photo by Jodi Ford
Jeff Brubaker's face has intensity written all over it. And then there are the scars -- souvenirs of a 10-year career in the National Hockey League. During that time (and in the subsequent two decades of coaching), Brubaker has bounced around the country, the consummate hockey journeyman. From skating with Gretzky and Messier in Edmonton to sharing the ice with Guy Lafleur and Gordie Howe, Brubaker has logged thousands of miles and played under countless coaches while living the hockey life. In other words, he's old school. And in hockey, that's perhaps best defined by one's facial topography: In a game in which players routinely crash into walls at 35 mph and rock-hard pucks travel like bullets, Brubaker was part of the last generation to play sans helmet.
That's one tough school, and Jeff Brubaker is one tough alumnus. "I've always been a scrapper. I was never the most graceful or the fastest, but I scrapped my way into the NHL -- and I scrapped to stay there," he confessed in a recent interview.
That philosophy still drives Brubaker, who may very well be facing the scrap of his career. Because these days, he's the coach of a minor-league hockey team in a startup league in a town that knows more about pit stops and drafting than it does about blue lines and power plays. Nonetheless, Brubaker passionately believes his team, the Asheville Aces, can not only win games but also convince a fickle public that hockey has a place in WNC. "Asheville is my home now; I love it here -- and it's here where I'm making my stand," he declares.
But making pro hockey a winning proposition in Asheville looks to be an uphill battle for Brubaker and the Aces -- not least because of the memories (good and bad) and broken hearts that still remain from when the Asheville Smoke called the Asheville Civic Center home. In that brief span (1998-2002), the city's first pro-hockey team acquired a loyal following. Who could forget the catchy (albeit politically incorrect) chant: 'Let's go Smoke!' But the team collapsed under the weight of its financial obligations, and though the Smoke did manage to pay its debts to the city, it was an eye-opening (and sobering) experience for Asheville.
Fast-forward to 2003, when hockey was once again striving to gain a foothold in the Civic Center. This time, however, there were two teams, from different leagues, vying for the city's favors. That competition, coupled with the lingering ghost of the Smoke, gave city officials a strong bargaining position. Eventually, though, they gave the nod to the then-unnamed team that would become the Aces.
Florida-based real-estate investor David Waronker was the owner who inked the deal with the city. But the lease agreement reflects a certain level of apprehension on the part of city officials: The team had to pony up a $60,000 deposit before the first puck ever dropped, and the actual rent payments can vary widely, based on the attendance at individual games. For a game that attracted less than 749 fans, the rent could run as high as $9,725; a game drawing 3,500 or more fans would generate a $1,525 rent payment.
The lease for the Civic Center's other pro-sports team, the Asheville Altitude of the National Basketball Developmental League (a minor league supported by the National Basketball Association), contains no such requirements. But that, says Pisha, reflects the dramatic differences in the economics of hosting the two sports. "Hockey is a high-cost event to do. It can cost as much as $20,000 just to set up the rink and ice -- and almost as much to take it down. Then there's the added cost for electricity to maintain the ice. The sliding scale is in place because of those fixed costs -- low attendance does not negate those costs. We need to protect the city from having to subsidize hockey," he explains. Other than the rent, concessions are the city's biggest revenue stream from hockey games. "At low attendance," notes Pisha, "there are fewer opportunities to sell concession items."
Mayor Charles Worley, a member of the Asheville City Council that approved the lease, echoes Pisha's sentiments, saying, "The city's position with any tenant is that we don't want to do anything that could hurt the city or costs us money." To date, the team is averaging about 1,200 fans per game, Pisha reports. Attendance, which has ranged from a low of less than 1,000 to a high of more than 3,400, has increased as the season has progressed. The Civic Center's seating capacity is about 5,000.
Brubaker, meanwhile, remains optimistic that the team can win over fans -- and win the confidence of city leaders. "We've got to get fans in seats," he observes. "And if people come out to a game, they'll realize that we're offering an exciting game that's great family fun. What people need to know is that live hockey is very different than what you see on TV -- it's so much more exciting. You can't understand the speed of the game or the skill of the skating when you watch it on a small screen."
Brubaker knows full well how Smoke history has clouded the local hockey lens. But he has a simple response to the hockey pessimists: "We're not the Smoke." And he's quick to emphasize how much the Aces' management style differs from their predecessor's. "We won't take on anything we can't do -- it's that simple. We spend what we have, and if that means cutting back on expenses such as promoting the team, we'll do it. I'd love to be able to promote and advertise more than we have, but if the money isn't there, we won't do it."
Another key difference is the league itself. The Aces are part of the eight-team Southern Professional Hockey League, founded in 2003. The league's home office is also here in Asheville -- which Brubaker cites as further evidence of hockey's commitment to the city. Even the league's name testifies to an important difference between the two teams, he argues. "We're in the Southern Professional Hockey League," says Brubaker, adding, "The Smoke played in a league [the 14-team United Hockey League, now in its 14th season] with only two Southern teams; they had away games in places like New York." And that, he maintains, has a mega-effect on the balance sheet. "They'd have to go on the road for two weeks at a time -- paying for travel and hotels. There's no way a minor-league team can survive that. We have a league where all the teams are concentrated in the Southeast. Our longest drive is 10 hours to Jacksonville. That makes a huge difference in the bottom line."
League Commissioner Tom Coolen also sounds an optimistic note. "The league is doing extremely well," he reports. "We're healthy in a number of markets [with] excellent ownership in a number of cities." Next year, notes Coolen, they'll be bringing in a new team: the Florida Seals out of Kissimmee, Fla. Coolen adds that the SPHL is "actively in discussion with five other markets interested in bringing in teams."
