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.
"I didn't know what to do, dealing with guys like that," he says. "He's a little guy and he used to play hockey, but not in my position where you have to fight. Either he'd been too scared or too small to fight. Guys like that don't get it, and it's hard talking to them."
People have never understood. And Boogaard doesn't like to do a lot of explaining, either. He's disconcertingly mellow off the ice, and his most eloquent defense of his play seldom goes beyond a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance that outsiders will never understand.
Growing up, he says, "Parents would complain to the coaches about me: 'All he does is just take penalties,' they'd say. I would always be physical even if it wasn't fighting guys."
He was the lumbering galoot who found early on that hitting those speedy guys, or taking on the biggest opponents, provided immense satisfaction that erased his frustration at stickhandling or scoring.
His father, who calls himself "one of the grunts" of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- the equivalent of a street cop -- was rotated to new assignments every five years. So Derek, who was friendly enough but never a popular glad-hander, would move to hamlets like Saskatoon, Stroud, Herbert and Regina, and go out for the local hockey team.
Kids' hockey in Canada can be a mind-warping mess of cutthroat, constant pressure on not-yet-emotionally-mature boys to succeed. The backstabbing, the complaining, the taunting coaches and whining opponents' parents did something Boogaard thought would never happen: They killed his lifelong love of hockey. He quit at 15.
"I just got sick of it all" is about all he'll say. But he came back for one more year, "just to have fun with it" and play without caring about all the bullshit. Within a few months he got invited to his first professional camp, the local Regina Pats of the WHL.
He didn't make the team, but an amazing growth spurt of almost ten inches in a few months -- he required crutches for a while as his knees struggled to keep up -- and a rediscovered love of the game sharpened his focus for the next year's camp.
He knew the only way he was going to make it in the WHL: On the first shift of the first practice, he "dropped the gloves" and got into a brawl with the Pats' toughest player.
"He went in there and took on their heavyweight guy right away," says his brother Ryan. "Travis Churchman, he was about six-four and 235 pounds, and Derek dropped him three or four times. He got in, like, 12 fights in four scrimmages."
Fighting is just part of the job, Derek says with yet another of the shrugs that are supposed to explain everything.
Sometimes you taunt a guy into fighting; sometimes you pull his jersey or poke him with a stick. "Sometimes you just go up to the other team's guy and say, 'You wanna fight?' " he says. "You don't want to sucker-punch a guy."
He has trained with professional boxer Scott LeDoux, but boxing and hockey fighting are two different things. "In boxing you've got to think a lot more, you've got to be calm and patient and pick your spots," he says. "In hockey you just generally go at it."
About the only major injury he's had was a broken jaw; he hunted the perpetrator down the next season and "I fought him and I beat him pretty good," he says quietly enough.
Even his father, Len, can't figure out what happens with his son.
"Sometimes it's like I don't know him," he says. "He's like a lunatic skating out there, and then off the ice he's just a big teddy bear."
Ryan has a photograph of a brawl Boogaard was in while with the Medicine Hat Tigers. He and Grant McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders are in classic hockey-fight pose, the left hand grabbing the front of the other one's jersey, the right hand drawn back as far as possible for an almost comically long roundhouse punch.
Both are aware they've left themselves hopelessly open for taking a solid punch -- and Boogaard is grinning. The grin is not in full bloom yet, but it's coming -- unless it gets wiped out by McNeill's punch -- and the illegal smile and the glowing eyes show a guy who wouldn't be doing anything else than what he's doing right now: beating the shit out of someone while getting whomped himself.
Brawling can get a bit gladiatorial in the Dub, as the WHL is known. When Matt Summerfield of the Swift Current Broncos took Boogaard down a peg by whupping him in early 2000, he ripped Boogaard's name off his jersey and threw it into the crowd.
The fights are more theatrical than they are in the NHL, too. A compilation video Boogaard's brother made (complete with "Eye of the Tiger" soundtrack) shows several versions of a quintessential WHL fight: Boogaard and an opponent jaw at each other, back off until they're 20 feet away, and then dramatically throw down their gloves and helmets.
