I went to Los Angeles over the weekend to catch the Kings’ final home game of the season, but received an extra treat: a trip to Ontario, California to see LA’s ECHL affiliate Ontario Reign in playoff action. The trip came courtesy of the Kings’ music director Dieter Ruehle. He told me he was doing music for the Reign Saturday night and offered to try to line up some tickets for my friend Justine and me. He came through with flying colors and after the Kings honored their fans at Staples Center, Justine and I hopped into our rental car and hit the highway for Ontario.
We hit a few pockets of traffic but made it there with enough time to grab some dinner before the game. I was especially excited to see this team because former Seattle Thunderbird forward Bud Holloway was on this team. I had worn a T-Birds jersey to the Kings game to pay tribute to T-Birds Captain (and LA’s first round draft pick) Thomas Hickey. I figured the “T-Birds” theme would also be good for the Ontario game. The seats Dieter had secured for us happened to be right behind Ontario’s bench but about four rows up. We were practically center ice. What a great view for the entire game!
The first period got off to a slow start for the Reign. Stockton controlled much of the play and you could sense the frustration among the Reign bench pretty early. Winger Brad Mehalko and Stockton D-man Cleve Kinley exchanged blows within the first minute of the period and went to the box on twin roughing penalties. Stockton got its first power play chance just under 7 minutes in when Bud Holloway was called for tripping. The Thunder could not capitalize on their man advantage. Neither could the Reign, when Stockton was hit with a “too many men on the ice” call at the 9:20 mark.
Mike Lalonde scored the first goal about 12 minutes in to put the Thunder up 1-0. Thirty seconds later, Cleve Kinley scored to put Stockton up 2-0. Teammate Brandon Naurato found the net five minutes later, and before you knew it, Ontario was down 3-0 with three minutes left in the first. With less than a minute left in the period, Bud Holloway finally put Ontario on the board, by slapping the puck past a diving Bryan Pitton. The first period ended with Stockton carrying a 2-goal lead (3-1).
During the first intermission, Justine and I went to get some coffee. She stepped away to make a phone call and I waited in line. I was looking around at the different people in line when something caught my eye. A woman was standing in line a short distance from me and she was wearing a Seattle Thunderbirds jersey! I grabbed my coffee and made my way over to her. I noticed that her jersey sported Bud Holloway’s number on the back. She stood with another woman wearing a Holloway Reign jersey. They saw me walk up and noticed the “Seattle” on my jersey. We complimented each other on our good taste in hockey tops and I introduced myself. I asked the women if they were also down from Seattle for the game. “No,” replied the woman in the Reign jersey. “We’re here from Saskatchewan.” Of all the people to run into Saturday night, I had found Bud Holloway’s mother and aunt! We chatted for a few moments about Bud’s career and agreed that everyone is extremely proud of him. Then it was time to head back to our respective seats for the start of the second period.
The second period had barely gotten under way when the Thunder found the net for a fourth time. Craig Valette took the rebound from a shot by Judd Blackwater and shoved it past Reign goalie Jeff Zatkoff. The rest of the second featured more aggressive play by each team and a number of penalties. Ontario’s Tim Kraus was called for hooking. Teammate Geoff Walker went to the box for tripping. Stockton’s Judd Blackwater got hit with an interference call and a shoving match between the Thunder’s Igor Gongalsky and Ontario’s Geoff Walker in the final seconds of the period set the Reign up for a power play in the third. Walker received just two minutes for roughing, but Gongalsky got slapped with a double minor and would spend four minutes in the box. Stockton scored one more late in the period. Ryan Huddy flipped the puck over Zatkoff. The second period ended with Stockton up 5-1 and the Reign facing a daunting challenge—to make up four goals in the final 20 minutes of play. Some of the fans around me grumbled that it couldn’t be done. They did not realize that the best plays of the night were yet to come.
During the second intermission, I strolled around the arena with Justine, looking at the merchandise on sale when a man and woman stopped me to comment on my T-Birds jersey. Turns out, the couple are from Tacoma and were long-time T-Birds and Tacoma Rockets (now Kelowna Rockets) fans before they moved to California. They were extremely excited that Ontario had a team and were proud season ticket holders. In fact, many of the fans I spoke with had season tickets and were extremely excited that the ECHL had a team in their city. One of the ticket takers told me the Reign average about 5,000 people per home game during the regular season.
The third period began with Ontario firmly in charge on the ice. Mike Howe scored about two and a half minutes in, with a decisive shot that bounced off the back of the net. A minute later, d-man Colten Teubert, freshly called up to the Reign from the WHL’s Regina Pats, whose season had just ended, showed that he’s as good with his fists as he is with the puck. He and Craig Valette got into a scrap that ended with both players losing their balance and falling on the ice, still swinging. Valette received a 5 minute major for fighting. Teubert did too, but the refs tacked on an extra 2 minutes for interference.
The Reign continued controlling the ice for the next ten minutes. Then, the “Bud Holloway Show” began. Holloway scored a tricky goal at 13:27 that looked as though it had bounced out of the net without going in. But no one on the ice had any doubts and neither did the refs. Instant replay showed that Holloway hit the puck so hard, it bounced off the back of the net and popped back out. Holloway scored again about two minutes later, and hats rained down on the ice as fans celebrated Holloway’s hat trick. (I later learned that this was the Reign’s very first hat trick on home ice).
The score was now 5-4 and the Reign had plenty of time to tie things up. Coach Karl Taylor pulled Zatkoff from goal to give Ontario an extra attacker on the ice. It looked as though his strategy would work, too, until the Thunder’s Igor Gongalsky stole the puck and passed it to Craig Valette, who scored an easy empty netter. Here’s what’s heartbreaking about this: Ontario did find the net again before time ran out! Reign right wing Denny Johnston scored with 25 seconds left in regulation. Coach Taylor called a time out to strategize what would surely be the last chance to tie things up and send the game into overtime. But the Reign could not capitalize, even with an extra man on the ice. Stockton cleared the puck and a Reign player made a desperate shot from next to Ontario’s net. The puck flew down the ice and missed Stockton’s goal by about two feet. The clock ran out with Stockton ahead 6-5, and the series tied at one game apiece.
The 3 Stars of the Game: 1. Bud Holloway, 2. Mike Lalonde, 3. Mike Howe
The action now moves to Stockton. Game 3 gets underway Wednesday, April 15 at 7pm. You can find more information about the team and the playoffs, including how to watch or listen to the games if you can’t make it to one in person. Just click here.
It was great to see T-Bird alum Bud Holloway doing so well. He was a fan favorite during his years in Seattle. The fans I spoke with absolutely love him, too. Many predict he won’t be in Ontario much longer because he will move back to the Manchester Monarchs' lineup (the Kings' AHL team where Bud began this season), or to the Kings themselves. And I know his mom (and the rest of his family) is brimming with pride for this young man who is working hard to make his hockey dreams come true