To the average sports fan, the NHL is all they know. Seeing semi-regular broadcasts on the NBC Sports network here in America, it’s not their fault that hockey outside of the pinnacle of the sport isn’t nearly as well known. Now, take this story with the grain of salt that I am sitting at a desk in Texas. Meaning, I understand if it doesn’t translate as well with you lucky souls in the northern regions of North America. With that being said, away we go.
In all of my years of hockey fandom, from playing in my driveway with a goal my dad built out of fish nets and PVC pipe to sitting on the glass for the Dallas Stars playoff clinching win in 2018, one thing has stood out. Minor league hockey. Granted I have only been to AHL and ECHL games, they both stand out to me because, well simply put, the fans actually gave a damn.
That’s not to say that a majority of the fans that attend NHL games don’t care about their teams. I know that for a fact, but think about this. When you attend an NHL game there is a certain pageantry involved. Yes you may be there for the hockey, but have you tried the (insert roided out stadium food here)? Or think about the effort that goes into the show. The lead up on the screens, the music, the lights. All in all they make for an enjoyable experience, but, there is still a game to be played.
Imagine though, you walk into the rink. A smaller but more intimate rink. Your choices for food and beer a limited, but it’s dollar beer night. No one cares what beer it is if it’s a dollar. You find your seat and think, “I didn’t pay much at all and I feel like I am right on the ice.” The game starts and you instantly are swept up in the action. Is it the best hockey you have seen? No, but it’s damn fun. That’s when it happens. Tilly time. Yard sale. Gloves dropped.
The NHL has recently tried to separate themselves from the days of old when you could basically fight anyone at anytime, even if the referee was two feet away. That’s not the case anymore. In the minors all bets are off. These games aren’t being nationally televised. The eyes that are watching are right there, half buzzed, popcorn stuck to their jersey, yelling at the top of their lungs. That, to me, is hockey in it’s purest form. You can have a different opinion, but hear me out.
Leagues like the AHL and ECHL and even down to the junior leagues such as the CHL and QMJHL are the birthplace for hockey fandom. Watch the eyes of a kid seeing their first minor league hockey game light up as the teams take the ice just feet away from where they stand. It’s a sight to behold, and for the price? You’d be silly not to take advantage of the chance to see this high level of hockey for a discounted price.
Why? Why am I writing this love story to minor league hockey? It’s quite simple. Minor league hockey has a far less chance of surviving than the NHL or other high level leagues outside of North America. These smaller franchises are facing much steeper uphill battle during the pandemic. Without the support of fans once these leagues start returning to play, whether it be attending the games or buying the merchandise, the story ends. The rinks stay empty. The kids that might have had the chance to fall in love with a new sport are robbed of that opportunity. Most importantly, it effectively ends some players dreams to play professional hockey.
I have written about the minor leagues as long as I have started covering hockey, and it’s been an absolute delight. With the times being as uncertain as they are, we could all use a break from the day to day that 2020 has offered us. If minor league teams are starting their seasons soon, be safe and make your own choice, but seriously consider making a trip to a game if possible. If not for me, do it for the kids.