Friday, March 23, 2012

Interviewing Nathan Lutz of the Chicago Express

The newest team in the ECHL, the Chicago Express, will be celebrating its first full season shortly. The Express is currently 29-26-7-4 and still have the potential to earn a Eastern conference playoff berth in their premiere season. The team plays at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, an hour from downtown Chicago. They have just 4 home games left on the regular-season schedule for this season; if you're in the Chicago area, go out to a game!

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Team captain Nathan Lutz was the first player signed for the Express. He also serves as an assistant coach for the team. Lutz, a defenseman, has played for a variety of teams across several leagues, including the Milwaukee Admirals, Rockford IceHogs, and the Manitoba Moose.  Lutz took time this week to talk with HB about the team's first year and his career.

What brought you to the Express?

I knew the owner [Craig Drecktrah] and coach [Steve Martinson]; I played for both of them before, so it seemed like a good fit for me. I know the area; I played in Milwaukee for two years, and Rockford for three years, so it seemed like a good fit.

Did you have any goals for you/the team to start the season and have you achieved them?

The goal is to put a good team on the ice and win a championship. So right now, it's been tough going a little bit, but we still have a chance to make the playoffs. That's our goal right now.

How is being both a player/Captain plus assistant coach different in terms of what you have to do to prepare or you're doing in the locker room?

It's a little bit more responsibility. I have a little more to do with systems and stuff like that, trying to get the younger guys together and everybody on the same page. It's been different, but I think it's gone well.

Who was your favorite team growing up?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Favorite player?

Mario Lemieux

Is there any particular player(s) you model your own style of play after?

Not really... just trying to do my thing, everyone's different. I'd like to just do what I'm best at, so I don't really model myself after anybody.

Give the opportunity, which NHL player(s) would you most like to take the ice with or against?

I'd like to take the ice with a couple guys from Nashville. I used to play with Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne [with the Milwaukee Admirals, AHL], and seeing them now, you know, doing so well, it'd be amazing to play with them again. They're both fantastic players, and just some of the best guys I've met in hockey, too.

What happened in the 12/22 game at Cincinnati that got you 25 PIM?

There was kind of a line brawl, and I was actually the only one that didn't fight in the line brawl, and I got kicked out. I don't really understand why that happened.

You've played in the UHL, European leagues, CHL, and now the ECHL. How has that shaped you as a player? How is the ECHL different than some of the other leagues?

I've gotten to play at a lot of different levels and seen a lot of hockey, so I've tried to take whatever I could from each experience. The ECHL is a good league, top AA league, so I'm usually the oldest guy on the ice every night. It's young players, and top prospects. It's a good league, a fast league, and I can still keep up with the young kids.

ECHL teams are a mix of prospects, full-time ECHLers, and the occasional "rental" player. As a Captain and assistant coach, how do you address the challenges of a constantly changing roster, especially with a lot of changes in goal for your team this year?

It's tough with guys coming in and out. We've lost guys to call-ups, injuries, our goalies. You try to get everybody on the same page all the time, practice and get all the guys to buy into our system and what we're trying to do. Just gotta come to work every day and do your best. 

Who's the funniest guy in the locker room?

Not even close... I'd say Scott Wietecha.

Who's in charge of the locker room music, or movies on the team bus?

Music, I'd say Wietecha; movies ... Mike Embach.

Any of the team on Twitter?

Unfortunately, yes. [big smile] I know there's Deeds [Devin Didiomete] (@deeds2424), Chaz Johnson, Wietecha [@ScottWietecha3], Kyle Ostrow, Embach [@MEmbach], other than that, not sure¹.

I'm not on it. Maybe I'm older and out of the loop, I'm not really in on all the technology upgrades. I've got my phone from about 10 years ago and all these guys have their iPads and things. It's a little different than what I would do, but I'm the old man on the team.

Chicago's a pretty popular hockey market. As a pro hockey player, do you/your teammates ever go out to see any of the other teams play, i.e. if the Blue Jackets are in town to play the Blackhawks?

Myself, I haven't, although I know some guys have. I have a wife and a year-old daughter, so all my time is devoted to them. We have a pretty grueling schedule, so any time we're not on the road or practicing or games, it's rest and lots of family stuff for me. Some guys go because they know guys that they've played with before, so I'm sure that some of the guys have been to [NHL games], but I haven't been to any this year.

The ECHL is a bit lopsided due to geography. How's the travel?

