The third, and final, installment of my three-game-roadtrip memoir from last weekend. What an epic trip, and one I’ll remember for a long time. Thanks to all who helped make it possible!
Two posts down, one to go! One week ago today I was in the fine city of Chicago watching the Checkers defeat the Wolves. Wish I was back there this weekend, but my memories will have to get me through another day. ;)
Like Rockford’s home rink, the All-State arena is also about 30 years old, and home to DePaul University Men’s basketball, and other concerts and special events. It’s been home to hockey since 1994, when the Wolves moved in. It’s of comparable size to the Checkers home, but is incredibly dated with gaudy multi-color carpet in the hallways, a terrible sound system and a video board that might have been top-of-the-line 15 or 20 years ago. Sightlines were clearly designed for basketball, and the shallow rake of the lower bowl makes it hard to see. I was grateful to be sitting up high above center ice, and advise any Checkers fans who make the trip to Chicago to sit in the upper bowl at center ice!
As far as the fans in the stands, I saw a couple of Hurricanes jerseys, and a River Rats jersey as well, which was cool. But then there were the Wolves fans. Nearly everyone I ran into was decked out in Wolves sweaters and wolves colors, head to toe. It was pretty great. There was still a scattering of Blackhawks jerseys in the crowd, and I spotted a couple of Canucks sweaters behind the goal, but mostly? It was all about the Wolves.
I’ve visited a lot of NHL arenas… I was lucky to have a job for awhile that let me see games while traveling to NASCAR races. And thanks to friends and family trips, I’ve seen hockey in California (all three cities!), Phoenix, Colorado, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Montreal and Atlanta (may it R.I.P.). But despite visiting 13 NHL arenas over the years, I think the most fun I’ve had on a hockey roadtrip was last weekend when I drove approximately 2000 miles round trip to see the Checkers play two games in Illinois, and a third game between Charlotte’s division rivals the Rivermen and Admirals in Milwaukee.
I think something that excites me a great deal about Rockford and their passionate fan base is their relative young tenure as an AHL team. Prior to the AHL IceHogs, like Charlotte, the city was home to lower-level hockey teams for many years, and had found success and championships at that level. Now that the AHL franchise is in it’s fifth season, and has a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with their parent club, it’s easy to see a glimpse of what there is to come in Charlotte. The AHL Checkers are just a baby in the AHL in terms of tenure, but I can see a lot of potential as the Checkers gain more and more fans, and a bigger presence in Charlotte.
What a day! It started at about 8 a.m. Eastern time in Kentucky, and now, it’s 1 a.m. Chicago time, and I’m all settled in at my best friend’s flat. Getting “home” from Rockford was an adventure… my GPS decided to lead me to 119th St. and S. Morgan in Chicago (I dare you to go to Google maps and do a “street view” and see how sketchy the ‘hood was!)… 45 minutes later, my buddy directed me step by step to his house, which is nowhere close to the first location. And I digress….
Considering my day, I should not feel so wired, but alas, I am… so I’m going to transpose my chicken-scratch notes that I took during the game with a stand-in for my luky pen, which seems to have gone missing. (Yes, I have a lucky pen… it’s red and is a Checkers pen, but I had to settle for a Richard Childress Racing red pen. Boo hiss).
I took some great photos, but left my camera cord in North Carolina, so those will have to wait.
Thoughts about the Checkers 4-3 Shoot Out victory over Rockford last night:
- I really like this rink. I like that it’s a small (tiny even, by TWCA standards) rink, with a loud, enthusiastic crowd. There were less than 6K people there last night, but they were louder than a 12K night in Charlotte, because of their closeness and the size of the barn. I really liked everything about Rockford… from the arena staff, to the fans I met, etc. And I didn’t want to like them. I…. strongly dislike the Blackhawks. And that might be putting it mildly, but I’m intitled to my likes and dislikes! So seeing so much Blackhawks stuff made me a bit cringey… but it was a great place.
- A special thank you to the great Jason Shaya for inviting me to be his first-intermission interview on the AHL Live broadcast. It was a lot of fun, and I hope to do it again sometime soon!
- The Rockford crowd is really involved in the game… and not just a core of them like we have in Charlotte, but all of them. They scream things in unison, and have strange goalie taunts that were amusing to me. I’d love to see more of these kinds of things develop in Charlotte, and I think they will. We have an amazing product in Charlotte, and it just keeps getting better.
- Speaking of goalie taunting, my favorite post-goal score “taunt” when the away team scores is when they play Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You,” which I got a taste of following a couple of the Checkers goals. (I’m a big proponent of the Checkers adopting this, by the way.)