They circle warily and eventually dive in. As many punches miss as land, but as the crowd whoops and the refs watch carefully, moving sticks and gloves out of the way, the players flail away. Fighting on skates is a tough balancing act, so one eventually falls -- 30 seconds is considered a marathon bout -- and the refs then jump in to break it up.
"You always want to get the first two punches in," Boogaard says. "You'll usually do good if you get the first two in, and ummmm that's about it, really. There's not a lot of strategy."
The two fighters usually skate off little the worse for wear. "It gets pretty tiring, actually," he says. "My hand gets banged up during the season pretty good."
When Boogaard was traded from Regina to Prince George, he enhanced his tough reputation. He scored just two goals while racking up 439 penalty minutes.
"I've definitely had my ear open about Boogaard since he was with Prince George," says David Singer, who runs the Web site www.hockeyfights.com, where fans trade videotapes and argue about the game's brawlers. "Quite a lot of fans in Minnesota are looking forward to his arrival."
(Those fans have since been teased further by Boogaard's ESPN highlight two years ago, which actually isn't one of his proudest moments. At a rookie tournament, he went full bore at an opponent against the boards. The guy ducked, and Boogaard shattered the glass and ended up outside the rink.)
But even though he was beginning to attract attention, the move to Prince George took the 16-year-old about 1,000 miles from home. "That was kinda tough," he says. His parents were divorcing; his size made him a target for ridicule; he was rebelling in school.
Teenagers in the WHL live with local residents, who board them in exchange for tickets and some expense money. Boogaard became close to Mike and Caren Tobin, who housed him one summer after Boogaard's teenage anger -- and hefty food bills -- saw him go through four "billets" in less than a year.
"He was gangly and shy as hell, but an honest kid, a really good kid," says Mike Tobin, who still hears from Boogaard regularly. "At that level, if you're not the perfect player that they're grooming, they can play some real head games with you. You can get messed around with."
The mind games can be the refined semi-harassment from coaches that shows up in all sports, but which can be honed to perfection by the fanaticism of Canadian hockey fans. Coaches, knowing it's their stars who will help them advance up the ranks, can use their biggest weapon: cutting off the ice time of lesser players who are equally eager to move up and out.
"I don't think he was really given the opportunity to do something other than be an enforcer," says Doug Lister, who coached Boogaard at Medicine Hat and is now with the Canadian national team. "He was a player whose other skills were overlooked because he's such a big guy Sometimes Canada doesn't do a good job developing the late bloomers."
Tobin and a teammate talked Boogaard out of quitting, although Tobin couldn't convince him to stay in school. "He was a pretty headstrong kid and he didn't like school. It was an authority thing. He was a smart kid, but he hated the educational process," Tobin says.
He's undergoing another kind of educational process now, though.
"You can't have the traditional enforcers of the '70s anymore, the classic tough guy who just went out and just looked for the other tough guy," says Wild assistant general manager Lynn, who drafted Boogaard in 2001. "Derek has done a very good job learning to play and getting the mental aspects of the game, and being physical on top of that."
Boogaard knows he's not Wayne Gretzky reborn. "If it's a 3-2 game, I know I'm not going to be out there," he says. "I'm not an offensive player, and everyone knows that." Boogaard might not even dress for the game if the opposition doesn't have an enforcer.
As for his chances to advance, "I don't think he's a prospect -- he's just a guy to fight and to protect the team's other players on this level," says Kevin Oklobzija of the Hockey News, who's covered the AHL for 19 years.
Lynn, though, thinks he has a chance to make it. But so much depends on circumstances no one can predict, like who gets injured on the parent team.
"It's a crapshoot," says Boogaard's father. "The chances of making it are like winning the lottery. But Derek knows there are no guarantees and he just keeps working hard at it."
And even if he doesn't make it, Len Boogaard says, he's already exceeded his family's expectations. "All the kids he grew up with that were more skilled than him -- he's the only one who's gotten this far He's head and shoulders above where we thought he would ever be."
