By: Chris Dagonas
The teenaged girl in the navy blue golf shirt glanced at my ticket, and smiled sympathetically at me.
“Sorry, sir, you’ll have to go around the arena to the other entrance.”
All the way around? My head spun. It was minus-36 degrees outside, and the puck was dropping in five minutes. Not only will I not make it in time, but I’ll freeze trying.
I glanced over her shoulder at the guitar player as he strummed out a few familiar tunes. Elderly couples and families sat enjoying the show, sipping on cups of tea and hot chocolate.
Discouraged, I re-zipped my jacket, re-toqued my head, and darted out the exit, prepared for a 5-minute slog through biting winds and cold.
I reached the opposite entrance in 45 seconds.
This was the Powerade Centre in Brampton, not the Air Canada Centre.
This was my Friday night at a minor-league hockey game.
The Brampton Beast began play in 2013 in the now-defunct Central Hockey League. In the pyramid of North American hockey, the Central Hockey League was on the third tier, below the NHL and the AHL. The Beast played one season in the CHL before that league folded and the expanding East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) came to the rescue.
The Beast are now one of 28 ECHL minor-league teams, and the only one in Canada. They currently sit in the basement of the Central Division.
So, of course, I was excited to attend last Friday’s home game against the Quad City Mallards (a quick Google search revealed that Quad City represents the geographical area around Davenport, Iowa and Moline, Illinois). Once I settled into my seat, having had to walk about 300 metres around the outside of the building, I began to soak up the atmosphere of small-town (sorry, Brampton) hockey.
Before the game, the crowd, roughly 2,000 strong, was treated to a laser show that seemed exactly appropriate for a crowd of it’s size; there were no team logos or player images flashed on the ice. Just laser beams flashing around, at one point nearly blinding me.
Once the laser show had wrapped up, it was time to announce the starting lineups. For Quad City, the PA announcer quickly, unenthusiastically read off the names, to no crowd reaction. But then, out of a giant inflatable Beast, skated the local heroes, lead by (and this is no lie) captain Cal Wild. The captain of a team named the Beast is named Wild. It’s so small-town hockey perfect my head almost exploded. It should be added, Wild was the best player on the ice by about a million miles. He was all over the ice, made smart passes, and moved intelligently without the puck.
Naturally, I made a move for a beer just as the game was starting. The arena had the audacity to charge six dollars for a bottle of Coors Light. I was so upset by this price-jacking, I only had three.
The ECHL comprises teams from all over North America (the EC does not, in fact, stand for East Coast), from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska. It has emerged, over the past few years, as the premier semi-pro league in the continent. ECHL teams have affiliations with all but one of the 30 NHL teams, meaning players on ECHL teams, some earning as little as 450 dollars a week, have an opportunity to play their way onto AHL, and, eventually, NHL rosters.
ECHL teams cover 28 cities in 22 states and 1 province. They cover suburban cities like Brampton or Stockton, California, as well as state capitols and major hubs like Tulsa and Indianapolis. In some cases, the minor league hockey experience is the only game in town for sports fans, and the ECHL is likely hoping that it maintains a strong foothold in such markets, including Brampton. While it might be easy to predict that the lone Canadian team will be successful, Brampton does have a history of having, and losing, hockey franchises.
The Brampton Battalion operated in the Ontario Hockey League from 1998 to 2014. The OHL is a junior league, not a pro league, featuring teenaged players. Despite some early successes, the Battalion were consistently poorly attended, and had the lowest attendance in the league each year for the last four years, before moving to North Bay in the summer of 2013. That coincided nicely with the arrival of the Beast, but Brampton has yet to prove whether it can sustain a hockey franchise. Although, in 2013, city council unanimously voted in favour of financially supporting the franchise and buying a state of the art scoreboard and screen for the Powerade Centre.
Shifting demographics might help explain the city’s struggles to fill hockey arenas. Brampton has become an immigrant landing point over the past decade or so, and families are arriving that have little interest in hockey. The Powerade Centre is also the host of the Brampton A’s of the National Basketball League of Canada. It’s no secret that basketball has been gaining ground on hockey in terms of popularity in the Greater Toronto Area. The Leafs are still a huge draw, but it’s telling that the ECHL’s lone Canadian team – in hockey’s biggest market – is struggling. Meanwhile, the AHL has four Canadian teams, out of 30. Twenty years ago, it would have been crazy to assume that a small city like Brampton, Windsor, or London could support a pro basketball team. Not only are all of these cities doing so, Windsor and London don’t even have a minor or developmental hockey league, only junior-level teams. The same is true in the Maritimes, where Halifax, Saint John and Moncton support NBL Canada teams, but not minor-league hockey teams.
With six dollar bottles of domestic, no wonder crowds aren’t exactly rushing the gates. After the first period, the Beast led the Mallards 1-0, and I decided it was time for a walk around the arena, this time on the inside. At one end, there were the community rinks, where a recreational league looked to be operating. Above the community rinks was a sports bar and grill, one that promised to have autograph signings of Beast players after the game. At the moment, it was dark and mostly empty, with a couple of tables of Raptors fans taking in that night’s game.
