Sunday, October 15, 2006

Game Report: Thunderbirds vs. Giants - Slip Sladin' Away

Tonight I took a trip into the world of Other Professional Sports Besides Baseball, attending a Seattle Thunderbirds minor league hockey game with a bunch of my friends. They were playing against the Vancouver Giants, who were undefeated before tonight's game. I took notes on my Sidekick because I figured I'd want to try to piece it together later.

Keep in mind that I know next to nothing about hockey. In fact, I'm pretty sure that everything I know about the sport, I learned while playing Blades of Steel on the Nintendo when I was a kid.

The first obstacle of the evening, however, was that the Key Arena wouldn't let in "professional" cameras, which apparently is now defined as "anything with a detachable lens", which meant I had to go put my camera in a friend's car, since I bussed there. That sort of sucked, and we got to our seats just in time for the faceoff. I'm amazed that I've been able to take my camera into every major and minor league baseball park I've gone to, yet I couldn't bring it in for a minor league hockey game featuring 16-to-20-year-olds, most of whom aren't even eligible for the draft yet (and who, I may note, were born after Blades of Steel came out).

The second obstacle of the evening was trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Fortunately, two of the guys in our group actually know hockey pretty well, and put up with the rest of us continuously firing questions about the game action.

The first thing I learned was what "icing" is, which was useful because it happened a lot. Then, I got to learn a whole lot about the various ways hockey players can inflict penalties on each other, as within the first period of the game, we didn't see anyone actually score a goal, but we did see guys get put in the penalty box for hooking, boarding, tripping, roughing, and high-sticking, and it's often hard to figure out exactly what happened; even our hockey experts in the group would see a play, see a penalty called, and then debate over whether the guy shoving the other guy was boarding or roughing.

The first period ended, and they put an 18-minute counter up on the board, and I wondered why the second period was only 18 minutes, at which point I noticed that everyone was leaving the stands. Ahh, intermission. This is apparently a good excuse to launch several Australian guys across the rink on an inner tube to see if they can knock down 6 bowling pins. No, I'm not making this up. Only one of the three guys actually succeeded; the other two went wide.

I guess the long break makes sense for the players, since hockey looks like it's pretty physically demanding. They keep switching players in and out during the action, too, which makes it even harder to follow who's out there and what they're doing exactly. But on the other hand, the long break gives you plenty of time to get food and drinks. Surprisingly (to me), the concessions were still at ridiculously high prices; I suppose in my mind I think of "minor league" and think of getting dollar hot dogs at Tacoma Rainiers or Everett Aquasox games.

I've also got to take a second out and say that ice hockey referees are amazing. First, they've got to be pretty damn good ice skaters. Second, they have to be good at quickly getting out of the way of pucks, sticks, players, and anything else that flies their way. Several times I'd see a ref jump over a puck, even. Also, they don't seem to be wearing any protective padding aside from a helmet.

Anyway, in the second period it seemed like more of the same for a while; the Seattle guys even had a double advantage when two of the Vancouver guys were out for holding and tripping. But even with the 5-to-3 advantage they couldn't score a goal. I took this moment to ask, "So what's the big difference between watching this level of hockey and the NHL?"

One friend replied, "Well, these guys are younger, still learning a lot of stuff. You'll see a lot more missed passes, wasted shots, etc."

At that moment, one of the Seattle players passed the puck, and the other player missed it. Which sort of explained everything.

With about thirty seconds left on the second period, I don't know why, but I watched the Vancouver guys move across the ice and said, "Oh, check this out," and suddenly one of the Vancouver players took a sharp shot and it went in. Crazy. They announced it as Reese, with an assist by Blum. 1-0 Vancouver.

The period ended shortly after that, and then we were treated to the sight of something called "Chuck-a-Puck", where they drove a minivan onto the middle of the ice, and put a bunch of buckets around it, and then on the count of three, people all threw hockey pucks at the setup, trying to hopefully land one inside the car, but if not, the buckets were decent targets too. It was surreal, watching hundreds of pucks flying through the air, and reminded me of a club I was in back in college, where the "Treasurer's Report" would consist of the treasurer going up to the front of the room and the rest of the club would throw pennies at them for a minute or so, which would go into the club's treasury.

At any rate, you could buy these pucks before the game for $2 each or 3 for $5, and win various prizes if you managed to actually throw them into any of the targets. We did see several go into the sunroof of the minivan; I think those winners got a share of some amount of cash, though I'm not sure.

In the third period, I learned several new ways which guys could be assessed penalties, such as elbowing, slashing, and interference. Checking from behind looked particularly unfun, and took the Vancouver goalie Slade down for a bit. This kid a couple rows behind us, who had to be about 5 years old, started yelling "COME ON, YOU SISSIES!!!" during the injury break, in this high-pitched kid voice which cracked us all up. "GO HOME TO YOUR MOMMIES!!!!"

Ah, minor league.

"Elbowing" was a surprising penalty to me, since when it got called, it looked like the Vancouver guy had literally just punched Seattle's Gagnon in the face for no apparent reason.

Anyway, the Seattle guys ended up with a power play (a term I *did* know from Blades of Steel!) towards the end of the game, and with about 20 seconds left, shortly after I'd even said something like "So, where are y'all going after the game?", out of nowhere, one guy took a shot, which got stuck in the whole cluster of guys that tended to form in front of the net when a shot was close, and then Gagnon re-shot it and it went in! 1-1! Crazy!

It was the 27th shot for Seattle, against 22 shots taken by Vancouver. My friends assured me that in big-league hockey, there would usually be several more goals to go with that many shots.

Anyway, the game went into overtime, and Seattle even ended up almost immediately down a guy when someone was penalized for hooking. We sort of figured the game was pretty much over at that point -- after all, Vancouver was undefeated and the Seattle guys were unlikely to push ahead a goal, right? But, all of a sudden, the action headed down to the other side of the rink, and two crazy things happened: first, Seattle's Durand hit the puck at a weird angle towards the wall; and second, the Vancouver goalie Slade actually tripped and fell over trying to get back to block the goal, having stepped out to try to play the shot... and the puck rebounded off the wall into the now-empty goal, and Seattle won 2-1!

My friends are already talking about trying to drag a bunch of us to another game in the future, so we'll see. It's sort of fun to be the one asking all the questions about the sport, as opposed to being the big know-it-all in the group.

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