THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: Helloooo, Rockford!

By:
11/28/2007 3:18 PM -

 

By Chad Huebner

This is a momentous time for me, fair readers. This is the first time this column has gone trans-continental, as I welcome the Rockford (Illinois) IceHogs and their fans to my column. Yes, since my column is on the Internet on a regular basis, it could be considered a worldwide column. But the only places to read my column online are a bunch of British teams and now one American team. Ahh, the Brits and Yanks are coming together. It’s like Reagan and Thatcher, "Dubya" and Blair, or “The Office” (our version) and “The Office” (British version).

To truly welcome Rockford to this column, I guess I better explain who the heck I am, and how I got to write about one of my favorite sports on a weekly basis. First, I’m a hockey fan. Not a former player, coach, or one who works for a hockey organ-I-zation. Apparently, I’m a rare breed when it comes to this. Growing up in the Northwest Suburbs of Illinois (Prospect Heights) I started watching hockey in the mid-80s, when the Chicago Bears weren’t playing, and there wasn’t much else to do during the wintertime, sports wise. I watched the USA Network, who carried a big bulk of the games, endlessly enthralled by the voice of Tom Mees, one of the finest hockey broadcasters in the business. You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Blackhawks yet, and that’s probably because I just considered myself a hockey fan. And an ardent Edmonton Oilers hater. Man, they were so good, it was a crime. And that little water bug, what'shisname. . . Gretzky, yeah, I hated him most of all. “The Great One”, oooooooo! Yeah, whatever!

My sweetest memory was the 1986 playoff series between the Calgary Flames and the hated Oilers. Both clubs swept their opening round matchups, but many experts picked the Oilers to roll over the Flames in their quest for a Stanley Cup three peat. But the Flames were an up and coming squad, led by the Mr. Heatmeiser look-alike, Lanny McDonald. Calgary even had a 3-2 series lead at one point, but as all good classic Cup series went, this one would go the full seven games. The Flames won the clincher on a goal that bounced off the back of the goalie and into the net. I was just elated that someone other than the Oilers would be winning the Cup that year, but I wasn’t expecting the Flames to go all the way to the Cup Finals. The feel good story of the postseason came up a bit short, as the Flames had their championship dreams doused by the Montreal Canadiens in a short, yet closely played, five-game series.

But there was about a 10-year period I ignored hockey for the most part, focusing my winter sports attention on basketball-mainly, the Chicago Bulls. Ummm, yeah, they had a pretty good run in the 90s, didn’t they?

When the Bulls started going downhill, I found myself watching hockey, especially the Blackhawks more and more. And that’s where I’ve been the past decade, catching as many games I can despite not signing up for the NHL Center Ice package. There’s certainly been enough criticism by the NHL for letting its national TV package go from ESPN (who seemed to have a game nearly every night, and a super show, NHL 2Night, the rest of the time) to Versus (who only have games Monday and Tuesday, and seem to have an unhealthy infatuation with the East Coast teams) and NBC (who don’t start covering the season until after the first of the year, though their playoff coverage is quite impressive). But at least there’s some hockey out there for me to follow.

So why the heck is this column called “The Far Side of the Pond”? Well, when I started writing about hockey, I was only doing it for British hockey clubs. I figured since I was writing from “across the pond”, why not use that in the column heading? “The Far Side” part comes from my love for the Gary Larson comic strip (sorry, I seem to be getting misty-eyed now. . . give me a moment. . . okay, I’m fine now), and also the fact I’m writing this from a weird, fan perspective, not part of the group on the pond, but from the other side.

How did I come by this gig? I’ve always wanted to work for a sports team in some capacity, and one year not too long ago, decided to include other English-speaking countries in the search. This took me to the British hockey clubs. While some of the teams couldn’t or in some way weren’t able to find work for me, they did want someone to write about North American hockey. So, voila! Here I am. Sadly kids, this ain’t a paying gig (though maybe one day. . . one day. . .), but I do like the fact that potentially thousands of people can read what I have to say.

So what do I have to say? Other than talking about myself (and I’m not the only sports columnist to do this, trust me) I just love talking about hockey. Now, I may not know the intricacies of the game (if you asked me to explain what a “left-wing lock is”, I’ll probably say “What’s that over there?” and quickly run away), but I do appreciate fine play, be it offensive mastery or defensive toughness, be it a goal scored from the seat of the pants, to a hip check flattening the unfortunate player against the boards like a pancake. It’s the only sport I know that combines speed, physicality and accuracy, and I love every minute of it.

Well, except for the early to late 90s in the NHL, when scoring was a premium, but other than that. . .

I do have a connection with the Rockford IceHogs, as I was an off-ice official during the 2003-04 season. I live in Mount Prospect, so I could only help out a handful of games. Nevertheless, it was a sweet experience, getting my own press pass, working up in the press box of the MetroCentre, and oh yeah, all the free food. (I also won’t embarrass myself by belting out a few lines from “My Zamboni”, but I still like the song.) The man who got me that gig, and who’s letting me write for the IceHogs, is the voice of the IceHogs, Mike Peck. It’s been said that hockey is a fun sport, but a nasty business. Mike is one of those few people who makes it a pleasure to deal with the IceHogs organ-I-zation. Thanks Mike, and I’ll expect my season tickets any day now.

