PROFESSIONAL HOCKEY / HELENE ELLIOTT : Ice Dogs Hope No One Lets Air Out of Balloon

The blue balloons were bobbing, customers were standing three-deep at the souvenir stands and the music blaring over the sound system gave a festive air to even the dark, upper reaches of the Sports Arena.

Although all the signs pointed toward a successful home debut Sunday for the Ice Dogs, the newest hockey team in Los Angeles, players were not sure how they would be received.

"We were very excited," goaltender David Littman said, "but we didn't know how things would go. Look who we're competing with here. There are 46 other pro sports teams in Los Angeles.

"We just go out and play hockey. Management did its job and the players did their jobs. This was the best opening night I've seen, and the fans were into it. A few people may have said, 'Well, you have all these things going on, but how's the show on the ice?' I think they saw a show and a half."

They saw the Ice Dogs, Los Angeles' entry in the International Hockey League, rout the Minnesota Moose, 6-1, in an enjoyable display of offense-first hockey. John Van Boxmeer, the team's coach and general manager, didn't create a fast, opportunistic team solely to entertain fans, but he knows that entertainment is as important these days as forechecking and killing penalties.

"I'm driving to the rink thinking, 'It's 88 degrees. We'd better do a good job to make them think about hockey,' " he said. "I build my team to please me, and this is the style I want to play. I want to be aggressive."

The Ice Dogs are as energetic in their marketing as they are when they have the puck. The team's logo--a snarling bulldog holding a chewed-up hockey skate in its mouth--has popped up on buses and billboards everywhere from Huntington Beach to West L.A..

They have to be aggressive in a region where there are already two hockey teams of indisputably higher caliber. But the Ice Dogs aren't trying to be the Kings or the Mighty Ducks. They are selling decent hockey at bargain prices ($5 to $16), hoping to snare families and fans who have been priced out of the NHL.

"The NHL is the best hockey league in the world," said Fred Comrie, the Ice Dogs' owner. "We're the second-best at a quarter of the price. Neiman-Marcus is not the only store available."

The announced crowd of 9,753 seemed happy enough, even if they didn't seem to actually number 9,753. (About a third of the 9,500 tickets distributed in advance were free). The league's average last season was 8,261, a figure Comrie said he'd be delighted to see the Ice Dogs hit this season.

"I think there's room here for another team, especially with what happened in Chicago last season," Comrie said. "They did a great job and drew 11,000. . . . If we win, people will come back."

Ice Dog defenseman Mark Hardy agrees the Ice Dogs can carve out their own niche.

"We're not trying to go against the NHL. We're an alternative," he said. "There's a lot of hockey fans in L.A. who can't afford to go to Kings' games. If we can get those fans, maybe we'll catch on."

Or grab on, by their teeth.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World