By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
On a recent Friday night -- like most nights when the Houston Aeros play a home game -- the new $235 million Toyota Center downtown can seem like the most expensive mausoleum ever built.
The Aeros spent years as a franchise in the International Hockey League, a league one hockey writer describes as "full of players who were on the downward arc of their career or young players who couldn't quite get over that last hurdle." For the last two years, though, they've been in the American Hockey League, the equivalent of baseball's Triple-A level, one step from the National Hockey League.
The players are talented and hungry and tantalized by how close they are to taking the final jump and getting on the ice with the best players in the world.
So when a pass is intercepted in the Aeros' defensive end on this night, the puck moves crisply to a forward who sprints up the ice. And it's not long before a 200-plus-pound member of the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks moves to cut him off. Flashing in no time to full speed, the Duck lowers a shoulder and drives the Aero into the sideboards, which thud and rattle convincingly.
But the sound echoes off the vast sea of nearly 17,800 empty red seats at the arena, where only a few thousand fans are scattered. The swooshing of skaters and the sharp crack of the puck hitting a stick are easily audible. It's a morgue in here.
The problem isn't the hockey being played; that's quick and fluid. These few fans watch hockey that's surprisingly team-oriented. "Some teams anoint their top three prospects and give them all the ice time in the minors. We don't do that," says Tom Lynn, assistant general manager for the Minnesota Wild, which owns the Aeros. "We play who's playing the best in any given week, and when we need to call up someone, we call up who's playing the best, not who we think is the best prospect."
So it's not only the Aeros' stars -- winger Dan Cavanaugh, center Rickard Wallin from Sweden -- who are oh-so-close to the NHL. It could be two of the lesser lights who are sweating on this Friday night.
It could be winger Chris Bala, born with speed and eager to throw himself into a corner to dig out a puck whenever he gets a shift on the ice. It could be Derek Boogaard, whose six-foot-seven, 250-pound frame makes him a giant in hockey terms, an enforcer who protects his quicker teammates from the other teams' goons.
The two wingers have taken vastly different routes to Houston. Boogaard is a cop's kid who moved constantly through a series of small Canadian towns; always the shy outsider and gawky skater. Bala went to an elite prep school and graduated from Harvard; a smooth-talking, friendly guy who's already had a string of highlight moments.
Fans know Boogaard as the Boogeyman. And the 21-year-old knows that his way to the NHL is through his fists. He's been suspended by other minor leagues; he's had brief celebrity for a crushing ESPN highlight hit; he's the only minor-leaguer featured on www.wildenforcers.com, a Web page for that subculture of hockey fans who revel in fights.
"It's no big secret that I'm not a big goal scorer. I just love to hit guys," the soft-spoken Boogaard says matter-of-factly. "Some guys have it and some don't."
Bala's route to the NHL will be finesse, smarts, and knowing what's expected of him and doing it. "Will I be a big scorer in the NHL? Probably not," says the 25-year-old, whom teammates have nicknamed Harvard. "But a third- or fourth-line guy, a penalty killer? Yeah. I want to be a guy who can fill a role."
Both know their window of opportunity for sticking in the NHL is closing. It's make-or-break time for them and the rest of the Aeros. Their battle for their careers is at full pitch and being played out each week at the Toyota Center.
Not that Houston seems to care much about it.
In 2001, Derek Boogaard found himself in a familiar position: trying to explain, not too articulately, just why he gets in so many fights on the ice.
Playing for the Prince George Cougars in a heated playoff series against the Portland Winter Hawks, Boogaard violated a hockey tradition by slamming the opponent's goalie against the boards. Worse, he did it after the game-ending buzzer had sounded.
Boogaard insisted the game wasn't over, that the goalie had been handling the puck and was a legitimate target, but Western Hockey League officials didn't agree. They suspended Boogaard for seven games. (On the day he came back from the suspension, he would earn a four-day suspension for making an "inappropriate gesture" toward a referee.)
And once again he found that there are hockey guys like him, and there are hockey guys who look condescendingly on the brutes who sully the beautiful, elegant game -- and there's no bridging the gap.
Before the suspension was set, Boogaard was ordered to meet in Calgary with league vice president Richard Doerksen. Boogaard trudged into the office and did little more than listen sullenly to a lecture.