Travel's not too bad, we haven't gone over to the west coast this year. But we've had a couple of 17-hour bus trips, one-way, so that can be tough, but we have a nice sleeper bus, so it's what you make of it. It's part of the job, and you've got to get used to it. 

We flew down to Florida [Everblades] in the preseason and in the regular season. That was nice to fly; I don't know how long of a bus ride it would've been - way too long - so it was nice to fly down there and cut the travel by a lot.

What's your favorite opposing team/city to visit on the road and why?

I like to go to Toledo. I used to play there way back in the day, my first year of pro. And now they have probably the best arena in the league, great fans, it's always a good atmosphere there, and see some familiar faces. It's a really nice building, brand new, lots of fans, fun to play there.

Favorite memory from the team this year?

Probably a comeback win against Kalamazoo, in Kalamazoo. We were down 0-3 in the first period. I've played a lot of hockey over the years in that arena, and it's a hard building to get a win in, let alone come back from 0-3, so I think that showed a lot of character. It was a good team win. It's something you can build a lot of things on, and I was very proud of the team for that, especially there.

Favorite fan story from this year?

There's a lot of fans that come here, they're all fantastic. Lot of friends and fans from when I played in Rockford who come out. There's too many people to mention, such great support from there. It's just phenomenal to be able to have friends, they're great fans, but they're more friends to me, to come watch a game, and it's phenomenal to have them come and support me.

Have you seen any funny fan signs or remember any good heckling?

There were some good signs in Kalamazoo. I saw one time, Mannino stopped a penalty shot, and I went out and gave him a big hug in the game. So next game, somebody had a My Little Pony sign with rainbows, and it said "Lutz loves unicorns, rainbows, and goalies," and it also had a picture of me hugging Mannino. I thought that was pretty funny. There's lot of good signs there, they have good fans and they know me from past years. I try not to pay too much attention to signs, but the ones I've seen have been pretty funny.

Any other thoughts on the first year of the Express?

I think the team's done great. It's tough to start a new team with all-new players. Most teams have their core group of guys from the year before. So I think it's been great, we're going to make playoffs, so who knows from there. I think it's been a success. It's tough with the fan base also, with so many other hockey teams around, I think that [owner] Craig Drecktrah and the organization have done a great job, they should be proud of themselves.

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¹ Also Max Gratchev @MaxGratchev93 and Aaron Martin @marv1point7, for you Express fans!

Thanks to Nathan Lutz and the Chicago Express!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dear SI : not all female hockey fans are puck bunnies

Dear Sports Illustrated,

We get it. Some days are slow news days and you fish around for story ideas, and somebody said, "Hey, I have an idea, let's do a pictorial about puck bunnies." Pictorial/slide shows get a lot of site hits, especially if they raise a little controversy, or they contain pictures of hot women. You produced one recently called "NHL Puck Bunnies", and the tag on the opening slide reads as follows:

"Hockey fans come in all shapes and sizes, but few are as passionate as the league's female fans (aka - Puck Bunnies). Whether it's proposing to a player through the boards or painting their stomachs with the name of their favorite team, these ladies are not shy about expressing their devotion. In this gallery, SI pays tribute to the NHL's Puck Bunnies."¹

Let's get a few things straight, SI. First of all, the moniker "puck bunny" has traditionally been reserved for those female fans who go to hockey games (or practices) primarily because they want to sleep with hockey players. In fact, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a puck bunny as "a woman who goes to hockey games for the sole purpose of 'scoring' with one of the players afterward". Puck bunnies are a subculture of the female hockey fan demographic; NOT all female fans are puck bunnies (NOT, by a long shot indeed). Think of puck bunnies as the hockey equivalent of rock groupies; in fact, most female hockey fans regard the label of "puck bunny" as derogatory.

There's websites and message boards dedicated to puck bunny-ism. Chances are good that if you start typing a player's name into a search engine, one of the top auto-suggested categories that will pop up is "(player name) girlfriend". The top link if you hit that search term usually leads to, a bulletin board site dedicated to ... well, talking about hockey (and basketball and football and and...) players and giving a forum to these kind of fans. And reading those boards is like the awful fascination of watching a train wreck: ongoing discussions about the hotness level of players; speculation about players' ... equipment; analysis of players' wives and girlfriends ("WAGs"); etc.

