Long Beach Ice Dogs - A Team for the Community
The following article of mine was published in Long Beach Magazine as the cover story from November 2005. The text of the article is below the photos.
I suspect like many others in sunny Southern California, my first exposure to a minor league hockey team came from the 1979 film “Slap Shot” starring Paul Newman as a bush-league coach of a team of misguided misfits.
My most recent exposure came courtesy of the Long Beach Ice Dogs as I caught their first outing of the year against the Las Vegas Wranglers.
It was great. It actually felt like it was the winter. The bleachers were packed and those in attendance were treated to non-stop action. There were hits. There was finesse. There were eccentric women yelling for death in between awkward dances to tunes like “Tootsie Roll.” A man sitting at the top of the bleachers made it clear that referee was not doing the best job possible and the man offered several helpful suggestions as to how the ref could improve his performance.
The kids were running around and having a blast to the chagrin of the lady sitting behind me, who wanted them to stop. We got to see a no hold barred, gloves-dropped-to-the-ice, fight. The game went into overtime and then it came down to a shootout that the home team won, thanks to a top shelf goal by first year player Ash Goldie. And this is only the pre-season!
This upcoming season, which began October 22nd, marks the tenth season in Long Beach for the Ice Dogs and it’s a season that Ice Dog Team President, Anthony Soares has high hopes for.
“We think, on paper, that this team is better than last year’s team,” Soares says. "First of all, it’s nice to return seven or eight players. On defense we’ll return four players, including our captain, Dan Watson and our assistant captain, Mike Vellinga and that will really stabilize our defense core. Up front were going to have a lot of size and a lot of speed.”
The size and speed up front looks to come from returning players, including Ice Dog veteran Chris Kenady, last year’s rookie-of-the-year runner up Marco Rosa, and Christian Larrivee, a player that Soares boasts has a “lot of talent, and I really think he’s gonna put some big numbers on the board.”
The Ice Dogs are a team that the individual fans in Long Beach won’t have trouble getting behind; it’s now the local business community that the team is hoping to attract support from.
“We’ve got some very good, hardcore fans here. We’ve been a team that, I guess over the years, felt that we haven’t really had enough support from the business community,” Soares says. “I think one of the major reasons for that is that sometimes we sort of get…when you have NHL teams like the Kings and the Ducks, as close as they are to us, what you’ll find is that you can go down a main street in Long Beach, go down Ocean Blvd, and go through all those businesses and those high rises, and you’ll find that a lot of them will have Kings tickets, Ducks tickets, Lakers, Clippers…not a lot have Ice Dog tickets.”
Part of the problem is that Long Beach is right in the middle of Los Angeles and Orange County, which are both home to countless high profile entertainment choices for families.
“We’re really working hard this year to stress that we are Long Beach’s team. We’re the one that has Long Beach in our name. This is our tenth year in Long Beach, and that’s what we’re really going to stress.”
One way to get the team out there is to do just that: getting the team out in the community and letting people know that the Ice Dog’s are more than just a hockey team.
“A lot of people don’t realize what we do in the community. We go to [Miller] Children’s Hospital, we send the mascot, we send the cheerleaders, we do all sorts of school visits throughout the year... it’s the community’s hockey team and we do our part. Spike [the team mascot] probably has between 75 and 100 appearances a year.”
“Every week,” Soares adds. “I probably get five to ten donation requests for tickets for auctions, for that sort of thing, and we fill them all. When Spike goes, we don’t charge for it. That’s the thing, really, that concept that we are the community’s tea. That’s why it’s nice to have a professional team in your city. It does provide affordable family entertainment. Coming to an Ice Dogs game would cost the same as taking a family of four to the movies.”
Once people come to the game, giving them an overall experience that makes them want to return is just as important to the Ice Dogs. From face-painters to arcades to the mascot and cheerleaders and different interactive games, the Ice Dogs create an atmosphere that feels more like an event,instead of just going to a game. It doesn’t hurt that last season, the fans in Long Beach became accustomed to seeing an excellent hockey team that found themselves winning much more often than not.
Entering their tenth season, the Ice Dogs are beginning to transform Long Beach from a non-traditional hockey market and are planting the seeds for the long-term possibility of becoming a bonafide “hockey town.” This is a transformation that Soares admits is a tough road.
“Yeah, it’s not the easiest place. Again, there’s a couple reasons: we do play in a facility [the Ice Dogs play their home games at The Long Beach Arena, located at 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, Ca., 90802] that’s older, it’s a nice facility, but it doesn’t have the luxury boxes; it doesn’t have some of the amenities that you’ll find at the Pond or the Staples Center, but it’s in a great location, and it’s a great place to watch a game.”
“I think a lot of teams, when they’re in minor league cities, they’re at an advantage being in smaller cities...If you’re in Johnstown Pennsylvania, the local news is going to have a Johnstown Chiefs score lead off the sports. Over here, you just don’t get that, so you don’t get that exposure. The flipside of it is [in] Johnstown or Beaumont, Texas, when you have to buy that exposure it’s relatively cheap. Well here, in the L.A. market, it’s expensive. So you have both sides, you don’t get the free exposure and then when you get exposure, it’s very expensive. It makes it hard for us just to get the word out that the Ice Dogs are here, so what we really have to count on is really that community support.”
“We really focus on Long Beach and the surrounding cities. We still get people from Santa Monica and Costa Mesa, Anaheim, but really, the vast majority are from Long Beach, Seal Beach, Signal Hill, and Lakewood and Ranch Pales Verde and that’s where we really have to concentrate.”
For the players on the team, the chance to play in Long Beach in a non-traditional hockey city is perhaps a bit easier of an adjustment.
“Yeah, I think the guys really enjoy the, of course, the weather,” Soares says. “The majority of our guys are Canadian or from out East, so they’re used to the harsher winter, so they enjoy that, but paramount they’re here to play hockey, so that’s definitely in the forefront. Definitely, the guys get accustomed to wearing shorts in December and January and probably since they haven’t grown up with it, they really savor it and take advantage of it. Nobody come to Long Beach to play hockey and doesn’t go away enjoying their experience”
Any hockey fan will tell you that once you see a game live, you’re hooked for life. It’s a sentiment that the Ice Dogs have found to be true so far. Many of their fans in Long Beach are people who weren’t born into the sport and grew up with it like folks in other parts of country do. People come to a game, sit near the ice, next to the glass and become fans. During the NHL lockout last year, the Ice Dogs saw a ten percent increase in ticket sales and now that the NHL has resumed play, whereas many fans are returning to support either the King or the Ducks, they are still purchasing a modified ticket package to continue to see the Ice Dogs play.
The Ice Dogs are set to make their tenth year in Long Beach a memorable one and hope that the city and local business community come together to help support the team and embrace the Ice Dogs as Long Beach’s team.
“We think that it’s gonna be a real special year for the Ice Dogs,” Soares says. “We’re gonna make a real run for the championship and would just like to see as many people as possible come and support the players.”
The lady who sat in behind me at the pre-season game better get used to all the kids and all the excitement of an Ice Dogs game.
Fans can purchase tickets by calling the Long Beach Arena Box Office at (562) 436-3661.
For more information on the Ice Dogs, visit www.icedogs.com