Bittersweet Seasons End

A few weekends ago I lived this hockey lover’s dream:  two games in less than 24 hours played by my two favorite teams.  Unfortunately, these games marked the end of disappointing seasons for the Flyers and their minor league affiliate Phantoms given that neither team made the playoffs.  But being a fan means enjoying seeing your team play no matter what, so I was excited to attend my first Leigh Valley Phantoms game and my last Philadelphia Flyers game of the season.

My husband, who grew up near Allentown, eagerly watched the Phantoms’ new arena, PPL Center, being built over the last few years via the Phantoms’ live cam at the construction site.  He and I were very excited to attend a game in the new arena and had booked a room in the beautiful Renaissance Allentown Hotel that is part of the arena complex.  PPL Center did not disappoint and I now understand why Flyers GM Ron Hextall once joked that the Flyers players didn’t mind so much getting sent down to the Phantoms given the beautiful new arena and its amenities.

Though I was excited about seeing the new arena, I was most excited about seeing the Phantoms play.  I had seen them play two years ago when they were the Adirondack Phantoms visiting the Hershey Bears.  Getting to Adirondack to see them play was never going to happen, but I had kept up with how the team was doing.   And because I keep track of the Flyers prospects, I found that I was familiar with most of the players on the Phantoms roster.  In fact, I had seen several of them play for the Flyers this season.

One of the things I like most about minor league hockey is the smaller arenas and thus the closer proximity to the ice.  We sat on the seventh row by one of the goals, but it felt as if I could jump into the face-off circle if I wanted to.  Hockey is one of those sports that is best appreciated in person, and most perfectly appreciated up close in person.  The game is fast and intense, and I don’t think that fact is truly appreciated until one sees (and hears) it firsthand.

After seeing dozens of NHL games and a handful of AHL games, I am convinced that AHL games are what I would call more “brutal.”  The intensity and physical play seems higher in the AHL than in the NHL (excluding the NHL playoffs, which are definitely a step up in intensity).   I am probably not the first person to point out this difference between the AHL and the NHL, and I am not exactly sure why it is true, but I suspect that is has to do with where the players are in their careers.  The AHL players are talented for sure (though maybe at more varying levels than in the NHL), but each one is fighting hard each night to prove that he deserves to play in the NHL.  The NHL players, on the other hand, are likely more evenly matched in skill level and do not have as much to prove since they now have the coveted NHL contract in hand.  As a fan who appreciates the physical play of the game, I find the AHL game quite thrilling.

The other aspect of the AHL game that I really enjoy is getting the chance to evaluate future Flyers.  Finally, thanks to Ron Hextall’s sound plan to rebuild the Flyers from within, the Flyers farm system is starting to get flush with prospects.  A few of those highly touted prospects played for the Phantoms this year and will hopefully have a shot at playing for the Flyers next season.  One of those prospects is Scott Laughton, who spent time with the Flyers this season.  He did not disappoint in this Phantoms game.  He scored the Phantom’s only goal in regulation and won the game for the Phantoms in a thrilling shootout.  Here’s hoping he is with the Flyers all of next season if for no other reason than to slay the shootout beast that continues to befall the Flyers.

Another prospect who looked sharp and nearly ready for the big time was young defenseman Robert Hagg.  His smart play and toughness are things that the Flyers could have desperately used this season.   At one point during the Phantoms game, Hagg got clocked in the face by what looked to be the elbow of one of the Norfolk Admirals players.  Hagg barely blinked, just briefly put his hand to his face and kept skating.  Tough as nails.  (Fortunately, the official finally acknowledged the infraction and called a high sticking penalty on the Admirals player.)

Fortunately for the Flyers, the defensive prospect depth chart is starting to look deep (and big).  Another Phantoms defenseman who saw some time with the Flyers this season is Oliver Lauridsen.  At 6’6”, when he is on the ice he towers above almost every other player.   As I continue to try to learn more nuances of the game, I spent one of Lauridsen’s shifts watching only him in order to study a defenseman’s every move on a shift.  He never stopped working, and he disrupted or blocked at least four shots during that shift.  I found myself wondering why he wasn’t in Philly all year.  Hopefully he will get his chance in the upcoming season.

The Phantoms and the Admirals were tied 1-1 at the end of the third period and went into a five-minute four-on-four overtime.  I had no idea how much taking two opposing players off the ice would open things up.  Lots of shots on goal ensued, but the game was still tied after OT.  Then came the shootout.  If it were a Flyers game, I would have gone ahead and conceded a loss considering their dismal performance in shootouts.  But I knew the Phantoms had a better shootout win percentage, and I had seen them win a shootout in a televised game over the holidays.  They did not disappoint as Laughton sneaked the puck past the Admirals’ goalie and skated back to his jubilant bench having sealed a Phantoms victory.

