Sunday, January 17, 2010

Charlotte Checkers 3 at Gwinnett Gladiators 4 (SO) - January 16, 2010

Today I drove 30 miles northeast of Atlanta to Gwinnett County, a collection of suburbs that has made its mark in minor league sports this year with the debut of the Gwinnett Braves, Atlanta's AAA team. Gwinnett is also home to the Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and they were the reason I was here as they were hosting the Charlotte Checkers in the second of back-to-back games.

The Arena at Gwinnett Center

Located in Duluth, the Gwinnett Center is an entertainment and convention complex that was expanded to include The Arena back in 2003. The Arena seats 11,500 for hockey and is also used as a concert facility, having hosted stars such as Bruce Springsteen and The Who.

Getting there from Atlanta takes about 30 minutes on I-85 north. Traffic moves quickly off the highway and I found that the parking situation was well organized. There's a large parking deck attached to the rink, which was a godsend today as it was pouring rain. Getting out was also simple; I was back on the highway about 5 minutes after getting in my car.

Almost all seats are in the lower bowl and cost $18 along the side and $14 behind the nets. These are game day prices, you can save a dollar if you purchase earlier, but of course, you'll pay the $3.50 TicketMaster convenience fee. There are about 6 rows in the upper deck but most of these are $21 club seats. There are $11 end zone seats in the second level, at but you might as well sit with the crowd who are loud and proud.

There are some reasonable food options, although major league prices are charged - a footlong hot dog is $3.75 for example. There are two large food sections along the concourse which offer a good variety including Mexican food, pizza and subs, and burgers. Part of the concourse is carpeted, a rare find in hockey rinks. There's also a nice trophy case that details the history of the team, in particular showing the wide variety of jerseys the team has used in their 7 years.

There's no scoreboard over center ice, but there are two scoreboards at either end of the arena, one of which is pictured above. In general, I found this arena to be well-designed - it's easy to find your seats even when the lights are dim as the row numbers on the stairs glow in the dark. The PA guy announces offside a bit too often, but I guess fans are still getting used to the subtleties of hockey.

All-in-all, a good place for a visit, but I'd recommend you get there a bit earlier. I showed up 15 minutes before the game and was surprised at how many people were buying tickets. It could have been due to the Teddy Bear Toss promotion (discussed below) as the announced crowd of 8,143 was nearly 3,000 more than their season average. Regardless, it took me ten minutes to get my ticket and by the time I reached my seat, the game had just started.

The Game

Charlotte scored two in the first, but Gwinnett notched a power play goal early in the second to halve the lead. With the PP goal, I won yet another free entree at Applebee's, my third in three nights. Of course, to get the free entree, you have to buy another entree which is not recommended for people dining alone. And you have to eat at Applebee's, which is not recommended in general.

Matt Caruana misses a golden opportunity

OK, both teams lacked touch around the net - this puck trickled away

But I digress. The Checkers scored again to regain a 2-goal cushion, but Pat Galivan replied with a shorthanded marker 8 seconds from the end of the period to bring the Gladiators back within one. In the third, Chris Higgins (not the NHL guy) drove a slap shot from the point behind Checkers keeper Miika Wiikman, a Rangers prospect pictured below.

Nice mask, keep dreaming

With the score tied at 3 and eight minutes to go, I noticed lots of fans deciding to leave. Again, why go to the game if the result doesn't matter to you? There's no traffic to beat here!

Anyway, neither team lit the lamp over the last half of the period, and we moved onto overtime, which decided nothing.

So it was onto the shootout, which has 5 shooters per team in the ECHL, compared to only 3 in the NHL. Charlotte took a 2-1 lead into the 5th round and it was up to Matt Caruana to keep the Gladiators alive. Wiikman looked nervous and sure enough Caruana beat him easily to send the shootout to overtime! After the #6 shooters missed, it was on to round 7. Charlotte's Tyler Doig couldn't score, so Gwinnett's Matt Francis had a chance to be the hero. He didn't disappoint, making a nifty backhand move to beat Wiikman and win the game for Gwinnett. The picture below shows Wiikman on his ass with the puck behind him.

It was another great Georgia ending for me on this trip, with all 3 games I've seen going to the last play. Sitting down low here allowed me to appreciate that even though this is the ECHL, the pace of the game is very fast. There were a lot of hits and some good passes and saves. Really an entertaining evening and with the large crowd, a totally enjoyable experience. Highly recommended for hockey fans in the south to try to see a game here.

Teddy Bear Toss

The promotion tonight was the Teddy Bear Toss, where fans bring in stuffed animals they no longer need. When the Gladiators score their first goal, fans are instructed to throw their toys on the ice; they are collected and given to charity. It's a great idea, but the fans didn't seem to know what a goal was. As the first period ended, there was a scramble in front of the Charlotte cage, but the puck never entered the net. Yet some overeager fans thought there was a goal and they threw their bears over the glass. Other people followed suit, and despite the PA announcer asking the fans to "Hold your bears!", it was too late. Over the next few minutes, thousands of stuffed toys were tossed onto the ice while bemused players skated off for the intermission.

It took a while to collect the bears (several pickup trucks and SUVs were required), which led to the game lasting nearly 3 hours. It's all for a worthwhile cause though, one of the more interesting promotions I've seen.

A young fan makes her contribution with a little help from Dad...

...adding to an already impressive collection

Lucky #13?

In an interesting coincidence, my ticket today was the same row and seat number as the game yesterday (row F, seat 13). Again, the home team pulled out a thrilling victory after being down early. Today was even more fortunate for me. My original seat had a poor view of the other end of the ice as the glass behind the benches obstructed the view somewhat. But next to me was a couple who had a friend with them. He was sitting down in the second row, so I offered to switch seats so he could sit next to his friends. He readily agreed and I moved to his seat two rows from the ice. It was much better being so close, and I enjoyed the rest of the game, although I got bonked on the head by a few teddy bears.

Tomorrow I'm driving to Knoxville, TN to watch my first game in the Southern Professional Hockey League. Look for a report on that game tomorrow night.



1 comment:

  1. Glad you are enjoying the trip so far.

    After reading both Philips Arena events and the Gwinnett game, it got me homesick for the south east.

    Looking forward to reading about the rest of the trip.