The California ECHL Experience

It was 74 degrees in Southern California Friday, so any hope of finding a frozen pond and playing some pickup hockey was out of the question. The NHL, as you know, doesn’t currently exist. So where to get a hockey fix?

The ECHL, naturally. Now before you ask why the East Coast Hockey League is being discussed in the same sentence as California, please note that the league has, since 2003, been named simply “ECHL,” with no “eastern” involved. Looking at a roster of teams tells you why: they span the country from Florida to Alaska , with the closest two to Los Angeles being Ontario, CA, and Bakersfield. The Ontario squad is called the “Reign,” and they play in a new, first-class arena right off the 10 freeway about 50 miles from Staples Center.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get there on a weeknight. My carpool buddy and I left from Pasadena at 3:40pm for the 39-mile drive to Ontario. Even using the best advice of traffic-enabled satellite navigation, it took us until 5:30 to pull into the parking lot of the arena. And we had the benefit of carpool lane usage on the 210 freeway. Weekends would yield an entirely different, and much easier, drive. And once you get there, you forget that anyway. Big parking lots that cost only $5 (free for press, too) and an arena that looks like the two-thirds replica of an NHL rink will do that.

What is this league? In some ways, it’s the equivalent of AA baseball, if you allow that the AHL is the equivalent of AAA ball, the last step before the Majors. The only thing is, there’s some slippage in that definition when you’re talking about the ECHL, because the affiliations of teams are just that, “affiliations,” and not pipelines, if you will. The ECHL is affiliated with the NHL’s LA Kings, and players do go from Ontario to Manchester, the team’s AHL partner, but they also move in and out of other leagues.

Thus while a player might reasonably move from single-A to double-A to triple-A baseball to the Expos (Oh wait, they don’t exist. Well, you get the idea.), a hockey player who finds himself in the ECHL might just as well have ended up in another professional league, and many have. The Ontario team, for instance, features players who have also been in the CHL and have played in Europe. The CHL is a pro league with nine teams centered in the middle of the US stretching as far west as Denver. Of the 24 players on the Ontario roster as of Dec. 7th, three had been in the CHL last season.

That being said, the rosters, especially this year when the NHL is off, are dotted with high-level players and prospects. For the Reign, those include Devin Setoguchi of the Minnesota Wild and Kyle Clifford of the Stanley Cup winning Kings (who was not on Friday’s roster).

The league, with justification, presents itself as a feeder to the higher levels, with the stats being presented this way: “the ECHL has had more call-ups to the AHL than all other professional leagues combined” over the past eight years. Twenty-three players in the NHL last year were former ECHL players, including Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe trophy, and the aforementioned Clifford. 298 ECHL players have reached the NHL in the last decade.

But do that math another way, and you’ll notice that the average number of players who you see on the ice in a given ECHL game who will later go on to the big time is one per team, per year. That tells you a couple of things: that it really does take a special level of skill to make the NHL (which the players keep reminding everyone of during the contract dispute currently going on), and that the dreams in this league may be big, but not many of them are going to come true.

So what’s it like at the games? Fun. Involving. And when Ontario is full or nearly so (it seats nearly 10,000), loud, according to another writer I spoke with. Friday night, the upper seat section below the press area had a row of about eight guys, ranging from young to older, who did all the dances called for by the music played in breaks, got on the video board a couple of times, and seemed to be having a good time. Nobody was in possession of a beer cup, either, so it was good, honest fun. That same spirit infused the rest of the somewhat spotty crowd, with people wearing team jerseys and most everyone getting involved in between-play dancing and cheering.

That said, those used to the spectacle that NHL hockey has become might find some of the game presentation small-time. The signs on the boards feature businesses few outside the immediate area will ever have heard of. The costumed mascot (a gladiator; there’s also a cartoon dragon) skates with a flag to open the proceedings, but he’s no Bailey-on-four-wheeler (the Kings’ lion, who does a spinning burnout at center ice on a quad motorcycle).

But there’s also a puck toss that seemed to be a favorite, and you’d never see that in an NHL arena, where the hoity-toity wouldn’t stand for a reign of orange disks flying down from the cheap seats into their single-malts. Hometown hockey is what’s featured here, and anyone in SoCal who, like me, is a transplanted Canadian, would very likely find the Ontario Reign experience happily nostalgic of going to Major Junior games in the homeland.

One other difference from NHL hockey of note is that, like the European leagues, though not to their extent, the game is commercialized, with ads on the ice in all three zones and small advertising lettering on the players’ sweaters.

On-ice differences are most notably the use of just one referee and the calling of no-touch icing.

OK, so how’s the hockey? Skilled, entertaining, and somewhat uneven. Witness the game Friday night between the Ontario Reign and the Bakersfield Condors. The first period saw the visiting team playing no defense whatsoever. All three goals scored in that period, within a minute and a half of each other, were on plays where undefended Ontario players were allowed to get to the net to either shoot or redirect pucks off passes from teammates.

It looked like the game was going to end up a blowout, with the 7-3 Ontario win in Bakersfield late in November coming to mind.

Things evened up in the second period, with the visitors having found their defense corps and stuck them on the ice with more regularity. They also scored a goal in the second and one early in the third to put it at 3-2. The Ontario head coach, Jason Christie, explained after the game that the two-goal letdown came from overconfidence and a need to refocus. The team did, playing a tighter game and scoring in the last minute (not an empty-netter) to make it 4-2. The shots ended 44-26 for the home team, and the last goal saw Condors goalie Brian Stewart throw his stick in disgust across the zone, whether at having held his team in only to lose hope late or because of a teammate’s miscue was not clear.

There were a couple of fights, though no brawls. In one, Reign Captain Derek Couture took on Erik Burgdoerfer, for reasons I’ll discuss in my follow-up story on Couture. Suffice it to say that the game had a little of everything.

So if you’re in or near an ECHL city, why should you go see a game? Because for not much money, you’re going to get a hockey experience that will put you close to the ice, where you can witness the sounds and sights of the game like you just don’t in a top-deck seat in an NHL arena.

You’re likely to see an NHLer or two, also, this year. On Friday, Devin Setoguchi was wearing number eight for Ontario. Perhaps a tip-off as to how proud the team was to have him, and how familiar he is to the fans, came when the announcer called the second Ontario goal this way: “Goal by number 43 with assist to Devin Setoguchi and 19.”

One more thing: if you pay attention, you’ll likely glean a few interesting stories about who’s who out there. It’s easy to say that the ECHL is the place for people to dream big about moving up in hockey, but it’s also true that the league is the place where some players’ dreams go to die.

For an example, see my piece on Couture, which will be here at IH later this weekend.

Media notes were consulted in compiling this story.

Follow Brian on twitter @growinguphockey

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