Alex Weilbacher works across the genres of creative non-fiction, essay, and short fiction, with her favorite genre being humorous creative non-fiction. She lives in Bloomington, Illinois with her family.
CRACK! Two players crush into the clear plastic siding, one of their faces smashing against the siding so hard that it looks as though he had been stamped there. The referee blows his whistle to separate the two players, but his whistle has the opposite effect—the men draw the ref into their twosome and continue to have at it. The blue team’s player shoves the end of his stick into the white player’s nose—a crunching noise and a waterfall of blood, the white ice now pink. The white team’s player takes his stick, slams it over his knee, and uses the two splintered pieces to stab his opponent repeatedly in the stomach.
This was not what I saw at my first hockey game.
But it was certainly what I wanted to see.
I think that no matter how much people don’t want to admit it, everybody wants to see a little bloodshed. I’m not talking about the kind of bloodshed that leaves the small intestines of those involved scattered all over the floor. I’m talking about minor bloodshed, nothing more than a near-fatal blow to the head or a bullet to the kneecap.
I didn’t expect to see quite that level of violence, but I expected to see some form of hospital-worthy injury; it’s practically expected when one attends a hockey game. I know nothing at all about hockey, and I don’t pretend to. But I will confess that hockey movies like Miracle and The Mighty Ducks left me expecting much more than the Prairie Thunder—my hometown’s minor league hockey team—delivered.
I attended my first hockey game at the age of twenty—a little old, but better late than never. I’m not a very big sports fan. In fact, the only sports I can tolerate watching are swimming and professional football. I can watch swimming because I was a swimmer, and when you understand a sport, it’s just easier to enjoy it. Football, on the other hand, is in my blood. If you’re not a Packer fan in my family, it’s like suddenly deciding that you don’t want to be a girl anymore and are planning a sex change operation. I used to tell people I was a Packer fan to avoid being excommunicated from my family, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to appreciate football for what it really is: an excellent, sometimes entertainingly violent sport that is able to hold even my short attention span. I say this meaning that if I don’t understand a sport or if it isn’t forced upon me through threat of abandonment, I will not enjoy it. In fact, I won’t even give it a chance.
Then why, you might ask, did I attend a hockey game? The answer is simple: it was free. Not only was it free, but I would be sitting in a box seat. I had never been in a box seat and the thought of it made me feel like I would be better than those sitting on the shitty folding chairs below me. I liked the idea of watching a sport from God’s vantage point.
The hockey team I saw was the Bloomington-Normal Prairie Thunder at the US Cellular Coliseum. The day my friends and I attended the game, there must have been only about two hundred people in attendance. The coliseum is huge on the inside and it looked rather bare given the small audience, which, in my mind, took away from some of the hockey fantasy I had been dreaming up. I always pictured hockey games taking place in smaller arenas so that the team who had defied all the odds would play for a packed-house when they won the Stanley Cup or whatever the hell it is hockey players win. But the box seats just magnified the lack of people there to cheer on their hometown team.
I was still willing to give the Prairie Thunder the benefit of the doubt, but then I learned something that just sent me over the edge. After the prepubescent ice skating cheerleaders exited the rink, they were followed by a man dressed like a buffalo who was dressed like a hockey player. This mascot skated around the rink to a weak applause and ‘Crazy Train’ in the background. As the buffalo turned his back to our box, I noticed that the name on the back of his jersey said “Chip.”
I thought to myself for a moment and recalled something from my high school environmental science class. Buffalo chips. As in buffalo feces. The Prairie Thunder mascot was named, albeit indirectly, Buffalo Shit. What kind of self-respecting team names their mascot after a meadow muffin? I can just imagine the brainstorming session between the Prairie Thunder big-shots as they tried to think of a mascot for their future team.
Prairie Thunder Exec. 1: “Well, Bill” [takes a big puff from a Cuban stogie] “what animals live on the prairie?”
Prairie Thunder Exec. 2: [pulls out laptop and googles ‘Prairie Animals’] “They say that the bison, otherwise known as the buffalo, has roamed the prairie since before the Native Americans.”
Prairie Thunder Exec. 1: “Hm… the buffalo, eh? Well we can’t call ourselves anything Indian-like; it’s against the law now. Just look at what happened at U of I. But the buffalo—it sounds pretty powerful, right?” [all execs. nod in agreement] “Well, I suppose we could be a buffalo. What would we call him?”
Prairie Thunder Exec. 2: [googles buffalo and looks at the Wikipedia page] “Hm… well there’s not really a lot here to use—just a lot of stuff about their diet. Buffalo chips? That sounds like it might work.” [clicks on link to buffalo chips and sees the page] “Oh… no. That’s not—”
Prairie Thunder Exec. 3: “Too late, Mikey. I already wrote it in pen.”
At this particular game, the Prairie Thunder were playing Flint, who I’m assuming are from Flint, Michigan. At the start of the match, the professional minor league standings were displayed on the giant screen below the scoreboard, and what I saw made me laugh out loud. The Prairie Thunder was battling Flint for last place in the standings. Flint was listed above the Thunder, despite the fact that they had lost 18 games to our 16. So, essentially, I was watching a game between the two worst teams in professional minor league hockey.
