Coach's Corner

October 19, Travis County Exposition Center: It's a typically incongruous Austin fall night: sultry, windy, and muggy. Not the kind of evening you'd associate with a hockey game, but what the hell, it's opening night for Austin's only professional sports team. It's a happening. I must go.

In a line of automobiles trying to find a parking place, I found myself thinking of the maxim about trying to dress up a pig. They say you can't do it. From a distance, the barn-like Expo Center, built for 4-H shows and tractor pulls, glows in the dark like a beckoning jewel. Twenty-five years of anticipation will do that to your sense of reality. Inside, it's abundantly clear the fellow who thought up the pig thing knew of what he spoke. Other than substituting ice for dirt, a Zamboni Machine for Big Foot, and hockey players for cows, the building looked about the same.

As was to be expected, opening night was, to put it blandly, a tad chaotic. People flow was one-way only. So, if you picked the wrong entrance -- like I did -- the only way to your seat was to circumnavigate the entire arena, moving about a foot-per-minute, as thousands of bewildered, novice hockey fans clogged the solitary concourse. Requesting help from an usher was an exercise in futility. This is not intended to disparage the excellent Bat Ushers. Verbal communication -- due to very bad music being played over an extensive but very bad sound system at an enthusiastic volume Axl Rose might have winced at -- was impossible.

More disconcerting still was the ice (kind of a bluish slushy mixture I associate with a drink at Baby Acapulco), which was clearly melting. The arena felt like a sauna. I didn't envy the athletes, already sweating profusely before the first puck was dropped. I don't mean to bitch. As I said, this was to be expected, a learning experience for us all. I, for example, sitting by the glass, learned quickly not to put your beer on the ledge. This lesson was driven home as the first body check of the night sent my full, frothy beer flying, drenching fans with cold beer three rows back. But hey, this is hockey, right?

Dec. 19: Tonight feels like hockey. It's my first trip back since opening night. Four adults, stuffed into a small automobile on a frigid night, rekindled long-dormant memories of winter trips to old Chicago Stadium, the difference being that even Chicago Stadium was heated. The temperature inside the cavernous building is identical to the sub-freezing temperature outside. I liked this. I remember watching the world's most knowledgeable hockey fans in the now defunct Montreal Forum sitting on backless seats, bundled up in heavy winter coats, blowing vapor with every breath. I feel like a hockey fan.

On this night, I see two wondrous things. The first, a heretofore-never-seen juxtaposition at the concession lines. Queuing up for beer #1, I remarked on the ridiculously long line until it's pointed out I'm in the hot chocolate line! In front of the beer stand are two or three adolescent, delinquent boys. The next shock is the outdoor loo (a nice touch on a nose-numbing night). The long line's no surprise. Poor women, I think, lousy night to wait for the privilege of peeing. Except, it is the men's room. Obviously the ladies, on this night, opted for hot chocolate.

I haven't talked much about the players or the game. The reason, to be honest, I know next to nothing about the Ice Bats. As we drive to the game, nobody knew who they were playing. Yet, we will all have a fine time. The Ice Bats -- selling fun, pure and simple -- are doing their job. There's little pretense about this being major league hockey -- it's not. The skill level is nowhere close to NHL levels. To call it minor league is something of an overstatement.

But to the fan, both novice and expert, the Ice Bats deliver. The over-zealous opening night decibel barrage is tuned down. The people flow is improved. The league is competitive, the action is furious, and stupid, senseless fighting is kept to a minimum. Most of all, the Bats leave it all out on the ice. That's all I ask.

Parting Shots: Notre Dame has been widely criticized for "snubbing" any bowl invitations after a disappointing (for them) 8-3 season. The Irish -- much like the Cowboys -- are either loved or hated. Notre Dame is widely viewed to be a haughty, holier-than-thou institution, with a hypocritical public stance against the win-at-any-cost attitude of college athletics while being the quintessential football factory. ND's unwillingness to play in a lower-profile bowl game was seen as another example of Irish arrogance.

For whatever their real reasons, Notre Dame should be commended, not chastised, for their unwillingness to participate in the absurd clutter of bowl games. Not that long ago, Bowl games were showcases for elite teams to play interesting football games. Now third-best teams in conferences are guaranteed "bowl" berths. I don't know who watches Copper and Aloha and Weedeater Bowls. Not me. I wish more schools would follow Notre Dame's lead, displaying the dignity to decline the television money and stay where their record says they belong -- home for the holidays.

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