The Charlotte Checkers have officially come home, as you may have heard.
On November 7, the minor-league hockey team returned to Bojangles' Coliseum after a decade in Time Warner Cable Arena, splitting a series with the Manitoba Moose over the weekend to put them at 7–5 on the season.
But for those who aren't familiar with the team's routine, this hardly feels like a return home. After all, the Charlotte Knights recently returned from their decades-long exile in Fort Mill, South Carolina, to a new stadium in the midst of their namesake city.
The Checkers moving from the middle of Uptown to an east Charlotte stadium that's been mostly used as a venue for concerts and high school graduations for the last 10 years can't be compared to that, can it? For the players, it makes all the difference.
The $16 million renovations have brought Bojangles' Coliseum (Or the BoRound, as we here at CL affectionately refer to it, in an attempt to coin a term and leave a lasting legacy on this city, once and for all) back to its former glory as a top Charlotte venue for fans — sports or otherwise — but what does it mean for the Checkers?
"I think you can look at this as home," says Brendan Woods, a winger starting his third year with the Checkers, following a practice on the Friday before opening night at the Coliseum. "Time Warner Cable Arena wasn't our home. We were practicing at the Extreme Ice Center (in Indian Trail) throughout the week and for a game we'd be able to come and have a quick morning skate. So here, it's our home. We're working out in our own gym here, our locker rooms are here, we get used to the ice for the whole time in advance while we prepare for a game."
So, that being said, do we care? The average person in attendance at a Checkers game is there to see some fast action and maybe a fight or two, but rarely do they know the players' names or the team's record.
It was that thought that made me want to get inside the heads of a couple of these guys; to spend a day alongside a player and figure out his feelings on hockey fans in the South, his anxieties about reaching the next level and his priorities off the ice.
So, after practice on Friday, I tagged along with Woods and his roommate, Brody Sutter, a center with the Checkers, as they spent the afternoon at SouthPark Mall and Costco while looking ahead to their first game back at the BoRound.
"All my penalties this year have been bullshit," Woods, 23, says to Sutter as the two sit in Woods' Jeep Grand Cherokee while driving through south Charlotte discussing next week's game. The speakers are playing a mix of songs that range from Luke Bryan to Drake while Brody sits shotgun and goes through Manitoba's roster on his cell phone. They're looking for the "tough guys."
"You just have to be aware of when they're on the ice, because these are the guys who will come up after the whistle and hit you," Sutter says. "The biggest thing is knowing if these guys are righty or lefty, because lefties are way harder to fight. If you grow up playing hockey and appreciate the game more, nobody really likes fighting, but it's just a part of the game and emotions. Someone pushes you and you push them back and drop your gloves. Nobody goes out looking for a fight."
Woods is known as a guy who won't back down from a fight, though he's no enforcer. His offensive talents outshine the tough-guy persona, and that's the way he wants it. Woods did serve five minutes in the penalty box for fighting on Sunday night, and came out of the weekend as the second-most penalized Checker on the season.
"I feel like I'm the kind of guy that plays with emotion," Woods says. "I'm not going to look for it, but if someone's going to shove me, I'm not going to let them shove me. I'm going to give it back to them. Or if something happens, if Brody gets ran from behind and is on the ground hurting, then it's more about sticking up for your teammates."
Seth Lakso, currently the beat writer for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Pennsylvania, covered the Checkers for the Charlotte Observer for the first two years of Woods' career. He said emotion adds to Woods' focus, but they can also get in the way.
"He plays best when there's been added emotion involved," Lakso says. "Not to imply that he's not great as it is, but, when he's angry, he'll deliver those big hits and big plays that can be gamechangers. He's one of those guys that needs to play on that line to be as effective as he can be. There were some times in his first two seasons when he flipped over that line, but part of growing as a young player is to figure out how to play on that line."
Woods and Sutter acknowledge a lot of fans come to minor league hockey games for the fighting, but they aren't concerned. It's just a part of playing in the South, they say.
"There are a lot of knowledgeable fans here, but there are a lot of fans that don't understand hockey. In the South, there are more fans that enjoy it and it's entertainment, but they don't know how to skate," Sutter says, comparing it to how he would view a NASCAR race. "If I go to a NASCAR race, I don't appreciate it. As bad as it sounds, I want to see a crash."
Arriving at SouthPark Mall, the guys' minds are off of hockey and onto bigger things. Woods has to find a Christmas present for his girlfriend, Lindsey, who still attends the University of Wisconsin, where Woods played hockey for two seasons before being drafted by the Hurricanes.
She plans to join him in Charlotte when she graduates next December, but until then, the waiting game continues. He said he probably wouldn't see her again until May 2016. After experiencing sticker shock at a few price tags, Woods acknowledges that she's worth it.