About the game:
- The first period started off a bit shakey with a rough puck handling situation with Mike Murphy behind his own net. The team rebounded, and he got stronger as the game went on.
- The first period showed the team had a lot of gas. Lots of goal scoring, energy and speed. This was a positive sight after a VERY long Christmas break.
- The fourth line winger pairing of Jared Staal and Justin Soryal played a lot during the first, but their ice time seemed to decrease as the game went on. I personally would attribute that to horrible play, especially in the neutral zone, and turnovers by the former of the two names listed.
- Cedric McNicoll, playing his first game since October 28, looked pretty good out there. It will be good to have him back in the lineup on a regular basis.
- It was very clear to me why Brian Connelly is second highest point-getter by a defenseman. His slapshot in the first during a delayed penalty was UNREAL and there’s no way a goaltender could have stopped it.
- Matt Pistilli is awesome, and his first goal of the game was a great snipe, and really got the team going in the first.
- Rockford goalie Alec Richards got the start in net, and is currently fighting for his roster spot with starting netminder Alexander Salak about to return from injury. Richards is a hulking 6’4” goalie, but he doesn’t have the technique that a guy like Mike Murphy does. He made some good saves, but especially early in the game, he simply used his size to block shots instead of actually stopping them. They would bounce off of him to keep from going in the net, but I didn’t see him control rebounds or stop the puck.
- The second period brought more restrained play by both teams. Rockford only had 7 SOG, one of which Murphy allowed to tie the game at 3, and Charlotte had 13, none of which were allowed by Richards.
- Sloppy passing in the neutral zone continued during the second, a lot of which seemed to me to be a result of the Checkers being low on fuel and energy and just wanting to get to a line change.
Third period of Overtime:
- The third period had a couple of near misses by each team, with the resounding sound of goalpost PINGS heard by all. From my vantage point on the blue line, the Checkers could have had a goal if the AHL did goal reviews, but it may have just been a lucky shot that hit two posts and bounced out.
- The third exhibited a very tired Checkers team. Mike Murphy carried the team with countless saves that he shouldn’t have had to make. Much like the Chicago game, when John Muse was put into the game after the first in relief of Murphy, the skaters weren’t doing their part to make saves and block shots from the opposition. Ten minutes into the third, the Checkers only had one SOG.
- A crazy scrum came in front of Murphy’s net with just 3.2 seconds remaining. Murphy made a phenomenal save, which resulted in all eight skaters (all of the guys on ice minus the goaltenders) in a brawl behind Murphy’s net. Honestly, I’m not sure how it started because it all happened so fast, but it resulted in all kinds of penalties, including four fighting majors and two misconducts for “secondary altercations.” It was crazy, and took quite awhile for the smoke to clear and play to continue.
- Justin Krueger in the shootout is AWESOME. He’s now two-for-two on the season, despite not having his first AHL goal.
- Mike Murphy continues to be stellar in the shootout, and has only allowed one goal all season (none of which came last night)
Let’s Go Checkers!
Charlotte Checkers (17-11-2-1) at Rockford IceHogs (11-17-1-2)
- Unlike the Checkers, who had over a week off between games around the Christmas holiday, tonight Rockford plays their third game this week. On Monday, they lost in Milwaukee and last night, a loss at Chicago.
- The Checkers last played on December 20, an overtime loss at home against Oklahoma City.
- The Checkers are still without goaltender Justin Peters, and forwards Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe. Riley Nash is back with the Checkers after a brief recall to Carolina over the break.
- Rockford has had a rough year at home, with a record of 6-11. They are currently in the midst of a three-game losing streak. This is their only home game in a 10-game stretch of games that began the day after Christmas.
- Rockford currently sits in 30th place in the League. The Checkers have slipped to second in their division, and 12th overall.
- In three games against Rockford this season, Michal Jordan leads the Checkers in points with five (2G, 3A).
- IceHogs goaltender Alexander Salak hasn’t played since December 2 when he was injured in a game. The IceHogs recalled Toledo Walleye goalie Carter Hutton (3.39 GAA, .893 SV%), who has played in eight of the teams 11 games since his recall.
- Alec Richards, the team’s backup, has played two games against the Charlotte, and holds the teams lone victory against the Checkers. He is 5-8-1 on the season (3.87 GAA, .888 SV%).
- This is yours truly’s first visit to Rockford, and I’m very excited to see the Checkers on the road!
Gametime: 8:00 p.m. EST
Editor’s Note: How awesome is it that Haley was able to make two of the West Division games this weekend? Not only that, but she has some great observations about the games she saw in Texas. It’s great having a first-hand account from a Checkers fan on the road. Enjoy this first (of hopefully many!) contributions!
