I went to a Gwinnett Gladiators game last night. Of course, it was fun — anything involving tailgating around a tiny grill is fun — but it's just not the same. The experience of ECHL hockey for the first time in a while got me thinking about the lockout and NHL hockey in general — it just means more to a lot of fans. Let me explain.
When the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, a lot of fans here in Atlanta flung their support behind the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators. Now the affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes, the Glads have always been a good team and a fun team to watch. I am not taking anything away from them at all. But the experience at Philips Arena and the experience at the Gwinnett Arena are two different things. Size of the crowd, enthusiasm of the crowd, a lack of an actual scoreboard, a DJ that plays music that makes sense… it's not the same.
First off, and probably foremost, it's not what I'm used to as far as games go. I'm used to NHL arenas and the NHL experience. That's something that can be gotten over, though, I guess. What can't be gotten over is the absolute lack of attachment I feel towards these players. I felt a little more when they were the Thrashers' ECHL affiliate, but not by much. The team changes at the whim of the NHL/AHL clubs. People are called up. Random new guys are sent down. Very few players stay put. You think it's bad when a guy you like on your NHL team gets traded away after a couple seasons? How about your team's only potent scoring threat getting called up in the middle of a playoff push? It's frustrating.
I suppose that keeps fans from being loyal to individual players and focuses their attention more on the team, but there should be some affection for the actual people on the team. It helps build an affinity for the franchise.
Also building an affinity for the franchise: me not having to drive an hour and a half to get to a game. That's a personal situation, but with the Peoria Rivermen and Evansville Ice Men it holds true for most Blues fans as well. The allure in those two teams are Blues' prospects, so at least they have that going for them. Its always more fun watching your team's prospects play over someone else's. But boiling it down to the basics, it's still not NHL hockey.
I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with people who say "I don't need the NHL! I'm going to follow this here ECHL/AHL/Junior/KHL team — it's the same thing!" No, it's not, and this is someone who would probably watch kittens play hockey if you could get them into skates. There's a huge difference between a minor league team and the professional team that you've been cheering for your whole life. Sure, the lockout irritates me, but you'll never see me dumping the Blues for the Rivermen. Minor hockey's fun, but it's just a fun diversion from the real deal.