Roadrunning the Sundogs

Prescott Valley, AZ – It was much like a little brother aching to prove to their more worldly sibling that they belonged. The Central Hockey League Arizona Sundogs scratched, clawed and battled their ECHL Phoenix RoadRunner rivals in two exhibition games October 12th and 13th, but in the end, exited exhausted and empty-handed.

The first-ever meetings between Arizona’s only minor league hockey teams – barely 100 miles apart but in talent seemingly much further – was an opportunity for the second-year Prescott Valley CHL franchise to prove its mettle against the big-city RoadRunners. The venerated Phoenix club, Arizona’s first professional franchise in any sport, first laced up in 1967, folded up in 1997, then reappeared as an ECHL club in 2005. Owned by the NBA Phoenix Suns, they are certainly the state’s minor league big brothers.

But the Sundogs aren’t weak siblings. Last year’s debut CHL campaign found a rabid, loyal following in Prescott Valley, a beautiful new arena and expertly staged games. The level of play was unexpectedly high for the Sundogs, especially for a first-year franchise, and thus the stage was set to test their product against their Phoenix sibling.

So the “we’ll show ‘em” attitude permeating Saturday’s match-up reminded me fully of the NHL-WHA exhibition games of the late 1970s. The World Hockey Association, successfully launching their own major league in 1972 despite attempted interference from the National Hockey League, won a series of subsequent court battles against the furious NHL, and the scheduling of exhibition games between the leagues was mandated in the court settlements. Those late 1970s pre-season games were mini-wars, as WHA clubs were determined to show that their brand of hockey stood just as tall as the NHL. Surprisingly, at least to NHL teams, the WHA won a convincing majority of those exhibition games.

So after dropping the initial game 4-1 on Friday, October 12th, The Sundogs changed up their roster and attacked Saturday’s rubber match with enthusiasm and grit. The subplot of this drama was the fact that these two inter-league games were scheduled after only four days of training camp by the Sundogs. With about half of the training camp roster as new arrivals, blending a team feel and whittling a final roster was of more immediate concern than actual game preparation. And that ragged early-season feel showed, both in disjointed game flow and spotty player conditioning.

The RoadRunners were battling the same types of pre-season challenges, with only five returning players from last year’s roster. Using game conditions to create some team identity would be just as important as anything else for this pre-season weekend.

For most of Saturday night the Sundogs huffed and puffed and skated their hearts out, while Phoenix seemed to pay attention intermittently and show flashes of effort occasionally. “Little brother is a pest, but will be put in his place eventually,” seemed the attitude on the RoadRunners bench, even as little brother took swings at them.

Sundogs coach Marco Pietroniro took advantage of the teaching opportunity, passionately taking players aside after giving up each goal to explain how they can handle those situations differently during season play. But as the Sundogs showed their competitive mettle, and managed to stay even on the scoreboard into the second period, Pietroniro allowed his pot to boil over. Loudly unappreciative of referee Mark Lemelin, Pietroniro finally said too much, and was first given an unsportsmanlike minor penalty, then an ejection. Clapping sarcastically at the ref while leaving the ice, and giving a verbal snipe to the RoadRunners goalie as well, Pietroniro lost sight of the larger picture: with more than half the Sundogs’ last pre-season game left to play, he deprived himself of the teaching opportunity to guide his boys when they could have learned the most.

The Sundogs responded by winning a series of fights, the second of which energized the bench and carried them to a third period lead. Little brother was rubbing dirt into the RoadRunners face, and the aggression kettle on the RoadRunners’ bench began its own slow boil – the visiting ECHL squad perked up and started to pay attention, finally.

Seemingly toying with the Sundogs for most of the game, Phoenix scored a series of skill goals in the third period while Arizona literally doubled over and gasped for air. The game seemed salted away 6-4 late in the final period, and Phoenix went back into sleep mode, awakening at the final buzzer to see the score knotted at six and the Sundogs on the power play to start the overtime period.

The ‘Dogs gave a good push on their OT power play, draining whatever energy reserve they had, but quickly surrendered an easy game-winner to Phoenix soon after the teams returned to full strength. The threat of post-game ugliness hung in the air, but eventually the teams traded reluctant, awkward handshakes. The RoadRunners collected their trophy for winning the series two games to none, seemed to collectively yawn, and exited for better competition in the ECHL.

The good news: A Phoenix-Prescott Valley hockey rivalry is born. The bad news, at least for the Sundogs: it was painfully obvious that the ECHL product was superior to their CHL offering, and the Sundogs’ talent level may not have not progressed much from season one to season two. How will the Sundogs roster react to that unpleasant image in their team mirror? Stay tuned.

As a barometer for the Arizona Sundogs as a big-game host, Saturday’s contest also showed some cracks in the franchise’s mortar. The 5,000 seat arena was only half full for a Saturday night match against the Sundogs’ best competition ever, a great surprise for a community that went bonkers for the team only a few months earlier. Some arena and team staff members were unaware of game night procedures, or were downright rude to media. Part of the recipe for long-term success in pro hockey is to treat people professionally, especially those who wish to help a franchise succeed. I’ll leave that line of my Arizona Sundogs scorecard blank for now.

But this was just an exhibition. How the Sundogs and RoadRunners react to this Arizona hockey-sibling skirmish will determine how the actual 2007-08 season unfolds, both at the box office and on the ice.

Author Timothy Gassen’s new hockey book, “Red, White & Blues” is available at fine book stores and at whaRACERS.com.

©2007 Timothy Gassen, info@whaRACERS.com

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