Killing Time Before the Game
With an hour to spare before the game started Jon, his coworker, and I roamed around the Toyota Center for a while. First we visited the cheerleaders (I never knew hockey games had cheerleaders) who were passing out complimentary magnets with the Houston Aeros season schedule. Yeah, the large free magnets were the sole reason for visiting those cheerleaders.
Our next stop (after looking over our shoulders a couple of times and almost running into other fans) was the souvenir booth. We spent a few minutes browsing through the selection of Houston Aeros branded pennants, bumper stickers, hockey pucks and sticks, key rings, caps and shirts. Jon bought a cap to warm his head after standing in the rain, while Ken (his nameless co-worker up until now) bought a cap, hockey puck and a couple of other souvenirs. I decided to wait until after the game to purchase a hockey puck. I was going to buy a Houston Aeros cap, but after seeing the $24 price tag, I reconsidered.
We took one lap around the Toyota Center, which is lined with the entire selection of Toyota vehicles, and then stopped at a concession stand to get a drink before finding our seats. We each bought a 20 oz soda at only $4.75 each. I didn’t even bother looking at the prices of the food, although I heard that a bag of peanuts was $4.50. Needless to say I didn’t buy any peanuts, hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn or cotton candy while at the game. I made my 20 oz. Root Beer last the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Finding Our Seats
With about fifteen minutes to game time, we found the tunnel for section 113. I showed the tickets to the Toyota Center staff member at the end of the small tunnel, who then directed us to our seats. Our seats were on Row 14 just behind the goal. While the large protective net just slightly obstructed the view it was barely even noticeable when watching the game.
The first thing I noticed when we found our seats was that the seats at the Toyota Center weren’t very comfortable, to say the least. They were hard plastic folding seats and weren’t very big. However, once my gluteus maximus adjusted to the hard plastic, it wasn’t so bad… or I simply just lost complete feeling in the caboose region and didn’t even realize it. I’m leaning towards the latter. The space between the rows of seats was also worse than a movie theater. Pardon me, coming through.
Here’s my view while the teams practiced before the game:
Introducing the Western Conference Champions
At about 5 p.m., the lights dimmed and spot lights scanned the audience while loud upbeat music played through the arena speakers. A few minutes later the announcer welcomed everyone to the opening season Houston Aeros hockey game and gave a few ground rules of conduct. Shortly thereafter, most of the lights went dark. A single spot light beamed from above and illuminated one corner of the hockey rink. With pure excitement in his voice the announcer introduced the 2010-2011 Western Conference Champions. The crowd went wild as members of the Houston Aeros skated onto the ice. It gave me goose bumps. The official head count for the night was 9,117, but it seemed like a lot more (I found out later that this was the second largest Houston Aeros opening crowd ever at the Toyota Center). The experience of hearing thousands of fans cheering in an enclosed arena was amazing. The last time I had an experience like that was when I watched the Houston Astros play the Atlanta Braves at the Astrodome. I was about 13 or 14 years old at the time. On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011 I felt like a kid again.
I didn’t know a thing about any of the players that were announced one by one, but that didn’t diminish the feeling of excitement that radiated through me as I awaited the start of the first period. I know very little about hockey, but I have enjoyed watching a few Dallas Stars games on television at home, but seeing a hockey game in person is such a different and rewarding experience. And this wasn’t even an NHL event.
Game Time: A Sloppy Start
After pregame ceremonies, including a school choir singing the Star Spangled Banner, the Houston Aeros and Chicago Wolves assumed their positions to start the first game of the Houston season. Chicago had just lost 3-2 against San Antonio on Saturday and now faced the 2010-2011 Western Conference Champions.
As I watched both teams whack the hockey puck around (and pound each other against the walls) I have to admit I started to lose interest. Several minutes of the 20-minute period went by and no score. I enjoyed watching a few good hits and one scuffle that was broken up by the refs, which was disappointing because the actual game was actually getting a bit dull.
I expected more from a championship caliber team, but during the first period The Houston Aeros played some sloppy hockey. They kept getting called on fouls and weren’t even getting close to making goals. I was beginning to wonder if the home team was going to impress this newcomer to hockey or suffer a loss from the apparent underdog.
The first period ended with zero points on either side.
Fan Participation = Entertainment
The Houston Aeros failed to impress during the first period of my first AHL hockey game, but they got me hooting and hollering during the second period. This time I was having a lot fun. The game got a lot more intense with the Houston Aeros scoring early to take the lead resulting in thousands of fans leaping to their feet, cheering, clapping, screaming and ringing their cowbells. Yes. Cowbells. That was a first for me… and to tell the truth all of those cowbells ringing around me ended up giving me a headache by the end of the night. It was worth it, though.
As unpleasant as the cowbells were, the fan participation was entertainment in itself. The event coordinators created fan participation by encouraging fist pumping, dancing, and singing YMCA (to name a few things) and rewarded them with video on the jumbo screens underneath the scoreboard. The reaction of some of the fans when they saw themselves on the screen was priceless. Superman even graced our presence; he was seated just a couple of rows and few seats over from where I sat.
