Bargain Hockey Is Back, and the Cheers Are Major-League
By NANCY M. BETTER
Published: January 14, 2007
New York Times / nytimes.com
HOCKEY made headlines in Danbury in June when the citys minor-league team, the Trashers, was disbanded after its owner, James Galante, was indicted on federal racketeering charges related to his waste disposal business, which gave the team its name.
In November, the hiatus ended with the debut of the New England Stars, one of four teams in the fledgling North Eastern Hockey League. Stocked with several players from the defunct Trashers as well as fresh recruits, like the captain, Scott Horvath, who was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche of the National Hockey League in 2001 the undefeated Stars have won 10 straight and are comfortably in first.
At first the fans were a little skeptical, said Stephan Seeger, the Stars coach and general manager. But game by game, were convincing them. Were doing whatever we can to earn their respect.
Mr. Seeger, a lawyer by trade, is also a part owner, belonging to the consortium of local hockey enthusiasts that owns the team.
The North Eastern League, based in Fort Erie, Ontario, describes itself as a high-scoring, fast-paced league that is based on affordability for both owners and fans. Tickets cost $10, season passes are $99 and players earn less than $50 a game. Home games are played at the Danbury Ice Arena. When Mr. Galante operated the Trashers, he increased the seating capacity to 3,000 from 600, and so far the Stars are attracting about 1,200 fans to home games.
The fans come for more than the stick-handling. On Dec. 10, when the Stars beat the Pounders of Danville, Ill., 16-4, one Stars defenseman received 17 penalty minutes in the first period alone, 2 for instigating a fight, 5 for fighting and 10 for misconduct. By the end of the game, more than 50 penalties had been called, two players had been ejected and one player was injured.
In the stands, fans applauded every goal and every scuffle. The loudest cheers and jeers came from Section 102, packed with Trashers loyalists. Despite their teams demise, the group proudly wears jerseys emblazoned with the Trashers black-and-blue logo and T-shirts proclaiming, Lets Talk Trash.
The N.H.L. it isnt, but the fans do not seem to mind bargain-basement hockey at bargain-basement prices. Lucy Rinaldi, a Greenwich resident who attended the Dec. 10 game with her 12-year-old son, found the antics amusing. It was fun to see a hockey game where the boys could get so close to the action, she said. You dont see that much fighting at a typical N.H.L. event.
Mr. Seeger contends that the fighting is not staged for fans entertainment. Because our team is so skilled, some teams may have little choice but to try to knock us off our game, he said. Our guys are not interested in getting stitches and losing teeth. They have to get up and go to the office on Monday morning.
Stars defenseman Ryan Hughes attributes the score differential to growing pains. With all new teams in the league, theres always going to be a discrepancy, he said. Eventually, the teams that are financially viable will be able to recruit good players and there will be more of a balance.
Mr. Hughes and other players were also encouraged when two Stars Chris Seifert and Eric Lind were recently offered tryouts with the more-established United Hockey League.
The Stars will play 22 games this season, and next season the league hopes to grow to eight teams and a 70- to 80-game schedule. Id like to see minor-league hockey expand in the area, Mr. Seeger said. There is clearly a need for it.
Photo taken by Scott Mullin for the New York Times