Vy a Duck? To Make NHL Hockey More Fun

It’s all very simple. Knowing full well that The Bird would be riding shotgun, I was ornithologically required to choose an Anaheim Ducks game for the NHL portion of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour schedule.

Come to think of it…“riding shotgun” is probably not the best phrase to use in a paragraph that includes Ducks and Birds. But I digress.

On paper, the game between Anaheim and the Chicago Blackhawks should have been a sell-out, given that the defending Stanley Cup champs have a strong contingent of ex-pat fans who brought their love of both warm weather and their former hometown team with them from Chicago. Moreover, the two teams are currently jostling for position for the final play-off spot in the Western Conference. And to top it all off, it was Free Hat Night, one of just six promotional games on the Duck’s schedule.

So when the game popped up as an opportunity on Goldstar.com (the absolute best discounted event access site in the Free World), I took it as a continuation of Christmas and accepted the thoughtful gift of half-price tickets.

I diligently prepped for the event by watching the Winter Classic, a nationally televised NHL game on New Year’s Day. So as you might imagine, I was stunned to arrive in Anaheim and discover that the game was to be played inside! What’s up with that? Talk about your classic bait and switch. I’ve got the entire IGTS Legal Department working on a class-action suit.

As expected, there were tons of Blackhawk fans in attendance, proudly displaying their Stanley Cup Championship shirts, hats, coats, boxer shorts, etc. (OK, so they weren’t actually displaying the latter – but you just knew they were wearing them). But get this – they weren’t obnoxious about it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been around professional football (NFL, BCS) a lot lately, but my kneejerk assumption is that every passionate fan comes to the game with the express goal of baiting the opposing team’s fans. Seeing so many people decked out in Blackhawk attire, I was resigned to sitting through yet another evening of abusive language and the inevitable fistfights that follow.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the brawl. Fans of both teams co-existed peacefully throughout the game. In fact, they were downright cordial to each other. Imagine that.

Perhaps they were all mesmerized by the Power Players.

In an enviable display of resource utilization, the Ducks management hired a group of laborers whose job, according to the official program, is to greet fans, assist with promotions and sweep the ice during timeouts. And they performed especially admirably in that last function, displaying impressive skating skills.

Did I happen to mention that they were all drop-dead gorgeous women?

Yes, the Ducks actually have Zambonis disguised as cheerleaders. Or vice versa. Whatever – it works. Trust me.

The Ducks actually do a lot of little things that make the fan experience more enjoyable. There’s the Puck Race, for example. The most creative minds in sports are the ones that come up with competitions for fans plucked from the stands, and the Ducks are better than most at this. In this case, the costuming is the thing. Take a look…

Once again, my golden rule of thumb about sports spectating held true – the higher up the seats, the better. It’s just a bonus that these tickets are also typically the least expensive. And at this particular game, it certainly helped that The Honda Center doesn’t have a bad seat in the house.

Looking down from the upper deck, it was easy to follow the puck, and to see plays continuously develop, unwind and redevelop, much like soccer or lacrosse. Watching these sports on television pales in comparison to seeing the action live, where things that unfold over the entire playing surface reveal themselves to you.

Hockey adds an extra dimension of live viewer-friendliness in that, because players are skating rather than running, and confined to a smaller playing area than that of soccer, the game moves much, much faster, with the number of scoring opportunities exponentially increased. It really is the best of all worlds.

The cherry on top of it all is the more or less continuously running time.

We witnessed a crisply played game that had just six penalties. The only fight was really just a skirmish which didn’t even warrant the assessment of penalty minutes. There weren’t even that many offside or icing calls – and thus not a ton of face-offs. It was just good solid uninterrupted action, resulting in time just melting away. I was actually startled when it was announced that one minute remained in the first period.

The beginning of the “arena season” (i.e. mostly indoor events) carries with it some unique sponsorship programming during intermissions. The indoor blimp, for example, first came into our lives many years ago at a Charlotte Checkers minor-league hockey game.

We were fascinated the first time we watched this junior-sized, remote-controlled dirigible negotiate its way around the arena – and suitably impressed that it was tricked out to be able to dispense coupons, showering them down on the fans below. Thus did the term “coupon crapper” enter my household sports-watching lexicon. We hadn’t seen one in quite some time, so when the Serta Mattress Sheep made an appearance it was like welcoming an old friend.

I’ve always wondered this about ice hockey:  Why three periods? Why not four quarters or two halves? More to the point – why two “halftime” equivalents? I finally know the answer. Two intermissions means two Zamboni rides, which the Ducks market as a big value-add in their contests; the opportunity for some lucky fan to experience the thrill of a lifetime – riding in slow motion circles around a hockey rink.

Of course, when the guest riders are presented to the crowd, the announcement is accompanied by the venerable Gear Daddies song “I Wanna Drive The Zamboni”. At which point The Bird wondered aloud “Is that the only song they can find about a Zamboni?” Actually, I’m pretty much amazed that there is even one song on the topic.

And when Anaheim scored first on Andreas Lilja’s first goal as a Duck we wound up doubly blessed in discovering that in addition to a Zamboni song, there is a “Goal Song”. It’s admittedly a little short on lyrical content (consisting mostly of just the one word), but it was belted out by the crowd with gusto.

There are fewer things in sports as riveting as a penalty shot in hockey. Typically awarded only when a player on a clear breakaway is dragged down from behind, it is a high-profile, one-on-one test of skill with significant consequences on the line. The short-term duration of a penalty shot ratchets up excitement levels in an arena very quickly – as does its relative rarity. In the entire 2009-’10 NHL season only 55 penalty shots were awarded, and only 15 were converted into goals.

So it was an extra treat for us when early in the third period, the Duck’s future Hall-of-Famer Teemu Selanne was hauled down at the blue line as he was bearing down unimpeded upon Blackhawk goalie Corey Crawford. As the realization spread that this would result in a penalty shot for Anaheim’s all-time leading goal scorer, everyone scrambled to their feet to get a full view. And I must admit that I was no different.

Much like soccer, a hockey game ends a little too quickly. You’ve gotten into the rhythm of the game, and you’re left wanting just a little bit more action. I would’ve loved to have seen more of what took place during the final five minutes of the game.

At that point, the Ducks held a 2-1 lead, and had gone into a defensive shell, akin to football’s “prevent defense”. But the Blackhawks did not win the Stanley Cup last year by accident, so as expected they went into full offensive swarm mode. It was a blast to watch, especially the way that the Duck’s acrobatic goalie Jonas Hiller responded with several highlight-reel saves.

In the end, the Blackhawks outshot the Ducks 40-18, with a 19-2 shot differential margin in the third period alone. But when the final horn sounded, Anaheim had held on to win 2-1.

The rain was coming down in sheets as the arena began to empty. I watched two people in Ducks regalia offer the free hats that they’d received to two Blackhawk fans to help shield them from the downpour. They were accepted graciously.

So this is NHL hockey. This is nice. I’ll be back.

Next Up:  More Hockey – Will Ontario Reign At The Minor-League Level?

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