The Outpost is one of the media sponsors of the Billings Bulls this year, so we grabbed a couple of free tickets Saturday night and went to our first game in the Centennial Ice Arena.
On the whole, not a bad experience. Centennial lacks the big-league atmosphere of MetraPark, but it makes up for it in intimacy. There are truly no bad seats in this house.
Play was ragged, but the game was close, and I found it increasingly absorbing as it went along. Even with tons of penalties, a pointless fight and two overtimes, the game moved along quickly enough that we were able to catch the first inning and the last two of the World Series game on TV.
In typical bush league fashion, the music that came up every time a whistle blew was too loud and too bad -- sort of '80s style big hair rock music of no discernable pedigree. Jim Larson, who also was there, said the music apparently was chosen to match the crummy acoustics. On the positive side, the most annoying aspect of the Bulls experience -- the Pizza Scream -- is logistically impractical in Centennial, and its absence was welcome.
But one ugly aspect of the game just about ruined the whole evening for me. The rink and stands are almost totally dark before the game, and it was in that darkness that Bulls management chose to introduce the visiting team, the Bozeman Icedogs. The players were nothing more than dark shadows, they were introduced so fast they all wound up skating to mid-ice practically simultaneously, and behind it all over the loudspeakers were playing the lyrics to the Beck song: "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" The Bulls, of course, got full spotlight treatment.
Sorry, but I can't root for a team that shows such poor sportsmanship. Geographical ties don't trump bad behavior. I had to root for the Icedogs all the way.
Here I am getting into old geezer mode again, but it seems to me that such behavior would have been universally condemned when I was kid back in the '50s. An iconic image of my childhood was a film clip of a college football player slamming into an opponent, then reaching out a hand and helping him to his feet. The message wasn't just that this was proper conduct on the football field but that this was the American way. You played to win, but you played by the rules, and you treated your opponents with dignity and respect. Such thinking carried us to victory in two world wars.
No doubt readers with long memories can come up with plenty of examples of when that ideal was breached. But the ideal itself, in my memory, was never questioned. You didn't talk trash, you didn't cheat, you didn't showboat. This Saturday night, instead of the image of a football player helping an opponent to his feet, we got the image of a Bulls player skating around the rink with one arm raised, celebrating to a roar of approval the penalty he got for fighting.
His opponent nearly didn't get to his feet. The two were fighting helmets off, and when the inevitable scuffle to the ice came, the Bozeman player banged the back of his head against the ice. He lay there for several minutes, a potential calamity that was allowed to take place to the utter indifference of the other players and referees.
This may all seem like exceedingly small beer. But I don't think that it is. To me, it is a very short mental leap from degrading a sports opponent to degrading an enemy. One minute, you are trashing opposing hockey teams; the next, you are torturing innocent people.
Some days, I think this is not the country I was born in. I am permanently on the visiting team now, and everything looks dark.