Somewhere in Manitoba a go-kart track is missing its attendant.
That's all I can think as I stare at the man screaming obscenities at a random Thunder player in Fresno, California. The man is wearing a ratty, yellowed Canadiens jersey with "Lafl ur" haphazardly stitched on the back, the "E" most likely in the same place as the man's dignity. He has long, greying hair haphazardly hanging down to his shoulders and a surprisingly pleased look on his face. He looks like the type of man that will back you into a corner and then force you to listen to his rambling, incoherent story about the time he skated on the pond and triple-deked a goaltender before burying it top corner and do you know who that goaltender was? Ken Wregget! The man's deranged, and the few people sitting around him are obviously uncomfortable. There's a woman glaring at her husband, a large man but one that is entirely unprepared to deal with any type of physical confrontation. He keeps his eyes focused on the ice because he knows if he breaks that focus he'll have to do something and who knows what a man in a Lafl ur jersey is capable of.
I don't know why I am at a Falcons game. Maybe it's because I've been living in Fresno for 6 months and I'm tired of seeing hockey through my 17" computer monitor. Maybe it's because my friends wanted to go and hockey is one of the things I can act smug and superior about. Maybe it's because I'm an idiot. Whatever the reason, I realize almost immediately that this is a mistake. If NHL hockey is a symphony, ECHL hockey is a couple of high school dropouts tonelessly wailing away under the mistaken impression that playing an instrument will get you laid. The players know the only way to secure their spot on the team is to make an impression, and they do this by hitting. A lot. There is no semblance of a system for the Falcons, as players skate from one side of the rink to another, trying to make the loudest crash against the boards to gain the crowd's approval. Teams know what the crowd wants to see and do their best to meet that demand.
The ECHL is at a weird place in the hockey hierarchy, a league that is not entertaining enough on its own to be worth the price of admission while at the same time not a proving ground for future NHL talent. It has limited appeal and is only followed by the dregs of society. The players are a bunch of Canadians so desperate to some day make the NHL or even the AHL that they're willing to move to the middle of California and ride in cramped buses, playing in front of half-empty crowds of apathetic fans. If a player is lucky enough to be a goaltender or an enforcer he may someday make the NHL, but most are doomed to become minor league hockey coaches or amateur scouts. (A completely different kind of hell, but that's another story.)
These poor souls play in Selland Arena, a dilapidated, crummy building in the center of downtown Fresno. They used to play at the brand spanking new SaveMart Center, a 16,000 seat arena on the Fresno State campus that has also held NBA preseason games, the Central Valley Coyotes of Arena Football League 2 fame, and the 2005 Royal Rumble. But they moved back to Selland Arena after not being able to afford the newer facility and are stuck now in quite possibly the worst arena in the continental United States. Selland is a sewer, the last vestige of an era in which arenas were designed to actively drive away customers. And it will, as the Falcons will eventually see a 40% drop in attendance and will be forced to close up shop in December. But that's a while away and for now the fans are here to watch a hockey match and cheer on their team.
Of course, to say it's their team is a bit of a misnomer, as most people don't go to a minor league hockey game to cheer on their team. Or any team, really. Usually a fan at a minor league hockey game is one of three things. Some of them are Canadian, determined to connect with their displaced roots by wearing an Original Six jersey and complaining about how the game used to be better when players weren't wearing visors. Some of them are hopeless losers, freaks shunned by normal society that strive to gain some measure of acceptance by latching on to the local sports team. They're not unlike metal fans in that they chose hockey because they thought it made the renegades and toughs but really it just makes them weird and sad. (This is why minor league hockey arenas play almost exclusively metal.) And the last and largest group are drunks.
