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Monday, February 12, 2018

Carolina Thunderbirds: We Do Hockey Here

So, I entered "Carolina Thunderbirds" into my phone's map program and followed its directions. It took me further and further off the beaten path and I was getting nervous that I was going to end up at a factory with the same name or a head office for the administrators tucked in somewhere (don't laugh both have happened to me). Then I see a football stadium and the next thought was "Aw crud, the local college might be Thunderbirds or something, 'cuz it looks like that's where I'm heading." But, I drive past the football stadium and the directions app tells me to park across the street in an almost abandoned lot next to a big building. I'm early, but not that early so I check the map again. I look up the actual address, punch it in, and confirm I'm in the right place. I look around again. There are about twenty cars in the lot and I can't even see a door. Finally, a group of kids and parents come from behind the building and they are hauling sticks and gear to their cars. I get out of my car and backtrack their trail to the back of the building and, sho enuf (the Shogun of Harlem), there was the entrance with pics of the Thunderbird players on the doors. It's an annex to the fairground and the entrance doesn't face the parking lot; it faces the fairgrounds. And everything got better from there.

Click on picture to make larger

And so it begins . . .
Wants the pitch high and outside
Wants the pitch in the middle of the zone
The reason you might not want to buy a ticket next to the players' bench.
Eyes on the puck.
The Carolina Thunderbirds are the newest team in the FHL (unaffiliated hockey) and well on their way to becoming the gem of the league. Attendance at the rink averages 2,224 which is about 1,300 more than the next team in the FHL averages (Danville). In comparison, the Norfolk Admirals, an ECHL team (affiliated hockey AA), only averages 2,390. The fact that the Thunderbirds only have about 3,500 seats as opposed to the Admirals 8,000+ further tells you who is doing well in this comparison.

The game was a lot of fun. Carolina put the puck in the net twice in the first period and seemed to have the game well in hand, outplaying the Cornwall Nationals all over the ice. In the second period, Carolina continued to be dominant in its time of control and number of shots, but the Nationals made their shots count and evened it up. The third was hard fought from both sides with both scoring to make it 3-3. Then, with about seven minutes left Carolina took the lead 4-3. However, the Nationals didn't go away quietly. The rest of the period seemed to consist entirely of the Thunderbirds' goal being under siege. In the end Carolina held out and won 4-3, which meant it won the rubber match of a three day series against the second ranked team in the league.

The "arena" is not exactly what you'd call professional level, but that's part of the charm. I'm pretty sure the kids I saw leaving as I came in were from a kid's league and I can see the local beer league playing here too. They had decent concession stands which had nothing fancy, but served coffee and hot chocolate which were both vitally important because the temperature inside the arena was twenty degrees colder than it was outside. To be fair, it was 65 outside because North Carolina was going through a February heat wave, but I didn't know it going in and left my coat out in the car. The souvenir stand was a couple folding tables and they were wiped out. This was the third day of a series and they'd been hit hard by the crowds from the last two days. I grabbed one of the last few hats and a puck and would have bought the $50 jersey except they were completely sold out. Then I got bushwacked by Girl Scouts and ended up buying a box of thin mints because every time they ambush me I end up buying cookies (if you can say no to them you are a heartless monster).

Inside, the seat I was on was a cushioned folding chair right up on the glass and it was great except the benches were to my left and hockey players are big. It was hard to see around them to watch what was going on at the other end, but it was awesome for the end I was on. There is no big screen playback here or announcements from the refs. You actually have to pay attention to the game. For a shoestring budget hockey operation, they did a pretty good job of keeping it fun. They did the ubiquitous chuck-a-puck with a greater number of prizes than I've seen at many places, played some music, had their mascot running around beating a drum, and kept yelling "What's the word?" to which the crowd would yell back "Thunderbird!" Personally, I was waiting for "Thunderbirds are go!", but maybe that's just my inner geek yearning to be free. I had to look up the phrase they were yelling and it turns out to be a way people have started songs since at least the 60's (apparently first in reference to the car and later, jokingly, as a reference to the terrible wine).

It's fun, dirt cheap, and there isn't a bad seat in the house. Buy a ticket if you can (they've had sell outs) and go watch some hockey in the Winston-Salem area.

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