Boogaard lives with his girlfriend, likes watching a lot of movies and The Simpsons, but he loooves hockey. He hopes to coach after his playing days.
Chris Bala has already experienced the magic moment that still eludes Boogaard: He's actually gotten on the ice in an NHL game.
It was just another day in the locker room of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins in 2002 when Bala's coach broke the news: An Ottawa Senators player had been injured and Bala was getting an emergency call-up.
"It was just unbelievable," Bala says, but in truth he acted with the nonchalance that seems wired into him. "Then I got there; the next day I went to the pregame skate, just tried to make it a regular day, not get too nervous."
His parents, Wayne and Carol, were at home near Philadelphia, and adjusted their itinerary to make that Senators game against the New York Islanders. "He's not one to talk about himself too much," Wayne Bala says of his son. "But I know we were all as excited as you could be that night."
Bala didn't make any noticeable contribution in that first game. "But that didn't matter to me," he says. "Just to be on that stage was enough." Bala soon demonstrated another of his lifelong knacks -- making the most of unexpected opportunities -- when he got an assist a week later in a 4-3 win that clinched a playoff berth for Ottawa.
After six games he was sent back down, but he had, for the moment, made it. "I basically got my feet wet," he says. "But it was great."
Sometimes it's as if he's glided from one such highlight to another, from making a junior team of 17-year-olds that traveled to Japan, to scoring the goal as a freshman that ended a long losing streak for Harvard in Boston's revered Beanpot Tournament, to being named to the AHL all-star team.
Where Boogaard has struggled to adapt to slights real and perceived, Bala has seemingly not encountered any -- or at least any that could dent his rock-solid sense of who he is.
It would be easy to paint him as a rich, anointed golden boy, with the pricey prep school and Ivy League degree. But the truth is that Bala doesn't come from money; it's hockey that has given him his elite credentials.
Wayne Bala was an AT&T salesman who now owns a bar and grill near Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where son Chris grew up.
Chris had been skating since he was three, inspired by an uncle playing college hockey. But the Philadelphia area is not the hockey hotbed that New England, Minnesota and Michigan are, so that meant long drives and club teams that sometimes weren't all that good.
"We didn't have five rinks within 20 minutes of us like some places, so we'd be driving to New Jersey or Boston or Michigan or Canada," Chris says. "My parents didn't think anything about throwing eight kids in the back of the van and taking off."
His ability to make the most of any chance became apparent early, after he'd been practicing regularly at the rink of the Hill School in nearby Pottstown. The boys-only boarding school of 450 students called him his junior year at Phoenixville, asking him to transfer.
Founded in 1851, the Hill School features alumni who include former secretary of state James Baker, oilman Lamar Hunt and movie director Oliver Stone, who once described the rigorous academic curriculum as "a Japanese samurai training course."
Plenty of big-money East Coast elites attend Hill; those who aren't quickly adapt, and strong bonds are established. Never before in school history had an outsider transferred in and been elected senior class president (or, as it's known at Hill, President of the Sixth Form), but Bala did just that.
"Chris is one of the most disciplined and well-focused and purposeful people I've ever known," says David Daugherty, the Hill School headmaster. "He's fun and has a good sense of humor; he's sociable, but he has always known what he's wanted and gone after it with great focus I don't say this casually, but he is really one of the most outstanding students we've had."
"It pushed me and raised my performance on and off the ice," Bala says. "I just felt comfortable there."
He's always been remarkably self-possessed; he speaks in full paragraphs, sometimes very, very earnestly.
"It's very much been me making my own choices since I was a little kid," he says. "I get a lot of advice from people and I listen to it, but in the end I make my own choice."
One of which still causes his father to wince. Chris had a four-year scholarship offer from Notre Dame and an acceptance letter from Harvard, which offers no athletic scholarships. Tuition at the time was about $40,000 a year.