- Lets begin with the Aeros cheerleaders, usually they wear very revealing clothing but tonight just took the cake. I’m assuming they were Halloween costumes, but they were all wearing shorts and binki-type tops with fur lining and scarves, to resemble a bomber pilot. But the message wasn’t very clear at all….possibly lost somewhere in the abyss of skin showing.
- The San Antonio Rampage have a very nice organization, but the effects and announcer were a little over the top. The fans were also very very quiet, the attendance was 6,157 but it seemed like there were only 2,000 total even at their loudest times. My friend and I were the only two Checkers fans there, and with each goal you could hear our screams literally echo around the massive arena.
- In the beginning of the Rampage game the Checkers seemed unsure of how to handle the Rampage, sitting back and letting them control the game with ease. But after the first goal they stopped playing defensive hockey and owned the game. I wasn’t nervous at any point after Brett Sutter scored that short handed goal, the team turned around and just kept going at them, wearing them down, but allowing 36 shots.
- Mike Murphy was sensational in the crease, as his last few starts have shown. If the defense can continue blocking shots, taking away lanes and helping him out more(possibly by staying out of the box?), the outcome tonight would have been much different. I’m wondering, along with probably every other Checkers fan out there, what the case is going to be once Justin Peters is healed.
- Brett Sutter and Justin Faulk look bound and determined to get called back up, those two are playing with an huge amount of emotion and it’s showing for them. Sutter surprisingly only ended up a +1 on the weekend, with a strong defensive performance and that extra push to show how bad he wants to be in Raleigh. Faulk has continued to impress me, he was so frustrated with himself after the empty net goal he broke his stick getting back to the bench. I selfishly love having him in Charlotte for now, but he’s going to be a star when he can find his groove up in the big leagues. I don’t remember the last time I saw a defenseman with the amount of skill he has at his age, it’s such a treat to watch him compete.
-The team looked much better on Saturday night versus tonight’s game, but either way we need to cut back on penalties. There was absolutely no reason to have 11 infractions. The penalty kill looked strong, spending a lot of the time outside of the defensive zone, with quite the amount of chagrin from Houston fans.
- I don’t think they called no goal on Drayson Bowman’s shot at the end of the second. I know I’m not an official or anything near one, but I’m pretty sure I saw the puck cross the line before the buzzer sounded even from my awkward vantage point.
- They need to figure out a way to crack Houston before the last game, chances are these teams are going to face each other in the playoffs and it would be better to figure them out now. At certain points during the game I saw the Checkers I knew, but at others the Aeros just broke down their positions and saw right through their defense, leaving them scrambling and chasing from behind.
- I also wanted to point out the fact of how little I like Aeros fans. I really dislike the “Hey goalie you suck” chants in general, but it’s a little much when you score an empty net goal and you’re still chastising Murphy for sucking…There were also two different groups right behind me chirping in my ear the whole time about how big of “pansies” they were. For some reason this man had a bone to pick with Chris Terry and Mike Murphy, and wouldn’t stop even after Terry had tacked on an assit to his night and I had a few words with him. And plenty of complaints about the refereeing, even when the calls were good for the Aeros. There were four other Checkers fans on the same row as us who were very kind and somehow louder than my friend and I. Even all the way in Texas, Checkers fans still feel like family to me.
In the course of 36 hours, four of us drove to Hershey and back to cheer on our Charlotte Checkers. While the game outcome wasn’t what I would have wanted, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
I’m writing this in the passenger seat of a car that is headed back to Charlotte, and I’ll post it when I get home and recovered. Our adventure is over, and despite the loss it was worth it to make the trip. The team played incredibly hard and with a lot of fire and determination, but it just wasn’t our night. Over the course of the season, I’ve come to love the team so much that I knew I just had to support them on the road in the playoffs, and it was totally worth it.
About the game:
Zac Dalpe had a great night, scoring both of the Checkers goals. I was incredibly impressed by two of our defensemen, Michal Jordan and Brett Bellemore. know the AHL doesn’t track Time On Ice as an official stat, but by my best guess, I’d say Jordan was out there for at least 26 or 27 minutes, and Bellemore played close to that many minutes. It seemed like every other shift, I’d see Jordan hustling and doing everything in his power to keep Hershey down. Although Jordan had a -3 for the night, it’s not a true sign of how well he played at all. He was a beast on the ice, and I was so glad to have him out there.
Casey Borer had a very lackluster performance, and seemed lazy at times on the ice. His ice time seemed to decrease a great deal as the game went on. Based on his performance (or lack there of) and the fact that clearly the Checkers want to play Jordan as many minutes as they do, we have got to bench one of our six regular defensemen in favor of newly signed Justin Faulk. Even if Faulk isn’t ready to play major minutes with his new team, we’ve got guys like Jordan and Bellemore who can cover for him, so I think it’s time to give the rookie a shot.
