January 14, 2011 in Sports

Outdoor hockey about spectacle

By Correspondent
 

One of the unex- pected sidelights to outdoor hockey? Wildlife.

As the Spokane Chiefs broke in the constructed-at-great-cost-man- it-better-hold-up-in-this-heat- wave rink with a practice Thursday afternoon at Avista Stadium, a large flock of geese grazed in center field.

“Canadian geese,” clarified Dave Pier, vice president of the Chiefs. “All part of the show.”

Show?

That may be selling the whole concept short. When the Chiefs and the Kootenay Ice meet at Avista on Saturday afternoon in the first outdoor game in the 45-year existence of the Western Hockey League, the point isn’t show – although there are the usual two or three points in the standings on the line – but spectacle.

“Sometimes,” said Chiefs owner Bobby Brett, “you just do things.”

For the hell of it, he means.

Now, anyone who plopped down 50 bucks for a pair of seats in the upper reaches of the right-field bleachers might revise that to “the he$$ of it.” But then, spectacle has always carried a higher price tag than show – and you don’t turn a baseball diamond into a hockey rink without spilling a few shekels.

In this case, just renting the portable ice unit cost Brett close to $200,000 – “sticker shock,” as he called it, that probably kept the Chiefs from taking on the event sooner than this. And, of course, that isn’t the only cost.

“The scoreboards we’ll have were supposed to be the ones they used in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago, but they blew up,” said Brett. “So they made new ones.”

Who did?

“The scoreboard guy,” he shrugged, laughing. “I just write the check.”

The giddy enthusiasm in the Chiefs organization for this project – from management through the teenage work force – couldn’t be more genuine, and it seems to be matched in the community. The game was a hundred or so seats from a sellout on Thursday.

Still, results of the eyeball test when you first emerge from the grandstand tunnels range from “Cool” to “Man, that’s a long way off.”

The rink stretches third-base-to-first, so there’s a good 50 feet from the backstop to the sideboards. And the boards are pretty much all you see from the first row of box seats.

“When they told me they needed video boards,” Brett said, “now I know why you need video boards.

“But it’s like at the Kentucky Derby – how many people stand in the infield? Or the Indy 500 – how much of the race do they see? It’s not really the sightlines, it’s being at that event.”

A stretch? Not really. The Derby and Indy aren’t making stops in Spokane anytime soon. For the time being, this is our sports spectacle.

It would be an even bigger spectacle – with better sightlines – had they staged it across town, but Brett could not come to terms with the proprietors of Albi Stadium. That’s an opportunity missed – which is becoming an Albi tradition.

Not having Albi’s 20,000 seats would seem to run counter to the raison d’etre of outdoor hockey. Yes, the game originated on frozen-over rivers and lakes with no audiences to speak of, and Olympics and world championships were played out from under cover. But when the current fad was launched a decade ago – with the “Cold War” game between Michigan and Michigan State in East Lansing – the whole point was packing in people, and a lot of them.

That game drew 74,554. Twelve of the 20 outdoor games since – collegiate, NHL, international – have topped 30,000, with 113,411 watching the two Michigans go at it in Ann Arbor last month.

But there are to-scale spectacles, too. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs have done this for a couple years now up in Alaska in front of 2,500.

Outdoor hockey, like life, is full of tradeoffs.

“It’s like living in California,” Pier said of the Albi-vs.-Avista argument. “Everything great about California sucks in Spokane, and everything great about Spokane sucks in California.”

Nothing much sucked about Thursday’s dry run, except maybe for the few moments Chiefs goalie James Reid had to shield his eyes lest he lose a puck in the sun – an excuse that cannot be sold to a coach indoors. And raves are about all that reach the ears of Mike Craig, the chief ice wrangler who is working his sixth such event. His most recent was the rain-plagued event in Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

“The Penguins had their morning practice and then had a family skate with the players and all their kids,” Craig recalled. “Dan Bylsma, the coach, came up afterward and said just practicing out in the middle of the stadium, with no one around, was one of the best experiences he’d ever had.”

Imagine if a flock of Canadian geese had stopped by, just for effect.


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