If the truth be told, I haven't been a huge fan of hockey. I enjoy the continuous action, for sure, and the speed, along with the fantastic team play. It's just that sometimes the puck seems to go too danged fast for me to keep up.
"He shoots, he scores!" Fantastic. But did the puck go beneath the goalie’s left-hand catching glove or over the top of his right shoulder? Things happen so fast.
The Saginaw Spirit junior hockey franchise already is entering its 10th anniversary season in the Ontario Hockey League. This seems to have happened fairly fast as well. I've been a sort of distant, few-games-per-season supporter. But thanks to Saginaw's own Mr. Hockey, Larry Coulouris from Thunder Bay way up in northwest Ontario, I should be able to capture more enjoyment from this season's games at TheDow Event Center.
Larry is an octogenarian who still plays slo-puck at Bay County Ice Arena and volunteers to supervise one of the penalty boxes during Spirit contests at Wendler Arena. He says I should not worry that I cannot see the puck in the same manner as a big orange basketball or even a plump brown football. Even trained observers sometimes lose sight of the puck's fast flight for a moment, he notes, especially down at ice level.
"Watch a certain player, not always the guy with the puck," Larry advises. "Put him into a sort of isolation. Watch what he does when he doesn't have the puck. Check how he skates into open areas." Makes sense.
I asked Larry and a few players for tips on watching a Saginaw Spirit game and for reasons why spectators should enjoy themselves. Here is a quartet of other reasons:
1) Tickets are priced as low as $13.50 (with $2 off for senior citizens over 62 and for students; $3 off for children ages 3 to 12) and to me that's a better deal, or date, than a movie or a dinner at one of those chain restaurants.
2) The most distant seat at our small-town Wendler Arena would be among the closest 25 percent at Joe Louis Arena.
3) Local enterprises deserve support.
4) You can really impress a significant other, or a prospective significant other, with your immense knowledge of icing and offsides and the difference between tripping and hooking. Plus, the team is steadily improving, which means the games should be especially entertaining during this 10th anniversary season.
The Spirit last winter won the OHL's West Division regular season crown for the first time, and the squad advanced to the conference playoff semifinals, which is the equivalent of making college basketball's Final Four.
In fact, Saginaw's own Brad Walch, a Spirit defenseman, suggests that hometown fans should regard the Spirit as the equivalent of a top college squad. After all, junior teams are one of the main suppliers of National Hockey League talent.
"We're just like college football. The Cam Newtons of hockey play in the OHL," Brad says, referring to the Auburn University quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy and became pro football's top draft choice.
Indeed, NHL teams have drafted 38 Spirit players from the first nine seasons, including seven on the squad for the upcoming season. Brad is not among them, but approaching his 21st birthday in January, he still has hopes, and has been invited to rookie camps conducted by the Detroit Red Wings and the Winnipeg Jets.
The seven Spirit standouts with NHL draft credentials (drafting teams in parentheses) are forwards Anthony Camara (Boston Bruins), John McFarland and Vince Trocheck (Florida Panthers), Brandon Saad (Chicago Blackhawks), and Josh Shalla (Nashville Predators, along with defensemen Brandon Archibald (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Jamie Oleksiak (Dallas Stars).
During the start of each season, the Spirit must compete with King Football to maintain fan loyalty. Football definitely is No. 1 in the United States, just as hockey is No. 1 in Canada. Football's dominance in the U.S. has always been a mystery to me, because the game actually moves fairly slowly. Researchers have reported that the ball is in play for less than 10 minutes during a typical game.
"In football (like hockey) there's a lot of hitting," Brad says, "but in football there are a lot of stops and starts, while in hockey things are always moving. Also, there are people who have never put on skates and hockey players are moving much faster than they may realize."
Back in 1972-73, I was a teenage usher for the first season of the old Saginaw Gears. Local folks were just starting to learn about hockey, and when goals were scored they would clap and applaud in the manner of golf fans. The only occasions for "crowd roars" seemed to be for the fights. But nowadays, the fans seem to be more into the action.
John McFarland, who hails from the Toronto area, says the Saginaw fans have grown to the point where they now outdo some of the crowds in the Ontario cities. "The best part of a crowd is when they are enthusiastic and behind you," John says. "We have one of the better fan groups in the league. I've been to OHL cities where they are just dead."
Fan support helps the Spirit draw players who otherwise may have preferred to remain closer to their Canadian hometowns.
"I could have gone anywhere I wanted this season, but I wanted to be part of this organization," John says. "We pretty much spend 75 percent of our time with the hockey team, and 25 percent in our billet home."
He promises that the Spirit will reward their fans during the 10th anniversary season.
"We're going to be a gritty, hard-working, tough team," he proudly states.