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Come for the hockey; stay for the crowd

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After my boyfriend and I power-walk through the crowded parking lot, our heads bowed against the wind, we enter the Independence Events Center expecting the welcoming heat most buildings offer in the winter. And, yes, we do get to enjoy this heat for a minute, but only a minute. The second we walk up the steps and enter the Missouri Mavericks hockey arena, a chill permeates everything, numbing my toes. I pull my jacket tighter around myself and stare openly at the spectators lounging in only T-shirts.

The rink is unusually bright—every fluorescent light and glaring ad reflect off of the pure white ice. The game has already started, and the whole arena vibrates. Fans shout, applauding a move that I don’t really understand. As we take our seats, a player is tripped. His skates slip out from underneath him, and his momentum causes him to skid 20 feet. “AAAAAAHHHHHHH!” The crowd screams collectively; some rise to their feet. Apparently tripping is not a foul in hockey, because play continues as if nothing has happened.

The rest of the period passes without incident, at least none that I notice. The best part of the whole game, in my inexperienced opinion, is the Red Panda Acrobat. She is a tiny Asian woman in a highlighter-yellow, hambock-inspired figure skating dress. It is barely long enough to cover her bottom, and matching kickpants are clearly visible. She minces her way across the ice; her high heels make the passage risky. She is slightly hunchbacked and carrying a tall stack of white cereal bowls.  When she gets to center ice, a skid-proof mat and a handler with a six-foot tall unicycle are waiting. Red Panda climbs a ladder, perches her tiny behind on the seat, and begins pedaling. Music plays, the kind you’d hear at a Chinese buffet owned by white people: so “Asian” that you know it can’t be actually genuine. The acrobat pedals, gaining momentum, and reaches out her hands, signifying that she’s ready to be thrown the first bowl. The Mavericks’ mascot, Mac the horse, is supplying the bowls. He is absolutely terrifying; I wonder why the kids around the stadium even want to meet him. The pupils of his eyes are set on swivels, meaning that they spiral sickeningly every time he moves his head, like googly eyes on drugs. Mac tosses the acrobat her first bowl, and she catches it easily. She displays it to the audience, pedaling in a circle to show off the bowl in a Vanna-like fashion. She bends her knee, raising it waist-high. She places the bowl on her shoe, her toes where the cereal should be. She pedals in a circle again, allowing the entire crowd to see where she’s placed the bowl. She lowers her knee once, twice, three times, as if prepping for a major move. The fourth time she raises her knee it is sudden and swift, causing the bowl to fly off her foot, arc through the air, and land right-side up on the top of her head. The few members of the crowd that aren’t getting snacks or checking their phones or otherwise not paying attention cheer. Red Panda isn’t done: she repeats her bowl move seven times, building up to the big finale. By this point, the entire crowd is rapt. The acrobat stacks five bowls on the tip of her toes and flips them in the air. One, two, three, four land, but the fifth rims around the fourth like a disappointing buzzer shot at a basketball game. It flies off and skids across the ice. “OOOOOOOOOHHHHHH!” Red Panda reacts to the audiences’ exclamation and looks at the bowl disappointedly. She claps at Mac, and he tosses her five more bowls. She repeats her move, and all five bowls land on her head. The audience explodes, more united now than they were during the hockey game they paid to see.

The rest of the game passes in a blur. I am too busy laughing at those around me (I hope they think my seat-mates are just especially funny) to really pay attention to the game. A muscled cowboy sitting to my right alternately sips from endless beers and spits brown tobacco juice into an empty Mountain Dew bottle. A woman across the rink dominates the Jumbotron, appearing nearly every time audience shots are shown. She is in her sixties, sporting a simple outfit of jeans and T-shirt. Her exuberant dancing is surely what’s attracting the video cameras: she waves her arms in the air, jumps up and down and screams. Her low-hanging belly spills over the waistband of her jeans, jiggling to the beat of the music. An elderly man sitting below me jumps to his feet continually, adjusting his bright orange clown wig every time. Between the characters at the stadium and the endless, ridiculous giveaways – like Pizza in your Seatza – it seems as if no one is watching the hockey game.

I’m told the Mavericks lost, but I can’t say that affected my experience. I couldn’t care less about a dozen men in identical uniforms skating (or running or dribbling) across a rink (or field or court); people-watching is the hobby that gets me through these endless games. The Independence Events Center is a perfect place to see some of the best specimens an avid people-watcher could ask for.


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