Sunday, January 25, 2009

Iowa Chops

AHL hockey has a new name in Des Moines, and it's a cut of meat. The Iowa Chop is both a thick, center cut pork chop and a player for the NHL Anaheim Ducks' AAA-affiliate. Saturday night, Mrs. Nation and I attended our first Chops game of the season. I mentioned my plans on Facebook and Twitter, and Puck Daddy contributor Sean "Going Five Hole" Leahy asked for a report. And pictures of the Iowa Chops' dance squad, the Baby Backs. Sean, your wish is my command.

First, some context. The Wells Fargo Arena, located in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, opened in July 2005. Their first tenant was the Iowa Stars, an AHL affiliate of the NHL's Dallas Stars. However, the Stars were a bust. Besides playing a boring style of hockey, the games lacked energy from the stands. It didn't help that tickets were overpriced and the team did little to kindle traditions or rivalries. Meanwhile, the crosstown Des Moines Buccaneers, a USHL team of high school amateurs competing for scholarships and NHL draft selections, regularly filled their barn to capacity with 3,250 gregarious souls.

Last February, Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks announced that Austin, Texas would be building an arena and the Stars AHL affiliation would move there. Some in Des Moines wondered if the city would lose its team, but the ownership group remained committed. Anaheim sought a new affiliation closer than their current team in Portland, Maine. The short courtship ended in June 2008 with announcements about the new Iowa-Anaheim affiliation.

The team took the opportunity to perform a much needed rebranding effort, which resulted in the Iowa Chops. For the record, I love it. It's clever and memorable, which minor league sports need to remain in the public eye. It also evokes strong reactions, including lucrative partnerships with the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

The team has gone whole hog with the porcine theme. (Sorry.) Saturday's game featured the Baby Backs, a ham and bean eating contest, a performance by the Pork Bellys (sic), a portly man-dance troupe (video here), and Pitch a Pig, a variation of Chuck a Puck that uses baseball sized foam pigs. It was also Guns and Hoses night, which meant special jerseys, and a teddy bear toss after the first goal.
The Baby Backs helped collect the bears while the scoreboard suggested that people "Toss Your Teddys" (sic). It was also the Chops' only goal; they lost 3-1 to the San Antonio Rampage.

With an arena capacity of 15,181, the team still suffers from playing in a barn bigger than their popularity demands. They curtain most of the upper deck for games. While game operations has improved, in game emcee Samantha Knight remains a lowlight. In the words of Mrs. Nation, "Uckgh. She's very...grating. She talks too loud and too fast all at once. She does not have an arena voice." I'll add that her contributions do little to spark the crowd to life, which is the one thing she should get right. Ms. Knight notwithstanding, it was a good hockey crowd Saturday night, with an announced attendance of 7,167. I'd say 5,500-6,000 showed -- not bad for a 5 degree Fahrenheit night that ended with flurries.

Mrs. Nation and I will return to a game next month before the arrival of BabyCue. We'll offer another report of the Iowa Chops, the least kosher team in all of hockey.

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