A tale of three cities – The AHL roadie to the Midwest, part one
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.
The trip started a bit later than planned (blame the beer… it’s totally the beer’s fault), but I made it to Rockford, IL in plenty of time. Rockford is a strange town. As I left the freeway, I drove through some relatively sketchy spots that made me make sure my doors were locked, and windows all the way rolled up. But when you get to downtown, there are quaint shops, a temporary outdoor rink, and all of this sits on a riverfront.
Getting in was a challenge… they had a HUGE crowd due to a free kids jersey giveaway, but I made it to my seat high above the ice. The staff in Rockford was fantastic. Everyone I met was incredibly nice, and helpful. It was an exciting, close game, and the passion of the Rockford fans was pretty contagious. Just being there, in their barn was an honor. They have passionate, knowledgable fans, and are so proud of their team. Like the Checkers, Rockford is only a short drive away from their NHL parent club, something that benefits both teams a great deal.
Blackhawks jerseys were everywhere, and it was an incredibly educated crowd. The BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford is a 30 year old arena that’s been home to the IceHogs since 2007, when the franchise moved to Rockford from Cincinnati. Bringing the AHL to Rockford was a big deal, and involved a major renovation of the arena, and an agreement with the Chicago Blackhawks that would keep the IceHogs in Rockford for the next 10 years.
While not the biggest hockey arena, it only seats about 5,700 with ice, it’s a great place to watch a game. The stands were packed on a Friday night, and the sightlines were great. Much like Charlotte, the seats go around 3/4 of the ice, with the fourth side filled with luxury suites and boxes. The small size compared to Charlotte makes the crowd even louder and more noticeable. It was unlike any other arena I’d been to. The ground-level entrance is also ice level, so to get to most of the seats, you have to go up a level to the main concorse. The first floor acted more like a big lobby than anything else, and the hockey operations and team offices are all in the basement of the building.
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.
The game was a lot of fun to observe. They have some fun, yet low-tech pregame stuff… a giant inflatable hog head that the players skate out through, and their mascot, Hammy, rode around on a 4-wheeler. The away team starters are all announced, which enables the home team fans to scream “SIEVE” or “SUCKS” after each name is called. It’s kind of low-class, but it made me smile… especially when I knew that all their taunts were false, and that the Checkers were, of course, the better team.
Their anthem singer was professional and sang well on a sponsor-branded red carpet. As far as in-game entertainment… they have ice girls who clean the ice during TV time outs who wear skimpy outfits, with bare legs and legwarmers. Otherwise, I didn’t notice them doing anything. They don’t dance, or cheer in the stands. They have an in-game host, much like Wilson, but without the poise and flair that he has. I didn’t get his name, but he did the sponsor PSA’s, etc., in the stands during the game. He does have quite the epic mullet though… something I think Jon Wilson should look into growing!
The most akward part of the night was their “Chuck-A-Puck”… fans tossed soft, foam pucks at a banner at center ice, and the winner received a cash prize, much like Charlotte. And then, they allow what looked like hundreds of children to walk out onto the ice and collect the pucks. It was just… a cluster! People scrambling around to clean up after the chuck a puck, and then the organizers trying to sweep all of these extra people off the ice again. Apparently, the kids love it, but it was so strange to watch!
After a trying drive back to Chicago where my best friend since high school lived, I finally got to bed at about 1:30 a.m. after a hockey game and 10 hours of driving. Was it worth it? Heck yes. Every moment of it was fantastic, and this was only the first of my three-in-three that would have me see all five teams in our division, and three of the four other arenas.
All in all, Rockford is definitely a city and arena I’d visit again. Unlike my trip to Hershey last spring that left me thinking once was more than enough, I really loved the people and the building, and see another trip there in my future!