Spring is encroaching on Washington, but not New England. Not yet. Friday afternoon I passed an ice fisherman in southern Massachusetts and a lone pond hockey player in Nashua, New Hampshire. Knowing such conditions were likely, I packed an Easton hockey stick and my gloves and skates. It was torture passing the snow-crusted banks of the Nashua pond without pulling over — that lone skater needed a passing buddy — but it was already 5:15 Friday evening and I’d driven straight from Maryland without a meal, stopping only for fuel. Faceoff at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester was at 7:30, and I needed a hot meal and a few early Friday evening beers after more than eight hours in the Jeep. I resolved to scout out a skating pond in Maine Saturday afternoon.
Three puckhead chums journeyed up to New England to join me this weekend, but they beat me here by a full day. Marleen rang my cell Friday while I was on the New Jersey Turnpike to alert me to some shinny she thought she observed while driving through Massachusetts. Turned out to be a guy ice fishing. “If you’re mistaking an ice fisherman for a pond hockey player,” I told her, “must have been Joe Reekie out there.” Hah.
Major League Baseball is already in its second week of exhibition games, but I’m hardly ready for spring, and so this long weekend journey north is spa-therapeutic for my hockey soul. One can almost chart winter’s staying power and depth with each 100 miles migrated north. In New York state, I regularly see massive crests of ice that have bled through rugged rockwall framing the highway.
This is my fifth or sixth weekend tour of the American Hockey League, and this one will include a Sunday Q’ League matinée in Lewiston, Maine. Fifteen minutes into my visit to Manchester, New Hampshire’s, Verizon Wireless Arena Friday night, I’m overcome by a conviction that this league has just about everything right while its big, far more expensive brother would do well to emulate approximately 75 of the A League’s features.
The most obvious: one can plop down $20 at the box office and two minutes later press one’s face against the glass. We can quibble about what are admission rates that are good for both owners and hockey families in the NHL, but 20 bucks sure seems right for a prime perch for minor pro hockey. And make no mistake — the ‘A’ is damn good pro hockey.
There are still some hold out relic buildings such as the Scope in Norfolk, but increasingly the ‘A’ is succeeding in showcasing its teams in 10,000-or-so-seat, shiny new state-of-the-art homes. Manchester’s opened in 2001; the Monarchs christened it, with Aerosmith following the next night, and it’s strikingly similar in design to Hershey’s Giant Center: there really doesn’t appear to be a bad seat in the Monarch’s house.
I’m struck by the preponderance of children crowding every section in the arena’s lower bowl. They’re aged, it seems, between 5 and 12, and they all rise and amusingly dance to all the pop music blaring from overhead. I realize there are thousands of hockey families seated down low precisely because the parents can afford the games.
The peripheral entertainment in this American League arena is also conceived with families foremost in mind. A brief miniature fireworks show emanates from ice level, and through the open mouth of an enormous inflated lion’s head first the starters and then all the Monarchs skate out onto the ice to a wildly enthusiastic reception.
In three sections of the upper deck at one end I notice perhaps 100 school-aged kids outfitted in marching band uniforms. When everyone rises for the National Anthem, the public address announcer identifies the musicians upstairs as the Londonderry Lancers High School Marching Band. We are instructed to place our hands over our hearts. The kids offer up a fantastic rendition. My notepad: “I’m in a special part of America.”
I’m also struck at how unfamiliar the Bears lineup is to me. Names from my last Bears’ game — the home opener, back in October, when the Calder Cup championship banner was raised to the rafters — are absent; Fehr, Cassivi, Fleishmann, Hunt, Green, Schultz are nowhere to be found, and in their place are new strangers. But Coach Boudreau has his makeshift lineup prepared to play from the opening puck-drop. Joey Tenute scores a tap-in less than two minutes in. Hershey rocks the shot clock counter 16-5 in the first, and Dave Steckel scores a power play goal with just one second left in the period. It’s 3-1 Bears at intermission, and while a ticked-off Monarchs’ momentum surge is certain in the second stanza, one senses that this is going to be the Bears’ night.
Around me some Monarchs’ supporters make note of the “eight buses in from Hershey.” They are impressed. The Hershey fan support is definitely felt throughout the rink from the boisterous urgings coming from sections 221 and 222. They aren’t numbers enough to make this a home game on the road, but their “B – E – A – R – S BEARS BEARS BEARS!” chant is clearly discomforting to the home crowd.
Maybe it was the effect of a few puck sodas on a weary traveler, combined with the novelty of this New England setting, but when I ring my girlfriend during the intermission, I express to her a sugary sentimentality about the New Hampshire pond hockey player I passed on US-3 earlier. I’m feeling regret and hockey heartache at not joining him. I wax poetic about the rut-free conditions of the ice, the solitude this skater was clearly enjoying, the late winter shadows shrouding that frozen paradise. Shelley knows me well enough to simply endure my queer rhapsody while warmly acknowledging its significance when I at last finish. I may have even beer-blurted some nonsense about offending the pond hockey gods.
I have reason to ring Shelley again when another miracle of nature occurs, this one at the beer booth: I’m carded.
I show the young woman my drivers license.
“What are you doing here all the way from Maryland?” she asks.
“I’m a Bears’ fan,” I reply.
“How do you like Coach Boudreau?”
“We want him back!” she exclaims as she hands me my Sam Adams draft.
As expected, the Monarchs battle back and tie the game at three, but within a minute of the equalizer, Chris Bourque answers with the first of his two goals on the night, both goal-scorer’s goals. This Friday night is his: 2 goals, including the game winner, and an assist, earning him the game’s first star. The Bears prevail, 5-3, getting my hockey road trip weekend off to a roaring start.
The moment the PA guy finishes announcing the game’s three stars, Louis Robataille skates out to center ice and salutes sections 221 and 222, first with a wave then with a victory pump of his arms.
Even on the road, we who love hockey feel most at home.