Thursday, June 06, 2013

Around the Rink: Ixnay on the Eaver-bay Edition

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Although hockey fans and writers have discussed this possibility from the moment the National Hockey League announced it would introduce the Winter Classic into its regular-season schedule more than five years ago, it suddenly became news again yesterday, that Beaver Stadium at Penn State is interested in hosting outdoor hockey.

With a capacity of more than 100,000 it's a no-brainer for the fifth-tier sport in America to try and once again goose its overall and average attendance numbers by holding yet another open-air battle.

Its central location in Pennsylvania makes it a stone-cold lock for speculation to run rampant over a Penguins-Flyers battle, though the Sabres are in the mix as well -- owing to the fact that Buffalo owner Terry Pegula is the one who jettisoned a small portion of his wealth in order to create a legitimate D-I program in Happy Valley along with a state-of-the-art arena to bear his name, which opens this Fall.

In case you don't feel like looking it up, it's approximately 195 miles from Buffalo to State College, 137 miles from Pittsburgh to Penn State and 190 miles from Philadelphia to the edge of the Commonwealth's main land grant campus.

While the prospect of seeing the NHL's bellwether rivalry on neutral ground, elbow-to-elbow with a small city's worth of friends and enemies, had me lit up like a Christmas Tree back in 2007, six years hence, the idea leaves me cold. Pun intended.

Outdoor games, and the trademarked "Winter Classic" carry with it not only the experience of watching pro hockey exposed to the elements and on a bigger stage, but also the thrill of a road trip that's an actual destination. Part of the allure for the partisan fan is visiting new cities like Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. OK, so Orchard Park -- but Buffalo and Niagara Falls are close by. The other four cities offer more than just a hockey game before and after. What does State College bring to the table, save a larger area with which to park an RV and tailgate, for the traveller?

The NHL's decision to award the next New Year's Day game to Ann Arbor and then discussing another game in yet another college town stands in direct contrast to the NCAA's recent efforts to hold its Frozen Four in NHL-level arenas in order to increase exposure. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

There are tons of Penn State alumni who can claim either PA club as their favorite. Nonetheless, what's the incentive for the Flyers or Penguins fan who is not an alumnus/alumna, and uninterested in reliving their hazy, boozy college days to make any more of an effort to see the game than driving up the night before, staying within driving distance of the stadium, then heading home afterwards? It seems like an awful waste of money and resources since the cost of an NHL ticket is prohibitive anyway, much less one or more for a special occasion such as this held on terra incognita.

Even as ridiculous as it seems to want to hold outdoor games in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, there's still an entire entertainment package for the hockey tourist which can bracket game attendance, making a once-in-a-lifetime journey wholly worthwhile. Though everyone knows there's nothing to do in the Bronx once the Devils-Islanders-Rangers are finished at Yankee Stadium, the thrill of all New York offers is a short subway ride away. You simply don't get that in State College, even with the ease of a compromise location.

Warning: my biases, of which my readers should be aware by now, are going to show through with the following passage.

Should Penn State manage to snag an outdoor college game, and if, on the off chance the university manages to snag a national powerhouse like Boston College, Boston University, Notre Dame or Michigan as its opponent as has been reported, I'm not going as fan or credentialed writer. But if you would in a heartbeat, I don't begrudge that opinion.

It's an exponentially easier and smoother drive -- not to mention more than two hours shorter -- from Philly to Centre County (Blue Route to Northeast Extension to I-80 to I-99) as it is from here to Boston (as those who have ever dodged New York drivers and traversed Connecticut on I-95 and I-84 over the last decade can attest), but there's already going to be another edition of Frozen Fenway this January, featuring a better level of D-I hockey in an outdoor setting which is cozier and more welcoming than sitting in a six-digit behemoth in the middle of nowhere.

Taking outdoor games at either the college or NHL level to its logical extreme, and holding them in venues like Beaver Stadium or Michigan Stadium which are more suitable for gathering when a visiting Pontiff holds Mass, strips them of the communal hockey experience that intimate venues like old ballparks and smaller football venues provide. The sheer numbers may be mind-blowing, but the vibe is lost.

Besides, are there even close to 100,000 college hockey fans in all of Pennsylvania? My bet is not enough to cover the gap left over from the other school's fan base. 

I'd strongly suggest to the NHL that any future outdoor game involving the Penguins and Flyers to be held in either member city. I'll advocate that Penguins and Flyers fans put aside their mutual disrespect for each other and their respective locales, and travel to either Pittsburgh or Philly and soak in what each has to offer the traveler -- rather than potentially turning into the Iron City-and-Yuengling-soaked version of the Jets and Sharks played out on neutral ground.

Notre Dame will be joining a perennially strong Hockey East this season, so if you want to see what serious, established Division I hockey brings to the table, head to Chestnut Hill, Providence, Lowell or Burlington instead. If you want to wait a bit longer, lay out some extra ducats to come here in April for the national semifinals and finals where there's a guarantee of top-flight college competition and meet true dedicated, knowledgeable fans.

Penn State's time is not now, but soon. Let the university grow the program long enough where the pull is not just attending a game in the Nittany Lions' football stadium, but that Penn State hockey has a damn good chance against a national powerhouse.

Anything you can do, they can do better...except think of a cool team name

Earlier in the week, I put this question to my small legion of Twitter followers: Suppose that a women's NHL was created and Philadelphia was picked to be one of the inaugural franchises. What would you like to see as the name of the new team?

The idea germinated during the second lockout eight years ago, when, in a fit of boredom, I created a possible eight-team WNHL to replace the idiocy of the league and union when it looked like the 2004-05 season would be canceled. I can't remember which name I gave the Philly franchise, but the thought popped back into my head under a blazing sun last Saturday in Moorestown while reffing a charity roller hockey tournament.

As the saying goes, ask a stupid question...

Number one on the list was "Liberty Belles," followed by Belles, Spirit, Liberties, Gaz'ers, Keystones, Devils' Pockets, Byngers, Whores, Bully Broads, Lady Skaters, Rockford Peaches, and Frozen Skirts.

I then turned to CSN's Sarah Baicker -- herself an ice hockey player who skates for multiple teams in the region, including the Philadelphia Freeze. Her first inclination? The Philadelphia Fillies, and when pressed for a serious answer, was unable to provide one at posting time.

Needless to say, I'm very disappointed in everyone. Sure, you want something that evokes the spirit of the region without being overtly sexist or too gender neutral, but that's it?

Just off the top of my head, how about Smash, Concordes, Fox, Rage, Huskies, Angels? Yeah, Freeze sounds damn good, too.

Cup dreams and crushing reality

Three years ago yesterday, thousands of Flyers fans, most of them under the age of 40, woke up with the best feeling most of them had ever encountered in watching playoff hockey.

With a 5-3 win in Game 4 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals on home ice, they drew even with the Blackhawks at two games apiece heading back to Chicago for Game 5.

It's significant given this fact: since winning their back-to-back Cups in 1974 and '75, the Flyers have found themselves repeatedly behind the 8-ball in their quest for a third championship.

In 1976, they were swept by the Canadiens. Four years later, they were down 1-3 to the Islanders, then faced similar long odds against the Edmonton Oilers in both 1985 and 1987, then were swept by the Red Wings in '97.

This team which had to pull itself together just to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season provided a momentary jolt of electricity for thousands of eager supporters. Even after losing a largely defense-less 7-4 decision at Chicago in Game 5, no reason to think they couldn't pull it together at home for Game 6...


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