ON THE ROAD

 

Recently I visited northern New York for some American Hockey League action, among other things.

Binghamton is a fair sized city considering it’s in the same state as New York City.  I confess, having driven past it on I-81 a few times on my way to Atlantic City, I thought it was nothing more than a little hillbilly town in the middle of nowhere with a hockey rink in the middle of it.  I mean, here’s an area where it seems like there are more deer than people (at least judging by the two I almost hit on the way back to Syracuse), and if you didn’t venture off the highway to see what it’s all about, you’d drive right past it and end up in Scranton, Pennsylvania in no time.

So I digress, to call Binghamton a small town would be a crime.  This is a thriving city as big if not bigger than Syracuse, yet with a small town feel to it (the kind of town John Mellencamp sang about oh so long ago).  People here are very friendly and willing to talk hockey as openly and as common as NCAA Basketball, which was more in the sports limelight this very night as Syracuse took on Vermont in March Madness action.  As we sat and watched the Binghamton Senators take on the Hershey Bears, updated scores from the basketball game splashed across the scoreboard, and would be part of the between period out of town updates.

The Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena only seats 4,710 which is miniature by NHL standards, but it’s a perfect setting for a minor league hockey game.  The arena inside and out looks almost identical in structure to the Ottawa Civic Centre, where the Ottawa Senators used to play before the Corel Centre was built.  I’m sure when Ottawa made the decision to choose Binghamton as their farm team city, this was one of the reasons why, they wanted to make the players feel at home.

Before hosting Ottawa’s farm system, Binghamton used to house the New York Rangers and former Hartford Whalers minor league franchises, so the fans here know a winning team when they see one, and they have without question opened up their hearts and embraced the Senators with open arms.  The only banners hanging from the rafters are from the Rangers’ many division and championship titles, with a few Whalers banners thrown in for good measure. 

The fans making it out to cheer on their Senators are as die hard as they come.  Out of 4.710 seats, over 2,300 of them are occupied by season ticket holders.  An online silent auction for a game worn jersey sold for $280.  I believe the player was Brian Pothier.  I dare say they would have raised over $1000 had it been a Jason Spezza or Denis Hamel jersey up for grabs.

Even though some of the fans may not understand all of the rule changes imposed by “that other league” over the past couple of years, they are behind the home team 125%.  I heard a fan shout out there were too many men on the ice when Binghamton took a double penalty in overtime (the actual rule is they add an extra attacker to the team on the power play because they can’t have less than 3 players on the ice at any given time). 

The game itself was absolutely awesome.  Even though the Senators lost the game in a shootout, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fans on their feet and whooping it up for their team (I also can’t remember the last time I saw more beer consumed during a game).  The game had a playoff atmosphere, yet the Calder Cup Playoffs are still a couple of months away.  The fans would really get on the referees when they’d call a penalty or delayed the puck drop, shouting things like “Ref you suck” or other four letter words which wouldn’t be appropriate for me to repeat here.  At one point the referee was taking so long to drop the puck, I myself shouted out to “Put that ref in the box for delay of game!”  Once the game got to overtime and then the shootout, forget about it.  If you weren’t standing on your feet with the rest of the crowd, you would have missed the whole thing.  I have to give mucho kudos to both goalies, Billy Thompson for Binghamton and Petr Budaj for Hershey for putting on an awesome display of goaltending, and to Chris Neil for being the best player on the ice by far in all respects, scoring a goal, and hitting everything that moved.  I don't know why John Paddock didn't put him on the ice for the shootout, I'm sure the Sens would have had a better chance, but I'm not behind the bench, just behind the glass.  As for Jason Spezza, I guess he's allowed to have an off night once and awhile.

Given the AHL is a breeding ground for future NHL stars, they really do their best to provide fans with an entertaining product, something the NHL lost sight of a long time ago in my humble opinion.  If ever you get a chance to go see a game, don’t pass up the opportunity for a second, the difference is like night and day.  If you’d like to see some pictures I snapped, feel free to check out the link right off the home page, or click here.  Thanks Binghamton, you’ve satisfied my hockey craving for the time being.  Next stop, the Ontario Hockey League Playoffs as the Ottawa 67s take on the Barrie Colts.  Stay tuned.

WORLD HOCKEY STILL ALIVE?

The on again-off again rebirth of the World Hockey Association apparently is back on, with a vengeance!  Apparently whether or not the NHL plays next season, the WHA plans to ice a minimum of eight teams in markets already enjoying hockey at some level.  Confirmed already are teams in either Hamilton or Toronto (or both), Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Dallas (rumored to be owned by Eddie Belfour), Portland and Seattle.  A tournament to kick things off will happen in May, with some very prominent names already slated to take part.  We’re talking veterans like Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Tony Amonte, Jarome Iginla and Robert Esche, just to name a few.  Up for grabs is a $2 million prize pool, and a guaranteed paycheck of $20,000 to every player who takes part.  Games will be held at two neutral sites, Vancouver and Hamilton, to give the tournament an all Canadian flavor.  One of the things already garnering attention over this is the overlapping of this with the Memorial Cup tournament. 

