Monday, January 18, 2010

Pensacola Ice Flyers 5 at Knoxville Ice Bears 6 (SO, SPHL) - January 17, 2010




When I take these sports road trips, I try to spend every day watching one event. I don't like wasting the entire day in the hotel room, and when I'm alone, I usually don't feel like going to a museum or some other attraction. With the game in Gwinnett yesterday and the Leafs visiting Nashville tomorrow, I wanted to find something in between the two cities to keep me occupied. There was nothing on the direct route between the two, where Chattanooga is the only big city, but I was saved by the Southern Professional Hockey League in nearby Knoxville. Originally I had planned to watch a game in Columbus, GA, but changed my mind when I saw that Knoxville was closer to Nashville and would saved quite a bit of driving time.

Knoxville

Knoxville is located in East Tennessee about 3 hours east of Nashville and is the third largest city in the state. Along with the Ice Bears, the city also hosts the Tennessee Smokies, who are the AA affiliate of the Cubs. But these teams pale in comparison to the city's most important resident: the University of Tennessee. The Volunteers are well-known in both football (Peyton Manning played here and Lane Kiffen briefly coached the Vols) and basketball, but it's the Lady Vols basketball team that gets the most recognition on the national stage. Coached by Pat Summit, they've won 8 national titles since 1987. Their success has led to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame being located in downtown Knoxville.

SPHL

The Ice Bears are members of the Southern Professional Hockey League, which consists of 7 teams located in 7 different southern states. It's been around for only 6 seasons, and the Ice Bears have won the title in 3 of those years. Every season sees new teams while other franchises fold, so it seems like hockey still has a way to go to be entirely successful in the south, as the NHL is finding out. The league is not affiliated with the NHL and the players are mostly cast-offs from the ECHL.

The Arena

The James White Civic Coliseum looks nothing like an arena or stadium, rather it resembles a 1960s high school. It's located on the edge of downtown and also hosts the Volunteers' hockey team as well as the occasional concert. There are parking garages across the street and street parking nearby.


The arena is separated into two areas - the first is where the box office is located; that's just a long hallway with a couple of boring concession stands. Once you enter the arena proper, you will notice that the seating bowl is more like a basketball gym, set up in a rectangular shape. There are some lower seats behind the nets but these didn't seem very popular. Most of the seats are actually above the glass, although they've created some "luxury" boxes that are set up against the glass on both sides. These are $29 and a bit too much for my taste. The best bet is to get a seat in the first row of the second deck for $14 ($12 if you have AAA), there's really not a bad seat in the place.


Food options are typical, although you should eat once you've entered the arena proper. I noticed one stand advertising their signature dish as BBQ covered mac'n'cheese. I decided to pass on this enticing option. Prices here were still fairly expensive for the level of the league (pulled pork sandwich was $7), but I'm beginning to think that cheap eats are really only in minor league baseball.

There are two basic scoreboards along each side of the rink. They have video capability but replays were not shown.

Hey! Why is the Canadian flag so small? Also note the 3 title banners

Overall, this is quite a different place to watch a hockey game and well worth the experience. If you are in Eastern Tennessee in the winter, check out the Ice Bears website to see if there's a game in town.

The Game

This was the second of back-to-back battles between these two teams, with Pensacola (a city in Florida) having won the previous game 5-4. I guess there was some leftover animosity because after the puck dropped, an Ice Bear player left his assignment and tried to goad an Ice Flyer into a fight. While Pensacola peppered Knoxville keeper Andrew Gallant, a fight broke out at center ice. Turns out that Ice Bear Travis Martell had initiated the fisticuffs and was given a game misconduct, just 16 seconds into the game. You can see him being tackled below.


Soon thereafter the parade to the penalty box began with Knoxville taking 3 minors in the first four minutes and Pensacola potting two power-play goals. But the Ice Bears fought back, tying the game by the end of the 1st period.

The Ice Flyers notched two more goals in the second to regain their two goal cushion. In the third, Pensacola's Erik Stoyanovich was hooked on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot, which he converted to make the score 5-2, shown below.


But Knoxville was not to be denied as team captain and leading scorer Kevin Swider bagged a PP goal with 13 minutes left. Two minutes later, Taylor Hustead beat Pensacola netminder Jamie Gilbert and the Ice Bears were within one.

Gilbert steers one aside

What's interesting is this was exactly the same scoring pattern from the previous night's game, right down to the period. Pensacola held on for the 5-4 victory then, and were trying to do so again but gave up a breakaway to Swider with 6 minutes to go. Swider was hauled down and the ref immediately awarded a penalty shot. Swider tried a quick shot but Gilbert foiled him (pictured below) and it looked like the Ice Bears would sweep the weekend set.


With just over a minute left though, Knoxville winger Tim Vitek found himself uncovered and saw an open corner behind Gilbert. With a perfectly-placed wrist shot, Vitek tied the game at 5 to send us on to overtime! Even better for the local fans, with the 5th goal everybody was awarded a free entree (with the purchase of another plus 2 beverages, naturally) at a local eatery that is actually not Applebee's! Sadly I can't partake as I'm leaving Knoxville tomorrow, but that's 4 free dinners in 4 days on the trip - no wonder American's have an obesity problem, with all the free food!


In the SPHL, the overtime period is unique as each team only plays with 3 skaters (look at the picture above), rather than the 4 you see in other leagues. This really opens things up, but also makes it difficult to get a really good scoring chance. The 5-minute period decided nothing and it was time for the shootout. I didn't expect many goals here as none of the players had shown good hands during the game, and sure enough after 5 rounds, nary a lamp had been lit. After Pensacola missed their 6th shot, Ice Bear B.J. Pelkey moved in and scored on a nifty backhand to win the game and salvage a split in the series.


Another great hockey game tonight; the third in a row on this trip to go into extra time. Seeing the home team overcome a 3-goal deficit in the third period was extremely exciting, but I'm hoping that's the last home win I see for a while as the Leafs are the visitors in 4 of the next 5 games.

Other Thoughts

The fans here were good fun - clearly most of them have season tickets as they were greeting each other throughout the game. The officiating was a point of contention, as Knoxville was down two men on two separate occasions and suffered several other penalties. The couple next to me were quite amusing as they were absolutely convinced that the league wanted Knoxville to miss the playoffs this season as the Ice Bears have dominated the league since its inception. So the refs had it in for them. I heartily agreed. Damn refs. (In reality, both teams had 8 minors and a penalty shot - the officiating was a bit tight but certainly not biased).

The quality of hockey here is substantially different from the ECHL game I saw the previous night. It was slower, chippier, and with less crisp passing. Many of the goals were power play markers, but neither goalie impressed - I do recall some decent glove saves by Gallant, but the Pensacola keeper really looked slow in the third period in allowing Knoxville to tie the game.

Still, it's entertaining hockey, especially if you know the players and follow the team closely. Coming back from a 5-2 deficit in the 3rd period is uncommon and I really enjoyed watching the Ice Bears fight for the equalizer. I'll keep this league in mind for future road trip plans.

Next Up

The first Leafs game of the trip is tomorrow as they are in Nashville to take on the Predators. They then play in Atlanta, Tampa, and Florida over the following 5 nights. In between, I'll see my first NCAA tennis event at Georgia Tech and check out the Gwinnett Gladiators taking on the Florida Everblades in ECHL action near Fort Myers. As always, reports to follow.

Best,

Sean

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