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Road Trip to the great Middle West
Real hockey
1/9/07 - By Ken Smyth

So here we are- January already, the season half over and NHL fans all over California are disappointed. Not just Sharks fans; whose team is big, strong, fast and seldom remembers to play that way, but everybody. Ducks fans are seeing their team fall apart from injuries after a fantastic first half, and the LA Kings are playing like, well, the LA Kings; which is a significant downer historically unless you're a realtor in Huntington Beach.

Ask a hockey player how to get a team out of a funk and you hear the usual speech about keeping things simple and working hard in their own end while he thinks about how to hide his bad leg. Ask a coach ad he'll say the same thing but thinks about how the team needs a road trip to sort things out. There's something about cold bus seats, visiting locker rooms and the lack of familiar sleeping surroundings that seems to wake up the talent or lack of in players. Anyway, there I was at 95KGGO Arena.

This was an aside to a trip in visiting family in Des Moines over Thanksgiving. Des Moines is stunningly blessed with both the Iowa Stars of the AHL (farm team to the boo-hiss Dallas Stars) playing in a nice joint downtown and the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL who play in a 52 degree concrete bunker built for breeding mildew. The Stars were on the road so the choice was simple.

One of the fun things about the Bucs is they're a junior hockey team, that Canadian thing we read about but seldom see. Junior hockey in Canada is kid pros, junior hockey in the USA is high school kids trying to attract interest from NHL scouts with time to kill, college scouts and girls; not necessarily in that exact order. The USHL is listed as the "top tier" league for the US, placing it around the level (it's said) of Junior A in Canada. Not a likely place to find the next Thornton or Staal but it did graduate Joe Pavelski to Wisconsin and later the Sharks. The Buccaneers are the 2006 Tier 1 junior champions, and their arena has banners of many similar successes from previous years.

The Bucs were playing the "Tri-City Storm", a Nebraska team hailing from three consecutive I80 exits. The home team lost 5-3 in a lackluster performance over a local rival, just like the Sharks. Biggest problem was lazy penalties in the first period. They came back from being down 2-0 to tie the game but when Tri-City popped in three unanswered goals in the second period the kids just kind of sat on their skates. Goaltending was pretty good, just hard to turn back 3 on 1’s all the time. The Storm didn't press their advantage much, just kept the lead.

I bought a few tickets to the 50-50 drawing, saw the Kansas City Chiefs cheerleaders between periods and generally had a better time than a lot of NHL games I've attended. The fun was the crowd and the spirit. All 3250 fans were into the game and on the opposition, like section 209 on an up night. The PA announcer was a bit partisan, but don't we all have a "who cares" inside us as for who gets the assists when an opponent scores?

Check 'em out at if you're interested in a game or in clothes with a cartoon pirate with a sword in his mouth and a hockey stick in hand. It's just a day or three past Reno on I80, depending on Wyoming weather and how many thousand bored cattle you want to photograph.

Other trip notes-

I40 route slightly longer, watch for speed trap in Winslow, AZ. Highway patrolman gave us grief about being from "Republic of California" but gave just a warning after we talked football.

Sad to see independent, promising, and fun young adults lose their souls to addictive parenthood. Two toddlers occupied my niece's house over the holidays. The TV set was playing Veggie Tales and kiddie karaoke, and the major activity was finding, cleaning, and refilling sippy cups. In a strange way Britney Spears is a beacon of hope.

Everywhere, Raiders fans. Everywhere

Best stop on the trip home- Santa Fe. Lucked into one of the seven motels in the USA that has "Versus" network, and got to see Sharks beat the Wild. We stayed an extra day to wait through a snowstorm. Minor issue: Holiday Inn Express hot breakfast does not include chilequiles or pozole.

Best non-stop- Kansas Turnpike: Eight dollars and change to get through Kansas real fast. Cheap ransom for five hours of your life.

Contact Ken at

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