The voice boomed down through the stands at the Times Union Center in a manner that just about anyone on the ice could probably hear it. Goaltender Keith Kinkaid, a Union College standout and second-year player for the Albany Devils, stared forward stoically as the words showered down around him like a hail of hot lava.
“Hey Keeeeeeith,” the voice rang out a second time, deliberately drawing out the name as if to assure that everyone in the arena heard it. “How much do you pay for ice time…Or do goalies in this league skate for freeeee?”
The clearly audible taunts were just beginning and the heckler never skipped a beat. Whether it was touching upon Kinkaid’s time at the expensive area college or ragging on his spot behind future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Marty Brodeur, the boisterous fellow pulled out all stops to deliver what amounted to a verbal beat-down; never crossing into the profane, but caustic enough that it was blisteringly clear some of the words were beginning to rattle around somewhere beneath the netminder’s mask.
Moments later, a puck whizzed by him. Then another. And then another. Within a span of 30 minutes, the rattled sophomore goalie yielded five goals to various players of the Connecticut Whale, the New York Rangers’ farm team in the American Hockey League. The sparse Wednesday night crowd erupted in cheers, even though the home team was in the process of getting shellacked.
Though attendance was never announced, the number of people at the game couldn’t have exceeded 1,000 — the two hockey teams and their support staff included. And those who did turn out to watch the Devils get pummeled were making sure they got their money’s worth — some at the expense of Kinkaid.
Arena workers seemed to quickly realize that this wasn’t the standard crowd of families and children that typically attend games on weekends. Perhaps it was the booze-addled heckler and several less-audible ones like him. Or maybe it was when the area’s “kiss cam” focused on one 20-something couple for a brief moment until the man stood up and unzipped his pants. Either way, they made sure to give fans a bit more rope than normal, which is a daring fete in itself
See, AHL hockey games aren’t like the stogy professional ones in big cities. They’re gritty and real; beer soaked and filled with the exact type of erratic behavior you would expect to follow a sport like ice hockey. There’s a sense that just about anything could happen. They’re the type of games where if you heckle a player, there’s a good chance he might be waiting to give you a few not-so-friendly words in the parking lot after the game.
Weekend games usually attract families, but the tenor is the same. There’s still the beer-gutted man with a scraggly beard wearing a cape and shouting taunts through a traffic cone; there’s the booze-soaked gang of diehard hockey fans bibulously carrying on with the on-ice action. There’s still a sense that this sport hasn’t been thoroughly co-opted and conquered by the talons of the fetid corporate media complex that has seized and eviscerated professional hockey.
Hockey at the NHL level is inarguably the best in the world. There is simply nowhere in the world that has the degree of players that perform in NHL arenas. Their skill is undeniably high and causes a palpable excitement even amid the bottom-feeding teams of the league. Simply put, it’s impossible to watch a bad NHL hockey game if you’re a true fan of the sport.
But the gap between the NHL and some of its lesser counterparts isn’t as far as you might think. The AHL, for instance, is just a half-step slower and a little bit sloppier than the professional league that feeds from its talent. In truth, the vast majority of fans wouldn’t recognize the difference were players from the Connecticut Whale — the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers — to strap on professional jerseys and skate at Madison Square Garden for a game.
It’s a sad reality NHL owners probably already realize and will foist as an underlying reason for continuing to stick the screws to the players’ association. They know they can find a new brand of talent for pennies on the dollar; young players looking to realize a dream and older ones hoping to revisit it. They crowd rinks across the country waiting for a chance to play somewhere for enough scratch to cover food, lodging and the occasional corrective surgery.
Owners also understand the value of marketing and brand — or rather name — recognition. They know that a guy like Zach Parise is going to sell jerseys and fill seats. They know they can market him as a good American kid. And for Minnesota, a hometown hero. Yet even as talented as Parise is, there’s nothing he’s done in his life that is worth $98 million.
The truth is, however, someone was going pay Parise’s tab, no matter how ludicrous it happened to be. That’s exactly why he didn’t stay in New Jersey after coming within two games of hoisting his first Stanley Cup. See owners are embroiled in a competition for players which is a lot like the decades-long arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. Only this race makes nuclear proliferation in the face of mutually assured destruction sound reasonable.
By challenging one another to pay ludicrous salaries for talent, the owners are pricing themselves out of their own game. They can’t raise ticket prices any more. They can’t squeeze more pennies from concessions or television contracts, and they can’t continue paying eight-figure salaries. That means the only place left to chop lies at the very foundation they’ve built upon. Drag the players into center square. Bloody them up. Threaten to cancel the whole season unless they agree to fork over some of the dough they’ve been given during these last few years of unfettered spending — the very spending they made a half-ass attempt at stopping by imposing a salary cap.
Meanwhile, fans are languishing and the sport is withering on the vine. As the lockout moves from weeks to months, hockey fanatics are finding new places to pledge their allegiance. And in many cases, that’s in an AHL arena. The league is remarkably similar to the NHL. The difference being that it doesn’t cost nearly as much to enjoy.
Moreover, the crowd that attends these games consists of people who honestly want to watch hockey. They’re not going to see Springfield Falcons on a corporate dime. They’re not rolling into downtown Hartford because it’s a chic thing to do on a Friday night. They’re going to watch bodies get slammed into the boards; they’re going to shout until they’re hoarse; they’re going to feel the adrenaline rush of a true blue-collar sport.
It’s something the owners might want to mull as the pulse of the NHL gets fainter by the day. Hockey’s true fans are awakening to the brutish reality of a sport that has been perversely raped to its core. And pretty soon, they’re going to find a safe haven elsewhere — one that reflects the true nature of hockey.