This was my third time watching hockey in Stockton, and every time the crowd is smaller.
To be fair, a game played on the Monday afternoon of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday may not be a representative sample for a team that usually plays night games, but attendance concerns have been documented elsewhere , along with rumors of a possible move.
Subsequent to my visit, the team signed a one-year lease extension with the city, which should be short enough to keep the rumors flying.
I hope they stay — it’s nice to have another quality, affordable hockey outlet that’s in driving range. And the arena is a good venue with good sightlines.
In any case, the Heat got the drop on their opposition, scoring 26 seconds in, and cruised to an easy win. Appears to be representative of what was shaping up to be a solid season, with the team in playoff position when the 2019-20 season was abruptly ended.
Thunder rumbles: On my previous visit in 2018, I was surprised not to see anybody wearing Stockton Thunder sweaters. (The Heat replaced the Thunder in 2017 as part of minor league realignment that brought the higher-level AHL to California.)
This year, the Heat were leaning in to the 15th anniversary of pro hockey in Stockton, with a special third jersey and Thunder merchandise for sale.
Ms. Hockey Wanderer is sad to learn: Two grown man had a fight. On the ice.
The old Stockton Thunder of the low-minor-league ECHL are gone, replaced by a Calgary Flames farm team as part of the 2015 realignment of minor league hockey that put five members of the highest-level minor league, the American Hockey League, in California.
The AHL team came with a new identity, the Stockton Heat, with uniform and logo closely aligned with the Flames’, um, flame motif.
Despite the higher quality of play, I wonder if the bloom has gone off the rose somewhat for hockey in Stockton.
Attendance was announced at 3,370 — hopefully it was just a slow Sunday. Maybe they should have offered more Andrew Mangiapane bobbleheads. I was there early but not early enough to get one.
Anyway, the game was proficiently played, in the way that has made pro hockey a little boring to watch, in which effective defensive disruption in the neutral zone made it hard for either team to maintain much in the way of interesting puck possession. On the other hand, most of the goals, as I recall, came on fast moving breakout plays.
The pest: Watching the warmups, I pegged the Heat’s Ryan Lomberg as a bit of a wise-ass. True to form the player, who was up and down from Calgary all season, was exactly that kind of on-ice pest you want on your team and hate on your opponent’s. His heads-up play netted him two assists.
A long road from Moline: Backup goalie C.J. Motte, signed that very day, wore a helmet painted for the Quad City Mallards.
The Heat starter, Ryan Faragher, had only been signed two weeks earlier.
Fashion notes: I saw an Erik Karlsson Senators jersey.
I saw a Teemu Selanne Jets jersey.
I saw many people wearing Heat jersey.
I even saw someone wearing a San Francisco Bulls jersey.
I did not see a single Stockton Thunder sweater.
The media today: The press row was largely deserted except, I think, for a couple people who work for the Heat.
My wife will be happy to read this: There were no fights. Though there was a third-period roughing incident that came close …
A lot of the things I hate about the game experience were the same: crappy loud rock was blasted at every. single. moment the puck is not in play; vast realms of empty seats both in front of and behind curtains lowered to hide even more empty seats.
San Jose added the pain by brightly flashing a strobe-type light throughout the arena every 10 to 15 seconds, perfectly timed to give me a headache. And the in-arena PA announcer substitutes volume for ability.
Adding to the desultory nature of things is the way the Sharks set up the Barracuda game experience at SAP Center.
Almost every concession stand was closed.
But the few that were open charged full NHL prices.
It took me until the third period to find the table where they were handing out game roster sheets.
The actual hockey game itself was good, and I appreciated being able to afford a ticket to see it up close (in contrast to Sharks games) but the environment in which I had to watch it sucked.
Crash Davis minor league echo: San Jose coach Roy Sommer – a more interesting character than the fictional Bull Durham slugger – was looking to tie the AHL record of 636 coaching wins.
Fashion note: San Jose played in orange uniforms that looked like practice jerseys. That allowed Bakersfield to play in their smart Edmonton Oilers-based white jerseys, further proving that I am correct in believing home teams should play in white.
Music criticism: Playing ‘Even the Losers’ sounds a bit desperate after the opponents’ fourth goal.
Attendance: claimed to be 5,872. Seems optimistic.
Name of the Game: Rob Klinkhammer of Bakersfield. The Name of the Game honor is strictly for most interesting-sounding name, but the Colonel potted two goals and an assist.
This was my first visit to what I knew as the Hartford Civic Center for 22 years. It was disheartening.
The last time I was there it was because I made a point of seeing a Hartford Whalers game on a trip home. The team had five more years left before nefarious manipulations ended its Hartford run, but I already had a sense that the team’s future was precarious.
About my relationship with the Whalers: it’s complicated.
Always have been a Buffalo Sabres fan, and will be as long as they remain there. But I moved to Connecticut before fifth grade, and my life as a hockey fan became entwined with the Mighty Whale, from games at the Civic Center (many, but not all, against the Sabres) to “Hockey Night in Hartford” on Channel 30.
I’m not looking it up, but in all the years, the Whalers and Sabres shared the five-team Adams Division, which had four playoff spots, I don’t think they both made the postseason in the same year.
So it was pretty easy to adopt the Whalers as my second team, enjoying their triumphant, parade-worthy run to the second round (I attended game three in Hartford) in 1986, (damn you Claude Lemieux) and their division championship the next year as the Sabres were busy, um, rebuilding.
Anyway, to me the Civic Center scene meant buzzing crowds, big-time players, and games that meant something. It had atmosphere.
Everything that was lacking at what is now known as the XL Center.
The year after the Whalers were moved, the New York Rangers moved their farm team into the arena, and there it has remained ever since. The Wolf Pack is in its 18th season in Hartford, matching the number of NHL seasons the Whalers spent there. (But don’t forget the WHA!)
The arena is visibly the same. And in all honesty, the quality of the AHL game wasn’t bad. But the whole experience was as flat as a four-day old cup of soda.
There was a group of rowdy fans that chanted semi-obscenely behind one of the goals. They tried. There was all kinds of the blaring loud music Kevin Dupont refers to as audioporn blaring from the P.A. system. But it echoed off the sea of empty seats.
There’s a big problem with AHL hockey. The team isn’t really set up to win. Winning’s nice, no one complains, but the team exists to serve the needs of the big-league team, and if those needs weaken the AHL team, so what?
Even if I lived in Connecticut I don’t think I’d ever attend another Wolf Pack game.
I doubt the NHL will return. The league doesn’t have that much class and good sense.
But there is a silver lining for Connecticut hockey fans.
There are three Division I teams in the state. Two of them met in the 2013 NCAA final.
The third, UConn, joined the powerhouse Hockey East conference this year. Given the deep support for UConn sports in the Nutmeg state, I won’t be surprised if the halls of the former Hartford Civic Center buzz and its rafters rattle with cheers from fans watching high-level hockey that counts for something.
Worth Every Penny: Thanks to the Boy Scout leader who offered their extra tickets to me and others standing in line.