"He comes in and says he's made a decision on which college he wants to go to," Wayne says. "I'm standing there in the kitchen with my fingers crossed behind me going, 'Please, Notre Dame. Please, Notre Dame.' He says 'Harvard' and my knees buckle."
He had told Chris not to let finances affect his choice. "I said, 'Your mother and I will find a way Don't make a decision based on that, because if you do one day you'll be sitting in your room unhappy and blaming me and your mom.' "
They got some financial help from Harvard. For the rest, Wayne says, "You just mortgage yourself for the next 500 years."
Ronn Tomassoni was Harvard's head coach and recruited Bala. "The first time I saw him I thought he was a big-time player just from his skating ability. He's got a great stride."
Bala had an incredible freshman year. He teamed on a line with Steve Moore, led the Harvard team in goals and scored that winning overtime goal against Boston College in the Beanpot Tournament. Later in the year, against the University of Vermont, Bala tied a school record with four goals in the first period.
"We had a lot of fun at school," says Moore, who played with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche until he recently returned to the minors. "He's a very exciting player with explosive speed and great puck handling. He's very dangerous one-on-one."
The magic of what Bala calls "a whirlwind year" continued when both he and Moore were drafted at the end of their freshman season.
Bala went with his father to Buffalo for the draft. "All these pros were there, all the teams had tables; it was like Christmas morning when you're seven years old," Bala's father says. "We heard his name called but didn't really react, then it hits you -- 'Hey, that was my kid's name.' Talk about chills."
"It felt like I met 100 people in 20 minutes after they said my name; it was just one thing after another," Chris says. "After a while I just felt like leaving just to get a little quiet. But it was great."
Despite being drafted, Bala stayed in school for what turned out to be his toughest experience yet: A wrist injury hobbled his play. He'd planned to make the NHL quickly, but being unable to go full-tilt and make an impression grated on him.
"That was the most frustrating thing, not being 100 percent," he says. "The numbers weren't there for me, and statistics are such a big thing in this game. So there was doubt and worry and whatnot. It was a bad, bad year."
The goal-scoring numbers never really came back for Bala, but he knew he'd never been perceived as a dominant offensive force. So after getting his Harvard degree in government studies, Bala entered the hockey minor leagues ready to hone the penalty-killing and setup skills that might give him a chance at sticking in the NHL.
His brief taste of the big time gives him, he thinks, insight and inspiration now.
"That was an unbelievable experience," he says of the NHL. "The difference up there is not so much in speed, but it's a very mental game up there. They think the game better, they make a better play in a shorter amount of time They also take it a lot more seriously, and that's a pretty good lesson for a young kid to learn."
Bala is overtly personable, ready to chat with fans and good-naturedly take the ribbing when the guy nicknamed "Harvard" is assigned to do the math of splitting the dinner check on the road.
Bala got married over the summer (at the Hill School's chapel) and was planning to play on Ottawa's Binghamton farm team, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from where his new wife got a job teaching second grade. Within days he was traded to the Wild and assigned to Houston; his wife remains in Pennsylvania.
"It's tough, but we don't have any children yet, so we thought if we have to be apart, now's the time to do it," he says. He fills up his off-time playing golf.
For a guy who has much of his life planned out, the uncertainty and lack of control over his destiny can grind on him.
If the NHL players go on strike after this season -- most observers think they will, and it will be a long one -- or if he gets sent down instead of up, Bala says he "would have some serious thinking to do."
At 25, the window might be closing soon. But, he says, "If hockey ended tomorrow for me I'd be okay with it. It's not all that I'm about."
Ultimately, he'd like to teach and coach hockey at the Hill School. He already runs a summer camp there for local kids. "So many people have helped me along the way, I'm just trying to do the same," he says.
Bala's former headmaster lauds him for interests that range beyond the game.
"He wanted to attend a prep school and did; he wanted to graduate from an elite college and did," Daugherty says. "And he wanted to give professional hockey a try and is doing that."
Giving pro hockey a try can be especially tough in a town that hasn't really taken to the sport. The fans who show up are fervent -- there's not only a vast array of Aeros jerseys in the crowd, many of them are plastered with team autographs -- but there just aren't very many of them.
