By Collin Insley, Staff Writer

If the December 15th game between the Ontario Reign and Idaho Steelheads is the only professional non-charity hockey game I attend this year, that will be alright with me.

Not because I’m at peace with the labor strife threatening to swallow the NHL whole – far from it. The fact that the NHL owners and players are seemingly willing to watch and wave goodbye as yet another season washes away, for the second time in less than a decade, makes me feel physically ill and causes me to question my own love for the game.

But then I went to an ECHL game and was reminded that it isn’t the NHL that I love – it’s hockey. And hockey’s all around us. You just have to look for it (and maybe take a drive to the boonies).

I’m glad we made the trek – it was well worth it.

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On Saturday night, two of my hockey buddies and I left from Garden Grove, CA and headed Northwest towards Ontario, CA with the intention of watching a minor league hockey game.

The ECHL’s Ontario team, the Reign, was scheduled to take on Idaho’s entry in the league, the Steelheads.

The Ontario Reign are the ECHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. Per Wikipedia:

The Reign started as the Huntington Blizzard in 1993. After the 1999-2000 ECHL season, the team went dormant until 2003, when new owners bought the team and moved it to Beaumont, Texas as the Texas Wildcatters. The team played as the Wildcatters until they were unable to secure an arena lease in Beaumont. The team then relocated to Ontario for the 2008-09 ECHL season. The announcement of the franchise’s relocation came on February 26, 2008. The team was then renamed Ontario Reign and the team’s logo was unveiled on March 17, 2008.

Coming into Saturday night’s action, the Reign sat in second place in the ECHL’s Western conference with 35 points. Their opponent Idaho actually has more points than Ontario, but find themselves ranked third in the conference by virtue of the Reign currently leading their division (the Alaska Aces sit atop Idaho’s division, as well as the entire conference).

With the stage was set for a barn burner of a game, neither team would disappoint. The Reign thrilled the home town crowd while skating to a decisive 6-2 win led by Dan DaSilva and fan favorite Colton Yellow Horn (does this guy have the best name in all of pro hockey, or what?).

The game had it’s rough moments, with local product C.J. Stretch getting whistled for four minor penalties, and several almost-fights breaking out only to be stifled by the officiating crew, much to the disappointment of all in attendance. All in all, it was a pretty typical pro hockey game, for which I think everyone watching was grateful – not because of any particular incident, or outstanding play, but mostly for serving as a reminder that although the NHL may be dormant, there is still plenty of fun to be had at a hockey game if you’re willing to seek one out.

*           *           *

I wasn’t sure what to expect as we pulled up to Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena. I used to go to minor league hockey games all the time, when the Long Beach Ice Dogs and the IHL were will a thing. The arena the Ice Dogs played in was the Long Beach Convention Center, and I remember it being much, much colder and dingier than the friendly confines of the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. The seats were cheaper, the food seemingly staler, the crowd rarely close to full – but it was pro hockey, and I was ten years old, and it was capital-A Awesome.

Imagine my shock, then to pull up to Citizens Business Bank Arena and find a rather large, fancy and modern-looking arena. Granted, it’s no NHL-caliber stadium, but it’s certainly not the War Memorial Arena from “Slap Shot” either. And there were real, living people walking around in hockey jerseys – a lot of different variations of Reign jerseys throughout the years, but also a lot of NHL jerseys…lots of Kings, some Ducks, even some Bruins and Hartford Whalers sweaters. Again, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t this.

It all seemed just too normal. Having been to a pro hockey game or a hundred in my lifetime (mostly NHL), an unfortunate preconceived notion had formed in my head about not only the quantity but also the quality of fans to be found at minor league hockey games in Southern California. It’s not a completely absurd notion – the types of crowds that NHL hockey attracts in Southern California aren’t exactly known for their passion or wide knowledge base. It’s tough to fill up a 17,000-plus arena 41 times a year with passionate and knowledgeable hockey fans in an area where the sport is still in its relative infancy, and although there will always be die hards, the vast majority of paying spectators are simply looking for entertainment. Which is fine. Hockey is entertainment. But it’s always a little bit disappointing to be surrounded by people at a hockey game who don’t seem to really get it.

I stupidly thought that it would be even worse at an ECHL game, when in fact the exact inverse is true. It stands to reason. Think about it.

You’ve got to be a HUGE hockey fan to actively seek out minor league hockey in Southern California. The number of Southland residents even aware of the NHL Lockout is surely a depressingly low figure, but how many people do you think actually know that there are other pro hockey teams in the area not named the Kings or the Ducks? I’d wager not many. And so the crowd at the game was, in a word, awesome.

Several specific examples stick out:

- The mother and her two daughters sitting in front of us, at glass level, passionately pounding on the glass and shouting at players by name, screaming for fights. We’re talking nine, ten-years-old at maximum. That’s awesome!

- Another mother and her young son (sporting an Idaho Steelheads jersey) sitting next to us. The boy had two souvenir pucks in his hand the whole game, and paid exceptionally good attention until he started getting tired (and I’m sure frustrated by Idaho’s offensive woes).

- The fun give and take between the PA Announcer and fans, who seem to have developed several traditions, my favorite of which being that whenever an Ontario power play ended, the PA Announcer would, in a depressed voice, forlornly announce, “Idaho’s back at full strength…” and the crowd members in the know would shout back, “And They Still Suck!”

It was all a tremendous amount of fun. The tickets were outrageously cheap ($25/ticket, four rows from the glass) and the hockey was entertaining (adding intrigue were several NHLers suited up for action, including Devin Setoguchi, Nick Johnson and Paul Mara). Before this I never would’ve been able to imagine how nice it would be to once again drink flat beer and eat bad stadium food. But boy, was it great.

If you haven’t been to a pro-level hockey game yet this season, do yourself a favor and seek out the closest professional (or closest to professional, as it were) hockey team near you, and go. Go and support local hockey. Trust me, you’ll love it. It may even remind you why you love the game so much.

I’ve grown slightly apathetic over the course of this most recent lockout, and I really hate that. Hockey has played (and I would imagine will continue to play) a huge role in my life, and it depresses me to no end that the NHL’s owners and players can’t seem to agree on what’s good for the game. However, watching two teams from North America’s second tier minor hockey league duke it out on a Saturday night in Ontario has reaffirmed my love for the sport, and reminded me that while the NHL may be able to keep fans from enjoying its product, it can’t keep fans from enjoying hockey for what it is: the most exciting and entertaining sport on the planet, no matter how flat the beer or stale the food…oh, who am I kidding – I love the flat beer and stale food, too!

About The Author

I'm a lifelong hockey fan and resident of Southern California, where I grew up playing the game in the streets and rinks in my community. In an effort to get more involved with the local hockey community, I started my own hockey blog, SoCal Puck, which led to my being invited to write for The Hockey Writers and now Sunbelt Hockey Journal as a contributor. I currently play on several beer league roller hockey teams in my area.

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