Sunday, January 18, 2009

ECHL = Best Value

Sometimes we have to step back and take a look to truly appreciate what we have.

I recently attended hockey games from all three main levels within a 9-day stretch. Tuesday, January 6 I watched the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Florida Panthers at Air Canada Centre; then Friday January 9 I watched the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs take on the Lake Erie Monsters at Copps Coliseum; finally on Wednesday January 14 I returned to see our Cyclones destroy Wheeling at US Bank Arena.

It was a very cool hockey journey. Here is how it made me truly appreciate the Cyclones, the ECHL, and US Bank Arena:

Obvoiusly the NHL is the major league and the place all hockey players aspire to end up. It's awesome hockey, the best in the world. The players are the biggest, they are the best, the brightest, the fastest and the baddest. The new arenas are a marvel of construction, design, and crowd-handling. They have the best of everything, including all the best ice making systems including purified water, heated sub-floor, and two Zambonis.

On the down-side, I paid $100 US to sit so high up I felt like the view would have been better from the International Space Station. The seats were cramped so bad I could tell you the guy next to me's shoe size. The upper deck is so steep it feels like you could plummet to the bottom when you reach down to pick up your way-over-priced soda.

What's worst, from that level you don't truly get an appreciation for what you're seeing. They seem slow. The hits seem lethargic, and shots seem like something from juniors. The only hint as to the intensity of NHL hockey I noticed came from passing and the distinctive "thwack!" of a tape-to-tape pass being caught. To hear it so loud, from so far away, is the only thing that truly demonstrated the raw power of NHL hockey.

Want to sit down low and see what it really is like? Prepare to shell out $400 Canadian for a single game seat. You could be a Cyclones season ticket holder for that. Don't get me wrong, I still have total respect for the NHL but it is way out of my price range, even for an occasional treat.

Next, on to Hamilton. Copps Coliseum was built in 1985 and it very similar to US Bank Arena. It's the same architectural style, but upgrades commensurate with 10 years of evolution. We sat in the lower bowl, right by the player tunnel, for $25 Canadian each. That is a modest price and the hockey was very good. Definitely a better value in terms of the hockey you see for the price you pay than the NHL.

The skill is a step better than the ECHL but the biggest difference I see is the physical size of the players. These guys are absolute monsters. Guys like Latendresse and Desharnais are dwarfed by the guys around them. As you can imagine, the hits are harder and they are a step faster if for no other reason than their longer legs.

The main detractor I've seen in the AHL (and old IHL when affiliations became the norm) is the players seem to play a little easier, as if they don't want to risk an injury causing them to miss a call-up. Also the coaching staff is more bound by the orders of the parent club to play certain guys specified amounts of time and/or to play the systems of the parent club so the guys are familiar - even if the system is not the best fit for the squad. It leads to a somewhat diluted game, in my humble opinion.

You still can't argue that, technically, it is better hockey but I am talking about value.

Enter ECHL. I'll start with the negatives first. Yes, they players are very young and many are seeing the game professionally for the first time. They are smaller in size and have less game wisdom. Many have a lower skill level and are more prone to make mistakes. We've seen it out of the Cyclones from years past, and to a certain degree even this year.

HOWEVER, I still love the ECHL, the Cyclones, and the arena. First, the arena occasionally gets knocked for being "sterile" and not a "traditional hockey barn." Maybe, but it's where I saw my first professional hockey game (WHA Stingers, 1977) so I'll always have a place in my heart for it. But even if you don't share the nostalgia, what the building gives everyone is a quality, mostly modern if not modest, and overall very nice place for hockey. It's definitely no dump in the ghetto.

Now, the league. The players all over the league are in it for "the love of the game." Sounds corny, but it's true. League minimum salary is around $400 per week plus lodging and insurance; but as soon as the season is over they get their last check, get kicked out of their apartment, and get their health insurance cut off. There is no glory in long bus rides, being far away from home, and playing a 72+ game schedule while hoping beyond hope to get a shot at a call-up.

The players play with all their hearts, nearly every game, in the attempt to just get noticed and for the reason of pure pride. It's just so refreshing to me.

And all this for TEN BUCKS. You can watch a game from the third row for a measley THREE PERCENT of the cost of the same seat for an NHL game. Tell you you're only seeing 3% of the hockey and I'll call you a liar every time

In my estimation, it's at least 65% as good as NHL. I think more, actually, but I know I am biased. Even if you think it's 25$ as good, you're only paying 3% of the cost.