There's books out there on the subject too, such as T.J. Anderson's "The Dirty Truth: Hockey and the Puck Bunny: a True Subculture" (published 2010). Anderson's book focuses primarily on the Canadian junior leagues and how sexually open these youths - and the puck bunny culture - are. One of the items in the book is a letter from a proud puck bunny who talks about how she (and others like her) are doing these players a "service" - giving them a non-judgmental place to go for strings-free sex and affection; how they don't care about players' WAGs (or, for that matter, if the player has children); how eagerly many of the players come to them. They're aware that players talk about them, and they might even encourage passing along their contact information. Some of them actively aim to sleep with every player on a given team, or every player of a certain nationality, or every player who's reached a certain point in their career - whatever it is that floats that particular bunny's boat. (If I had to draw a comparison, I would say that some puck bunnies seem to view themselves as modern-day courtesans, minus the whole "getting paid for sex" part of the equation.)

So, frankly, SI, you're incorrect by lumping "the league's female fans" all into the "puck bunnies" category. Are you going to tell me that the 82-year-old grandmother of twelve is a puck bunny? Or the cute little 10-year-old with her "I (heart) Patrick Kane" sign? Even if a woman is 22, as smokin' hot as a Victoria's Secret model, and has painted her face or stomach with her team's name, doesn't mean that female fan is automatically a "puck bunny".

Here's the other thing: not all puck bunny women are as "hockey dumb" as they're painted to be. Yes, there are some of these women who really are more interested in the players than the sport. But hockey is not exactly a cheap sport to go watch. Of the women I've met who would admit they fall into the "puck bunny" category, many of them grew up in a hockey-friendly household. Maybe their brother played on a league or simply hockey was the dominant sport in their town. At any rate, there's few things more amusing from a female fan's perspective than to watch a male fan dismiss a woman's hockey knowledge based on how the woman is dressed or acting, and then to see that female fan (puck bunny or not) turn around and absolutely school the guy with their hockey knowledge.

That's the problem though, isn't it? Female fans are rarely, if ever, credited on the same level of knowledge as the male fans, regardless of the sport. Guys think it's "cute" if girls say they're a sports fan. And of all the sports out there, perhaps no sport is more misogynistic than professional hockey.

The fact is that women's hockey teams have been around nearly as long as men's - at least in Canada. There's a little argument over where the first women's game took place - in Barrie, Ontario, in 1892, or in Ottawa in 1889. The point is that despite a strong women's hockey culture in the early decades of the sport, it declined for most of the mid-20th century before finding a revival beginning in the 1960s. Canadian intercollegiate women's hockey started in the 1980s and the NCAA in 1993. In fact, ever since the first Women's World Ice Hockey Championship in 1990, the sport has boomed for women.

But if you look at pro hockey as a whole, it still remains a bastion of testosterone. Barbara Williams became the NHL's first female skating coach in 1977; she still remains a well-respected name within hockey circles. But team coaches? No. Even female college hockey teams remain predominantly coached by men. Hockey is regarded as the ultimate of "man's man" sports, a tough and rock-'em-sock-'em sport that's defined by The Code and where any given night might see two of the players slugging at one another in an accepted - and expected - part of the sport. It's even rare for women to be team owners - be it partial or whole ownership - of a hockey team.

On the media side, women do not have a lot of role models to look up to when it comes to hockey broadcasting. Sherry Ross was the first woman to provide play-by-play announcing for an entire NHL game - on November 25, 2009, for the New Jersey Devils. Full-time female professional hockey play-by-play announcers or color commentators remain few and far between. Canada's home of hockey coverage, TSN, has had female sports newscasters for several years, but only more recently has the NHL Network and American stations begun recognizing the opportunity - and potential - for having female hockey broadcasters. Kathryn Tappen, NHLN's current lead female host for some of its hockey programming, got her sports career started with NESN in 2006. She's a very attractive woman who - gasp! - can also speak very knowledgeably about hockey.

It's all too easy for men to claim that women are only interested in hockey for the men. Of all the athletes out there, hockey players are without a doubt the best-conditioned. You don't see pot bellies on hockey players; or guys pushing 400. But let's also face it: hockey players also wear so much gear that really the only thing you see of them is their face - and their head is covered with a helmet most of the time.

So why on earth would women possibly like hockey, if not just for players looks?

The answer is the same for women as it is for men: it's an exciting, exhilarating sport. You don't have to know every single rule to enjoy a hockey game. At heart, like soccer, hockey is a far more simpler game than say, football: there's a net on either end of the ice and you score goals by putting the puck in the net. There are not a lot of interruptions to the game's flow, and there are few sports spectacles more thrilling than when a tightly contested game goes into sudden death overtime. The action is fast and maybe you even get to see a few fists fly.

