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!
When you’ve already driven over 900 miles to see two games in the Midwest, what’s another 90 or so to see a third game? One of the guys over at the Admirals Roundtable invited me to come see the Ads in action, and the fact it was a division match up made it even more appealing. Plus, Wisconsin has beer. Like… really GOOD beer, not just beer giants like Miller Brewing.
So after a fun night of celebrating the New Year with friends in Chicago, I hopped in my car for another drive north to the fine city of Milwaukee. My southern blood was a bit nervous about the weather… it started to snow on my way up there, and I had NOT prepared for this at all (heck, I don’t even own an ice scraper, and hadn’t brought my actual winter coat… whoops?), but for hockey, I’ll do about anything.
I stopped at a grocery store on the way, and purchased a few six packs of beer for my friends back home (OK, more than a few, like probably enough to make me a North Carolina bootlegger… but whatever. I didn’t drive this far for nothing!), and then drove the rest of the way.
I got to Milwaukee really early. Like… I had rushed, cause the clock in my car said I was running late, but I hadn’t changed said clock from Eastern time, so in reality, I was over an hour early. The arena was still letting fans out from the PREVIOUS event (a Marquette basketball game), so I knew I had time to kill. I found one of about 10 bars that are a stones throw from the Bradley Center, and headed for it, hoping to get my hands on some of that local Wisconsin beer I’d been craving. I asked the bartender what he had that was local, and just got a glare and the response “It’s all local. It’s Miller” and realized I needed to be more specific, “UH… what local CRAFT beers do you have” and ended up with a bottle of Spotted Cow, brewed by the fantastic New Glarus brewing company, which has four times the distribution of my own local favorite Highland Brewing, but they only distribute in the state of Wisconsin. Amazing.
The beer and food was good, but I had my heart set on hockey. The arena was running slightly behind schedule when I got there at 4 p.m., the time doors were to open, mostly due to the basketball changeover (they’d only had about an hour and a half, afterall), plus they had a REALLY sweet giveaway for fans. We all received Milwaukee Admirals bottle openers. But these are battery operated, and when you open a bottle, you hear the Ads play-by-play guy giving a great call of a game, and then he says “Enjoy your beverage.” This thing is seriously cool, and I’ve used it many times in the past week while I enjoy my Wisconsin beer.
So about the Bradley Center. Milwaukee is a town of similar size to Charlotte, that also has an NBA team and an AHL team that share the same building. What’s cool about the Bradley Center though, is it was built for hockey. It has hockey sightlines, and was designed with the goal of luring an NHL team. That hasn’t happened, and the Admirals are left with a great rink to play in. The ice rink is named after it’s benefactor, Jane Petit, and her name is in huge letters at center ice.
As a basketball arena, the Bradley Center has gotten a lot of complaints. It opened in 1988, the same year the now-defunct Charlotte Coliseum opened. It lacks club seating, and all of the expensive suites that newer arenas have. The owner of the Milwaukee Bucks wants a new building downtown, and wants the taxpayers to pay for it. Wow…. does that story sound familiar, or what?
There are so many similarities between Charlotte and Milwaukee, and therefore the Admirals and Checkers. The Admirals were an IHL team before them, and clearly, Wisconsin is a state with a bigger hockey fanbase. One of the first things I noticed when I sat in my seat were the championship banners and the numbers of retired players hanging in their rafters. Like the Checkers, the Admirals haven’t always been an AHL team. In 1977, the Admirals moved from the amateur U.S. Hockey League to the IHL. That lasted for a couple of decades until they joined the AHL after the IHL folded in 2001. But what I liked was the modern-day Admirals have kept that history. They didn’t discard the old, outdated logos, or the jersey numbers that had been retired under previous incarnations of the team. They are proud of the past, and display it with honor high in the rafters.
Our team in Charlotte, however, seems to have discarded the past. No longer is the number four retired and honored, and there aren’t banners signifying the championships the ECHL, Eastern Hockey League and Southern Hockey League Charlotte Checkers won over the years since 1956. Maybe it has to do with the Bobcats, and not being allowed to show that they are the Checkers are the only winners in the arena, but I really wish they would pay homage to their great, championship filled past.
Before the game began, I was treated to understated, yet effective pre-game entertainment. The Admirals have a REALLY cool fully automated pirate ship that the mascot rides in, along with a handful of kids from the crowd. This boat is SO COOL. It has flickering candles in the back window, and rocks as if sailing on the ocean blue (or one of the Great Lakes, as is probably more appropriate in Milwaukee!). They had moving lights with Admirals logo gobos, and a water effect projected onto the ice. There wasn’t a pyro and fireworks show, or a giant inflatable to skate through, but it was a great presentation that got the fans excited about the game.