The next morning my husband and I got an early start and headed to Philly for the Flyers season finale at Wells Fargo Center that afternoon.  It was surreal to think this was the last time we would be at a Flyers game for months.  In the same way, though, the season-ending break seemed necessary.  Wipe the slate clean and start over again in October with hopes of a better season.  As the Flyers came onto the ice for their pre-game warm-up we saw two familiar faces:  Jason Akeson and Mark Alt, who had both played for the Phantoms the previous night, had made the trip to Philly to play in this game (and would be sent right back to Lehigh Valley after the game).

The game seemed like so many other Flyers games this season.  The Flyers looked capable of beating the Ottawa Senators, but then came the defensive lapses that left goalie Steve Mason vulnerable, and soon the Flyers were on the wrong side of the score.  Matt Read scored to tie the game in the second period, but soon the Senators were leading again.  Before I knew it, my husband and I were exiting the arena with only a few minutes left in the third period.  As we listened to the end of the game on the radio it hit me like a ton of bricks.  The season was over.  No more Flyers hockey.  I was stunned….and depressed.  What would I do without hockey?  But then I thought of the calendar:  draft in two months, preseason camp three months after that, and all of the hockey news that would occur between now and then.  The 2015-16 hockey season would be here before I knew it.

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Tough Decisions

Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall has some tough decisions to make…soon.  His team seems dead in the water and is sinking fast in the Metropolitan Division standings. Though it is still early in the season, it is tough to see any signs that this team will look any different (i.e., better) anytime in the near future without some big changes.

Unfortunately, Hextall’s choices are very limited as a result of bad decisions by his predecessor involving bad trades and costly, long-term contracts with players fast approaching the down side of their careers.  As a result, Hextall has no cap space to sign new blood and little “trade bait” with which to obtain much needed help, especially on the blue line.  It has been rumored that Hexall has been talking to other GMs for months trying to make a deal to help his ailing team, but thus far nothing has materialized.

The reality is that to get value you have to give value.  And the most valuable Flyers players (Voracek, Giroux and Simmonds, in my opinion) are too valuable to be traded.  Why give up the best that you have for something similar or perhaps worse? And, I would imagine that Hextall is having trouble crafting viable trades involving just about everyone else.

Of course Hextall could offer up one or more of the promising young defensemen-in-waiting in juniors and the AHL, but I shudder at the thought.  Fortunately, Hextall has it made it clear that he values home-grown players and intends to develop them properly.  That is why highly touted blue liners Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin, Shane Gostisbehere and Travis Sanheim are not with the Flyers right now.  Heaven knows the team could use their help.  But that’s not Hextall’s way.  He is aware of the risk of ruining young players by rushing them to the NHL, and he has vowed that he will not do that under any circumstances.  But, wow, this team is in pretty dire circumstances.  Maybe it is time to give Hagg a shot?

When the Flyers blue line was decimated by injury in late October, Hextall called up Ghostisbiere for several games.  I was at his first NHL game and it was thrilling to see him play.  Even though he is not as bulky as he probably needs to be to play full-time in the NHL, he showed flashes of pure skill and great on-ice decision making that you don’t see every day.  But, to many fans’ dismay, Hextall decided that Ghost needed more time in the AHL.  Ironically enough, he suffered a torn ACL within a few weeks of returning to the Phantoms.   Though the surgery and related rehab is going well, he will not be back on the ice for several months.  On the other hand, Morin seems physically ready to play in the NHL, but probably needs more time with his junior team to mature his game.  He had an excellent training camp with the Flyers and hung around until the end of it, but ultimately was sent back to his junior team.  Early in the season he suffered a broken jaw that kept him off the ice for over a month.  He is playing again now but is technically untouchable by the Flyers until his junior season is over.

My opinion is that as soon as these promising young defensemen are ready to play in the NHL, the Flyers will undergo an immediate  major upgrade.  The problem is:  what does the team do in the meantime to stay afloat without sacrificing the future by giving up current prospects and future draft picks?  I’m glad I don’t have Hextall’s job because I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.  The man is facing tough decisions indeed.

The Typical Female Hockey Fan

There has been a lot of focus by the NHL recently on trying to attract more female fans to the game. I applaud that the NHL acknowledges the female fan and wants more of them; however, I think that sometimes the NHL is misguided in its efforts.  Maybe that is because there is no typical female hockey fan.  And here’s why:  In my experience as a female fan attending Philadelphia Flyers games, I see many female fans of all ages.  And I imagine they are at the game for many different reasons.  There was a time when “nice girls” didn’t attend hockey games.  But these days (thank goodness), hockey has many female fans.

In my case, I was a hockey fan long before I met my husband seven years ago, but he is responsible for turning me into a Flyers fan. But that said, I can fairly say that I am the bigger Flyers fan now.  He is a fan for sure, but I am the one who drives the fandom bus so to speak.  It is because of me that we travel from Northern Virginia to Philly for weekend Flyers games.  And, I am the one who reads newspapers articles about the Flyers daily, keeps up with the team on social media, and watches every game on my tablet.  And, I am sure there are many other female hockey fans who are just as passionate about the game as I am,  if not more so.

