Monday, October 21, 2002
My first road trip to San Angelo was inadvertent. I had just started working on Zamboni Rodeo, and the Bats had a Thursday home game, followed by a four-city, 10-day Western swing. San Angelo is only three hours from Austin, so I presumed the team would skate the Expo Center Friday, then hit the road. But during post-game interviews, I found out the bus was leaving in an hour. With no laptop and no clothing, I did not get on it. Instead I got myself a one-way rental car on Friday afternoon and made what became the first of many happy journeys.
At the time, the other nearby hockey cities -- Waco, Central Texas and Fort Worth -- meant IH-35 and traffic (when the Bats played Waco on the day before Thanksgiving, the bus left five hours before game time for what would usually be a 90 minute trip). Austin to Llano to Brady is mostly hills and green; the last hour is West Texas flatland and an unlikely four-lane highway. As I've already mentioned, a stop at Cooper's BBQ is mandatory. Before Christmas, the Brady town square sparkles after dark. And one of these days, I'm going to spend more than two minutes in Eden, a town of approximately 1500 people that is also home to nearly as many federal prisoners at the private detention center. Eden also means Venison World, which reminds me -- drivers need to be especially alert after a night game, lest you make your own venison tartare with the front end of your vehicle. I once passed more than 100 deer in two hours heading home.
So, San Angelo. Many thought this town would go the way of Abilene and Waco -- it's the smallest market in the CHL, and attendance numbers weren't good. The place absolutely rocked the first two seasons, with vocal crowds, the WPHL's first signature line and everybody's favorite back-up goalie. It would be easy to assume the novelty wore off. But in reality owner Dick Moore wore out everybody's trust and patience. On the ice, Moore and his son Skeeter "won" a power struggle with Shaun Clouston. That cost them the coach who got their franchise to the finals, and many players along with him. Behind the scenes, management found a way to tick off lots of other folks. San Angelo is not a big place. If you alienate the insurance agent who has two season tickets, or the restaurant owner who used to buy an ad, chances are you've alienated a dozen of their friends and colleagues too.
By last year, crowds (actual, not announced) often hovered at 1000. But the team was decent, and the core fans' passion never waned. They loved the game, and weren't going to punish the players for how they felt about the owner. Because of that enthusiastic support (as well as the best corner sightlines in the league) the Coliseum remained a fun place to watch hockey. On a personal note, I sold more books there than any other city besides Austin, which, on a per capita basis, is pretty darn amazing.
I'm not going to recap the Outlaws to Saints saga any further. Rick Taylor wrote a very evenhanded summary of the Moore regime over the summer. Hans Hornstein's previous version of the Death Pool includes further Standard-Times links that reconstruct what happened. And if you missed the Moores' final salvo, in which they (legally) repossessed most of the rink and (ludicrously) tried to sell it to the new team for almost a million bucks, then hijacked Ronayne's misdelivered goalie gear, go back to last week's Farm Report.
On Friday, there were definitely more people milling and longer ticket lines than I'd seen in a long time. But what I noticed most was the near-total lack of Outlaws jerseys. Either there were a lot of casual fans, which is great, or people had already put the old behind them. Some wore their Outlaws gear with tape X-ing out the logo. And lots of folks expected to see a member of the Moore family about, ready to make trouble, or claim ownership of a random chair or block of wood.
I'd be lying if I said the night lived up to my sky-high expectations. Reported attendance was just under 3000, but that's understandable. There were two football games that night (one next door), and even teams that don't have to recapture an entire fan base don't draw as well in October as they might after Thanksgiving (look at Oklahoma City's weekend numbers -- you know you've got it good when less than 10,000 feels like a disappointment). Instead of a unified, hysterical crowd, you had a mix of die-hard fans, as happy and enthused as ever, and curiousity-seekers, there for a little fun and unfamiliar with the tortured saga ("So why aren't they the Outlaws anymore?" I heard a guy in the men's room say).
Overall, I think people were just happy to see hockey and maybe a little dazed, like they weren't gonna believe things actually worked out until the first game ran its course. I'm sure the 10 men and women of the new Saints ownership felt much the same. The organization deserves a big round of applause for getting the night off without a hitch, considering they had no boards, glass or ice two weeks ago. Center ice was still unpainted, and the team wore white sweaters in the old color scheme, with just a diagonal "San Angelo" down the chest (actual Saints jerseys will show up in November). The PA announcer accidentally said "Outlaws" only once that I noticed, drawing a lighthearted mix of laughs and boos. The only thing they couldn't control was weather -- thunder and lightning caused a power outage with less than three minutes remaining in the final period, a bizarre moment that had everybody wondering if the Moores were outside with wire cutters.
As for the game, everyone was impressed with rookie Cory Pecush, who did not look out of place among the scorers. And after a solid season last year, Kori Davison looks primed to up his offense even further, while still tending to the rough stuff. He scored the first Saints goal, and set up the third with a no-quit, on-his-knees attempt that Jarett Metz cleaned up. Jamie Thompson was merely another solid player for two periods. Then, just as Shea Harris turned to me and said, "I really want to see Thompson do something special," he zipped the fourth goal past Matt Carmichael, then added on an empty-netter.
El Paso showed the same hustle that characterized the last two Buzzards squads, but were simply undermanned. Having officially begun the season with 16 players, coach Craig Coxe added defensemen Pat Glenday (waived by Austin, partly because of the Bats' rookie/veteran mix) and Jeff Potter (waived by Corpus Christi). But with more than half the game on special teams, top blueliners Jason Tessier and Rhett Dudley put in playoff-level minutes and the top two forward groups also double-shifted, with Joe Gray spotting here and there. Jeff Scharf and captain Russ Guzior looked good on the first line and Troy Linna and Derrell Upton, who formed the second line with Jeremy Vokes, are the same dedicated guys I remember from last year's Conference Finals. But I'm guessing Coxe is not done making roster changes (not that any coach is ever done with that, especially at this level). The Buzz need another scoring forward, which could allow either Linna or Upton to team with Gray and a rookie for a useful checking unit. Barring that, Coxe needs a third-liner or two that he can trust to eat up ice time.
Brahmas rookie Lee Jacobson in the Dallas Morning News: "I think what we as young players bring to the team is that we know playing hockey is the best job in the world. How can you argue with that?" Can't argue with two wins, either.
SLAM! hockey columnist Steve Simmons: "'Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?' In court, Bobby Clarke said: 'I do.' And nobody laughed." We did now!
Talk about coincidence -- earlier this month, Shaun Clouston (with the Tri-City Amerks) and Cory Clouston (with the Kootenay Ice) became the first brothers in 24 years to coach against each other in the WHL. The last two? Doug and Mike Sauter.
I kinda figure everybody's seen the naked guy already, but maybe not (thanks to Blazer_Dad for the link).
And finally, how excited is this fan gonna be about the Buzzards' new play-by-play man? (Hint: it's not me).
Guess I'll get to the Ice Bats' weekend Tuesday.