When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it all, the American Hockey League exists for two very distinct, but very intertwined reasons. First, and the farthest reaching, is for development purposes. Young, immature, inexperienced, and tawdry sportsman push hard to earn both a bigger paycheck and accomplish a lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. The minors have a way of thinning the heard in this regard, and the path to big league glory is very narrow. The second, and most pertinent to this argument, is the selfish successes that the hosting AHL city hopes to procure. An AHL squad cannot succeed as an organization without both of these roles working in tandem, with a careful attention towards not being negligent on either side.
The developmental curve for young forwards dreaming of the NHL is a steep and treacherous downhill race. Imagine standing at the top of a grassy plateau (draft day), you look down the steep embankment with wonder (donning the jersey), you lean forward (sign contract), bend your knees (head to AHL), and head furlong towards the bottom (toiling away for a shot in the big leagues). Somewhere, typically mid-hill, your legs pump so quickly that you teeter dangerously on the verge of face-planting the rest of the way down or surviving with sore muscles, a stiff back, and scars to prove you made it in one piece. To carry the analogy even further – surviving the hill is something that rarely happens. Just ask these guys.
I think that David LeNeveu is a great guy. Cornell trained, Hobey Baker tested, and unmercifully bounced around various leagues. He’s a married man who celebrates his wedding anniversary through Facebook announcements and that’s incredibly sincere and rare in today’s society. Canadian, with a 6′ 1″ smallish frame, catching left, and snatching a first round draft card within the top 50 in 2002. I’ve not met him, and I’ve not seen him play, but for all practical purposes, I like David LeNeveu. Nothing official has been made by the team, but all roads point to LeNeveu residing in Bricktown next season. Taking a look at his stats both professionally and while in school, the unsymmetrical nature of his goaltending game still has me slightly disconcerted, but I understand this move.
As a ticket purchasing, tax paying, puck loving fan I’m slightly concerned about something. No, I’m not necessarily worried about the eventual fate of Alex Plante, nor am I baffled by the correct pronunciation of Yann Danis. My actual concern lies in the organizational scheme and progress of both Prodigal Hockey and the Oklahoma City Barons.
The web is a weird and wonderful place. It’s a place where the free-thinkers, overtly-angry, and insanely-opinionated hang out and spew forth venom of mostly unimportant knowledge. Okay, maybe that’s the weird part of the web. However, it is nearly impossible to say that the web is anything less than entertaining.
The wide corridor of twitter has become a landing spot for celebs, newsmakers, and sports figures to “drop it likes it’s hot” and “plank” in various forms.
Trying to find one word to describe Barons Head Coach, Todd Nelson, is preposterous. He’s a coach with successes, and a former player with work ethic. He’s shaped the youthful excitement at several levels with a sharp focus on how that’s done. He’s worked the system as much as he’s been worked by the system. As the Barons began their fledgling year, and to some extent Todd Nelson’s, the organizational goals were not lofty, but Coach Nelson knew better. After the Oilers affiliation with Springfield ended in shambles, the wide-open future was for the taking.
As someone whom lives, works, plays, dreams, cheers, and explores Oklahoma City, I often try to describe to outsiders what this “neck of the woods” is like. I could talk about the people and their kindness. I could mention the wealthy oil history. I could debate the Orange vs Crimson sporting heritage. And I could orate just how much promise the city holds in its near future. But like many other residents of their own metropolitan cities, it’s best experienced first hand.
Today, the American League announced a) team opponents b) how often those two would see each other during the season c) road vs. away numbers of games. Moreover, the Oklahoma City Barons found out their rivals for their second season on the farm. There isn’t much to trumpet about in this regard because the American League is not fond of diversity. Unless, of course, you find that by moving a typically Eastern team into the Western Conference via re-alignment is diversity, than by all means, call it diverse.
Flash back to a younger version of me. A late-80’s kid who was kind of quiet, loved his pop music, and owned a tragic amount of parachute pants (in neon colors nonetheless). The first time I stepped foot on any type of ice surface there were no skates aboard my feet, no helmet on my head, and not a stick in sight. No, my first on-ice experience was in tennis shoes and armed with a long-handled broom. Broom hockey, a popular pastime for youngsters where ice and ice hockey are foreign words, birthed my introduction into hockey obsessiveness.
In 2011, the same type of game is played in Oklahoma with the support of its AHL hockey team.
In an attempt to further connect with the community, and grow the sport of hockey within the state, the Oklahoma City Barons have partnered with local schools to bring all that is good about hockey to kids who have never heard the words “five minute major” or “crosschecking.”
“What we are trying to do is grow hockey at a grassroots level, ” says Barons Director of Communications, Josh Evans, “We don’t have the resources to put 30 kids in pads, gloves, and helmets, so we took the game to them in a simple way.” And by simple he means simple. Small sticks, round plastic ball, and a gym floor are the tools of the floor hockey trade. “We are indeed doing some branding for the Barons, but we realize that the success of hockey in Oklahoma continues to be through kids,” says Evans.
As the end of the Barons inaugural season grew closer, an intelligent member of the season ticket advisory board mentioned seeing kids play floor hockey in Dallas, and thought the idea would be successful in Oklahoma City. The idea was birthed as a way to bring hockey to the attention of young people. “Right now we are introducing floor hockey to as many summer programs as possible,” mentions Evans, “This allows us to to stay in touch with school leaders over the summer, then once the schoolyear starts we now have a vehicle to communicate to local schools that, ‘Yes, the Barons can help in your physical education program.'”
The program, still in the very early stages, began in early June at the downtown YMCA location. “By the end of the summer we will have been involved with three of the seven YMCA’s throughout the metro area,” states Evans, “In addition, we have been to Oklahoma City Community College, have recently begun a relationship with Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, as well as several Tinker Air Force Base locations”
As the floor hockey initiative continues throughout the city’s summer months, look for the newly-minted Barons players to join in. “Not everyone (Barons players) are comfortable with sitting down and reading a book to an audience of kids, but I’d imagine that all of them would be in favor of talking a little hockey, and then jumping out and playing with the kids,” says Josh Evans. This connection, between player, child, and game, is a key aspect of why this program has been met with great excitement, and reveals its potential come hockey season.
However, don’t assume that it’s just child’s play. “We have been discussing ways of applying this concept to adults,” laments Evans, “Why not approach a company, who has access to a gym, and a allow them access to players, equipment, fundamental training, and then let them play. There are many that might be on the fence about purchasing a ticket, coming to a game, and enjoying themselves – this might be the introduction they need.”
The site of Oklahoma kids running in sandals across a gym floor, chopping away at anything that might look like a ball or a puck is quite a rare thing. But the enjoyment, celebration, and excitement displayed by these middle schoolers is evident. (note: they already know how to celebrate, hockey stick overhead)
The Barons organization continues the slow and steady process of introducing itself to an intelligent sports community that needs a nudge towards understanding (and loving) the game of hockey. Yes, this is a ticket selling promotion, but at the heart of the matter lies a higher goal; that the young and the young at heart grow to love hockey.