Down toward the other end, I passed a small arcade zone with a broken air hockey table. There was the Brampton Sports Hall of Fame, three walls of framed photos featuring such notable names as Rick Nash, Ron Fellows, and Cassie Campbell. And, at the opposite end where I had first attempted to enter and was cast out into the frozen tundra, the lounge. Bar stools and tall tables sat facing a small stage, not much larger than a milk crate, where the same guitar player was strumming some more familiar tunes as elderly people and young families sipped their coffees, teas and hot chocolates.
I made it back to my seat in time to watch the intermission entertainment, where a few lucky members of the crowd were invited onto the ice to attempt to score from centre ice (they all failed). The Beast took over the game in the second period, opening up a 4-2 lead.
The first alternative hockey league of any importance was the World Hockey Association (WHA), which operated in direct competition with the NHL from 1972-1979. The founders, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, had also started and ran the American Basketball Association, which was a major NBA rival in the same era. The WHA first gained legitimacy when NHL star Bobby Hull signed the first-ever million dollar contract with the Winnipeg Jets. In the 1970s, the NHL was struggling as it attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to expand, and the WHA offered a viable alternative. Of course, the other WHA star that everyone remembers was signed as a 17-year-old by the Indianapolis Racers, then traded to the Edmonton Oilers.
Wayne Gretzky was more than ready to play professionally as a teenager, but the NHL had a strict age policy, restricting their league to 20-and-older. Gretzky was under contract with the Oilers by the time the WHA collapsed, and they, along with several other WHA franchises, were absorbed into the NHL, allowing Gretzky to skirt the rules. A similar fate awaited the ABA and ever since, upstart leagues have never been able to survive as direct competition to the major four North American sports leagues. They exist now as minor, or feeder leagues, with possibilities for expansion in the case of the MLS, but you will never hear again of a hockey player spurning the NHL for a chance to sign with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators.
“FANS, get up out of your seats, and put your arms in the air, as the Beast Squad brings out the HOT-DOG CANNON!!!” The second intermission is when people start to filter out, I guess, if they’re staring at a long drive home on a cold night. What better way to get them to stay in their seats than the chance at snagging a hot dog… out of a CANNON! While I had tried to maintain some journalistic professionalism during the course of the game, the hot dog cannon had me jumping and waving my arms like never before. Sure enough, the Beast mascot (I think his name is Beast) aimed and fired directly at my section. The tin-foil wrapped beauty sailed up, up, and just out of my reach, landing two rows behind me, to be enjoyed by a young girl with a face-painted Brampton Beast logo. I guess she earned it.
Sports in small cities, particularly suburban cities, always have an identity struggle. Big league options are but a commuter train or highway drive away, and while the Leafs might not be playing – well, they’re barely playing hockey at this point – but it still sounds infinitely cooler on a Monday morning around the coffee machine to say you were at a Leafs game on Bay Street than to say you took in the Beast game at the desolate corner of Kennedy and Steeles in Brampton. But the quality of play was very good, and at least I didn’t have to deal with those horrible, douchebag “suits” that take up the lower bowl of the ACC. In fact, there was only one bowl in the place, and about twenty rows, and no one had anything close to a suit on. Nor the accompanying demeanour.
Maybe I’m being emotionally affected by the end of Parks and Recreation on Wednesday night, but I feel like Pawnee, Indiana, would have had a perpetually sold-out Sweetums Arena for the Pawnee Possums in the ECHL. Andy Dwyer would have his face and chest painted in team colours; Tom Haverford would be hawking signed jerseys in the lobby, or scalping tickets outside; Ron Swanson would be front-row centre, coolly enjoying a glass of Lagavulin. That is what I think of when I think of minor-league sports.
As the third period began, I could feel the energy waning. Kids and old folks were yawning, the Beast had a healthy lead and no signs of giving it up. They scored a fifth goal early in the period, and the crowd perked back up again. Indecipherable chants started up, sounding something like “Let’s Go, Hoppers!” I had to find out what was going on.
“It’s Whopper night!” the elderly gentleman behind me replied. “If we get six goals, you get a Whopper Jr. from Burger King when you show your ticket.”
Let’s Go, Whopper! I get it. The Raptors do it with 100 points and pizza slices. Again, my journalistic professionalism went out the window, and I screamed wildly for that sixth goal to come.
Sure enough, with three minutes left in the game, captain Cal Wild (again, his name is WILD and he plays for the BEAST!) popped his second goal of the night, and the crowd went wild, or at least as wild as it could when featuring mostly yawning old folks and sleeping toddlers. Our Junior Whoppers were secure.
I’m pulling for the Beast, and the ECHL in general. While values for pro sports franchises skyrocket into the billion-dollar stratosphere, and season ticket costs begin to resemble monthly rent payments, the world needs teams that feature gray-haired veterans playing for 500 dollars a week, making them feel like superstars in front of a few thousand fans.
It needs arenas with in-house guitar players and broken air-hockey tables, with only two entrances that can be circumnavigated in about a minute.
Yes, a world with low-tech laser shows.
Now, shoot me a hot dog.
This article has been updated from a previous edition, relating to information regarding Brampton A’s attendance.