Hockey fans that have not spent much time in Southern California are often surprised to find the undercurrent of hockey support in the region.
Sure, the media coverage is largely non-existent while many people on the street have never seen a game live. But dig deeper and you will find a strong community of youth leagues, recreational leagues, and die-hard hockey fans.
For many, even more surprising is the discovery this hockey interest spreads north to the oil patches and agricultural fields of the Central Valley.
While Stockton and Fresno also boast successful ECHL franchises, Saturday night was my time to check out hockey in Bakersfield. The ECHL Condors draw large crowds to the nine-year-old Rabobank Arena in downtown Bakersfield, and there is much to enjoy about the experience.
The arena seats roughly 8,500 fans, but on this night, a standing-room only crowd of 8,895 was on hand for the annual Teddy Bear Toss. A popular promotion with minor league and junior teams, fans are encouraged to bring a stuffed animal to the game and throw them on the ice after the home team scores their first goal of the game.
Condors fans definitely listened, throwing 7,056 stuffed animals onto the ice after the Condors tied the game early in the opening stanza. Team employees, volunteers, and players took about 15 minutes to clear the ice of the bears, as the rain of stuffed animals continued several minutes after the goal.
Naturally, not every night features the teddy bear toss, but the atmosphere in Bakersfield is decidedly fun and high-energy. The sightlines are surprisingly steep for a new arena -- a definite positive. The upper level seats provide a particularly great view of the game, giving fans birds' eye views and providing no blind spots.
Combined with a relatively low roof, the steep sightlines contribute to a loud building. When the Condors score, it sounds as loud as any NHL arena. Early on this night, that happened frequently.
Bakersfield scored five goals in a little over five minutes to take a 5-1 first period lead, but things fell apart for the home squad from there as the visiting Phoenix Roadrunners pulled out an improbable 7-5 comeback win.
Even when the Condors are not scoring goals, the crowd gets involved with many in-game yells, providing a great home ice advantage. A roving cheerleader, inspired by the likes of Krazy George, does a great job of firing up the home crowd while passing out Condor t-shirts.
At first glance, the relatively narrow concourse seems like it would be insufficient for a full house, as does the limited number of restrooms. However, the concourse was not uncomfortably crowded between periods, and the restroom lines moved at a reasonable pace. Three souvenir stands provided an impressive range of merchandise, including several sweatshirts, t-shirts, jerseys, hats, and pucks.
In-game music is played at tolerable levels, as typical hard rock music is mixed with a few country songs, a nod towards Bakersfield's country music history. Unfortunately, the use of spotlights is not nearly as effective.
Fortunately, the arena uses only four spotlights, so the sense of overkill at the Honda Center is not present in Bakersfield. However, the Condors use the spotlights at every whistle, which gets old by the midway point of the opening period.
Rabobank Arena's concourse features a Kern County Sports Hall of Fame, honoring dozens of Kern County residents who have been successful in the sports world. Several display cases line parts of the concourse and are certainly worthy of checking out.
Concessions feature normal arena fare, with prices running a bit lower than most NHL arenas. Lines were moderate to long much of the night, but they seemed to move at a reasonable pace.
The team does a great job of programs and game notes. The full program is $3, while rosters and game stats are available for $1. Full stats for both teams and the league as a whole are included, quickly bringing the casual fan up to speed.
Media coverage of the team is also top-notch, as the Bakersfield Cailfornian newspaper treats the team as a major professional team. Several games are televised, while the radio broadcast even includes a post-game call-in show.
With a population of roughly 350,000, Bakersfield is an ideal size for an ECHL team. What might surprise people is how well a California city of that size adopts hockey, but as with so many other things, the hockey scene in California is full of surprises.