This brings me to one of my biggest beefs with the Prairie Thunder hockey institution. The saying ‘professional minor league’ doesn’t make much sense to me, and the announcer just kept repeating it over and over. Before this hockey game, I thought that you could be one of three rankings in the world of sports: amateur, minor league, and professional. I assumed one could not be professional and minor league at the same time. I thought that the minor leagues prepared you to enter into the professional league. Here’s the issue with the whole professional minor league thing: you hear the word “professional” and you assume that the team is going to be good, but it’s followed up by “minor league” and it’s like giving your expectations the finger. It’s almost like saying, “We think that you’re overqualified for the position, which is why we can’t hire you.”
The first period of the Prairie Thunder game ended uneventfully, with no players even being sent to the penalty box. I had no idea there would be a twenty-minute break between each of the three periods, but this is not what made me stop to think, “Really?” What put the icing on the cake was when the announcer decreed that it was now time for Country Idol.
The ‘Country Idol’ competition began when the first period ended. They were clearly imitating ‘American Idol,’ down to the judges—there was even a skinny white guy, a petite brunette chick, and a big black guy with glasses. These judges sat at one wooden table that was carted onto the ice along with a small wooden platform for the performers.
The first performer was a woman in her late twenties dressed in an all black suit with a sparkly red top underneath. She entered to a tiny applause as the announcer read her credentials over the intercom, one of them being that she performed at “A Taste of Chicago” last year. The woman gave some little introduction about how excited she was to be at the Prairie Thunder game and something about how you shouldn’t bother a woman with the blues. Having been in band since forth grade, I consider myself to be a fairly musical person. I was never a singer, but I know when someone is not on key or keeping up with the beat. This woman was doing neither. I could not understand anything she was saying, so that right there was enough of a reason for me to tune her out. But tuning her out was impossible because she was just so terrible, kind of like a hillbilly goose with a Banjo string wrapped around its neck.
Once the first performer left the stage, a man wearing tight, black, male camel-toe jeans, a black button-up, and a black cowboy hat strutted onto the ice. The announcer delivered this man’s musical history, which was much more impressive than the woman’s. He had recorded ten country music albums, was named best country song writer by the state of Illinois, and had opened for what I’m assuming were big names in the country world. Even the way he carried himself was more impressive than his competition.
The man sang “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” and after the first two lines, the winner of the competition was clear. I don’t pretend to enjoy country music, but this man could actually sing, so I decided to respect him. My only problem with his performance was that I don’t think he recognized he was singing for a crowd of two hundred people in a professional minor league hockey rink. He kept trying to get us to clap our hands on two and four, and even attempted to make us sing along on the chorus. I’m certain he won the competition, but how happy could he really be? He competed against one person who frankly wasn’t any competition at all. To make matters worse, he was acting like he was at the CMAs, when in reality he was singing on a tiny metal stage at the rink of the worst team in professional minor league hockey.
Once Country Idol was over the teams re-entered the rink to get settled for the next period. I folded my hands and silently prayed that this period would be more eventful than the last with at least a little blood. All I got were two players shoved into the penalty box for pushing each other into the wall after the whistle had been blown. They never even got the chance to fight.
During the second period, a balding player by the name of Don Something-or-other scored a goal, and the noise that followed was more obnoxious than previous goals. When players on the Prairie Thunder scored, a noise that sounded like a train whistle played so loudly that you could not hear yourself think. This noise lasted for a good minute, and when it was finished, you were expected to keep celebrating until the game resumed play. After the first goal was made, I thought the fans were just really happy because their team had scored a goal to tie it up with Flint. However, after goal number three, I began to think the celebration was growing a bit excessive. Honestly, did the Prairie Thunder really not score often enough that every single goal needed to be treated as though it was the winning overtime goal for the NHL championship?
Anyway, when this Don guy scored goal number four for the Prairie Thunder, the celebration that erupted was loud enough to make my dead grandma shit herself. The train whistle was louder than ever before, and the players skated around hugging each other and jumping up and down. I thought this was because whenever the Prairie Thunder scores four goals, everyone in attendance receives a free BigMac. But no. People were celebrating because this Don guy just scored goal number 678 of his career, making him the new record holder for most lifetime goals in professional minor league hockey. This was clearly expected by the team and the professional minor league hockey commission (or whatever the hell it is a professional minor league team has) because there was an old man in a suit ready to congratulate Don on his accomplishment.
Once the hullabaloo was over, the man slid onto the ice to shake Don’s hand and read a letter from the former record holder. This letter had some inspirational quote embedded into it and some bullshit about how he hopes that Don’s record withstands the test of time. Yeah right. This man has to say those things because he can’t be mean to the man who broke his record in public, but in his mind you know that he’s saying: “You bastard. At least I had the high scoring record for professional minor league hockey to get me laid. Now I’ve got nothing. Go fuck yourself, Don!”
A few minutes after Don broke the record and everyone was still celebrating, my friends and I decided to leave the comfort of our ritzy box seats and go explore what the less fortunate people had to deal with down below. This, I found, was nine-dollar beer. If they’re desperate enough, people will pay just about anything to numb their boredom with alcohol. How lackluster the game had been almost made one of my friends give-in and purchase said nine-dollar beer, but he ultimately decided against it, because we decided to make a run for the exit.
I later heard that Flint made a comeback to win the game by several goals and the bloody smack-down I had been praying for happened not ten minutes after we left. Figures. My first hockey game has left me traumatized for life, not because something horrible happened, but because something horrible never happened—while I was there at least. All I wanted to see was a fight, a perfect display of primal fury. But what did I see instead? The most expensive draft beer on the planet, a delusional country singer, and a skating piece of buffalo shit.