Professional ice hockey returned to Roanoke Friday night and it was obvious Roanoke Railyard Dawgs’ fans were ready to embrace their new team with open arms.
6,188 fans packed The Berglund Center for the season opener against the Knoxville Ice Bears, and the crowd liked what they saw in the new franchise.
Fans started arriving two hours early for a party in the plaza, braving windy conditions as the music played. Lines quickly formed to purchase tickets, the parking lot filled up and shuttle buses from the Elmwood Garage in downtown Roanoke continually unloaded fans eager to see what the new ownership had in store for opening night.
It had been 10 years since professional ice hockey had called the former Roanoke Civic Center home, and the makeover was dramatic.
New seats, new plexiglass, improved lighting and a new video scoreboard greeted the fans. Everything from replays to the “Kiss Camera”, where couples were unexpectedly put on the scoreboard in the center of a heart to pucker up in front of everyone. It turned out to be a huge hit as the crowd roared in approval.
On the ice, it may have been opening night jitters or the fact that Knoxville has one of the top teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League that kept the fans from going home with a win.
And, for hockey diehards who love a little ice wrestling, they didn’t have to wait long after Roanoke’s Michael Turner and his Knoxville counterpart, Jake Rivera, dropped the gloves in front of the Dawgs’ bench 32 seconds into the game.
The two teams played to a 0-0 stalemate for the first two periods as Roanoke goalie Brandon Anderson and Ice Bears tender Charlie Grant closed up the pipes on both ends.
Roanoke missed a golden opportunity late in the first when it went on a 4-on-3 power play that expended into the second. The Dawgs would later have a two-man advantage, but Grant again was up to the challenge.
Knoxville finally found the twine midway through the third period when Rivera led an Ice Bear rush before banging home a rebound from the crease to put Knoxville up 1-0.
Three minutes later, the Ice Bears got the separator on a power play goal by Kyle McNeil on a deflection from point-blank range.
But, the Railyard Dawgs’ fans liked what they saw in their new team.
“This is a step below the level of play of the old leagues in the Roanoke Valley,” hockey icon Claude Piche, MVP of the most storied ice hockey team in Roanoke Valley history, noted before the game began. “But, look at this crowd. The key will be that the games are competitive. As long as that takes place, this will be very popular.”
After three road games, Roanoke will return to The Berglund Center on November 4th to face the Fayetteville FireAntz.