Now I personally like the color blue, but this is ridiculous.  The AHL recently held a neutral site game in Buffalo’s HSBC Arena for the Rochester Americans, with blue ice, fluorescent orange lines where the defensive zone blue lines are, and a navy blue line where the red line would be.  The idea was to try something different, not surprisingly, at the request of the NHL.  So not only do they deprive us of the drive to the Stanley Cup, they also appear intent upon insulting our intelligence as fans.  What next, four on four all the time and orange pucks?  As if the whole Fox Puck debacle wasn’t bad enough.  Hey Gary, I’ve got news for you, this is Ice Hockey, not Roller Hockey!

In a story which would make even the New York Rangers jump for joy, once again it’s been proven it doesn’t matter how good your team is on paper, if you can’t execute your game plan to perfection, then you’d better be prepared to have a good summer.  AK Bars Kazan of the Russian league was eliminated in four games against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in their best of five playoff series.  This team boasted the likes of Dany Heatley, Vincent Lecavalier, Alexei Kovalev, Alexei Morozov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov, Denis Arkhipov, Alexei Zhitnik, and Darius Kasparaitius, just to name a few.  At one point they had acquired no less than 15 NHLers since the lockout began last September.  What’s even more astonishing is the team managed only five goals in the four games.  Now who exactly was the Lokomotiv goalie you may ask? – none other than Marc Lamothe of New Liskeard, Ontario.  You may recall he played two games for the 2003-04 Detroit Red Wings, and two games for the 1999-00 Chicago Blackhawks.  He is better known in the AHL having played over 200 games for the Syracuse Crunch, Hamilton Bulldogs and Grand-Rapids Griffins.  On the other end of the ice, 2004 Stanley Cup Champion Nikolai Khabibulin was benched for two straight games by AK Bars coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov in favor of Ottawa native Fred Brathwaite.  You can bet Lamothe will soon get another shot at NHL notoriety when and if they resume play.

In a move which had the entire hockey world buzzing for almost 48 hours, the Ontario Hockey League’s board of governors flat out rejected a proposal to reduce the draft age of their players to 14 years of age.  Knowing full well the move would have compromised the league’s credibility, the proposal never even went to a vote.  “We weren’t comfortable with the image a draft of 14 and 15-year-olds would conjure up”, OHL commissioner David Branch said during a conference call.  “What we have said is 15-year-old players shouldn’t play junior hockey, period.”  This was a far cry from the same David Branch who less than 24 hours earlier was in full support of the proposal and who adopted a “wait and see” attitude when asked on Toronto’s The Fan 590 about the ramifications of such a proposal coming to pass.  Branch said the league would only consider amending the rule for a player who could be classified as “exceptional”, but let’s be serious here.  Had this passed we all know what would inevitably happened - the league would only have drafted 14 and 15 year olds exclusively.  What brought all of this to the forefront in the first place was the emergence of John Tavares, a highly touted under-16 prospect who plays in the Greater Toronto Hockey Association.  Once again, our good friend Wayne Gretzky put it best “The boy is only 14.  Junior B, Tier II or midget hockey is still great in this country.  My advice would be to play one more year of Tier II or junior B.”

Speaking of Gretzky, the word on the street is “thanks but no thanks”.  Preferring to (rightfully so) spend more time with his family as his mother battles cancer, the Great One has passed on an invitation to once again take the helm of Team Canada for the World Championships this May.  Replacing him will be no slouch, Steve Tambellini, who has already been in contact with Gretzky more than once as Canada looks to make it a three peat in Austria.  Puckin’ Around wishes the Gretzky family all the best and a quick recovery for Mrs. Gretzky.  And for those of you who are planning to buy Sony’s new PSP portable video gaming system, be sure and check out Gretzky NHL, the only hockey game available for it for the time being.

And finally, Puckin’ Around salutes the career of Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo.  Salo announced his retirement from hockey last week, stating “I no longer have the right motivation”.  If you ask me, he hasn’t been the same since “the goal” in Salt Lake City in 2002.  I know I among many others will never let him live that one down, but despite the fluke goals which have taunted Salo during his illustrious career, he actually did alright.  Salo was a national hero in 1994, helping Sweden beat Canada in a shootout at the Lillehammer Olympics.  With 10 NHL seasons under his helmet, Salo was the starting goalie for the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and briefly a backup for the Colorado Avalanche.  At the time of his retirement announcement he was playing for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League, where fans still taunted him for the 2002 Olympics (and to a certain extent the 2004 World Cup).  He still had one year left on his contract with MoDo, but cites lingering hip problems as part of the reason he’s retiring.  “That’s something that’s followed me practically throughout my whole career, and something I’ve learned to live with.  But the problems and the pains haven’t exactly gotten better with time.”  Thanks for the memories Tommy, we’ll miss you.

And so ends another chapter in the great book of hockey (where have I heard that before?).  We’re about to find out very soon if the NHL will even hold a draft in 2005, and you can be sure Sidney Crosby, Gilbert Brule and others are on the edge of their seats.  Bring on the replacement players?  Well, if the NHLPA can’t stop golfing in Pebble Beach, there’s always the WHA, or even better, the AHL.  Take care all my faithful readers, and stay tuned as I have a real treat in store for all you baseball fans out there.  “Out In Left Field” promises to be as much fun as Puckin’ Around, and I’ll be releasing the inaugural column just in time for the opening pitch in April.  But don’t you hockey fans worry, I’ll be back with more hockey talk faster than you can say “cost certainty."

 

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