Welcome (Back) To The Jungle…

If ever there were a sport that I could enjoy from a casual perspective, it would be ice hockey. Growing up, I ignored professional hockey just like I ignored every other sport. As a teen, I was dragged to a couple college hockey games, and I enjoyed it enough to not complain. My casual interest persisted into college; my first college roommates and some of my early friends on campus all played intramural hockey, and as far as campus athletics went, the hockey team was probably the best team we had. But back home, we had something more intriguing going on: Manchester had a new minor-league sports team, and it was a hockey team.

SYB Intramural Hockey

In college, I combined two hobbies: some of my friends played intramural hockey, and I took a ton of pictures during their games. Hey, they needed fans out there.

The Manchester Monarchs were Manchester’s first serious minor-league sports team, or at least the first one in my lifetime. Their impact to the city has been tremendous, not only in helping to revitalize downtown, but also in bringing other entertainment to Manchester. Much as my parents did, I try to catch a couple games every year, always wondering why I don’t make it to more of them. Last year, I even ended up with tickets to a playoff game, as the Monarchs chased after their first Calder Cup.

But as often happens in the world of minor-league sports, the 2014-2015 season for the Monarchs played out under a cloud of uncertainty, the only sure thing being change. The Monarchs, as we had come to know them, were moving at season’s end.

The Manchester Monarchs’ history goes back to 2001, when the team was the first tenant of the brand-new Verizon Wireless Arena. The Monarchs, as their name and team colors hinted, were affiliates of the Los Angeles Kings, playing in the AHL, a league one step below the NHL. The Monarchs succeeded quickly, both as a competitive team and a fan attraction. Their success paved the way for a minor league baseball team (the NH Fisher Cats) and an arena football team (the Manchester Wolves) to follow in the coming years.

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Over the years, the Monarchs established several annual traditions, including their “Pink In The Rink” game to promote breast cancer awareness.

During the 2014-2015 season, it was announced that five AHL teams, the Monarchs among them, would be moved west to form the AHL Pacific Division. The move would make it easier for the NHL affiliates to make player transactions, moving healthy and capable players up from the AHL to the NHL and rehabilitating injured players through the AHL teams. Such swaps were easy when the teams were well within the same time zone. The moves were met with criticism, though there was little to debate; it was just a strategic decision.

And in a funny twist of fate, the Monarchs prevailed through the AHL playoffs and clinched the Calder Cup, the first AHL title for the Monarchs in their final year in Manchester. It was a bittersweet going-away present.

Fortunately, Manchester’s loyalty would not go unrecognized. The Los Angeles Kings had another affiliate under their watch, the Ontario Reign of the ECHL, a hockey league one step below the AHL. The Monarchs would move to Ontario, California, taking up the identity of the Ontario Reign but under the AHL. The Reign would move east, becoming the ECHL Manchester Monarchs, the only ECHL team in New England.

This is the sort of offseason drama that you expect from big-media-market football teams, not from minor-league hockey affiliates. But it all set the stage for a few unknowns as I walked through the arena doors for my first Monarchs game of the year last November. Would I, a casual fan at best, notice a difference? Would it be business as usual? Were the Monarchs, as a message painted under the ice promised, “Still the Kings of New Hampshire Hockey?”

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The Monarchs face off against the Elmira Jackals on March 13, 2016. The Monarchs would go on to win 3-1.

On the ice, there seemed to be a subtle difference in gameplay. Hockey, by its very nature, is an aggressive, high-speed sport. There was no lack of punishing hits and daring plays that night, but the play seemed less polished than I felt I’d seen from the AHL Monarchs. I will say that when we came back for another game in March, the gameplay seemed more refined, more complete. Maybe it was growing pains in that November game; maybe it was just an off-night. But the progress and the growth of the team were comforting.

Off the ice, there were some subtle differences in the atmosphere surrounding the game, too. After all, minor-league sports, unable to market players that come and go based on affiliates’ needs, have to treat each ticket as a complete entertainment experience. There’s the game on the ice, and there’s the sideshow of intermission performances and t-shirt giveaways and embarrassing moments caught on tape, broadcast to the scoreboard’s big display. For the most part, the sideshow was intact. Some of the smaller giveaways and diversions were absent, but favorites like the second-intermission “Chuck-A-Puck” remain. A couple former sponsors in the arena have moved on, but some new names have joined the existing arena sponsors stenciled onto the boards and around the balcony. Given the uncertainty of any big team shift, it’s reassuring to see so many sponsors back with the team.

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For my money, there are few sports more exciting to watch than ice hockey.

Attendance for the games we went to was a bit lean, but there’s an obvious answer at hand. The Monarchs are the only team from New England in the ECHL. Geographically, the closest rival teams to the Monarchs are in New York, the Adirondack Thunder (about four hours from Manchester) and the Elmira Jackals (about seven hours west of Manchester). The regional rivalries of the AHL team – with rival teams in Portland, Providence and Worcester – are long gone, and with them, the fans who only had a two-hour drive to Manchester. The rumor mill suggests that Worcester (whose Sharks were moved west) may receive an ECHL team in a year or two. That would be great news for Manchester as well.

As I write this, “our” new Manchester Monarchs are in a tight battle atop the ECHL East Division with two games remaining, suggesting that they are poised for a playoff run of their own. It would be a welcome housewarming gift for our new home team, something to cement them as the once and future Kings – or Monarchs – of New Hampshire hockey.

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