Lynn, the Minnesota Wild's assistant GM, says he still thinks Houston is a viable hockey market. In July, the Wild bought 80 percent of the Aeros from former owner Chuck Watson.
Low turnout in the early season could be a result of the holidays and the obvious focus on the region's dominant sport: football, Lynn says. "But I'm not unhappy with the attendance so far. I think we'll look to the post-Christmas numbers as a better indication of the health of the team."
Organizers plan to add a curtain covering the upper deck to lessen some of the tomblike atmosphere of the Toyota Center.
"We look at it as a 9,800-seat arena," he says. To break even, an AHL game generally needs to draw 4,800 paying customers; the Aeros average 4,354, putting their attendance in the lower half of the league's 28 teams.
Once the NHL either endures or averts the looming strike, many hockey insiders expect a local group to attempt to bring an NHL team here. If Houston does land a franchise, the Wild will relocate the Aeros.
Supporters of a Houston NHL team cite the availability of corporate season-ticket buyers who shun the Aeros, and point to the success of the Stars in Dallas. Skeptics note that the Stars moved to Dallas (from Minnesota) as a ready-made Stanley Cup contender, providing a bandwagon that likely wouldn't occur in Houston. They also say the Rockets, whose NBA championships are not that far in the past, are also struggling mightily to fill the new arena.
At any rate, no NHL team is likely to move here for at least two or three years, Lynn says. So until then it will be the Aeros, and their group of young hopefuls.
"It's not a bad life, playing in the AHL," says Oklobzija. "It's a pretty good way to make a living if you're a decent player." Stars can make six-figure salaries, he says. François Coulombe, who follows the business of hockey for the Web site www.hockeyzoneplus.com, says a mid-level AHL player who's been drafted relatively high probably makes around $70,000 a year. (Boogaard makes $45,000; Bala won't say what he makes.)
Most Aeros players, like Bala and Boogaard, live in Stafford, near the team's practice facility. The days are mostly taken up with hockey, but the airliner travel to away games is not as brutal as the dreary 16-hour bus trips Boogaard cramped his way through in Canada.
Of the 25 players on the Aeros' roster, "three or four maybe" might end up having a long NHL career, says Oklobzija. "It's Triple-A -- a lot of those guys are never going to get out of there."
The Aero players, of course, can't afford to believe that just yet. So they keep plugging away, offering entertaining hockey along the way.
That's what was offered on that recent Friday night at the Toyota Center, when each collision echoed forlornly in the vacant expanse.
The Aeros had an eight-game losing streak hanging over them, but their recently porous defense had transformed itself against the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Boogaard got some shifts on the ice and -- jostling, shoving and sticking a stray elbow into anyone who came within reach -- provided solid defense and protection for his teammates, if no thrills. He even avoided getting into any fights.
Actually, it was a victory of sorts just to get a shift or two, since Cincinnati doesn't have the type of enforcer that Boogaard is usually assigned to deal with. "Just the fact I was out there shows [the coach] has trust in me, and that's good," he says.
With the score tied late in the third period, Bala got control of the puck in the Ducks' zone after an errant pass. He raced down the right side, his quickness leaving the Ducks flat-footed.
Teammate Matt Foy and Bala flew into a two-on-one against the Ducks. "I got into their zone, near the top of the circle, thinking I was going to pass it," Bala says. "Then the defenseman played the pass, and it gave me a lane to shoot."
Duck goalie Ilya Bryzgalov blocked the shot, but a still-sprinting Bala pounced on the rebound, poking it by him for the score.
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Three minutes later he got an assist as Foy scored the goal that put the game away.
Boogaard was quietly effective that night; Bala was eye-catchingly brilliant for brief moments.
Which one makes it to the NHL and stays there -- if either of them does -- wasn't decided that night. That will be determined by a lot more games, requiring a lot more effort and sacrifice, always just one step away from the big time.
And it all will be played out, most likely, in front of a lot of empty seats.