I know that minor league hockey teams, at least in parts of the United States, will use "gimmicks" to get fans to attend or try to attract new fans to the game. I will say that the Charlotte Checkers games have usually had some of the highest attendance numbers of any of the ECHL teams, but they will also occasionally use some sort of gimmick to entice new fans to attend. This one was called "Midnight Hockey."
My first experience with "midnight hockey" was an interesting one. Before I go any further, let me qualify myself by saying I have been watching (and sometimes playing) hockey for the past 30 years or so, even though I live in the great state of South Carolina, which is also where I grew up. Not exactly a "hockey hotbed" state. In fact, growing up anywhere in the Southern/Southeastern United States did not lend itself to having a lot of hockey available for watching "back in the day" before cable TV or satellite dishes, so the beginning of my true love affair with hockey began on February 22, 1980. Does that date sound familiar? It should to anyone that follows hockey in the United States. It was the date that the US defeated the (at that time) Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympic games being held in Lake Placid, NY. So I have an anniversary of sorts coming up.
I've been to numerous hockey games since that time, from the NHL (Carolina Hurricanes) to the ECHL. But I had never experienced midnight hockey until now. So at 11:45pm on Thursday Feb 18th I found myself sitting in the stands at the Time Warner Cable arena (hereafter referred to as "TWC arena" for the sake of saving some typing) in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina to watch my hometown Charlotte Checkers take on the Toledo (Ohio) Walleye in an ECHL matchup that started at 11:59pm. I guess the start time at 11:59pm instead of midnight was so they could be sure that folks would show up on the right date, since some people might have trouble determining which day the midnight game is on. Had they announced the game at "midnight on Friday" there are those that would have possibly showed up at 11:59pm or later FRIDAY night instead of Thursday night...
So anyway, I have discovered that a midnight start makes for an interesting crowd. TWC arena is located in downtown (or uptown, if you prefer) Charlotte NC and is the home of the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL. The checkers are the ECHL affiliate of the NY Rangers, and have been for many of its 17 years of existence. They are a reincarnation of the old Southern Hockey League's Charlotte Checkers, who weren't affiliated with any NHL team when they played in Charlotte between 1973 and 1977.
Anyway, I digress.... So with a midnight start time on a Friday morning and with kids having school later that day, there were very few youngsters in the crowd. Kids are a mainstay of the Checkers, as they are with any hockey team, but this was not your kid's hockey game. Since TWC arena is downtown, it is in very close proximity to the downtown "bar district". So after several hours of partying in the bars, folks were invited to come cheer on the Checkers. I know security was not allowing folks in that were intoxicated when they showed up (I did see a few turned away), but there were a few tipsies in the gathering crowd. Once inside, it was a different matter and the usual "soda and nachos" lines were replaced by long lines at the beer concessions. One good plan that was in place for this game was all alcohol sales were stopped at 1am, no matter what point it was in the game, as opposed to cutting off sales after the second intermission, which is the usual rule.
My cousin, Bridget, and I went to the game. She shares my passion for the great sport of hockey and is my "hockey buddy" in Lancaster, SC where we both live. We've gone to many a game in Charlotte and even a couple of Carolina Hurricanes games in Raleigh over the years. So when she suggested we take in the midnight game, my response was "OK, sure." Well this game was actually more interesting in the stands than on the ice. Unfortunately, the Checkers didn't fare so well in this game, losing to Toledo 7-0. Guess the guys were a bit confused by the late start time. Thrown off their usual routine or something. But the Walleye were not confused by the late start time at all. They scored 2 goals on their first 3 shots and scored pretty much at will. They had 1 PP goal and 6 even strength goals. They scored in every period, 3 in the first, 3 in the second and 1 in the third. At least the Checkers were consistent. Consistently BAD, but still consistent. The highlight of the night was watching (and listening) to the crowd in the stands, especially when there was an on-ice bout in the second period between resident Checkers bruiser T.J. Reynolds (currently holding the top spot on the team with 207 PIM) and Toledo Walleye Adam Keefe. T.J. won the fight handily but it didn't help the outcome of the game. Actually the Checkers might have had a "fighting" chance (sorry, couldn't resist) if they could have just stopped Evan Rankin of Toledo. He scored five goals. Yes, you read that right--FIVE goals. He had a hat trick three minutes into the second period. Without him, it would have only been 2-0. Ouch.
The good and (unfortunately) bad part about the game was also what was the most entertaining--the crowd. There were 4500 people that showed up for that midnight game. That's a bit smaller crowd than what the Checkers usually have in attendance but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in volume; that was the good part. But the bad part was a large number of the crowd had no clue about hockey. Checkers fans are knowledgeable hockey fans, at least I'd like to think so. There are the casual ones as well that have to ask "what's icing?" and such, but for the most part the fans in Charlotte understand the rules and regulations and how the game is played. I know that there are a certain number in every crowd at every level of hockey that just has to make a fool of themselves for the entertainment of themselves and their friends, but the late night hour brought out a whole lot more of them than usual. They weren't interested in hockey or learning about it. The didn't ask questions or make intelligent comments. They were there for the beer. And to shout obscenities at the opposing team's players and coaches. THAT got out of hand and I did remark to the people directly behind me that if they didn't curb the profanity I would see that they were escorted outside. And yes, shouting obscenities at the games in Charlotte WILL get you tossed if someone complains. And I was going to. But they toned it down and just made up for it by making fun of the players names and the logo on the Toledo sweaters. I swear, if I had to listen to "What's a walleye?" one more time....and for those that do not know, a walleye is a variety of fish that is native to most of Canada and the northern US. This was explained to the idiots, but their comprehension skills were a bit impaired I guess.
But the nice thing about the bad score is most of the drunks left after the second period (or after beer sales were stopped). The third period crowd consisted of hardcore hockey fans, maybe two-thirds of the original crowd. You know the ones--they stick around no matter what the score or how bad the home team is getting blasted. And another bit of entertainment was the fight in the stands with about 2 minutes to go in the game. No idea what started it but it garnered as much attention as the earlier on-ice bout. It was two guys, both wearing NY Rangers jerseys. Maybe they thought it was Madison Square Garden or something, I dunno. But security escorted them both out in different directions. I don't know if they finished the fight outside or they just both went their separate ways, but they were gone when everyone left several minutes later. Hopefully it was the latter.
A cool walk back to the parking deck after the game (game time temperature was 27 degrees Fahrenheit) and my first "midnight hockey game" experience was complete. I'd do it again anytime. Just hope for a better score the next time. And watch your language.