Kansas City is a barbecue town. They’re famous for, and justifiably proud of, their love of slow-smoked meat. The Kansas City Smoke took its name in honor of the city’s ‘cue heritage, and they refer back to it at every opportunity. Several of the city’s best-known barbecue joints operation concession stands at Heartland Telecom Center. They even had youth hockey players take the ice dressed up in the colors of local institutions Arthur Bryant’s and Gates B-B-Q to “decide” which reigned supreme.
Up until this point, the Smoke’s ‘cue connections have been a good thing for the team. This week, however, the team’s fondness for KC’s favorite food led to trouble, as the team was penalized for snacking on ribs instead of taking the ice.
The incident occurred in the third period of Sunday’s game against the Michigan Gray Wolves. The Smoke recently added half-racks of ribs to their concessions offerings, and team president Eddie Whitmore wanted to make fans aware of the new option.
In order to make a splash, the team armed their mascot Pitmaster Pete with a vending tray full of single ribs, and turned him loose during a stoppage in play to hand out free samples in Section 101, near the Smoke bench.
The idea was a hit, as fans clamored to get their hands on a rib. The promotion was so popular, in fact, that the fans jammed the aisle, briefly leading Pete to fear for his life.
But the real trouble began when some of the Smoke players noticed the commotion going on behind them, and discovered the rib giveaway taking place. A visibly annoyed D T.K. O’Neill began banging on the glass and shouting at the mascot, “Yo, bring those ribs over here! We want a taste!”
“The fans were way more excited about those ribs than anything that was happening on the ice,” noted O’Neill after the game. “On the one hand, that’s a little hurtful. On the other hand, I totally get it. Because who doesn’t love ribs?!”
With the help of his handlers, Pete wriggled free of the mob of fans and made his way down toward the bench. Several players, including O’Neill, held out their hands and demanded ribs. The mascot unstrapped the vending tray from his neck and passed it over the glass, where the players gratefully grabbed it and began chowing down.
Only one problem: the stoppage was over, and the Smoke were expected to send players over the boards to take the faceoff, but they were otherwise occupied. Referee Darren St. James skated over and asked coach Randy Bergner to put his team on the ice. Bergner ignored him, as did the rest of the team.
After asking repeatedly and receiving no cooperation, a frustrated St. James finally whistled Kansas City for a delay of game penalty.
“There’s a time and a place for eating, and it’s after the game is over,” noted St. James. “It’s my duty to keep things moving along. And besides, they didn’t offer to share.”
Bergner designated O’Neill to serve the penalty. He complied, albeit reluctantly. When he arrived at the penalty box, the first thing he requested was a towel to wipe the barbecue sauce off of his hands.
After the game, a 5-4 Smoke win, O’Neill indicated that he had no regrets. “Look, I love this game,” he told reporters. “But I really love ribs, and it’s not fair to make me choose between the two.”
Whitmore seemed pleased with the outcome. “We knew that the ribs were going to be a hit, but I didn’t think that they would be so popular that even the players would demand a taste,” the president said. “I’m just glad that Pete made it through all right, and that we still won the game.”
Whitmore said he would ensure that going forward, ribs would be included in the team’s postgame spread. “In-game snacks are a no-no, but I want to make sure they get their fix.”
As the SHL was planning for its fourth annual All-Star game, commissioner Perry Mitchell wanted to do something to make the event special. “Obviously, the game itself is a lot of fun,” said the commissioner. “But we thought we’d like to add something new and different to make it a little extra-special.”
The league considered adding a skills competition similar to the NHL’s, or perhaps some sort of celebrity game. But adding a skills competition would make it a multi-day event, which the SHL wanted to avoid. And identifying participants for a celebrity hockey game was a challenge, due to the need to find celebrities who can skate and are comfortable doing so in front of a live audience.
Eventually, they hit upon a truly unique idea. It was dreamed up during a brainstorming session, when they were thinking about other events that arenas host. One league staffer mentioned monster-truck rallies, and suggested that the teams’ mascots each get to drive one.
“We all laughed,” said Commissioner Mitchell, “but then we thought: Hey, that’s actually a cool idea!”
But how could they bring monster trucks on the ice? They couldn’t, but they did the next best thing: having the mascots mount kids’ ride-on trucks. Each truck was painted in the team’s colors, complete with logos affixed to the doors.
“We knew that we wanted to get the mascots involved, and what better way than having them ride toy trucks?” said Mitchell.
For the initial heats, the mascots were divided up by division. The first heat had them compete in groups of three. The winners of the first-round matches then faced off for the division crown, before the Western and Eastern winners faced off in a championship match. Each heat was conducted over an obstacle course that circumnavigated the ice.
The first race matched up three Eastern competitors:
The race quickly turned into a two-way battle between the Canadian clubs, as Scratch lost control on the opening straightaway and smashed into the boards, damaging his truck beyond repair. Le Tigre took an early lead, as he navigated his way through the traffic-cone chicane expertly and surged ahead. But when he reached the first series of ramps, he tumbled off the side and overturned, allowing his Hamiltonian rival to gain ground.
The Quebec mascot’s hopes of winning were ultimately dashed when he veered off course going into the final turn and wound up in a “water hazard” fashioned from a kid’s wading pool. Le Tigre’s misfortune allowed Crosscheck to sail down the homestretch to an easy win.
The second heat pitted a trio of Western mascots against one another:
Naturally, Shockers owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz couldn’t resist tinkering with Sparky’s truck, attaching what he called the “Mascot-Race-inator,” which deployed a pair of giant skis that turned the truck into something more like a snowmobile. This worked well initially, allowing Sparky to zoom ahead of his competitors. Alas, it made the truck impossible to steer, causing the Saskatchewan mascot to miss the traffic-cone chicane entirely and skid down the Zamboni tunnel, ending his hopes of victory.
