Sunday night at Anaheim Ice, the Thunderchickens defeated Le Doog 4-1 in a chippy and entertaining affair.
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Odds are, you have not heard of either of these teams. The clubs play in the Gold Division of the Anaheim Ice Adult Hockey League, but they have something in common with the Stanley Cup Champions.
You see, Anaheim Ice is the practice rink of the Anaheim Ducks, who recently became the first California-based team to win the Stanley Cup. And here we were four days later, on a warm June evening, watching two groups of people play the game for the love of the game.
These two teams are not alone. Like most of the rinks in Southern California, Anaheim Ice stays active from the pre-dawn hours until late into the evening. The Gold Division alone has ten teams, and it is just one of nine divisions in the AIAHL.
It would seem Gary Bettman was right when he said hockey was alive and well in California.
At the same time as the Thunderchickens and Le Doog were battling, one would think the Anaheim area -- Orange County and Southern California as a whole -- was basking in the glory of winning the world's most prestigious trophy.
A couple of miles north of Anaheim Ice, a large Sports Authority is part of a big box center. As a major sports retailer that sells much licensed apparel, you would think it would be a natural place to buy Stanley Cup Championship merchandise.
No Stanley Cup merchandise was evident, so the presumption would be they were sold out. But a store employee explained out of the few dozen Sports Authority stores in Southern California, only three would bring in any Stanley Cup Championship merchandise.
Sports Authority is not alone. A weekend search showed limited merchandise at Sport Chalet and Chick's Sporting Goods, while most large department stores had no hockey apparel at all.
Even the Ducks' own team store could not be bothered to open at all on Sunday. The team store is traditionally closed on Sunday, but when it is four days after a Stanley Cup victory, it would make sense to extend the hours.
It goes beyond clothing as well. In a full day of wandering around Orange County, with much of that time being spent at stores, restaurants, and bars around the Honda Center, there were few signs the city was home to hockey's holy grail.
The only person witnessed wearing a Ducks shirt was a man at Anaheim Ice who sported a Stanley Cup Champions t-shirt. One car flag and one Ducks sticker were seen during nearly 200 miles of freeway driving in the region. And only one business - an SC Fuels building just east of the Honda Center -- had a sign congratulating or encouraging the Ducks.
In that uniquely Southern California style, the paradox is striking. On one hand, it seems this should be the best of times for SoCal hockey. The Ducks are Stanley Cup champs, and people are choosing to play hockey -- not baseball or other outdoor sports -- in summer.
Yet at the same time, it is very heartbreaking and bittersweet to see the Stanley Cup make less of an impact on the city than it has made on any other city in recent history.
Sure, everyone knows SoCal will never be hockey-crazy. But even Tampa Bay -- a city with less hockey history, warmer weather, and milder beach water than Southern California -- knew how to party when they won the Stanley Cup.
Locals adopted hockey with a sense of civic pride. Lightning merchandise was in every store, people wore team colors, and the city kicked back and partied.
The next year in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, the scene was largely repeated.
This year in Anaheim, it was not like that. By midnight on Wednesday, there was little to no traffic on the streets or in the bars. A VIP tent -- closed to the public and most long-time hockey fans -- went until 6 a.m. But for the average fan, there was no means to celebrate the championship.
Saturday's rally was excellent in many ways, but a strong effort to clear the crowd quickly meant by 9 p.m., the area again felt dead. With streets into the area closed off for the rally, area bars were quiet before 11 p.m.
By Monday, the lone Ducks article in the Orange County Register was back to page 12 of 12 sports pages. In the article, Scott Niedermayer admitted he was considering retirement.
In Toronto, it would have been stop the presses, front-page news.
In Southern California, it was buried well behind an article on the front of the sports section about a local swimmer who posed nude for Playboy.
It is not just the media and local stores that are cause for concern. The ECHL's Long Beach Ice Dogs folded earlier in the spring, leaving the region with no minor league teams. The San Diego Gulls departed the previous season after a successful run in the ECHL and West Coast Hockey League.
The move means there is no affordable level of professional hockey in the region. The cost of living is very high in SoCal, and many people cannot afford $80 lower level tickets.
The Ice Dogs only drew a couple of thousand fans per game, but the fans they reached were fans that might not be reached by the NHL. Since the team's demise, many fans commented on how they got into hockey through the more affordable Ice Dogs.
The Ducks expect to have 14,500 season tickets next season and anticipate selling out all 41 home games. Yet minor league hockey has evaporated in the area, media coverage continues to dwindle, and the Stanley Cup caused only a brief stir.
As the Eagles said in the famous song Hotel California, "This could be heaven, or this could be hell."
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