Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Faceoff circle or Arctic Circle?

Sept 16, 2005: Fairbanks, Alaska.
Fairbanks Ice Dogs 5, Billings Bulls 3.
I was in Fairbanks to ride the Alaska Railroad south to Anchorage. To my delight, I found there was a hockey game the night before I left! The Ice Dogs play in the North American Hockey League. This is at the Junior A level. The league bills itself as a way to train at hockey while getting an education -- though from a look at the Ice Dogs' roster it didn't look like anyone was still in high school. As much as I can guess, Jr. A, at least the NAHL version, is a chance for players overlooked at high school to keep their careers alive, and make an impression on scouts -- either pro or college, as it preserves NCAA eligibility (unlike Canadian major junior).
It was opening weekend at the Big Dipper Arena. The arena, with about 2,000 seats, is run by the city rec department, and it has an unusual pedigree. The most unusual architectural feature: a mirrored ceiling. It was Saturday night, on the second night of a two-game opening series, and the Dogs drew a sizable crowd of all ages; lots of adults shooting the breeze, catching up with each other, while their kids got to romp around. A very good-spirited atmosphere. During an intermission, I walked over to the booster club table and talked to the head of the organization. He said the Ice Dogs usually draw pretty well; their primary competition for the hockey fan dollar is the University of Alaska team, which plays at the high-caliber NCAA Division 1 level. The Ice Dogs, he said, have one key competitive advantage: they can sell beer at their games. As I recall, they even sold very good beer.
It was a good game and a good time. If I lived in Fairbanks, I'd have season tickets.
Game sheet here.
It occurs to this blog that it may be the only blog alive to attend the home games of two different hockey teams with nickname Ice Dogs. Perhaps I should go for a trifecta.

Monday, March 26, 2007

And now: rugby wanderer

Feb. 17, 2007: Sydney, Australia
Sydney Roosters 10, Wests Tigers 4

Hockeywanderer is happy to mix travel and sports, which brings us to Sydney, Australia in February, where I experienced high-level rugby. Well, a warm-up for high level rugby. It should be noted I attended the match the night I arrived in Australia, basically in an attempt to keep myself awake. This game was rugby league, which is different from rugby union in ways I do not understand and am too lazy to find out.
The game was held at Aussie Stadium. I thought it was so dubbed because it was some kind of national icon -- in reality, the naming rights were sold to a mortgage broker.
The stadium is a bit of a surreal sight. My final approach, on foot, was down a street of old two- to three-story brick row houses, very characteristic of that part of Sydney -- which appears quite gentrified, full of used book stores and art-house movie theaters. Then, boom, looming like a spaceship over Paddington, is this futuristic white erector set, set up by architects to disguise what is otherwise an unremarkable rectangular reinforced concrete stadium.
At first I thought it would be a Sydney home crowd, because I assumed Wests were from the west, as in maybe Perth. As it turns out, Wests stands for Sydney's western suburbs, and Wests fans seemed to have a slight edge in numbers in the crowd of 16,000.
The game I saw was, hold your breath, the "Foundation Cup" - a very fancy name for what was really both teams' first pre-season exhibition game.
The whole spectacle is just as commercialized as North American pro sports -- complete with cheerleading squads, costumed mascots and overly enthusiastic PA announcers. In some ways, it was even more commercialized: not only are there sponsorship ads on the players jerseys, but on the referees' as well! The good news is that rugby league is played with a running clock, so there are no breaks to be filled up with loud, annoying music as at most American sports events. (Though they played "Eye of the Tiger" during the Tigers' team introduction.)
As for the rugby itself, I got it -- up to a point. Basically the players try to carry the ball into an end zone, for a try (4 points) at which point they get to try to convert for two more points with a kick through the uprights -- an angled kick, much tougher than a football extra point. The scoreboard also had a line for field goals, but no one scored any, so I don't know what they are.
Players run the ball, and they are allowed to lateral it to their teammates. At times, the teams attacked with a series of laterals that developed with breathtaking speed. However, that series of laterals. 60 yards across the field, would net them 10 or 15 yards, which begins to tell me why American football adopted the forward pass.
Players ran the ball, and when they were tackled, everyone suddenly stopped, the tacklee took a set over the ball and gave it a kick-nudge backward to a teammate behind him, after which the whole thing starts again. It was difficult for anyone to get anywhere very far without being swarmed by defense. There does not seem to be any blocking as we know it in American football, probably because it would be regularly fatal. As it is, the game is viscerally physical. Complete with broken bones.
There are also several features I didn't comprehend. For instance, a team would be in the middle of a seemingly successful possession, with ball control, and then suddenly kick the ball down the field. As near as I can tell, they were hoping to force errors on the part of the player fielding the kick. Often play would die suddenly for reasons I couldn't fathom.
Speaking of incomprehension, there's the scrum, which is how play restarted after these pauses. It seemed like kind of a kabuki ritual, in which a bunch of players slammed shoulders, but the ball always quickly flew out into a waiting teammate's hands.
I suppose I should have asked someone around me what was going on, but I am admittedly an introvert, I was completely jet-lagged, and in any case deem it prudent not to talk to groups of drunk people when I am sober. The beer lines were of epic proportions.
Not that there was any menace in the crowd; fans of the two teams were spread all over the stadium, and they were quite boisterous, but I saw no fans direct venom at any of the other team's fans, or anyone but the referees.

There was none of the edge one expects at a Raiders game, let alone a European soccer crowd. Many people brought their kids along; the tickets were $20 AUD for adults and $10 for kids; I suspect a lot of the fans out for the game may be priced out of regular season games, which might be much more expensive, given the rampant commercialization that was in evidence. Anyway, I suspect that few of the fans came from the gentrified rowhouses around the stadium.

Game report here.