Monday, February 13, 2012

Brandon Wheat Kings 2 at Medicine Hat Tigers 4 - February 12, 2012

It has not been as cold as I had feared, with temperatures hovering around freezing over the last couple of days. Winter weather is usually a worry in the west, but so far it has been sunny and clear, so it was no problem driving the two hours east to Medicine Hat on Highway 3, more commonly known as Crowsnest Highway. Not a lot of scenery, mostly farmland, but the blue sky and endless horizon was a welcome change from the Tokyo skyline.

I arrived a while before game time and after a brief rest at the motel, I moseyed on over to the Medicine Hat Arena to watch the home team Tigers take on the Brandon Wheat Kings in WHL action.

Medicine Hat Arena

The Arena was built in 1970 to replace the previous rink that had burned down. Although several renovations have been completed, including new plastic seats, a new scoreboard, and a new entrance, the venue retains its original structure, making it a great place to watch a game.

The rink is located in a small enclave on the South Saskatchewan River, just east of downtown. There is just a single road that accesses the free parking lot directly in front of the arena. Despite the limited access, cars clear out pretty quickly after the game as people are polite and let other vehicles in front of them in an orderly fashion.

Tickets at the box office are $18.50 for any seat in the building. The relatively new main entrance has two ticket windows as well a few displays including all the team trophies. For hockey fans, it is always fun to look back at the names that recall our childhood, such as Tom Lysiak and Don Murdoch.

The seating plan illustrates the unique layout of the venue, with full sections along the boards but a small walkway that separates lower and upper sections at either end. There is a concourse above the seating bowl that allows you to walk around and many fans stand here throughout the game as it provides good views of the whole rink. You might also notice that the team benches are on opposite sides of the rink, something that is rarely seen these days.

The top row of each section is separated by a support beam, which might be slightly annoying but you can easily lean forward to see the whole ice. I found a perfect single seat next to one of these beams, on the aisle, which gave me a bit of leeway to take pictures without annoying the people around me.

Concessions are available along the inner concourses on both sides of the rink. Each concession stand is given a name which is clearly visible on the beams that support the seating bowl. There wasn't much unusual fare here, but I did try the Snake Bites, which are spicy chicken nuggets for $5.50 and were a nice change from the usual hot dog. Even the Dog Stop (below) has a wide variety of dogs and smokies that would make Milwaukee proud. The choices were identical on both sides of the rink except for an ice cream stand on the south side, while the Red Line booth (barely visible below) sells Bloody Caesar's on the north.

There's also a lower lobby in the two corners nearest the main entrance where the same items can be found. One corner also features the Dayzoff Pub where you can sit with a beer during the intermission.

Medicine Hat has a storied history and they are rightly proud of their many championships, including two Memorial Cups. There are several banners celebrating every division, conference, and league title, as well as a single retired number, Lanny McDonald's #8.

You will also notice posters of several "franchise greats" scattered around the rink, below is Trevor Linden, one-time captain of the Vancouver Canucks. Joffrey Lupul also played here, but I did not see his poster.

As you make your way around the inner concourse, you will notice old pictures depicting the history of hockey in Medicine Hat, not just the Tigers, but going all the way back to the early 1900s. Take the time to look at all the photos, you will be surprised to see very young versions of stars such as Barry Melrose and his mullet, now a famous ESPN hockey analyst who got his coaching start here leading the Tigers to the Memorial Cup in 1987-88.

I also enjoy the old-time shots of teams such as the Barber Poles below; it is easy to imagine these men playing shinny here long before sports was the hype machine it has become today.

Despite being constructed at a time when ease of access was not considered important, the arena is simple to navigate with stairwells to the upper concourse at each corner of the building. There were never any problems with the crowd size or getting around, even during the intermissions.

Overall, Medicine Hat Arena is a great place to enjoy junior hockey. The barn is old, but has been maintained very well and there are many unique touches that make this one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had on the road.

The Game

The Brandon Wheat Kings were in town needing a win as they were in the 8th and final playoff spot in the East, just 4 points up on Red Deer. They boast Mark Stone, one of the league's leading scorers with 88 points in 50 games and an Ottawa Senators draft pick. Medicine Hat, lying third and playoff-bound, countered with Emersom Etem (below), whose 49 goals in 49 games were the best in junior hockey while goalie Tyler Bunz led the league with 51 games played and was second with 33 wins. I expected a good hard-fought game and that is what I got.

Brandon opened the scoring when Brenden Walker took a pass from Stone, zoomed by the defense and roofed one over Bunz at 3:09. Three minutes later, Stone came in along the right wing, undressed Dylan Busnesius, and drilled a shot past Bunz. It was a highlight reel goal (all highlights here) and gave Brandon a quick 2-0 lead. Bunz had only faced two shots and let both in, so I thought it might be an off night for him, but as it turned out, those would be the only goals he would allow.

The Tigers dominated the rest of the period and were rewarded with two goals just 2 minutes apart. First captain Cole Grbavac glided across the blue line behind the play to pick up a pass from Jayden Hart (below backing up Bunz) and wrist one past Kings keeper Corbin Boes. Then on a power play, Rhyse Dieno beat a screened Boes on a similar shot and the teams finished the first knotted at two.

The second period was scoreless but not without its share of excitement as Etem had an open net, only to hit the crossbar. After hitting the post in the first period, it was looking like he was going to have a hard time scoring his 50th in 50 games.

The third period saw Medicine Hat come out strong and they buzzed around Boes but couldn't find the back of the net. Finally, at the six minute mark, Etem worked the puck off the left boards, moved in close and ripped one past Boes for his 50th of the season. The crowd exploded, giving Etem a loud and prolonged standing ovation. It was clear that he is a fan favourite and it was a great moment.

Brandon tried gamely to tie things up, but could not better Bunz and when Etem added an empty-netter with 47 seconds left, the game was in the bag. Naturally Etem was the first star, and he did a little kick as he took his bows.

A great game between two determined teams with the home team emerging victorious on a milestone goal. I couldn't have asked for anything more.


Much like minor league baseball, junior hockey is about prospects but you can't have 20 prospects per team, so organizational filler is needed. Unlike baseball though, one game is more than enough to see the difference in talent between those future pros and the guys who will be playing rec league three years hence. Both Etem and Stone were far superior in all aspects of the game, and I think Etem (a native of Long Beach) will be lighting the lamp in Anaheim very soon.

Make sure to buy a program when you enter - it is only a dollar and comes with detailed game notes as well as a lucky number which is used for prize drawings throughout the game.

Shaun Clouston is the coach of the Tigers while his brother Cory, recently dumped by the Senators, is the bench boss for Brandon. Our own little Har-bowl!

Medicine Hat is in the middle of a long sellout streak and attendance for this game was 4,006, the arena's capacity. However, there were a lot of empty seats, so I guess that a large number of season ticket holders skip the games. I wish they would count attendees rather than ticket sales (if not both), but this is a problem that affects all sports - it makes it seem like a tough ticket and drives up prices.

Next Up

The home team is 4-0 so far on this trip. Hoping that streak ends Tuesday when I return to Calgary to watch the Leafs. It will be the first of back-to-back Alberta matches for the Buds, and my friend Sharpy is joining for both. We splurged and have first row seats for both games, so check back Thursday for the details.



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