Charlotte Needs Checkers

By Tom Sorensen
© 2005 Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On a weekend such as this, the only ice that interests most of us is surrounded by liquid, tinkling in a glass.

But a few thousand hockey fans are engaged by the ice on the floor at Cricket Arena, where the Charlotte Checkers and Florida Everblades will play at 5:05 p.m. Sunday.

Haven’t bought a present yet for Mom? Consider flowers a cliché? Buddy, here’s your out. Tell me Mother would not enjoy watching the face of another mother’s son squished against the Plexiglas.

There is a hockey underground in the South. It is made up of isolated groups whose members are easily offended by bad hockey jokes and have access to e-mail. Some of its members are moms.

The rest of us understand that you could abolish hockey and, except for these small enclaves, nobody south of Minnesota or Massachusetts would care.

So why write about the Checkers on the first day of the second week of May?

Because Charlotte still needs minor-league sports. We need the Checkers and we need the Class AAA baseball Charlotte Knights, who play south of town in a nondescript piece of South Carolina.

Not everybody can afford to buy a ticket to watch the Carolina Panthers or Charlotte Bobcats. Not everybody can afford to watch a race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (the Tuesday night Legends racing series excepted) or a PGA tournament at Quail Hollow Club.

Tickets to the Checkers Mother’s Day matinee range from $11 to $24. And the team has twice raised its prices since the playoffs began, raised them $1 a ticket for each round they’ve advanced.

If the Checkers beat Florida in the best-of-7 series, they play for the Kelly Cup. The Checkers last won the championship in 1996, which makes them the last Charlotte team in any sport to win a title.

The Checkers attracted 4,551 fans to their home loss Friday. Carl Scheer, the team’s owner and CEO, says the Checkers have 2,500 hard-core fans, the kind who would show up for a game at 10 this morning.

If you’ve ever been among them, you understand why they keep showing up. When the Charlotte players move from the locker room to the ice, they are separated from fans only by bicycle racks. It’s not uncommon to hear a fan say, “Good game, Ryan,” to a Charlotte player, and for the player to respond, “Thanks, Bob.”

There are no socioeconomic barriers between players and fans, either. Only in the minor leagues do spectators make as much money as the athletes.

Minor-league sports are a tough sell in Charlotte. Long ago, somebody introduced the phrase WORLD-CLASS CITY into our vocabulary, and like a virus we have been unable to shake it. We associate world-class with major-league.

Alas, a city becomes world-class only when it stops caring if others think it is. So we have a ways to go.

While we wait, you can treat your mom, who undoubtedly is WORLD-CLASS, to a minor-league game.