It’s 5:30 PM on a chilly Saturday evening in early November, and I’m on 495 heading towards the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The leaves that remain on the trees seem to know their days are numbered, as they’ve already turned from green to a mix of fiery orange and chimney red. This clearly isn’t beach weather. This is hockey weather.
Tonight in Orleans, Massachusetts (population 5,890) a professional hockey game will take place. The Federal Hockey League’s Cape Cod Bluefins will host the Williamsport Outlaws.
The Outlaws, current defenders of the FHL’s Commissioners Cup and affiliates to the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL, has recently gained minor media exposure for becoming the first pro hockey team in history to play all of their home games outdoors- at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Cape Cod’s team is also taking an interesting approach to their home games this season, circulating between six ice rinks throughout South Eastern Massachusetts. President, and General Manager of the Bluefins, Mike Nugnes says the unorthodox move is a necessary one.
“The town of Barnstable (former exclusive home of the Bluefins) is kind of in the heart of the Cape, but there isn’t a town north or south of it. And until we can get fish to buy tickets, the ocean doesn’t do us much good. We’ve gotta try to put 2,000 people in a building every night to sustain the program.”
Tonight’s attendance: 375.
“We’re going to kind of spread it out over the season, to bring the team to the fans and let them know it really is Cape Cod’s team. Our fan base was slim last year. The people that come out to the games love it,” added Nugnes, “but we do have to build support.”
So far this season, clubs like Williamsport, the Danbury Whalers, and Dayton Devils have been averaging over 1,650 fans a game. The average in Cape Cod is 387.
Currently, the FHL (no relation to the fictional Federal league in “Slap Shot“) is reminiscent of the wild early days of the World Hockey Association of the 1970s. The six team league is very young, and trying to find its footing in the market of professional hockey. Since its inaugural year in 2010, four teams have dissolved, and three teams have relocated.
But if the business side of the game sounds troubling, you’d never know it talking to Nugnes. Part hockey player, part businessman, part ringmaster for this traveling sideshow, his passion for the Bluefins and for the game of hockey is unquestioned. He sees the team, and the league, as a stepping stone for young players.
“You see guys like Matt Harrington, who started last year on our team. The year prior he was playing for the Walpole Express in the Junior A level. He came in as raw as could be, he would be a college freshman. College wasn’t for him, and he had the opportunity to come right into our environment. And he went from a shift or two a game, and us not being sure he was gonna be able to make it in our league, to being our second line center out there in the playoffs with these veteran guys from the ECHL and Southern Pro League, and holding his own.
“If you saw the growth of this kid in one year, the level he jumped to, that was really encouraging. That made me realize that we can develop players in this league. It’s a true developmental league, and we want to focus on that.”
By 6:30 I’m winding down small, vacant, and unlit backroads. I begin to question my print-out directions. Then I finally see a sign of life- Charles Moore Ice Arena.
This is a small place.
Upon entering, the first thing you’ll notice is a modest arcade with all the usual suspects- Super Chexx bubble hockey, a claw-grab machine, an air hockey table, and all of this no more than 15 feet away from the playing surface.
The ceiling looks to be less than 25 feet high, and throughout the game there would be stoppages of play after a lofted puck bounced off an exhaust pipe hanging above the ice.
Wooden bleachers rest at the top of the dasher boards on the left side of the rink, leaving a 3 foot tall panel of plexiglass and a web of protective netting as the only barriers separating the crowd from the players. Despite the humble attendance number, the place is actually quite packed.
The fans are excited. The expected early season chatter, “they look faster this year”; “they’re keeping up with these guys…and they’re the champs”, buzzes throughout the crowd. These fans are loyal and well educated. They cheer the loudest after an effective forecheck, and heckle linesmen who may or may not have misjudged an offsides call.
After an up-tempo, if slightly sloppy start to tonight’s game, Cape Cod found themselves trailing 1-0. Late in the first period, the game would be tied thanks to a Matt Harrington wrist shot that beat Williamsburg goaltender Michael DiLorenzo 18 minutes in.
The Outlaws would strike again in the second period, only to have Brian Yanovitch score back-to-back goals to give Cape Cod its first lead of the night. Williamsburg pulled even with less than one second left in the period, before the Bluefins exploded for three goals in the third (including the finishing touch of a Yonovitch hat trick), and Cape Cod took the contest 6-3.
Just before heading to the locker room, the Bluefins move to the center ice circle and ceremoniously tap their sticks and salute their fans.
The crowd slowly disperses, the Zamboni clears the ice to the sounds of LMFAO’s ‘Party Rockers’ (which had to have been played at least fifteen times), and the players’ wives, girlfriends, and parents wait for them just outside the locker room area. I return to my car pleasantly surprised by the evening.
This isn’t a depressing minor league cliche a la ‘The Chiefs’, or ‘Goon’. This is a passionate team of twenty-somethings playing the game that they love full-time for as long as they can afford to do so, which can’t be easy as that the highest salary in the FHL is rumored to be roughly $11,000.
The league, its owners, their teams, and its players may all have the odds stacked against them, but the Federal Hockey League is an inspiring specimen, especially when juxtaposed against the current multi-billion dollar financial war which has the National Hockey League in gridlock.
For now, the most genuine ambassadors for the game of hockey may be found in cramped local arenas (or ballfields) in the most minor of professional leagues.