With Sparky out of the race, Petey and Salty Sam settled in for a one-on-one duel. Befitting a team whose name references a locally famous submarine, the Blueback mascot had fitted his truck with “missiles” (actually a couple of giant Nerf guns). About halfway through the race, Salty Sam opened fire on his northern rival. The barrage cause Petey to lose control and tip over, and the Portland mascot took the lead. But Petey righted himself and continued on. Eventually, the Igloos mascot caught up to his foe, and then unleashed a hidden spray gun that shot vegetable oil out of the side. Salty Sam spun out, while Petey raced to the line and secured the victory.
The third heat matched up the remaining Eastern mascots:
Cool Cat, the dapper and sophisticated black feline representing the New York Night
Unlike the first two heats, none of these three competitors crashed out early, and the battle was close from beginning to end. Rocketman was the first to the traffic-cone chicane and took the early lead. But Nibs, who was drafting right behind him, cut to the inside on the following turn and hopped ahead. Cool Cat sat back a bit at first, but dialed it up after the first quarter of the race. When Nibs and Rocketman both slid a bit in the back straightaway, Cool Cat split the gap between them and was the first one over the bridge at center ice.
Cool Cat held a narrow but steady lead as the race entered its final stage. Then Rockman turned on his (previously unseen) rocket booster and soared past his competitors to an apparent win. Unfortunately for him, the use of the rocket booster led him to be disqualified, and second-place finisher Cool Cat advanced to the division final.
The final heat of the preliminary round matched up the last three from the West:
The race started off well for the KC fans and their mascot, as DJ Crushmore and Wally found that their trucks were chained together. While they worked feverishly to get unbound, Pete sailed off to a huge lead. He was almost a third of the way through the course before the other two even got started. The crowd roared as their hero navigated the course’s challenges with ease, seemingly on a glide path.
Ultimately, the gigantic lead proved to be Pete’s undoing. Feeling secure in victory, the Kansas City mascot felt it safe to stop in mid-race to tend to his smoker, which was parked in one of the tunnels just off the ice. Pete pulled some beautifully-cooked burnt ends off of the grate and handed them out to a grateful crowd. But while Pete fed his fans, Wally and DJ Crushmore had caught and passed his abandoned truck. By the time the Smoke mascot returned to his vehicle, it was too late. The other mascots crossed the finish line in an apparent dead heat. The decision went to a photo finish, which showed that Wally’s prominent snout crossed the line first. The Wolves mascot won by a nose – literally.
The Eastern final pitted a pair of bitter rivals against one another, Hamilton’s Crosscheck vs. New York’s Cool Cat. Their two teams have battled fiercely in every game they’ve played over the last couple of seasons. And when Crosscheck debuted earlier this season, Night coach Nick Foster mocked the mascot mercilessly, calling it a “freaky inbred Teletubby” and claimed that Crosscheck’s “family tree is a straight line.” The Pistols rallied to the defense of their mascot, and both teams were eager for a victory in this contest.
Cool Cat got off to an early lead in a somewhat controversial fashion, as he appeared to cut off Crosscheck going into the first turn. But the fuzzy orange creature refused to be shaken, and remained close behind his competitor. In the latter half of the race, Crossheck unveiled a secret weapon; a laser pointer, which it pointed at the side boards just off the track. Sure enough, Cool Cat abandoned his truck and began chasing the red dot around. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Crosscheck surged into the lead. Once Cool Cat realized that he had been tricked, he remounted his truck and launched back into the race, but it was too late.
Meanwhile, the West final pitted a pair of longtime frenemies in Anchorage’s Petey the Polar Bear and Michigan’s Wally Wolf. The two mascots had a rivalry that dates back to the SHL’s earliest days. Petey and Wally seemed to settle their feud at the end of the league’s inaugural season, although there have been occasional flare-ups since then.
Right at the start of the race, Wally ensured himself the early edge by swatting Petey with a giant stuffed fish, an apparent reference to a 2018 incident when Michigan’s radio announcer claimed that the city of Anchorage “smells like rotting fish.” While Petey reeled from the unexpected attack, Wally took the early lead.
But Petey got some help from a friend. As Wally roared down the back straightaway, a figure in a walrus costume emerged from the bench area and tackled Wally. As the Wolves mascot struggled to get free, the walrus character whipped off its head to reveal Igloos LW Jerry Koons. “Don’t you mess with Petey!” Koons hollered as the Anchorage mascot raced by. Wally shook free from Koons and got back on track. But Petey managed to hold off his rival down the stretch and won by a couple truck lengths.
This set up a final matchup between the mascots from last year’s Finals contenders: Crosscheck of the Pistols vs. Petey of the Igloos. This team, both mascots were joined on the ice by the All-Stars from their teams. Some players tried to thwart their opponent; Anchorage’s Ty Worthington whacked Crosscheck with a Nerf bat, while Hamilton’s Hercules Mulligan body-checked Petey into the water hazard. Other players chose a more positive approach, like the Igloos’ Tom Hoffman helping Petey up out of the pool.
It was a tightly pitched battle from beginning to end. But in the end, it was a wet but undaunted Petey who won it for the Igloos, beating Crosscheck to the finish line by a couple feet.
“Petey has always been a top-notch competitor, and he overcame a lot of adversity out there today,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor. “This definitely doesn’t make up for losing the Vandy, but it is a nice little bit of revenge. Petey forever!”