My favorite part of the pre-game “show” was a video the team showed on their awesome high definition videoboard (which is VERY similar to the one the Checkers use). It was a “Welcome to the Admirals” kind of PR piece, starring Darren Pang. Pang, of course, is a former Blackhawks goaltender and currently a commentator for NBC, and, most importantly, a former member of the Milwaukee Admirals. He does a fantastic job telling the story of the Admirals, and with some savvy graphics and photos, talks about the connection between Milwaukee and their NHL affiliate, the Nashville Predators. Fans are reminded of how many great players came through Milwaukee, and how invested in the team the Predators are. It was an AWESOME video, and one of my favorite parts of the game presentation. Chalk this up to thing number to Milwaukee does better than the Checkers… and that’s pre-game festivities!
The game was fun to watch. I had no vested interest in either team winning, I was just there to enjoy a good game as a hockey fan. The Rivermen were on game three of a three-in-three, and starting the same goaltender for the third straight game, and the Admirals were playing a fresh goalie, and in the standings, should have won the game… but alas, New Years hangovers must have come into play because the final score was 1-0, with the Ads losing at home.
I actually took notes at this game, so I could remind myself what the team did well both on and off the ice. Their game ops aren’t far off from what the Checkers do. They have a great hi-definition video board, and fantastic graphics on it. They have good camera operators (like we do in Charlotte). The TV timeouts featured sponsor games for fans to participate in, and a “Season Ticket Holder of the Game” segment like the one Charlotte did last season, but seemed to have lost with the new year. The in-game host of all of these segments is a character not unlike Jon Wilson, though with less local “celebrity status.” On the night I was there, Ryan Miller(no relation to the goalie, though this particular one is who invited me to Milwaukee in the first place!) was the in-game host, and did a great job keeping things moving, and covering technical issues with the video board, etc., for the games and promotions during the game.
As for intermission entertainment… they had a silly Price is Right segment that would have
only been better with a Bob Barker style microphone, a Cheese Race (AWESOME!), and some little kids hockey players. But then they had the best intermission event in the world, the Human Hockey Puck. Why is it that EVERY AHL team except for Charlotte flings fans across the ice with a giant slingshot? They even tied a sponsor into it, and knocked over giant Big Bens Rice boxes instead of regular old brandless pins.
Helping the various on-ice activities move along smoothly, in addition to tossing t-shirts out to the crowd, I got my first glimpse of the Admirals Skeleton Crew. The Crew is a mixture of young men and women who assist with the promotional needs of the team. They wore Admirals jerseys, and seemed to be enjoying every second of their involvement in the game. They don’t dance at center ice, or show a lot of skin and cleavage, but they do a great job encouraging fans to get involved in the game, and of course have the important job of ice maintenence during TV time outs. The Skeleton Crew is comprised of volunteers who audition with the team, and they take part in a number of events outside of the games as well. I give a GIANT gold star to this mixed-gender team of spirited folks.
I also have to give a great shout out to the sound engineer who chooses the songs. I have no idea if they are as redundant as the ones we hear in Charlotte, but to my fresh ears, it was great. There was comedy in some of the selections, especially when “Why Can’t We Be Friends” was played following the first (and only) big fight of the evening. Their sound guy is definitely quick, and had great responses to stuff on the ice.
As for the fans, Milwaukee has comparable attendance to the Checkers. They have a few games a year with over 14,000 (Concert nights, with big-names such as Dierks Bentley), but most games tend to hover between 4-6000. The lower bowl was pretty sparce on New Years Day, but there were sections filled to the brim with season ticket holders who had chants and responses to everything… bad calls, goalie taunts, and even interactive chants with the arena PA announcer at the end of each period. The fans in Milwaukee were pretty great, and I had a lot of flashbacks to the games I’ve been to in Nashville, which thanks to Cellblock section 303, has a huge repository of taunts, cheers and chants. Chalk that up to one more tie between the AHL and NHL franchises… nice work Nashville/Milwaukee!
After the game, I met up with in-game-host extraordinaire Ryan. I tried not to panic at the snow that was already on the ground and sticking, or the fact I didn’t have chains or snow tires or even an ice scraper. I got to see (and was amused by) the Rivermen’s sleeper “bus” which isn’t really a bus at all, but some kind of fantastic truck like thing that pulls a trailer full of their hockey gear (and possibly rookies who don’t get their own bunk). I’d bribed Ryan with some North Carolina beer, and he in turn shared with me a great Milwaukee brewery and restaurant called the Water Street Brewery, where for the next hour or so we got to talk about our teams, why the Checkers are better than the Admirals, and of course, about the beer that we tasted during dinner. I probably would have been happy to keep chatting about two of my greatest loves (microbrew and hockey) but alas the snow was continuing to fall, and my little Honda and I had a 900 mile drive back to Charlotte to undertake, so I hopped on the road, hoping to at least get into Indiana before passing out from exhaustion, which I did, but just barely.
So all in all, the three day roadie to the Midwest was an incredible one. I met great people in three cities, saw my favorite hockey team win a couple of games, and got to spend time with some of my favorite people along the way. Would I drive 2000 miles again to see the Checkers? Heck yes. I’m tentatively planning another trip in April, but all that will depend on the status of my Master’s thesis. So until then, Let’s Go Checkers