November 7th, 2017

It was some combination of The Mighty Ducks, my father having hockey on the television every now and then, and NHL video games that got me into the sport of hockey when I was about 10-years-old. Since then I’ve been a die-hard fan.

When I moved to Chadron from Scottsbluff a few months ago, one of the benefits was being a little closer to professional hockey, with the Rapid City Rush just under two hours away.

I attended my first hockey game in 1998, a Colorado Avalanche versus Florida Panthers bout at McNichols Arena. I still have the ticket stub.

I’ve had the pleasure of being at several notable Avalanche games including Hall of Fame defenseman Adam Foote’s final game, and the jersey retirements of fellow Hall of Famers Peter Forsberg and the great Joe Sakic. For 10 consecutive years I attended opening game at the Pepsi Center, and once even met Boston Bruin great Cam Neely outside the arena.

I’ve seen games at many different levels including the National Hockey League, NCAA, and Central Hockey League, but one of my favorite leagues to watch is the ECHL. I spent a handful of years living in the Front Range of Colorado and worked just a couple minutes from the Budweiser Events Center, the home of the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles, one of the Rapid City Rush’s staunchest rivals.

One of the best things about ECHL hockey is the ticket price to product quality ratio. Ticket prices are pretty low, low enough that I could hit up a game after work on a whim and not worry about it too much. That meant I was able to go to quite a few games, it was much better than having to spend $100 per ticket down at the Pepsi Center.

And the quality of hockey? It’s good, very good, in fact. The ECHL is a mid-level professional league that is the bottom tier of what one would consider the NHL feeder leagues. Most NHL teams have affiliate teams in the American Hockey League (AHL), and also an affiliate team in the ECHL.

For example, the NHL’s Minnesota Wild is affiliated with the Iowa Wild of the AHL, and the ECHL’s Rapid City Rush. This means that their younger, prospective players who aren’t quite ready for the NHL will typically spend time in the AHL, or ECHL, until they are.

Because the ECHL is the lowest tier of that pyramid, it’s a great mix of older ECHL “lifers,” guys who didn’t quite make the NHL, or maybe only made it for a while, and young guys still looking for the opportunity.

November 4th, the Rush played the Eagles, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend my first Rush game up in Rapid City, (I long ago saw the Rush play the Eagles in Loveland. I sat next to two groups of Rush fans who were amazingly well behaved and a lot of fun).

The game was great, the Rush picked up their first win of the season, defeating the Eagles 4-3 in a game where the Rush scored on three of their four shots in the first period, were outshot 11 to 1 in the second period, but then roared back in the third where they outshot the Eagles 16-2.

Here in western Nebraska we’re limited as to what options we have for attending professional sports events, and hockey isn’t exactly popular here. But the Rapid City Rush do a fantastic job of game presentation on and off the ice, and the in-arena atmosphere is fun for everyone.

I was impressed with every facet of the experience, and I hope that other area residents take the opportunity to attend a game sometime, even if they might not be a hockey fan. You’ll love it regardless.

I’ll give you some advice regarding seating at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center– if it’s your first hockey game, sit up close, as close as you can get, the ticket prices are incredibly reasonable for rink-side seats and experiencing a fast, hard-hitting game just a pane of glass away is amazing.

Once you’ve seen a few games, feel free to move back a ways, there’s not a bad seat in the building and viewing the game from a bit of a distance is better for being able to absorb everything that’s happening.

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Either way come ready to cheer, and don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with other fans. I love meeting people at games and talking hockey during breaks. Particularly when it turns out your favorite teams are all rivals, but you can still laugh and get along.

As far as who to see, there are currently five players from the Minnesota Wild franchise playing with the Rush. For me, I was most interested in seeing defenseman Dylan Labbe who was a fourth round draft pick of the Wild in 2013, and Dante Salituro, a smallish player who went undrafted but was signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and earlier this year traded to the Minnesota Wild for Jordan Schroeder.

Salituro is a skilled player who put up good numbers with legendary Canadian junior program the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. So far he has six points in five games with the Rush, and was held pointless in two games with the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild.

Salituro is still a rookie in pro hockey, and I’d expect him to maybe bounce around between the Iowa Wild and the Rush before being promoted full-time with the Iowa Wild, possibly in seasons to come. Unfortunately his size might keep him from the NHL, but at 20 years old, the youngster still has time to develop and prove his skill can outweigh his size disadvantage.

In person isn’t the only way to enjoy the excitement of Rush hockey, the games can be viewed online on ECHL.TV, the streaming service covers all ECHL games and can be subscribed by the season or purchased on a per-game basis.

In-person, though, is the best way to introduce yourself to the sport of hockey, but even if you’re not looking to become a regular fan, it’s a great way to spend an evening.

I guarantee you’ll have a great time -- plus you’ll to see those great home-white “RC” jerseys. Instant classics.

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