In the year and a half-ish that we’ve had this site, I, Ron, had never been to a Southern Professional Hockey League game prior to this past weekend, this despite writing numerous pieces about the league and the news coming out it.
And sure, in the past I’d had the SPHL streaming package and watched games that way, but that’s nothing like being in the actual arena at a game, as any hockey fan will tell you.
This wasn’t a personal choice to have never made it to a game, it just was there was never a team near me prior to October. Living in Michigan until 2014 made it almost impossible to get to a game, and then moving to Montana and Texas didn’t exactly make it any easier to make a quick trip to a game. But moving back to be near my wife’s family in Alabama, we now have five teams within five ours of our home, including the two Alabama teams straight up or down the highway from us.
Now, one of the site’s co-founders is at SPHL’s games literally every weekend of the season, so it’s not like the stories we did were just guesses and making assumptions from afar, but for me personally, the chance to finally get out and see the SPHL gave me new appreciation for the league, its teams, and the players who take the ice every weekend.
From the moment I walked into the Pelham Civic Complex (more on this arena later in the week), it felt like I was back home. I grew up in Muskegon, a town that had minor league hockey for 50 years before moving to junior hockey, and the familiar feel of a small arena packed with fans decked out in team gear and various jerseys from all the promo nights the team has held since starting up in the Birmingham area brought back feelings and a brand of hockey I hadn’t been around since the Muskegon Fury of the old UHL closed up shop.
The fans in section 108 brought energy, and made it feel loud and exciting all game long, despite there were only 1900 and change in the building that night.
Let me explain the headline above where I called the play “refreshing.” Because this was the type of hockey that can be loved by a hard-core fan, or just a casual fan who goes to have a few beers. You watch the NHL or even AHL, and it’s so structured that every game can sort of feel the same. Pucks in deep, traffic in front, finish you check, all those boring lines that players and coaches say every night at the top of the hockey world.
The SPHL has enough structure where if you’re someone who wants to break down the plays or systems in the offensive and defensive zones, but it also has plenty of chaos that adds a of excitement. In one game I saw numerous bad turnovers, goalies who can’t quite handle all the rebounds but made a ton of great saves, tons of extras after the whistle, slick passing through the neutral zone, and then great individual efforts that you don’t get to see when you play North American dump and chase all game. It was a 4-1 game that felt closer than the final score, and one that had me entertained from puck drop the the announcement of the three stars of the game.
It was hockey that you could go to by yourself and enjoy, bring a date who knows nothing about hockey to because it was that entertaining, or bring the whole family to because there is literally something for every age group at the game. And there just aren’t a lot of pro sports out there that offer that type of experience anymore.
All of that for tickets that start at around $10 in some rinks, that’s more than fair for a night out.
Are you watching guys who are destined for the NHL? Probably not, but there are still tons of guys who played major junior, or NCAA Division 1 hockey, and are 10x the hockey player you or I could ever dream of being, and who bring a lot of skills and passion to the ice. And to be able to watch it at the price we mentioned above, it feels like a steal.
Our site’s other co-founder, Shawn, touched on this long ago at the site, but these aren’t leagues and teams that should just be taken for granted. It’s a different brand of hockey, and it was awesome to walk into the rink Friday night and see that hockey like I remembered growing up with was still around. And with so many teams close to where I live now, basically the heart of the SPHL map, I cannot wait to get back out to more games, and see more rinks and what the other SPHL towns have to offer.
If you haven’t, do yourself a favor, get out to a game, and support your local team, it’s well worth the time and money, and should feel very familiar to anybody who grew up around minor league hockey.