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Sunday, February 11, 2007

They sing, they dance, they score...

At its best, it is small town hockey. They sing, they dance, they score goals and they win. At its worst, the Rockford IceHogs are the scariest games in the state. The fans can be toothless homers who are willing to fight over their team.

This is the best thing that has happened in local sports since the White Sox won the World Series. The Rockford MetroCentre has to clear up some details, but the fans there are getting a great team and some built in rivalries unlike anything they’ve seen in the United Hockey League.

And the American Hockey League fans in Chicago, Peoria and Milwaukee better be prepared for what is going to be visiting their arena in the near future. It is a beautiful thing to be sure.

It is 40 minutes before they open the gates. Although the MetroCentre is still closed, about 100 people are huddled in the cold outer lobby, waiting for the doors to open. The Rockford IceHogs are playing the Muskegon Fury tonight and the local credit union is giving away 1,000 piggy banks featuring the IceHogs mascot, Hammy.

There are lots of kids in line already. A young woman talks to me about the disappointment her family feels as the team moves to the AHL. “I won’t follow them,” she says. “I love them, but I’m so mad about what they’ve done…”

The players that the fans have grown to love, such as Robin Big Snake, Frederic Cloutier and Preston Mizzi, are unlikely to remain with the team next year. They aren’t AHL caliber players. Big Snake, a native of the Siksika nation of Alberta, played two games in the Milwaukee Admirals last year. He’s been having an off and on year with the IceHogs, recently scoring a hat trick plus one, but also in occasional trouble with the coach.

Cloutier too has been playing in the AHL with the Admirals this year, helping them through their goalie problems. More experienced than Big Snake, Cloutier has played with several AHL teams and may find a place in the minors and, especially as he is a goalie, may have a shot at the NHL still.

Mizzi, too, has been in the AHL and ECHL with a number of teams, including the Chicago Wolves and the Milwaukee Admirals. Still a young man by everyday standards, he is a very good AA player. But time is ticking and his future is uncertain.

The players in the UHL play in a bus league. They don’t make much in compensation. This is a brutal life of hope.

A man with a trumpet, it’s middle valve stuck in the open position, talks about playing instruments at the game. Sometimes he doesn’t blow, especially when the Hogs are losing. But that doesn’t seem to happen too often as the IceHogs are in second place in their division, third place overall.

Tonight they are playing the first-place Fury. With 79 points versus second place Fort Wayne at 66 and third place Rockford at 62, the Fury seem secure in the mastery of the league.

A boy, about ten is jumping around. His fists fly through the air as he describes the fights he likes to see at the game. He is wearing his jersey, signed and given to him after a recent operation. His father explains that coach Steve Martinson is a neighbor and their sons play together.

“If I were on the ice, I’d show them,” the boys yells, his fists beating on his father’s stomach. My extra tickets are sold to a fan club member. Her jersey adorned with the faces of the players, LEDs flashing inside them. The line moves forward, inside the building’s vestibule, crowding the ticket agents who do not allow it to enter the seating area.

Boxes of Hammy piggy banks are readied as the operations crew works feverishly. They will stay, the MetroCentre decided that if the bid to become AHL succeeds, the staff will stay.

Finally, we move forward. An adult man cuts around the line, impatient to receive his piggy bank, he goes all the way to the front of the line and, after receiving the gift, he sprints sideways, avoiding the crowd. Like a running back he is up the stairs and out of sight.

The upper lobby of the MetroCentre is full of places to sign up for promotions, purchase alcohol and food and see and be seen. Several Hogs players are scratched, and mix with the crowd. At the counter for the souvenirs, jerseys are selling briskly. The manager explains that the team is unsure what it will be called next year. So, they don’t want to order new promotional items.

Hoodies, he says, are 20 percent off.

Signing up for all the promotions, I stand in line to have Hammy autograph my piggy bank. His hand can’t manipulate the pen and the character turns the bank over to sign the back. A trivia contest asks who scored multiple hat tricks with the franchise. The answer is in the media guide and, jotting it down, I reflect on the short list.

The IceHogs have been around since 1999. Before that, it had been known as the Thunder Bay Thunder Cats, founded in 1991. Finishing first in the Western Division in 2006, the team had been knocked out of the playoffs. The regular season first place was good enough for the team’s first banner.

There is no jumbotron in the arena itself. In fact, two hand-operated scoreboards on the end of the ice, and a harder to see electronic scoreboard, track shots on goal for the fans. The pregame show has pounding music, strobes, an inflatable pig head for the players to skate through, and Hammy holding the American flag.

The owner of the Hogs stands in front of the crowd. It boos. Dr. Kris Tumilowicz is not a popular person here any longer. He starts singing the national anthem, it is seriously off-key at the beginning, but Tumilowicz recovers and ends well.

It is time to drop the puck.

Immediately a fight breaks out. It is Erick Lizon and Kelly Thompson. Everyone on the ice seems to realize the fight was on, they must have decided to “do it” when the puck dropped. Four seconds had elapsed on the clock.

The two skaters circle each other, their gloves and helmets scattered. Finally they embrace and dance for what seems to be a minute, without landing blows. Then the Hogs’ Lizon starts slinging the shots. The linesmen finally separate the two, tired pugilists who will spend the next five minutes in the sin bin.

The crowd is roaring now and the game has hardly started. Below, a fan is pounding away at the glass. Every call is a personal affront to him. It is hard to blame him either as referee Scott Bokal mismanages calls repeatedly. Big Snake is called for hooking just seconds after the fight. Twenty minor penalty minutes are called in the first frame. On one, a five on three advantage allows Nathan Lutz to score the first goal of the night, putting the Hogs in the lead.

Muskegon puts only four shots on goal in the first frame, all of which Cloutier stops. The second period starts with the Fury on the power play, which allows them to tie the game. But that is their high water mark. They put six more shots on goal which Cloutier stops. Eleven shots total in two periods, and with all those power play opportunities…

Removing the two fights, a second fight breaks out after a hard third period open ice hit, there are 44 minutes of penalties called. With ten power plays each, the teams are able to convert just two into goals.

My companion is called to the ice for a promotion, but refuses to take part in the hog calling contest. Too bad, that could have been funny as she has a great set of lungs.

The final period starts with the two teams tied. Goals by Matt Gens, Jason Ralph and Jason Notermann in a space of 3 minutes 20 seconds put the Hogs up 4-1. On the first goal, I’m announced as the recipient of a power play jersey if the Hogs score on the power play, but Gens misses the goal by two seconds. Damn him!

Two other promotions are called that either my companion or I win. In total, four promotions and two winners on the night. In the last minute the Fury pull their goalie and put Cloutier under pressure. The shot total has climbed to 15 this period by the Fury, more than the previous two periods combined. Tim Wedderburn, a Chicago Wolves blue liner assigned to the Hogs, grabs the puck and fires it at the empty goal. Nothing like an empty net goal to finish off an opponent. With 25 seconds left, the crowd is again on its feet singing and dancing. A fan throws a bottle on the ice and security quickly arrives. People point at the fan and he is whisked away.

As we leave the dancing team is handing out more goodies. Dancing girls, two fights, lots of swag, and a hockey game marred more for the on-ice officiating than the excitement of play. It has been a very good night in Rockford.

Next week, the most exciting game, currently, in Illinois hockey: the IceHogs host the Quad City Mallards and there is a potential for the fights to move into the stands.

Cloutier receives the win, stopping 25 Fury shots. Clayton Pool receives the loss for the Fury, stopping 19 shots. The final score 5-1 IceHogs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I live in Rockford and find your writing much more informative and entertaining than the local papers.