I'm here with friends of mine who are so devoid of actual entertainment in Fresno that this actually seems like a good idea to them. I generally don't hang out with other hockey fans, both because hockey fans are usually either Canadian or hopeless losers and also because I like having hockey to myself, but I do hang out with drunks so we fit in fine. My one friend that claims to like hockey suddenly became a Penguins fan during the 2006-07 season and fondly remembers the days that he cheered for Mark Lemieux and Jaroslav Jager. My other friends enjoy the hitting and the fighting and the occasional goal scoring, while I ramble on a little too loudly (I'm drunk) to my sister and her roommate about how crappy the hockey is. I'm generally ignored, however, as they spend the whole time complaining that it's cold and look for attractive men.
There is an unwritten agreement among teams in the ECHL that the most important thing isn't winning but instead entertaining the crowd. Goal scoring takes a backseat to blood letting. It's not at the level that it's portrayed in Slap Shot, but there is no glory in a game won if a fan is bored and decides not to return. The crowd does not come alive until the 2nd period when two men suddenly drop their gloves and helmets at center ice. It is clearly a staged fight, one agreed to beforehand in an attempt to gain a little recognition for themselves and maybe a future appointment with a fan. They grapple and throw a few punches, but generally they look like they do not want to hit one another too hard. You can imagine them meeting up for a beer after the game and talking about temmates they've shared and goals they've scored. But the crowd goes wild, both blood drunk and regular drunk, and give both gladiators a hearty applause as they head towards the penalty boxes. I generally love a good fight but the whole thing saddened me; they were not so much gladiators to me as they were hired whores, apathetically jacking off a john looking for a cheap thrill. There's a difference between fighting for your team's honor and fighting for your meal.
The opponent in this contest is the hated Stockton Thunder. ...Well, hated may be too strong a word since no one can name a player on the Thunder except for Lafl ur (who names one Thunder player "Faggot"), but still, they know the other side is playing the heel and react accordingly. One Thunder player becomes my favorite skater on the ice when he catches the puck in the air about 5 feet in front of his own goal. He realizes there are 3 opposing players around him and, in a panic, tries to skate away from them... with the puck still in his hand. After about 10 feet he realizes his mistake and flings the puck down the ice as the referee brings the whistle to his lips. My friends don't laugh because they are unaware that's a penalty, but I think it's hilarious. It is the most authentic moment I have seen in 2+ periods of play.
The game picks up as it enters the latter part of the 3rd period with both teams tied, 2-2. Putting on a show gradually takes a back seat to winning the game and not coincidentally the crowd begins to feed off the energy of the players on the ice. Talking seems to cease and instead of cheering missed checks and half-hearted punches, fans cheer every save and gasp at every missed opportunity. It feels like, well, hockey. The game goes scoreless through the rest of the 3rd and overtime, and a great cheer raises once the announcer declares that a shootout will decide the winner. Reasonable people may disagree over the shootout at the NHL level (I like it because I like fun, but hey, that's me), but at the minor league level, where most fans are there for a good time and the final outcome isn't necessarily life or death, the shootout becomes a great tool to recruit fans back to the arena. Everyone is riveted by the shootout and when a Falcon comes to center ice with the game on his stick everyone falls silent. This isn't minor league hockey and it isn't a joke; this is important. The Falcon skates down the ice, left, right, pulls the goalie's legs open, slides the puck between them, goal! The crowd cheers, the Falcons come out to congratulate their champion, and we all go home to drink some more.
The Falcons are gone now, a 60 year history victimized by mismanagement and local politics, not unlike the hundreds of other failed minor league teams of all sports that have come before them. The people of Fresno were given a new team to sate their hockey urges, a Western States Hockey League named, I shit you not, the Fresno Monsters. It's a developmental league whose players pay to play, a rung far lower than even the ECHL. I'm back in Southern California now, but I'm sure I'll find myself sitting in the stands of Selland Arena this fall, half-drunk and amused by the weird people that find themselves attracted to minor league hockey while oblivious to the fact that some dickhead is probably thinking the same thing about me. I just hope to God he's not wearing a faded Lafl ur jersey.