By Bob Highfill
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – The dollar hot dogs and free popcorn were gone before the opening faceoff.
The line for drinks stretched at least 30 long for much of the first period.
Every chair was taken, all 25 circular tables were surrounded, and those who couldn’t find a seat either stood or took up the overflow seating in the concourse.
This was the scene Wednesday inside and outside the King’s Room at Stockton Arena, where an estimated gathering of 450 watched a video feed of Game 7 of the ECHL Pacific Division finals between the Thunder and Wranglers at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Fans paid $5 each (season-ticket holders paid $3) for the chance to root in absentia. But their enthusiasm didn’t register with the players as Las Vegas won 5-1 and advanced to the National Conference finals against Alaska.
“We were expecting a good crowd,” Thunder vice president of sales Dave Piecuch said. “But we weren’t expecting this good of a crowd where we’d have people (in the concourse).”
The Thunder patched the B2Network audio and video feed on eight monitors inside the arena’s largest conference room so fans could follow the team while it played on the road during the postseason. Previous viewing parties drew about 200 fans, but Wednesday’s more than doubled that number.
“I’ve been to some of the others,” Lodi resident Luther Williams said. “But this is the biggest crowd by far.”
Las Vegas had a 13-1 advantage in shots early and led 2-0 after the first period. The fans’ frustration grew with each ensuing missed opportunity and reached the crisis stage late in the second period when the Wranglers sealed Stockton’s fate with a goal off a turnover. The crowd started thinning out when Las Vegas scored its fourth goal early in the third.
Those remaining finally had reason to cheer when Cory Urquhart, the team’s leading scorer, put the Thunder on the scoreboard.
“It just seems like it’s their off night,” said James McCollum, a 16-year-old student at Stagg High, who watched with his father, John. “They have nights when they gel and nights when they don’t.”
Wednesday’s viewing party further proved the level of passion Stockton has for this team. The Thunder has led the ECHL in attendance in each of its first four seasons and dare say now leads the league in viewing party attendance.