Let the Games Begin

Friday, December 10, 2010 Road Junkies 0 Comments

SOUTHEASTERN HOCKEY ODYSSEY, CHAPTER 1.
  
Game 1: Mississippi Surge vs. Louisiana Ice Gators in Biloxi
  
Having been season ticket holders for the Atlanta Flames NHL team back in the 1970s and 1980s, we became enthusiastic ice hockey fans.  We marvel at the skills it takes for players to maneuver a 3-inch rubber disk around on a sheet of ice with a stick, pass it accurately to a teammate, and shoot it into a goal only slightly bigger than the goaltender.  Even more amazing, they're doing all this while ice skating, half the time backward.

Our first ice hockey road trip took place in 1977, when we drove our little VW Rabbit around the snowy Midwest catching games in Indianapolis and Chicago, and missing our planned game in St. Louis after getting stuck in a snowstorm in rural Indiana.  We still remember the adventure and decided we were overdue for a repeat.  In 2010, the Southeast hosts enough minor league teams to allow us to create a tour closer to home.  Since our tour encompasses the Christmas holiday, we'll follow the teams into a break around the 25th and take advantage of the opportunity to do some letterboxing in the New Orleans and Mobile areas.

The first game of the 2010 tour took us to Biloxi to see a Southern Professional Hockey League game.  The SPHL was formed in 2004 from the remnants of three short-lived, defunct minor leagues.  Teams tend to come and go, and this season the league has seven teams.  In terms of level of play, the SPHL is on the bottom rung of the minor league ladder.  

The league just below major league hockey—the National Hockey League—is the American Hockey League (AHL), rated 'AAA', the top of the professional minor leagues.  Players who move from the minors to the big league (or vice versa) almost always come from the AHL. The next level, 'AA' minor league hockey, is the ECHL (formerly East Coast Hockey League, now just ECHL).  And below that is the SPHL, the equivalent of 'A' level hockey.   

SPHL rosters are filled with young players who have aged out of amateur junior hockey but not made it to a higher level of professional play and with older players who have peaked and are no longer needed by minor league teams at upper levels.  Essentially, SPHL players tend to be a  bunch of guys who love the game and give their all every night for way too little money before boarding the bus to ride to the next game.  They play with a lot of heart and are entertaining to watch.

On our drive to the Mississippi coast, we located five letterboxes, enjoying a couple of short hikes in parts of the DeSoto National Forest and one of Mississippi's state parks.  We marveled at the vast network of forest service roads (pictured above) that crisscross the national forest areas.  Some were even known to our GPS.  For one letterbox, we drove four miles out one road before turning on another which took us another 1.2 miles to a place where the Black Creek Trail crossed the road.  These roads have dirt surfaces but are very well maintained and for the most part surprisingly smooth.  Our tax dollars at work!
  
Unlike most tourists to the Mississippi Gulf coast, we did not visit any casinos but headed straight to the Mississippi Coast Convention Center to watch Biloxi's Mississippi Surge play the Lousiana Ice Gators from Lafayette.  Last season was the first for this new hockey team, and the selection of Surge as the team name was not without controversy since so much was lost in this coastal area to the Katrina storm surge.  Team owners assured the public that the team's name refers not to a storm surge but to "a high voltage hockey team with a surge of electricity." 
  
The opening face-off of period 2
Based on our arbitrary decision to support the home team at the games we attend, we cheered the Surge on as the teams played a scoreless game through the first two periods.  Finally with less than eight minutes left in the final period, the Surge scored their first goal.  They scored again a few minutes later and won the game 2-0.  Mississippi's talented goaltender Dan Earles kept his team in the game through the first two periods, executing one impressive save after another.  Mississippi is currently tied with Pensacola for the top spot in the SPHL standings. 
  
Surge mascot "Shock" likes to hitch a ride from the Zamboni between periods
Though the team is in first place and finished last year's inaugural season at the top of the league, losing the championship to Huntsville, attendance at tonight's game was dismal.  Even with a large contingent of military personnel in the area, the team's average attendance has been hovering around 2,000.  Perhaps the locals are still annoyed about the team mascot.  Or the many casinos in the area offer too much competition.  But at $17 per ticket for excellent seats, we found the game to be very entertaining and an exceptional value.

DAILY STATS
  • Miles driven:  195
  • Miles walked:  3.25
  • Letterboxes found:  5
  • Temp range:  18° to 49° F.

GAME STATS
  • Mississippi 2—Louisiana 0
  • Shots on goal:  69
  • Penalty minutes:  26
  • Broken sticks:  2
  • Loose pucks:  2
  • Punches thrown:  17
  • Zamboni loops around the rink:  30
  • Attendance:  :-(
FRIDAY, 10 DECEMBER 2010