By Mary Walsh
SAN FRANCISCO- You have to approach an ECHL game like there is no tomorrow. As a player, you could be injured out and never play again. Tonight. As a fan, your favorite player could be moved without any warning rumors at all, your significant other who you just followed across the country could be traded again, before you’ve even finished unpacking.
Minor leagues demand a “pack light” mentality, like hitching cross-country: you move a great deal but your feet rarely leave the earth. It is bracing, fleeting, unpredictable and mostly without a safety net.
There are things like teddy bear tosses and Chuck-a-Puck, activities that depend on everyone being pretty darn close to the ice.
The roster will change at a rapid-fire pace that can frustrate a fan who wants to get attached to this or that player. The team will be open with the press about injuries, because hey, anyone watching the game saw what happened. The players make appearances at public places to sign autographs, instead of donor dinners.
While many teams make an effort to put some glitz into the show, you don’t go to a minor league hockey game for the bright splashy spectacle. You are there for the same reason the players and the coaches are there: you all like hockey.
The players don’t get paid enviable amounts of money. You can’t yell at them that they’re a drag on the team’s cap space. If you get mad it’s just over the principle of the thing, he made a dumb decision or took a selfish penalty. But when you throw eggs, you’re not throwing very high up the ladder. They don’t park their cars in hidden garages or come and go from the arena through a secured parking lot. They have their private space but it isn’t so very far away from you that you expect to see guys with earpieces following them around. They are just guys playing because they love the game.
Some might have hopes for bigger things, a call up, an NHL contract. But right now, in this game, that aspiration is just a gamble. They are here, now. All there is is today’s game.
Many tomorrows from now, they could still be here, in the ECHL or the AHL, grinding out a living with their bodies and their skill and their attachment to the game. Some have degrees and plans for when it is over, others might not. All here, now, for your entertainment and a shared love of a sport, ice, speed and team.
As investments, sports at any level are a gamble, but minor league teams are notorious for existing on the edge of extinction. As hair raising as that is for management and owners, it is the stuff of great stories. The blood of the underdog runs through the veins of such teams, through the leagues even. From top to bottom, survival is a question, not something anyone takes for granted.
In the bigger markets, fans can become more fierce and demanding but it is still about the game, not some multimillion dollar contract paid to an unworthy player. There is one point of envy a fan might take away, and that is loving what you do. Surely players get sick of riding buses around for days on end, or being in physical pain year round, having to move cross-country at the drop of a hat. Many people do all that without getting to play hockey or do anything at all that they enjoy. Still, this type of compensation is pretty discreet. It doesn’t blind you like sunlight reflected off the tinted windshield of a new luxury car.
That is why movies like the minors so much. Everything about them is suspenseful. The players take all the risks and reap only a tiny share of the rewards that a big league player does. Whether an arena is packed or sparsely attended, a minor league game is a moving thing. Particularly in the Western U.S., where hockey is still scrambling for a share of the sports fanbase, an ECHL game is unpretentious and sincere in a way that no major league game could ever be. No one is there for the spectacle, they are there for the hockey, the pure, unrefined kind. No replays, no repeats, just this game now.