Fresno Monsters shoot for coveted hockey title
Nov 19, 2014 04:28PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
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Fresno Monsters shoot for coveted hockey title
by Christopher Livingston
Photos by Dan Minkler
The temperature outside was in the mid-90s. It was the middle of September, and the city of Fresno was going through another heat wave.
But inside the Gateway Ice Center, everyone was wearing a jacket. The hockey puck danced on the ice sheet as Fresno Monsters head coach Bryce Dale swatted it at the glass. He was less than impressed with his team’s last drill. If the Monsters were going to finish in first place again, the moves had to be seamless and perfect.
It’s all poetry in motion.
The Monsters are an amateur hockey team that has competed in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) since 2009. In each of its five seasons, which are 46 games long ranging from October to March, the team has finished in the top three of the West Division – four of those years in first place.
But the Thorne Cup, the coveted trophy of the WSHL, has yet to make its way to Fresno. And Dale wants to correct that.
A Central Valley tradition
Hockey in Fresno is not something new. The first professional team was formed in 1946 as part of the Pacific Coast Hockey League. The Fresno Falcons, as they came to be known, remained active until 2008, when economic struggles forced the team to fold.
Multiple businesses in the city wanted to bring hockey back to Fresno. The owners came together, created a pool and purchased a team: the Fresno Monsters. Initially, the response was greater than expected, so the team decided to play its games downtown at Selland Arena.
Results continued to impress. The Monsters averaged 3,200 fans per game; their largest crowd was 6,266.
Fresno had its hockey program again.
In addition to providing family entertainment, the team does 5,000 hours of community service every season. Services range from visiting the elderly in convalescent homes to visiting children at elementary schools and teaching them about hockey.
“At the end of the day, these guys are role models,” Dale said. “They can impact some kids’ lives and make them want to play ice hockey and achieve their dreams. These kids have a chance of playing for this team and moving forward.”
Unlike basketball, baseball or football, ice hockey does not follow a standard high-school-to-college pattern with young athletes. Amateur hockey, which the WSHL is, serves as preparation for intercollegiate hockey; it is a bridge between high school and college. More than 95 percent of Division-I and Division-III college freshmen are 21 years old because they play junior hockey from high school age until 20. The Monsters players range in age from 18 to 20.
“The kids don’t want to leave,” Dale said. “They want to stay and develop and become more mature so they can handle the necessary skills, such as time management, that come with college.
“You basically have the opportunity of watching the stars of tomorrow play here at a younger age.”
Dale, also the general manager of the Monsters, takes his team seriously, and that has shown in his recruiting. Out of 27 team members in the 2013-14 season, about half (14) came from California. Six of the players were international: four from Canada, one from Finland and one from the Czech Republic.
"It's challenging,” Dale said, “not to find players, but to put a team on the ice that you want to win a championship for the city. This is a city that has supported hockey for so long. You want this city to be a winner.”
Players from outside the Central Valley stay with local families. Sometimes, a player can elect to stay with the same family during his time here. Other times, a player can elect to stay in a different home to meet new people. They receive a stipend of $300 per month.
Austin Piquette, a goalkeeper from Kamloops, British Columbia, was recruited by Dale last year to join the squad. Although he has found many differences between Canada and Fresno, he has had positive experiences.
“I couldn’t complain,” he said. “The sun and the mild winter – it’s definitely enjoyable, for sure.
Looking toward the future
The Gateway Ice Center was going through difficult times in spring 2013. Finances were not in order and the owner threatened to close down the rink. With the Monsters unable to reach the same attendance numbers at Selland as when they started, a new idea came up. A group of investors, including the Monsters, Poverello House and Boys and Girls Club of Fresno County, put money together and formed the Lace ‘Em Up Foundation to purchase the Gateway Ice Center. There are plans to build a new, state-of-the-art facility behind the existing building.
“There are so many people on board with this project,” Dale said of the new arena project. “We’re all pumped up.”
The new 44,000-square-foot facility will serve as a community center in addition to being the primary home of the Monsters. It will be about 4,000 square feet larger than the Gateway Ice Center and is slated to seat 1,800 fans. The addition of solar panels is expected to cut energy costs by 94 percent.
“It will give us the opportunity to play in an atmosphere where we can create a crowd,” Dale said. “With Selland Arena, it didn’t pencil out financially.”
The main goal of the new facility is to provide a place for the community to host events. Rather than having to pay a large sum to use an indoor center, Dale said, the facility will focus on helping members of the community raise funds for their programs and enhance their missions by providing a free place to hold their meetings.
The project is still in its planning stage. The group wants to wrap everything up and break ground by the end of the calendar year. Once finished, the old facility will remain in use as the Monsters’ practice facility and as an extra ice sheet for tournaments, games and an expansion of the Central Valley’s youth hockey program.
“We have people who are contributing to make this one of the elite places in the entire Central Valley for kids to exercise and participate in programs,” Dale said. “We can really build a program that gives kids a fun place to play recreationally as well as a competitive environment for kids who want to play and aspire to be a Fresno Monster.”
But for now, the Gateway Ice Center has served as a worthy home for the Monsters. The team brought in 20,000 fans last season -- an average of 750 per game.
It’s not the 6,300 seat-capacity Selland Arena. It’s Dale’s little “soup can.”
“We took our same production level that we had at Selland Arena and brought it here,” Dale said. “Although we are playing in a smaller arena, we didn’t want to dumb our product down. We actually want to build on it and make it better every single day.”
It’s an intimidating atmosphere for other teams in the league. The proximity of the players and the crowd provides an adrenaline boost for the Monsters.
Or, as Dale puts it, a “seventh man.”
“The energy is great from the fans,” said second-year right-winger Austin Haynes. “We put a couple of goals in, get a fight going. It’s a good atmosphere to play in. It’s great energy to feed off of, and you really play off the crowd.”
A ‘thank you’ to Fresno
The whistle sounds and the team gathers together at the east-facing wall for a huddle. There, Dale offers words of encouragement and chimes in on the Monsters’ performance at practice. The assistant coaches, brothers Jason and Brian Rivera, and Zach Alvarez, gather together the stray hockey pucks.
Another practice is finished. With that, the Monsters are closer to having another shot at the championship.
“At the end of the day, we move six guys on to college hockey,” Dale said, referring to his former Fresno Monsters. “When you’re a coach, you don’t want to replace them with someone just as good. No disrespect to those players, but you want to improve.
“It’s been grueling, it’s been hard, but it’s been rewarding. It’s a marathon; eight months [from practice until the end of playoffs] is not a sprint by any means.”
For those eight months, the Gateway Ice Center’s doors will remain open to Fresno fans willing to come and support their hockey team. The concessions will still be out and the beer garden will buzz with patrons. For these unwavering Monsters fans, Dale and his team want to provide the ultimate thank you gift: the WSHL championship trophy, hoisted high and proud over their heads.
Christopher Livingston is a student majoring in mass communication and journalism at Fresno State, where he is sports editor of the campus newspaper.