth smile before exiting; affirmation that the conduit from the fan to the personality of the team is usually through the lovable enforcer.

With about five minutes left on the clock before the start of game the lights go off the spotlights spiral around the half empty lower bowl, and the show is on. After a few announcements a video montage of Bulldogs goals, fights and big hits supported by the sound of a jubilant play by play announcer with Linkin Park’s “New Divide” providing all the subtext needed to give you the pre-game jump out of the seats yips. My nephew is about 10 for 10 on the engagement scale by this point and if he could jump out on the ice with the team he would. Bruiser the mascot is firing t -shirts into the crowd with some kind of mechanical launching device while parents and kids alike stand and make some kind of down dog motion, included among this group is my nephew who is following the lead of the gentleman sitting next to us in the Bulldog Jersey (with whom not five minutes prior I had a very diplomatic, polished conversation).I have to admit it was really tough not to let your guard down and get caught up  in it.

Incongruent to the show coach’s Clement Jodoin and Ron Wilson calmly take their places behind the bench. If you were casting a movie you could not pick better coaches who fit the mold than these two seasoned professionals; graying around the temples, wearing nothing flashy, stoic, hockey weathered faces unflappable to the organized chaos surrounding them. They stood like statues while strobe lights took them in and out of focus; surrounding them grown men, woman, kids-families danced some still pantomiming the down dog rhythms- Game on.

The Game

Well into the first period the Bulldogs scores their first goal (the second goal of the game) fans pump their fists, the music blares and on the overhead scoreboard the big screen  runs video of some scantily clad gothic warriors doing a celebratory  dance, an unexpected Monty Python like clip, it’s funny, I like it and I make a mental note to research if there is a company who produces these type of shorts for sporting events.

Rockford’s Andrew Shaw gives a Bulldog a face wash on one of his first shifts; an indication of the type of game he’s bringing tonight .Later in the shift Shaw gets a penalty while the delayed call is immanent the play continues, Shaw looking agitated and knowing he’s going to the box ends the shift by taking a run at a Bulldog player banking on getting two bangs for his buck, Bulldog Ian Schultz takes exception and a fight ensues, Shaw gets a double minor for both infractions and five for fighting a foreboding of the night ahead for him. Schultz skates by the Rockford bench and mugs for them displaying a toothless smile; my nephew says Schultz kind of looks like his Aunt when she takes her teeth out.

Rockford’s Andrew Shaw is a throwback, old school type player cut from the same cloth as a guy like Dennis Polonich; smallish, good skater, scrappy and tough, the type of player that is going to make life miserable for whoever he’s playing against,  tonight his

‘find a way or make a way’ approach is not working, he can’t hit upon that effective blend, later in the game he takes two power play penalties and coach Tom Dent leans over his shoulder and speaks to him for a prolonged period.

The game continues at a rapid pace passes are executed with precision, the result of thousand s of rote drills; the protocol these athletes have been on since they were sixteen or seventeen. At times because there are some vast empty spaces in the lower bowl you get the sense that you are an invited guest to a special performance. There is an icing call at about the time a Hamilton defenseman is trying to make a change referee Koharski comes over and doesn’t let the Bulldogs keep the fresh defenseman out there ruling the change was made late, Jodoin walks over and says something to assistant coach Wilson, Wilson doesn’t flinch just keeps looking straight a head. There is nothing coaches hate more than not being able to execute a player change. Then the inevitable occurs seemingly from nothing Branadon Bollig Rockford’s tough guy big and GI Joe looking drops his gloves as does the Bulldog’s Zack Fitzpatrick his hair long and curly, they circle each other at centre ice apprehension in the air, then they engage, it’s all clutching and sneaking in punches, looking to free up a hand without becoming vulnerable, a flurry of punches first by Bollig then Fitzpatrick, it goes on like this for quite some time the linesman let it go on and on, finally when there is nothing left they step in,  a lot of hockey fans would have called it a classic tilt. The crowd cheers but I don’t get the feeling that they are crazy about their fighting, there is not that edge you might feel at a junior game- no catcalls. Nonetheless Zack Fitzpatrick second fight of the night comes in the third period with Rob Flick this time it’s hair flying every wear; Fitzpatrick long, shaggy and dark, and Flicks mop like falling over his face- a blonde orange color, a kind of surreal scene envelops Slapshot fights Ronald Mcdonald. Later I realize that that’s the same Flick from the OHL’s   Mississauga St Michaels Majors, a big centre kind of an ugly skater but effective and irritating.

Rastislav Olesz is interesting to watch he appears moody, temperamental but when on the bench he is active, eager, standing waiting to get his next shift.

In between the second and third period Bruiser hits the ice with a sling shot and an ample supply of bundled t shirts that he will projectile into the crowed. The impressive sound system delivers us Flo Rida’s ‘Good Feeling’ and the Bob Fosse in Bruiser comes out, he dances to the rhythm quick and agile and plays the crowd like a conductor would a symphony, he prompts the crowd reacts, I decide here he is a top shelf  mascot.

There is an absolute flurry of activity in the third period the Dogs score three goals in thirty eight seconds. It is pandemonium, Salak, Rockford’s Goalie is infuriated with the second goal in this sequence and punches one of the Dog players, Dogs forward Gabriel Dumont who took a big hit on the second goal skates to the bench looking like a sailor on leave. Fans cheer and jeer happy for the sudden success but slighted by the cacophony of misdeeds afflicted to the home team. On the third goal Alexander Salak storms off the ice past the team down the corridor gone- he might still be going. Rockfords’s back up for the night Carter Hutton goes in. It’s a five – two Bulldog win.

Post Game

The first star of the game is new Bulldog  Blake Geoffrion he scores a goal and adds two assists but is otherwise unremarkable, Geoffrion was the 2010 winner of the Hobey Baker award, which surprises me a little, he looks  like a big prototypical power forward who will evolve as he smoothes out the edges- if anything I picture a former Hobey Baker winner as a skilled polished guy that’s  maybe lacking in size. He is also the son of former NHL player Danny Geoffrion, grandson of Hall of fame Montreal Canadian Boom Boom Geoffrion, and great grand son of Howie Morenz.

Zack Fitzpatrick is recognized as the games hardest worker he dives out on the ice and does an All Star wrestling type wave to the crowd. I like the theatrics and think- take it all in Zack this is your time, a pro hockey life is fleeting

At the end of the game there is a puck throw, fans have purchased rubber pucks that they try to throw in a pale placed at centre ice, suddenly hundreds of pucks are on the ice, it seems as though almost everyone in attendance participates mothers and fathers passing out their purchased pucks to their kids and joining in themselves, smiles laughs a cathartic release of their inner Bulldog. The Promotional girl announces the three closest numbered pucks and just like that it’s over. Brilliant. Tonight everyone is leaving happy, basking in the glow of a dramatic victory and the whaling sounds of U2’s “Beautiful Day”. My nephew repeats a few times that he’s going to come to all the games now. I agree it was a terrific experience well worth the investment

On the ride home we listen to the post game show on 820 all platitudes and recaps, it does what a good post game show does, offers a little brain candy  and keeps you in the game while driving home on a cold dark night. We don’t say much mostly listen and make the odd remark about some point that is made. I think of the small things, like I thought it was kind of neat the way the players from both teams tapped their stick against the boards when the little crease cleaners came on the ice during the commercial breaks. From the inside it had all the ingredients for success, good venue, high level of talent and a top notch game production. From the outside I still wonder why this has not caught on more than it has. An online dictionary tells me an enigma is something hard to understand or explain.

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