All in all, it was a fun game to watch. I was going to avoid discussing the goaltending situation for once, but I can’t do that. Justin Pogge seemed strong at first, but a couple of the goals he let in just weren’t that challenging. He seemed very tired, which is understandable considering how many starts he’s gotten recently, but he had also had two full days off since the last game with no traveling, so he should have gotten some rest. Braden Holtby continues to confuse me when he plays the Checkers. In this game, he was stronger than he usually was, but he never settled down, and had an edge of uncertainty about him the entire game, despite the final score.
Thoughts about the arena and the fans:
I have a feeling I’ll come back to the idea of Hershey and their fans in a later blog, but that will have to wait.
In a nutshell, I was reminded once again how lucky we are to have such a fantastic, state-of-the-art NHL caliber arena in Charlotte. It’s not that the Giant Center is a dump, it’s a great barn that the Bears fans fill time and time again, but between the incredibly hard plastic seats, the overly high boards and glass that was far-too-short, I missed the TWCA a lot.
I was so used to being COLD at a hockey game (and I’ve been in a lot of professional rinks, all across the US and even Canada), but I’ve never been so warm at a game. The ice seemed to be suffering as a result of the conditions, too. Pucks were bouncing all over the place, and there were a lot of odd slips and falls by players.
I really missed the Southern hospitality of the fans in Charlotte. I’ve greeted so many away team fans and welcomed them to our arena that it was hard to get used to the absolutely repulsive and obscene things said to us by some of the male fans.
So… starting with the positives. First of all, there are NO ICE GIRLS IN HERSHEY. This was a huge plus. I find hockey cheerleaders generally offensive, and that they tend to take away from the experience instead of adding to it. I’m sorry, but scantily clad women gyrating like strippers to bad dance music just does not say HOCKEY to me. If hockey cheerleaders actually engaged the crowd instead of dancing, I might not be so bothered by them, but they don’t lead chants or cheers. They don’t help stir up the crowd. Hershey’s fanbase proved that you do NOT need cheerleaders/dancers/ice girls to get the crowd involved. The entire crowd cheered in unison every time the Bears scored (which unfortunately, was four times), and they were loud. I loved that. I did not, however, love the glass banging. WHY is it ok in the AHL to bang on the glass?? It makes me crazy.
I did not like some of the fans near us. While I completely understand I was in someone else’s barn, I don’t think I should have obscene things screamed at me by fans. I was respectful, only cheering or standing when my team scored, to which I would receive “Sit down, bitch” or other colorful phrases. During one of the intermissions, their mascot Coco skated to where we were sitting on the glass and kind of taunted us in a fun way, pointing to the polar bears on our jersey and giving us a thumbs down. That’s totally fine, and I’m sure our own Chubby does similar things. But then, this fan sitting two rows behind me (who I believe had previously called me “bitch”) yells “Hey Coco, teabag those Checkers fans” because, you know, that is a REALLY family friendly thing to scream in front of your three children who all appeared to be under the age of five.
After the game, some of Fitzy’s Posse told us fans in their section held a small infant up when their team scored and would shake him like an ice girl shakes a pom-pom, which is a VERY disturbing image. Shaking a baby at a hockey game? Really? I also heard stories of fans pouring beer over the VERY short glass (seriously, I could reach over it, and I’m not a tall person!) onto the backs of the away team. Is that really appropriate behavior? I realize you want your home team to win (as will I this week in Charlotte), but pouring beer on a player is so juvenile and bush-league. Do fans like that not realize that they wouldn’t have a game to be at if it wasn’t for the guys in Red, skating for the away team? I’ve heard of entire sections of fans standing up and flipping off the away team, and somehow this is acceptable behavior in Hershey. If a player did that, I’m sure they would face fines or even suspension, but apparently it’s ok for the Hershey fans to do… quite the double standard!
My absolute favorite argument was with a fan who thought it was really cool that they were paying one of their players $5 million dollars to play in the AHL. I didn’t want to correct him, but actually, the Edmonton Oilers are paying Sheldon Souray $4.5 milion to play in the Eastern Conference of the AHL, for a team that has absolutely no connection to the Oil. You see, Souray became quite a cancer in the dressing room last season, and the Oilers were unable to trade him. They felt so strongly about how negatively he affected their club, that they didn’t want him on their own AHL team, the Oklahoma City Barons, where he might negatively influence their prospects, nor did they even want him on a western conference team, so they shipped him to Hershey in an agreement with the Washington Capitals. So if a fan wants to think it’s COOL that the two-time, back-to-back WORST TEAM in the NHL doesn’t want a player that they shipped him for free to the Bears, then so be it.