Where Elvis played
Leases aside, the Aces also face another major challenge: playing in the seriously decrepit Asheville Civic Center. But despite the downtown arena's advanced age and well-documented problems (during a recent concert by Alison Krauss and Union Station, rain found its way through the leaky roof and spattered the performers on-stage), the Civic Center seems an appropriate venue for the hardscrabble play of a minor-league hockey team: It's bare-bones, no-nonsense and anything but pretty. And whereas darkness hides the bulk of the building's blemishes during concerts, on hockey nights the arena is seen in all its gritty glory, basking in bright, white lights that illuminate every nook and cranny. Still, it's the ice that draws spectators' attention: It glows an eerie blue-white behind its rickety sideboards, a weird frozen "pond" stuck inside a heated structure.
The rink walls are topped with smudged, scratched Plexiglas that's there to protect fans from errant pucks. But the barrier also gives the folks sitting rinkside an intimate link to the action. When players crash into the wall, the hard-core hockey junkies who fill these seats (among the most expensive in the house) crash back -- beating the "glass" with whatever's in their hands, creating an unnerving racket.
Home games are raucous affairs, thanks to a core of die-hard Aces fans whose infectious energy charges the cavernous arena. Weaverville resident Steve Arendale, a season-ticket holder who sits rinkside, chatted with Xpress between periods. "My hands are sore from pounding on the glass," he revealed, before moving on to deeper matters. "The play of the team has really surprised me -- it's pretty good. ... But it's the access to the players that makes it special: This is hockey on a smaller level; you can get a closer, personal attachment with the players."
Arendale has touched on what may be the Aces' strongest selling point: the players themselves. And even in its inaugural season, the team has managed to forge a strong bond between players and fans -- the kind that has all but disappeared from the upper echelons of pro sports.
A home-cooked meal
Brubaker's team reflects the game's international flavor. Forward Jan Kentos was born in what is now Slovakia. Frontline crony Jarno Mensonen comes to Asheville by way of Imatra, Finland. And fan favorite Kinugasa Nobumasa is one of the few pro-hockey players in the U.S. who hails from Japan. Naturally, there's also a strong contingent from the hockey matrix that is Canada. (How about this for a name and hometown that positively ooze hockey flavor: Eldon Cheechoo of Moose Factory, Ontario.) But a sizable percentage of the team consists of domestically grown players from such ice-belt states as Wisconsin and Illinois.
On average, says Brubaker, players earn about $300 per week during the 20-week season. The team also pays for their lodging at the Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain, which gives them breakfast and dinner as well. During the off-season, most players go home and do odd jobs to make ends meet.
Ask Brubaker about his players and you'll hear words like "heart" and "guts." His pride is unmistakable, and it's coupled with a paternal sense of obligation that clearly stems from his own memories of life on the lower rungs of the hockey ladder: "Some of these guys occasionally get invited to a fan's home for dinner -- and trust me, when you're only making $300 per week and you're a long way from home, a home-cooked meal is a big deal.
"Make no mistake, these guys are good. Not all of them have what it takes to be in the NHL -- they might be too small, or not skate well enough, or there's just something holding them back. But there are only a few professional leagues. ... And if you were one of the top lawyers or doctors in North America, you'd be making a lot more than $300 a week. These guys play because they can."
Defenseman Dan Pszenyczny (pronounced "puh-says-knee") was working as a Zamboni driver at a local skating rink near his hometown (Sterling Heights, Mich.) when he got a call from Brubaker inviting him to try out for the Aces. He'd already spent a year playing for the Flint Generals of the UHL. For Pszenyczny, playing in Asheville means another shot at collecting a hockey paycheck. "I'll play as long as I can," he proclaims. "I can't ever remember a time when I didn't dream about playing professional hockey." Teammate Dan Beland of Montreal echoes that sentiment, saying, "This is it -- this is what we've worked for, this game." Beland's favorite moment as a member of the Asheville Aces? "I got a 'Gordie Howe hat trick' in my first game." That feat, says Beland, consists of "a goal, an assist and a fight."
Those on-ice fisticuffs -- to casual observers, perhaps the best-known facet of the game -- are sure to happen when the Aces lace up their skates. In fact, Brubaker says he's made a number of midseason trades expressly to acquire players that are, as he puts it, "more physical." To Brubaker, the hockey fight is just a way of "making sure the other guy doesn't take your lunch money."
A recent game saw no less than 10 players squared off and duking it out. The only ones not involved in the melee were the goalies -- and the Aces net tender banged his stick menacingly in the direction of his down-rink counterpart, inviting him to join the fray. But just about as soon as it began, the brawl was over.
That's not unusual for hockey fights. Still, when players start trading punches, the fans are delirious. The Civic Center borders on bedlam -- and standing on his perch on the Aces bench is Jeff Brubaker. He's got a fight on his hands to make hockey a success in Asheville. And amid the glass-smacking loonies and the ice-carving grace of young men from far-flung places, Brubaker just may be gaining the upper hand.
Beat the thaw
At press time, the Aces had just four home games remaining for the season. But if the team can survive battles with Ice Bears, Cottonmouths and other fearsome creatures lurking in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the Aces could have a shot at making the playoffs.
Here are the remaining home games in the Asheville Aces schedule:
• Thursday, March 3 (Huntsville Havoc)
• Friday, March 4 (Columbus Cottonmouths)
• Friday, March 11 (Knoxville Ice Bears)
• Saturday, March 12 (Columbus Cottonmouths).
Game time is 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit the Civic Center box office, or call Ticketmaster at 251-5505.