Former Caps defenseman John Erskine didn't get the best goodbye in team...
The Halifax Mooseheads: Come for the Hockey, Stay for the Stripper
Nathan MacKinnon encounters two defenders on his way to the Cape Breton net (All Photos Credit: M. Richter)
A couple of weeks ago, Capitals Outsider sent me up to Halifax to get a look at a seventeen year old centre named Nathan MacKinnon. If you don’t know the name, he’s a Cole Harbour boy currently sitting at the top of Bob McKenzie’s pre-season 2013 draft rankings (but don’t hold the Crosby similarities against him). The trip gave me a chance to see both “Nate” and his fans in action, with attendance at the Halifax Metro Centre clocking in well over 8,000 both nights (a crowd that included everyone from season ticketholders whole lived just up the road to globe-trotting tourists from Australia).
In addition to being a dead ringer for Crosby’s early years when it comes to the resume, MacKinnon is also one of the “big three” on the Halifax Mooseheads roster. The expression refers to a trio of seventeen year olds going into their sophomore seasons and shouldering some heavy expectations (the other two are LW Jonathan Drouin and G Zachary Fucale). All three were members of Canada’s 2012 U-18 team who won the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
If you’ve been following Caps prospects, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL or “Q”) is not going to be a new concept. It’s the Eastern branch of the CHL, Canada’s top-tier junior hockey organization and primary development venue for those interested in making a career in professional hockey. Most recently, Capitals prospect Stanislav Galiev spent three seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs before joining the Hershey Bears (AHL) this fall.
Fun Fact: The Mooseheads & Sea Dogs have met twice so far this year. Both times, Halifax walked away with the win. The most recent clash ended in an 11-2 victory before a Halifax crowd of 8,583. That’s a better turnout than half the AHL can muster on the average Saturday.
But back to Halifax, where last year’s overhaul has turned a struggling franchise into a vibrant fanbase again (it’s amazing what happens when you land a new coach, new stars, and a 3-round foray into the playoffs). Now eight games into the season, the club sits second in the Q (they lose the leader slot to the Quebec Remparts only by virtue of a goals-against tie-breaker. Both teams have a 7-1-0 record).
Despite a minor meltdown in their 6-1 loss of a season home-opener (which included a Game Misconduct penalty for MacKinnon in the second period), things appear to be going well for both the Mooseheads and their poster boys. MacKinnon and Drouin rank #7 and 8 among scorers in the league, each with 15 points. Fucale is fifth among goalies, with 6 wins in 7 games played and a goals-against average of 2.25.
In light of last spring’s playoff run, I was expecting the skill and the passion apparent in the crowd when I walked into the Metro Centre. What I was not prepared for was a member of the team’s community relations crew, whose (very effective) strategy for working the crowd involved stripping during the stoppages in play.
He began the night wearing a white Mooseheads jersey, which quickly wound up tied around his waist. Following the slow-mo removal of that first layer, he started peeling off team t-shirts and flinging them into the crowd (sometimes as many as seven in one go). When he was down to the last shirt, he’d downshift to leading cheers until he had a chance to restock. In between bouts of shirt tossing, he demonstrated an impressive range of dance moves and a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Make no mistake, the principle attraction at a Q game is the hockey. The league is located in Canada, after all, a place where hockey is to be taken seriously and CHL scores scroll on the national sports news tickers. While junior leagues exist in the US, for most Caps fans the closest corollary to the CHL in the US is arguably ECHL, though the CHL has a wider range of talent and many of their arenas are closer in size to Hershey’s Giant Center than Reading’s Sovereign Center. It fosters games filled with beautiful breakaways and full-out line brawls, NHL stars in the making and kids just looking to pay for University at the end of their Junior careers. There are local boys and those learning a new language in their billets (Halifax’s RW Martin Frk, for example, hails from the Czech Republic, but due to the geographical divisions within the CHL, most players remain within a province or two of home). The league struggles with the dilemma of player safety and customer entertainment, and most recently one of their branches was rocked by scandal relating to player recruitment.
Halifax has come a long way from an average home attendance of 5331 in the 2010-11 season (they’ve already passed that year’s total number of games with an attendance of 8500+, and they’ve only hosted five matches this season (averaging 7,791). Both smaller crowds were on weeknights). While a winning record has definitely been a factor in that, a crowd crew with a healthy sense of humour and a willingness to think outside the box can also be worth their weight in gold when it comes to courting the fan.