As I do the math, that's an awesome value, especially in tough economic times.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bulldogs Game

I still need to sit down and write a good entry on the value we as fans get from the ECHL. My thoughts on this have been strongly reinforced after seeing NHL, AHL, and ECHL games in 8 days. Meanwhile, here's a pic of my in the Zamboni garage at the Copps Coliseum for the Bulldogs game: And here is a short video clip of us driving across the 401 highway in the snowstorm:

It's times like this when I'm glad to be a Zamboni driver!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Toronto Trip - Finally Home

After battling a raging snowstorm between London, Ontario an Dayton, Ohio and taking the wrath of a US Customs agent at the border who clearly hates people, I am finally home from a great trip.

The trip had great highlights: Maple Leafs game, Bulldogs game, and the trip to the Zamboni factory in Brantford, Ontario.

The Zamboni factory is their final production plant for the model 400-series Zamboni. These are smaller machines geared toward studio rinks and single-sheet arenas. They ordinally don't do factory tours, but I did get a pretty good look at the place. It was more like the shop at Orange County Choppers (without the attitudes and rampant swearing); nothing pretentious, just a place to get things done.

The best part about it was the "graveyard" of Olympia machines out back that were taken in trade and will be scrapped.

Here is a pic of Wayne Gretzky Parkway in Brantford:

Here's the sign out front of the Zamboni factory:

Here I am by a historic Model J Zamboni in the lobby of the Factory:

This model was designed to be small and maneuver through tight corners, and is based on the old paddle-and-chain original technology.

Here I am by a Model K machine:

This one came along after the current enclosed auger style but was designed for arenas that did not have the clearance for a machine that lifts the tank to dump. It was improved technology like the auger-based dumping machines, but used the paddle-and-chain.

The paddle-and-chain machines had to be shoveled out after use, or melted with a stream of water through a drain in the bottom of the tank.

Both of these machines have been meticulously restored to original condition and they are fully functional.

Here is the snowstorm we drove through coming home. We were driving through snow for about 300 miles of the trip. This is on the 401 Highway between London and Windsor:

Stand by for the next blog entry, comparing the value we get from ECHL hockey compared to the AHL and NHL.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Toronto Update #2 - Good Game in Hamilton

Here on our last night in the Great White North, we had the pleasure of watching the Bulldogs chew up and spit out the Lake Erie Monsters in a 3-0 victory.

Loic Lacasse played great in net. At first I was disappointed to see him instead of Cedric, but then it was nice to see him playing so well at the AHL level. It was nothing fancy, just good old fashion solid goaltending. It earned him the shutout. Very cool.

Latendresse and Desharnais both got a lot of playing time. They look so small compared to the average size of AHL players, but they played great. The both got both assists on the second and third goals. Bulldog's 2nd goal on a power play in the third period was scored by Carle from Latendresse and Desharnais and the third goal, even strength, was scored by Glumac from Latendresse and Desharnais.

Latendresse was the #2 star of the game and Desharnais was named "The Hardest Working Bulldog" of the game, which is a sponsored award given after the #1 star is announced.

Other Cyclones in the lineup were Russell, Beauregard, and Stewart.

We got the added bonus again of both national anthems, so we proudly sang the Star Spangled Banner in the crowd. Believe it or not, we had a much better time overall at the Bulldogs game than we did at the Maple Leafs game on Tuesday. Maybe it was because we were in the 8th row by the player tunnel for the Bulldogs game and out seats for the Leafs game seemed like they were further up than the Northwest Territories.

Quite honestly, I don't know if I'll go back to another NHL game unless/until I care enough to spend the money to sit in the lower bowl.

The Bulldogs also gave me a tour of their backstage area, Zamboni room, and chiller room. I got a pic on my wife's camera phone but the network here won't allow emailing picture messages. Unfortunately I left my digital camera out in my truck. Grrrr.

Pic to follow upon our return, along with some more commentary on both games, AND exclusive coverage of my private tour of the Zamboni factory in Brantford, Ontario (birthplace of the Great One).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Toronto Update #1

It's late Tuesday night, I'm behind on my homework I need to do for my official reason for this visit, and I just got in from the Maple Leafs/Panthers game. I have several worthy observations for later when I have more time to do it justice. I'll just post now with a really sappy quick comment.

Sappy, but it was very cool. So there were were at Air Canada Centre, wearing our Cyclones jerseys, when it came time for the national anthems. It was chilling to stand there and be the only ones around actually singing the US national anthem, while the Canadien crowd observed respectfully.

There we were, in Canada, singing our national anthem - probably the only ones or very few Americans there singing our song. It was very cool.

Then we got our turn to watch in deference as the crowd of 20,000 odd Canadians enthusiastically sang their national anthem. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I wish our crowds sang like theirs did.