When I am at Flyers game I see many other female fans and speculate on what has brought them to a hockey game. I imagine that some are at the game because their male significant other is a big fan.  These women may follow the team and know the game, but are there mainly because their significant other wants to go to the game.   Along the same lines, I see young girls and teenagers who may be at a game as part of a night out with family or friends.  I see a lot of young women at Flyers games.  Many seem to be there with friends or boyfriends, and some seem to be what some people would call  “puck bunnies.”  But in any case, these women are at the game, wearing Flyers gear, and cheering the team on.

Speaking of team apparel: In a recent trip through the Flyers merchandise store in Wells Fargo Center, I was happy to see many clothing items specifically made to fit women.  The encouraging thing was that I saw very little pink.  Instead, I saw many cute shirts and jerseys in classic styles, very similar to the merchandise marketed to men.

While the NHL may be doing better when it comes to providing classic apparel for female fans, there are other areas that could seem to use a bit more tweaking. One example that comes to mind is the popular “Hockey in Heels” event that many teams offer.  This event is marketed exclusively for women to introduce them to the game and help them understand it better.  A friend of mine who is a Washington Capitals season ticket holder (and a very knowledgeable hockey fan) is planning to attend the Caps Hockey in Heels event this month.  She said that it is a three-plus hour event and includes on-ice skills demonstrations by Caps players.  That part of the event impressed me and is something that even a knowledgeable fan might enjoy.  However, on the surface, this kind of event sounds patronizing to women.  When I first heard about this event, my first thought was:  How in the world does it take an entire evening to explain hockey.  It’s not like it’s rocket science.  I figured it out myself (and still learn new things every day) and so can everyone else.

I think that the best way the NHL can market to women is to treat us just like they treat their male fans. We are all fans of the game and want the same kinds of things from the game experience.  And, when I am at a game, I don’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else.  Though there may not be a typical female hockey fan, when it comes right down to it, we are all typical when sitting in an arena cheering on our favorite team.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Let me preface this post by saying that I am huge hockey fan.  I love the sport and never grow tired of it.  But why is NHL hockey still being played in the middle of June?  On the East Coast, summer is in full force and most people are thinking about swimming in a pool of cool water on a hot, sunny day, not bundling up to go inside an arena and watch a game played on ice.  I am enjoying watching the Stanley Cup finals (Go Kings!) and maybe I would feel differently if my Flyers were still playing right now, but I am ready for this season to be over.  Let’s crown the Cup champion, get ready for the upcoming draft, then start getting excited about next season (which begins in a mere three months).

My theory is that the NHL does not understand the concept of “too much of a good thing.”  Take the Winter Classic as an example.  Playing an NHL game in the middle of winter on an outdoor rink in a football or baseball stadium was a brilliant idea.  And it was special….when there was only one Winter Classic game per season.  I was at the WC in Citizens Bank Park in Philly on January 2, 2012.  It was an amazing experience at such a festive time of year.  Now, I imagine that most fans barely blinked an eye as the NHL played five outdoor games during the 2013-14 season:  one Winter Classic game and four games during the Stadium Series.  My feeling is that too many outdoor games take away the novelty and make the games seem ordinary, unlike those first WC games that seemed so magical.

When if comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs, I have no problem with the number of teams that make the playoffs.  I say, keep the number of playoff rounds the same, but make the playoff series best-of-five instead of best-of-seven.  Other sports leagues (such as the NFL) have one-game playoffs, so does the NHL really need best-of-seven playoff series?  I am not claiming to have done any kind of real math here, but I would imagine that best-of-five instead of best-of-seven series would knock at least a few weeks off of the playoffs, having them perhaps end before the official beginning of summer.

But no matter how logical it seems (at least to me) that a shorter NHL season would be a better NHL season,  I know that this will never happen because of one thing: $$$.  The NHL knows that it has probably the most passionate and loyal fans in professional sports.  We may not be as numerous as NFL fans, but we love our teams, know our sport well, and are willing to pay lots of bucks to attend games and buy merchandise…over and over again.  I heard that some NHL fans discussed boycotting the first few NHL games played after the 2012-13 lockout was over, but I did not see evidence that attendance suffered at any of those first NHL games in 2013.  Why?  Because we are die hard fans of the sport no matter what and were out of our minds without hockey and could not wait to see the NHL play again.  I know that I would not have agreed to boycott that first Flyers game that year.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are amazing and one-of-a-kind.  The level of play and intensity could not be higher, and it seems (at least this year) that the team matchups have been very good and even.  I was at Game 3 (the Flyers’ first home game) of the Flyers/Rangers series this past April.  It was my first playoff game and it was an amazing experience after having supported the Flyers all season, wondering if they would even make the playoffs after their disappointing start to the season.  The Flyers lost that playoff game (and went on to lose the series), but it was a night to remember.  I have never heard Wells Fargo Center that loud….or seen it that orange.  But it seemed weird to be going to a hockey game on a sunny, 70-degree day.  And now it seems even more strange that the playoffs continue almost two months later.   I hope that the Kings take it in four so that I can focus on attending the draft and getting hyped up about the 2014-15 NHL season.