Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is that all there is?

Sept. 25 2010: Red Deer, Alberta

Red Deer Rebels 8, Edmonton Oil Kings 1

A major junior game's been on my hockey bucket list for some time. I can check that box off now, but this game wasn’t bucket-worthy; it didn’t come with the drama and intensity of the Junior A tilt the night before in Brooks.

Why major junior? In the ways that matter to me, it's the highest level of competition in North America short of the NHL. The very best - your Crosbys, your Tyler Myers, never play a minute in the minor leagues. They just move straight from juniors to the NHL. And the teams aren’t part of a farm system – they are out-and-out competing for the Memorial Cup, without having to compromise their competitiveness to meet the needs of a parent club.

This was the home opener for the Rebels, and they laid on quite the ceremony - complete with balls of fire - to introduce the team.

The Red Deer fans were out in force, and I assume they love the team since they buy a lot of its licensed merchandise.

That captures part of the reason it wasn't as much fun for me as Brooks; it lacked that down home volunteer-run aspect. Of course, major junior is effectively professional, so it's their job to put on a professional-quality event. They do a good job of that in Red Deer.

THE GAME: This game was much more NHL-like than the Junior A game, though not in a good way. As in the NHL, there's a lot of emphasis on defensive positioning, taking away passing and skating lanes - which is how to win games, but not necessarily fun to watch. Neither is a rout. The Oil Kings looked like they barely practiced with each other, rendering them unable to move the puck out of their own zone in the early action. This, combined with a starting goalie who played like a human pinball machine spitting the puck back to Rebels' forecheckers, made for a game that was out of hand early. Edmonton had to make do without captain and first-round Buffalo draft pick Mark Pyskyk, who was not back from the NHL camp. Of course, he hasn’t practiced with the team either.

About Red Deer: I can’t tell you anything. Plans for a leisurely drive through the Alberta badlands, with time to check out the town, went up in smoke when my rented Sentra abruptly gave up the ghost Saturday morning.

It took seven hours for Hertz to truck the replacement in from Calgary so all I could do was drive to the game.

Whaddaya Got? What are the Rebels supposed to be rebelling against? After all, the whole foundation of Canada is based on the act of not rebelling. Then there's the logo: a cow skull with hockey sticks through it. Who are they rebelling against, their bovine overlords? In Alberta that battle’s been decided.

It was probably all put together by marketing consultants. And they achieved their goal, judging by the aforementioned licensed merchandise sales.

Since I’m a sucker for tradition, I appreciated the Oil Kings for picking a name with historic resonance, for their tasteful uniform design, and even the crown logo borrowed from the Dionne-era L.A. Kings.

My wife will be sad to read this: There was a fight. Props to Edmonton's young Jesse Pearson, who took on older, bigger Colin Archer late in the first and, I say, won the decision. Still failed to light a fire in his team.

The arena: The Enmax Centrium's squat concrete form presumably reflects the practical needs of a place with cold, windy winters. The olive green seats prove Red Deer no slave to fashion. I figured the place was built in the 70s, but it turns out to have opened just before the Rebels’ first season in 1992. Not much else to say except the sightlines are good.

Game reports: Here and here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dynamic Heavy Haul

Sept. 24, 2010: Brooks, Alberta
Calgary Canucks 4, Brooks Bandits 3 (OT)

This blog's back to the rinks for a two-game tour of Alberta junior hockey. The goal: experience hockey in one of its spiritual homes.
The itinerary was dictated by time-off constraints and frequent-flier availability. That placed me in Brooks, about two hours east of Calgary on the prairie, for an Alberta Junior Hockey League game, in the second tier of junior, one step below major junior.
When it comes to arenas, I prefer old barns with character. Not what I found here; Centennial Regional Arena is barely 10 months old, rising out of the prairie south of the town, paint still gleaming.
It stands to reason; the town is small but seemingly prosperous thanks to quite visible petroleum drilling. So they're going to build the nicest darn ice arena they can. The Bandits are celebrating their tenth anniversary, and they clearly have strong volunteer support.
The game was clearly a social scene, though the place was less than half full. I overheard one fellow say, 'It's such a beautiful arena; we just haven't grown into it yet.'
The game had lots of end-to-end action, due perhaps less to the teams' offensive abilities than their inabilities to nail down their defensive systems early in the season. It ended with a 3-on-3 overtime - the latest carnival sideshow hockey's powers that be have developed to avoid ending games in ties.
Hokey minor-league touch: Select Bandits wore sponsor's names on the lower back of their sweaters. Captain Brett Howe, for example, wore 'Dynamic Heavy Haul' on his butt. He lived up to the billing, scoring all three Bandits goals. He was a force on the ice, and his force of will gained Brooks a game-tying goal late in the third. He demanded the puck from a teammate, bang, bang, BANG stick on the ice, he got it, he buried it in the net.
Really minor-league touch: Less than half the Calgary players had their names on their sweaters. Maybe Matt Heseltine will get his name on after his hat trick tonight.
My wife will be happy to read this: There were no fights.
Player notes: Calgary goalie Dusty Nickel didn't start, despite his awesome name. I'm also pulling for Bandit Lane Menage to rise through the hockey ranks, high enough to play in a game broadcast in French. Then he needs to score a hat trick, so the announcer can say 'Menage a trois.'
Game report here and boxscore here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alberta bound

After a long hiatus, hockeywanderer is about to live up to its name, assuming SkyWest can roust a crew for my flight to Calgary. Look for updates, depending on wifi access on the Canadian prairie and my patience for writing on a phone keyboard. This is hockeywanderer, signing off from SFO.