Mar 08, 2024, 06:28AM

Can Minor League Hockey Save Poughkeepsie?

A city in search of a hipster edge might have one on ice.

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With all the boomtown hype surrounding New Yorkers moving to the Hudson Valley, the City of Poughkeepsie is missing its invite to the Gentrification Gala. New York Times feature articles repeatedly laud the attractions of Hudson, Beacon, New Paltz, Millbrook, Rhinebeck and even the more blue-collar Red Hook. Poughkeepsie tries with its microbreweries, French bistros and food halls. But it all fails as the city is laid out with a bizarre “arterial” highway system that avoids having drivers stop and shop. It’s an easy in, easy out emphasis with timed green lights. And if you’re not a Vassar College parent or a Marist College parent, you’re not hanging out in the old IBM hub city of roughly 32,000 residents. There’s semi-frequent gunfire on Main Street but there’s also the cultural draw of the amazing 155-year-old Bardavon Opera House downtown.

In the mid-1980s, I was a reporter just out of college, working at the afternoon daily Wheeling News-Register in Wheeling, WV. Part of my beat was the downtown Wheeling Civic Center, a serviceable arena highly underutilized. I’s check in with the director of the place frequently for any scoops. He was very sleepy and uninspired, reading his copy of the trade magazine Amusement Business. He was happy to have a Muppets holiday show once a year and an occasional country music concert and thought that was enough on his part. I asked him if he ever considered minor league hockey. Nah, he said, too much paperwork.

Flash forward to 1991. I was long gone from Wheeling, having moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn to pursue trade journal work in Manhattan. A minor league hockey team from Winston-Salem was relocating to Wheeling. An ice rink was installed. Seats were renovated and the Civic Center retrofitted for hockey action. A franchise was born, skating in the East Coast Hockey League originally called the Thunderbirds but then later renamed the Nailers, in honor of the nail industry which was a big part of Wheeling during the turn of the century. The Nailers game nights changed downtown Wheeling. The city had superfans showing up and an identity as a gritty hub of minor league hockey, soon affiliated with the NHL juggernaut known as the Pittsburgh Penguins, less than an hour east of Wheeling.

Flashing forward again to 2005 and I’m on the copy desk of the Poughkeepsie Journal, having moved upstate 20 minutes after my daughter Roxanne was born in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The old Gannett paper served me well in terms of health insurance, etc., but I could see it was a doomed existence. Buyouts and layoffs happened left and right. Digital became the buzzword. Spending time in Poughkeepsie, 25 minutes south of my new residence in toney Rhinebeck, was a bit of a chore, especially with work being a night shift. But having skated in McCann Ice Arena at the Civic Center in downtown Poughkeepsie, I’d say to anyone who’d listen at the Tavern at the Beekman Arms or Foster’s Coach House that what Poughkeepsie needs is a minor league hockey team.

It only took 18 years or so before the Hudson Valley Vipers took the ice in Poughkeepsie earlier this year. They were in the unaffiliated 16-team Union Hockey League, but as I was writing this, the league awkwardly rebranded as the American Premier Hockey League with expansion on its mind. The Vipers have opponents in Boston and Pittsburgh, but the rest of their foes are regional east coast outfits like the Northshore Nighthawks or Niagara Falls Buffalos. It’s one of the “best of the beer leagues” said 27-year-old Poughkeepsie native Bradley Delmar whom I was sitting with at a Vipers game against the Holyoke Papermen recently. It was a day game after a night game for the Vipers, so the afternoon crowd was slightly hungover from the previous night’s win. The Sunday matinee against Holyoke turned out to be a spicy bloody Mary of a game, featuring two shorthanded goals, two hat tricks, a goalie hissyfit and a last-minute mini-brawl. The Vipers skated away with nine goals in a 9-4 victory in front of 1200 or so fans in a facility that probably holds 1700. McCann only has bleachers on one side of the rink, with the team benches opposite and up against a cinderblock wall.

Halfway through the first period, Delmar cracked his cowbell he uses to rouse fans in his section. There’s merch, and the replica gold and red jerseys were selling. A slogan above the entrance to the ice reads “SCRAPPY/CLASSY” and Delmar has that sticker on his bell.

There’s a half-assed light show and dry ice release when the Vipers are introduced, but the sound system at McCann is muffled and suffering sub-woofer issues. The effort is there, though. The Zamboni is sponsored by a local dentist, the scoreboards at either end have been upgraded somewhat from the old Marist College hockey days (the Red Foxes play home games at McCann).

The crowd, paying $10 for a ticket, is a mix of biker couples, mid-life crisis divorced dads with their visitation-hour sons, Juggalos and friends and relatives of the players. There was an enthusiastic bass drum couple with center ice seats, making some noise. The Poughkeepsie “Snake Pit” is known as one of the more high-energy collections of minor league hockey supporters in the league. They’re there to see skaters who are mostly post-college dudes who can still wheel it. The pace was fast in the first period which ended with the Vipers up 2-1.

There’s no game program, and players wear nameless jerseys, so it’s up to the fans (and sparse media) to figure out who’s who on the breakaways and face-offs. The action’s mostly a loose puck rodeo, which can be fun to watch.

The Vipers scored two quick goals to open the second stanza, and Holyoke’s coach decided to pull his keeper Tay’Von Bozeman. The kid made it to the bench, replaced by a teammate who’d spend much of his time horizontal in his own goal mouth, which isn’t good.

I’ve seen a lot of tantrums in sports through the years, but when Bozeman used his goalie helmet to repeatedly bash the glass, he then walked away from the bench into a remote corner of the rink where they store padding and orange cones and the usual “open skate” detritus. There he remained hunched forward at a 90-degree angle and stared at the floor for a full 14 minutes without moving. It was an eerie sight, and concern spread regarding the young goalie’s mental health. “Maybe he lost a contact lens and he’s looking for it,” quipped a fan nearby.

In the tradition of the Paul Newman classic hockey film Slap Shot there has to be a goon factor in minor league hockey. Enter Sal Safonte, a lumbering tatted-up fellow listed as a defenseman and forward, wearing jersey number 4. In a short time in Poughkeepsie, his brawling has earned him fan favorite status, and during lulls on the ice, they chant “Sal! Sal! Sal!” By the time he throws dukes at a Holyoke winger with :15 left in the game, the kid hecklers had taken over the grilling of the visiting squad. There’s nothing funnier than kid hecklers.

This franchise might serve Poughkeepsie’s reputation better if it dropped the regional appeal with the “Hudson Valley” part of its name. How about the Poughkeepsie Firecrackers? That name honors Mike Bogo, the crazed pyro who’s use fireworks to announce the finish line of the rowing championships featured in the book and film The Boys in the Boat. Poughkeepsie was a sporting mecca during those days. I’m not inferring that small-time hockey can restore that era, but I can always follow the advice on most fireworks: “Light fuse and get away.”


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