Fan chants were among some of the most enjoyable part of the whole hockey experience, too. At first I had a hard time figuring out what the chant was, but after carefully listening to the chants (and seeing a couple of fans holding signs), I understood. After a member of the Chicago Wolves fouled and served a two-minute penalty, the Houston Aeros enjoyed a Power Play, which basically meant they enjoyed having one more player than the opposing team for a couple of minutes of play. After announcing the foul, the announcer yelled that the Houston Aeros had a power play, which was accompanied by cheering fans, music, and lots of flashy graphics around the arena. On the other hand, when Houston got nailed with a foul and the opposing team was awarded with a Power Play, the announcer simply stated that the Wolves had a Power Play. Then the fans would chant, “And they still suck!”
Houston Aeros Play Like Champions
The Houston Aeros played like champions during the second period of the game. Not only did they play more effectively as a team, but one of their players Casey Wellman scored twice, once after deflecting a slap shot and then what seemed like only a minute or so later scored again. Unfortunately, both of these scores were made at the goal on the other side of the rink, so I didn’t get to enjoy seeing the actual score very well, except when the replay was displayed on the jumbo screen.
By the end of the period, Houston claimed another goal to make it 3-0. Each time Houston scored the fans got involved in the game with another chant. After the announcer gave specifics and stats about the recent goal, the fans chanted, “One, two, three! He shoots! He scores! Hey, goalie! You suck!” Hearing thousands of fans chant that was priceless. I couldn’t help but laugh every time they chanted that and the chant when the opposing team had a Power Play.
Needless to say, the second period was a heck of a lot more enjoyable than the first. During the ten-minute intermission between the second and third periods, I took a break to stretch my legs and answer a call to nature… and to get feeling back in the gluteus maximus region. Seriously, those hard plastic seats are a literal pain in the butt!
Anyway, the last period of the game wasn’t quite as exciting as the second, but this time the Houston Aeros’ goal was on our side of the rink. Four minutes and thirteen seconds into the third period, the Chicago Wolves scored their first goal. As a matter of fact they played some very aggressive hockey during the last period and put the Houston Aeros in defensive mode for the majority of the period, but with about eight minutes left in the game, Matt “Hack” Hackett scored with one hell of a shot to make it 4-1 Houston. This time I got a clear view of the goal.
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Now what would a good hockey game be without seeing opponents duke it out on the ice? This game was no exception and had its share of fighting. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get my iPhone out in time to catch any of the action to share with my readers. There were three fights in all. The first fight occured early in the game, which was more of a shoving match than anything since the refs wouldn’t allow them to just duke it out. The next two fights occurred during the second period if I remember correctly, which made that period the most memorable one for many reasons. Technically the Houston Aeros could have been scored 5-0 in the second period: 3 goals and 2 TKOs. One fight in particular lasted a good minute or so. I remember seeing a hard hit, helmets flying and sliding across the ice, and then two hockey players pounding at each other like students fighting in the parking lot after school. This time the refs let them duke it out. The end result was a Chicago Wolf laying on his back with a Houston Aero attempting to continue punching him. At that point the refs intervened, the two fighters served their penalties, and the game resumed.
One kid that sat directly behind me was having the time of his life. He obviously didn’t really care about the game itself; all he wanted to see was the Sunday night fights at the Toyota Center. Every time there was a hard hit, the kid would yell, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” It was a little annoying at first, but ended up becoming quite amusing. I have a 35-second video on my iPhone where I filmed just a small clip of hockey action that included a pretty hard hit… and the little kid yelling, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” I’m sure he’s also the scout at school that scans the playground for the elementary school fights at the sandbox. Here’s the clip (at the hockey game, not the sandbox):
Traveling Nightmare Ends with a Great Game of Hockey
While the trip up to Houston was a nightmare, the end result was a great game of hockey and spending some quality time with a friend of mine from out of state. The Houston Aeros won their opening day game 4-1 against the Chicago Wolves, my gluteus maximus survived the plastic seats from hell, and I eventually made it back home alive with a souvenir hockey puck (and an oversized magnet). I’ll spare you the details about my experience with road blocks and a confused GPS when trying to leave downtown Houston. I eventually made it back to the hotel to drop off Jon and his coworker Ken and then headed back home at around 8:30 p.m.
My road trip on Sunday started at 9:30 a.m. with heavy rain and a stubborn GPS and ended at 10:55 p.m. with pleasantly dry roads and great memories when I finally pulled into my driveway at home. I can still hear those cowbells ringing in my ears, but I wouldn’t trade that day in Houston for anything. I had a great time.
In closing, watching a hockey game on TV may be enjoyable if you’re a hardcore hockey fan, but even if you’re not a hardcore fan, do yourself a favor… go see a hockey game in person. You’ll enjoy it!