To my British fans, you’re probably wondering about Rockford, Illinois. I’ll assume in this day and age of online information, you can find the city on a map. Otherwise (and I hope to God I’m not stepping on any toes with this one), Rockford is to Chicago as Coventry is to London.

For you American fans, you can stop scratching your head now.

Ahh, Rockford, such a nice little city to visit. It’s home not only to the IceHogs, but also the rock group Cheap Trick. I won’t even try to quote any Cheap Trick lyrics to describe my feelings about Rockford, as I don’t think I’d do this justice. That, and I pretty much only know “Dream Police” and “Surrender.”

Rockford’s also home to one of the best steak places, at least in my opinion. If you’re ever in town, you have to, I mean absolutely HAVE TO, eat at Maria’s Italian Café. Located in a neighborhood south and west of the MetroCentre, just minutes away, Maria’s is home to one of the best steak meals you’ll ever have, trust me. You get fed tons of Italian salad, bread and pasta, and all of that is a meal in of itself. But save room for the steak, because it’s tied for the best steak I’ve ever had in my entire life. And you only have to pay $25 for all of this! I’m not kidding, go check it out sometime, it’ll be a great to begin or end a night of IceHogs hockey.
(Now, along with waiting for my season tickets, I guess I can expect that free steak dinner any day now. Yeah, riiiiight.)

Just as this is the first time for me to write for Rockford, this also represents the IceHogs first year in the American Hockey League, the League that’s one step below the NHL. The IceHogs are also in their first year of affiliation with the Blackhawks, and what great timing. With all the young talent the ‘Hawks have picked up over the last few years, I’ll bet you IceHog fans will be treated to a high level of play for some time to come. Not like you weren’t before, when you played in the UHL for over a decade, but come on, Jack Skille? Imagine a line with him, Johnny Toews (and yes, I thought his last name was pronounced “toes” at first) and Patrick Kane. I’ll call that line the “S-T-ic-K (Skille-Toews-Kane) line.” Ohhhh yeahhhhh.

Ummm, anyway, you Rockford fans are used to great hockey. It’s no wonder that you should be included in the AHL elite. Hey, if Manchester, New Hampshire and Lowell, Mass. can field AHL teams, why can’t you?

Though it seems like I’m lavishing the Blackhawks organ-I-zation with nothing but praise, keep in mind I’m a fan of the team, first and foremost. Ask the Brit fans, and they’ll tell you I’ve been less than enamored with the way the club has been run for a long time. “Dollar Bill” Wirtz was like Voldemort to me. It’s 2007 and finally, FINALLY, we’re able to watch home games on regular TV. And while I can drool over youngsters (ooh, that didn’t sound right, sorry) like Skille-Toews-Kane, the cynical ‘Hawk fan says that I saw this before with Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell and Kyle Calder (the “A-B-C line”) not too long ago, and where are they now? I just hope we can have a happy mix of promising youngsters and steady vets.

(And I also hope GM Dale Tallon doesn’t track me down and give me a forearm shiver for writing this. Yeah, I really don’t want to tick off the first-ever draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks.)

It’s funny that I’m writing this very long (but very interesting) column while watching a Blackhawks-Predators game. It’s the battle of IceHog affiliations, past and present. Hawks are leading 2-1, so I like the ‘Hawks organ-I-zation for now. Oops, make that 3-1, ‘Hawks. Yep, were going to the Stanley Cup Finals, whoooo-hooooo!

Okay, maybe I’ll just call my renewed excitement for the ‘Hawks “cautious optimism”. Let’s see where I am in a few months from now.

Time to end this landmark column, and I figure why not end this by mentioning something about the latest Hockey Hall of Fame class: Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Al McInnis and Mark Messier. Put all four on the ice at one, and I’d throw down my stick and run away like a sissy. As I said before, I started watching hockey in the mid 80s, and these were among the many impact players I was honored to watch. They are all Cup champions, are all hard workers on the ice, and all are brilliant examples of leadership. “Mess” obviously is the best example of the bunch in that last category. He started with the hated Oilers (though I eventually came to like Gretzky. . . after he left Edmonton, of course), playing with Coffey. Mess went on to break a 54-year Cup drought with the New York Rangers (and the famous “guarantee” before Game 6 of the Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils), while Coffey helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win back-to-back championships in the early 90s. Oh yeah, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr “contributed” in their own small way. Ron Francis went from the most well-known Hartford Whaler ever, to joining Coffey and co. in their title run. And finally, McInnis finally gave Calgary a championship, against those very same Canadiens. He also had the fastest shot for a long time (clocked somewhere between 104 mph and light speed).

This is the time I mention my e-mail address, so you can fire back at me, or heck, just have a question to answer (maybe even the rare pat on the back for a job well done). E-mail me at chadhuebner1972@yahoo.com, and I might use your e-mail in an upcoming column. Sorry, you don’t win anything for that, other than exposure on a Net-wide scale and my grudging respect.




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