Eschewing the flurry of player movement that went down yesterday in the big time, the Guardian‘s touristy Ian Windwood attended a Las Vegas Wranglers (ECHL) game and declares, “hockey not only exists but actually flourishes outside of the NHL .” And he managed to plug the only sports book written to date by a CSTB contributor, too. Until Ben Schwartz’ “My Dinner With Dusty” finally finds a publisher, anyhow.
Even as the Zamboni machine rolled its way up the ice prior to face-off, it was clear that things were not as I had imagined them to be. In a cab on my way to the 9,500-seat Orleans Arena, part of the new and hellishly impressive hotel and casino complex of the same name, I pictured a deserted barn and hockey that was nothing but fists and insults. Basically, I imagined Slap Shot. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover an arena busy with at least 8,000 hockey fans, the majority of whom were as passionate as they were knowledgeable about the game being played before them.
The Las Vegas Wranglers are a very minor league hockey team. They are the feeder club for the Quad City Flames, who in turn are the feeder club for the NHL’s Calgary Flames. Not wishing to hurt the players’ feelings, I lowered my voice to tell my companion that the participants she was watching were unlikely ever to make it to the National Hockey League. Meanwhile, Tony was grabbing his Blackhawks top and yelling at the Salmon Kings that this was the closest they were ever gonna get to an NHL jersey. Maybe so, but that didn’t alter the fact that tonight’s hockey match saw the game played to a superior standard.
Yes, the ice may have been bad, but the ice is bad at Madison Square Garden as well, and that ain’t in the desert. Despite this being the penultimate Saturday in February, the temperature had been 70 degrees all day. On the ice the Salmon Kings and the Wranglers controlled the puck with crisp, precise passes; they unloaded deadly slapshots, deft wristers; they back checked and fore checked. Much to my amazement, no one fought. In fact, to my foreign eye the two teams appeared to do everything that players in the NHL can do, just at a fraction of the cost.
In his book Zamboni Rodeo, Texas-based journalist Jason Cohen spends a season with the minor league Austin Ice Bats. Paid hundreds rather than tens of thousands of dollars per week, hockey life at this level is markedly different from its NHL equivalent. It’s a world of all-night bus rides, early-morning practice sessions at rinks in deserted shopping malls, fast food and an uncertain living. As I looked at the Salmon Kings players just inches in front of me I found myself wondering about each man’s story. As teenagers, did they imagine themselves playing for the Montreal Canadiens, and exactly when did they realise their talents would never reach that high? Did they have wives, children to support? Where were they staying tonight, and how the hell were they going to get home to a small island just off the west coast of Vancouver?
The Wranglers pay a return visit to the Salmon Kings tonight. I’ll take a wild guess that some combination of airplane, bus and boat did the trick.