I want to end on a positive note though… not all of the fans we encountered were bad people. We sat with great people during warmups, and met a lot of concerned fans who asked about the tornado damage in Raleigh and all over North Carolina. Many were impressed we made the trek to Hershey, and we invited them to come see their team play in Charlotte.
We definitely missed Chief Fan Rouser Wilson, and the way the Checkers have an in-game personality who keeps things flowing. To be honest though, we did NOT miss all of the “commercials” we are forced to endure at Checkers games at every single TV timeout. I don’t know how Hershey can avoid all of these promos, but it was nice to not have to see someone stuffing their face with chicken, or doing the chicken dance or the electric slide at every break in play! And again, I LOVED that there weren’t half-naked ice girls skating around in figure skate to clear the ice, and instead their were professional looking ice-technicians in hockey skates doing it instead.
After the game, all of the Checkers fans found their way to the back of the arena where the players exited, and many of them circulated among the crowd, genuinely thanking us for making the trip. I’m not one to really seek out the team like that, or ever ask for autographs (like some of the ebay-selling autograph hounds were doing) but it was so nice to see our team so thankful of the support the fans in Charlotte provide. Zack Fitzgerald was of course one of the most incredible players, who sought out every fan in a Checkers, Canes or River Rats jersey to personally thank them for coming. THAT is why we have a first-class team in the Charlotte Checkers!
Wrapping it up:
First of all, THANK YOU for reading this far. I have a lot more to say, but I fear if I wrote anything else, nobody would want to read it. I also have at least 50 great pictures of the game, warmups, etc., but don’t want to overload this blog with photographs!
Secondly, LET’S DO THIS CHECKERS (and fans!)!!!!! Tomorrow night is going to be a HUGE game in Charlotte, and we need the W. If all ends the way it should, we could wrap the series up on Friday and head to the second round. So please come out and support OUR team. They deserve everything we can give them.
Lets Go Checkers!
So, Chasing Checkers is half-way to Hershey. We made it safely and fortunately didn’t have to become tornado chasers, as we were able to avoid all of the storms that ravaged the Triad area. We stopped for the night at a lovely Fairfield Marriott in Virginia. The Teenybopper is quite vocal… about anything and everything. She even recited most of the presidents of the U.S.A. (This discussion began after passing a sign for James Madison University, who according to The Teenybopper and her song, Madison was the fourth President.)
We also discussed epic signs seen at hockey games, including the countless prom offers requested by fans of Jeff Skinner. The best sign of recent memory was actually one the Teenybopper is responsible for. I don’t know about you, but I think Drayson Bowman should say yes!
We also decided that we should invite Bobby Goepfert to join us on the ride home. We have a pretty sweet ride with a sunroof and leather seats. The center back seat is empty, and would be the perfect place for a slightly neurotic, germophobic fly-o-phobic goaltender to write a Twog about his adventure. The Teenybopper will even serve him drinks from our cooler, which features a great selection of Dr. Pepper, Diet Dr. Pepper and bottled water. She will however, not be serving peanuts, pretzels or lecture him on exit-row safety.
The drive was nice, and and so was dinner (we drove 20 minutes out of the way so we could go to an Outback Steakhouse, despite that the chief blogger here is a vegetarian, and then found another Outback was right across the street from our hotel…) We followed the other AHL and NHL games on the schedule via Twitter. We are all still in shock over the defeat of the Penguins by the Norfolk Admirals. Our supersticious nature refuses to talk about what a second round match up for our team could mean if the Ads keep up their winning ways…. and we follow suit.
And now, it’s time to go to bed…. long day tomorrow, full of epic adventures and hockey in Pennsylvania!
Let’s Go Checkers! BEAT THE BEARS!
This Sunday, I’m going to be in the fine town of Hershey, PA to watch the Checkers take on the Bears. It’ll be my first AHL roadtrip, and I’m not going alone! I hear Fitzy’s Posse will be making the trip, and I’ve got a few buddies along for the ride as well.
We will, of course, be blogging the entire trip through pictures and twitter updates. There are even a few surprises in the works, some of which might require some work to have happen, but I have faith!
Want some interesting facts about my relationship to Hershey, PA? A relative of mine (great great grandfather or uncle, not sure which) was an inventor, and sold a patent to a Mr. Hershey for a candy making machine in the late 1800′s. He also invented an ice cream making machine, that can now be found in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Woo Playoffs! Hershey or bust!