Even as sports fans, however, women will be women. Those of us women who aren't puck bunnies also aren't going to deny when we find that a man is attractive. What it comes down to, as always, is the double standard. If a woman says a player is attractive, then the assumption is that the woman wants to sleep with him, and then she's regarded as a slut, and therefore not taken seriously. But if a man drools over the ice girls/ice dancers, that's somehow socially acceptable, and not only that, but it's encouraged.

Of course that's unfair, and of course it continues to happen. But chances are pretty good that if you challenge your female sports fan friends to test their hockey knowledge or talk about stats, most of them can talk quite in-depth about the sport they love - be it hockey, baseball, football, basketball, or other. Women are passionate creatures and it's therefore entirely unsurprising that we would be passionate about sports. We can cheer and heckle and slug beers back with the boys, and frankly, most of us don't care if you think it's "not feminine" to do so.

Women also hold the majority of consumer buying power. More and more women are going to hockey games and to other sports. We want to look good - yes, we might even want to look sexy and attractive at games - and we want our sports clothing to reflect our passions. This doesn't mean we want pink jerseys all the time (although yes, a portion of the female demographic does want pink and yes, even glitter and crystals). The majority of female hockey fans want attractive, durable clothing in team colors that is cut to our body styles. Wearing a pair of skinny jeans with our jersey doesn't make our hockey IQ drop. Shocker, isn't it?

And the problem is that not only do we let men talk about female fans this way, but we as females judge each other constantly about this. Most of the female fans tend to take other female fans more seriously when we dress what we consider "appropriate" for hockey games, meaning - no heels, no glitter/pink, nothing too suggestive/sexy.

So you see, Sports Illustrated, it really doesn't help us at all that you put together this slide show and lump all female fans into the "puck bunny" category. But then again, as a publication, you really have never quite gotten the hang of hockey, so why would you possibly understand the different kinds of female fans? When Lord Stanley graces the ice in June, you only carry a cover image of the winning team in the local market for the champions. Both Chicago (2010) and Boston (2011) broke championship droughts that were 49 and 39 years long, respectively. That's a lifetime! But when Chicago won, what was the national cover? Some up-and-coming baseball pitcher that certainly could've waited another week for his cover boy accolades. A major pro sports championship that takes two months of playoffs to decide a winner, and you can't spare national cover space for it? Shameful.

Hockey is a way of life in Canada, and a fast-growing sport in the U.S. The NHL is posting back-to-back $3+ billion-dollar revenue years. By the way, $3B is more revenue than at least 79 countries' GNP. (Has it been mentioned that statistically, NHL fans are the best-educated and most tech-savvy, too?) Maybe that's not as sexy a figure as MLB's $7.2B or the NFL's $9B, but that's catching up pretty quickly to the NBA's $4.1B.

Maybe, just maybe, SI, those figures might help motivate you to start taking a little more serious - and in-depth - look not only at the NHL, but its fans, and know what you're talking about next time.

But then again, maybe you were just more interested in the site traffic than being accurate about female sports fans.

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¹ - Whoever wrote/edited this slide show also spelled/typo'ed "but" as "buy" (screenshot, below). I have corrected it for my article.

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Additional notes (added 3/9): 

- For another article on this same subject, please also read Elena Palmer's "Eye On The Storm:Sports Illustrated Salutes 'Puck Bunnies'; Shockingly, I’m Annoyed" at Aerys Sports

- Major /sticktaps to PuckDaddy for linking to HB today! Thanks! 

On a note related to my above article : I did have somebody challenge me on Twitter about what SI meant, stating that "the girls shown were puck bunnies". (Really? The 50-year-old woman? The one with the signs that had nothing sexual about them?) They also said "I think SI was only referring to the hot and slutty ones as 'puck bunnies'."

Perhaps the intent of the slideshow was to focus on the puck bunny sub-culture/slice of female fan demographics, but the English grammar (spelling error and all) of the first sentence stated "few are as passionate as the league's female fans (aka - Puck Bunnies)". Additionally, nothing about the opening sentence mentioned "hot" OR "slutty".
Either SI's editors didn't catch that the structure of the sentence was calling all female fans puck bunnies, OR they do in fact think all female hockey fans are puck bunnies. Either way, it was a poor description to start off their slide show. 

Additional notes (added 3/10): 

- Sticktaps to Russian Machine Never Breaks for adding their voice (literally) to the discussion:

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UPDATE (added 3/10):

Sports Illustrated has removed the slideshow from their website. It was removed at some point late this morning (3/10).  

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