"Wives and girlfriends of hockey players always deserve it. They put up with a lot of shit," Woods says. His next statement underscores something that's always on a minor-league athlete's mind. "If I had an NHL salary, this would be nothing."
Neither Woods nor Sutter are shy about admitting that getting "the call" to join the Hurricanes is never far from their mind.
"It's all we think about," Sutter says. "It's all we talk about."
In 2015-16, the final year of his three-year, entry-level contract, Woods will make $65,000. According to his contract, he would make more than 10 times that at the NHL level.
"That's the ultimate goal. We don't train as hard as we do in the summer to be in this league," Woods says. "When one of your teammates gets called up, you're obviously sour, but not at the person, just at the fact that it's not you."
Sutter said he and Woods have had discussions about not taking it personally if one of them gets the call this season.
"When me and Woodsy moved in together we talked about it; that there will be times when he gets called up this year and obviously I'm going to be happy for him – he's one of my best buddies on the team – but at the same time, in the back of your mind you're like, 'Really? Why wasn't that me?' It will be the same thing when I get called up hopefully, and he may be like, 'I feel like I'm playing better than Brody right now.'"
Woods' was awarded the Christmas gift of a lifetime over the holiday break last season, getting the call from the Hurricanes organization while on break with his family in Washington D.C. where they were visiting friends. The whole crew was able to drive to New Jersey for his NHL debut.
"It was different because I was with my family when it happened," Woods recalls. "You're usually just at home where you play when you get that call and then you call them. Mine was during Christmas break, so I was with them and got the phone call and had it on speakerphone and they all stood around me. They all got to experience me getting my first call. It was really awesome for them to be there with me."
Woods' father is Bob Woods, a member of the East Coast Hockey League Hall of Fame and a current coach of the Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League. The fact that media tends to focus on the comparison bothers Brendan at times.
"Interviews are always related to my dad and being in his shadow, but now I can joke around with my dad because I always wanted to be one up on him, and be better than him. It's not even a real competitive thing between us. It's more me than my dad," he says, laughing.
Brendan was drafted higher than his father (129th and 201st overall, respectively) and his father never did play in the NHL.
Despite the tiresome comparisons, Woods clearly respects his dad's career and spoke about how growing up with such a great coach and father helped his game.
New Checkers head coach Mark Morris also recognizes how growing up in the game has made Brendan one of the Carolina Hurricanes' top prospects.
"I found that sons of coaches are sensitive to all aspects of the game," Morris says. "They grew up with it at the dinner table and all day long. He knows the game, he's seen a lot of hockey. He played stick hockey as a little kid around a lot of really good players."
Sutter also experienced his NHL debut at the beginning of last season. He explained the excitement and the differences he noticed when he got on the ice.
"The Rangers went to the Stanley Cup Finals the year before, so obviously you're watching them throughout the playoffs the whole time. Then, the first week of the next season, you're playing against them. I don't think I slept the night before," he says. "There's not really that big of a difference in size or speed, just that guys are a tiny bit smarter and everyone's in the right place so there's not as many mistakes to capitalize on."
Most people in the Checkers organization agree that it would be no surprise if Woods finishes his season in Raleigh with the Hurricanes.
"There are minor-league lifers, and there are the new guys, the rookies. But Brendan is a bubble guy," says Paul Branecky, vice president of communications for the Checkers. "With him having already been up there, we expect they'll be looking for him. He's a gritty player. He'll fight, but he's well-rounded. If they're looking for a guy like that, we'll be expecting to hear from them."
Morris said Woods' blend of physicality and offensive prowess puts him in a good place when the Hurricanes need someone to jump up top, as the players call it.
"He likes to play the physical role but he's scored some big goals for us as well. Guys mature at different rates, and I definitely see him as a prospect, " Morris says. "He's a big, strong kid that obviously can make a difference in a hockey game, especially in the playoffs. When you have those guys and they can play big minutes, and wear down the opposition and provide the backbone, those guys are hard to find. I'm excited for him, I think he's got a great opportunity, now he's just got to hone in on his skills."
After hitting some of their favorites around SouthPark — Lululemon, GNC, American Apparel — the guys head out and hit Costco on the way home. It's not a major grocery trip, just a re-up on supplies for the smoothies they drink every day for breakfast and usually again for an afternoon snack.
They leave with eight 32-ounce tubs of Greek yogurt, a three-pound tub of cottage cheese, four 59-ounce bottles of Tropicana orange juice, 24 eggs, four pounds of strawberries and six pounds of mixed berries.
"This will probably last us a week and a half, two weeks," Sutter says.
The two plan on making some homemade pizza. Then, on game day, a meal of chicken, quinoa, couscous and asparagus at about 1 p.m. They'll nap from 2 to 4 and then down another smoothie before heading to the rink.
When asked about what superstitions get him through game day, Woods says he's not superstitious at all. After Sutter goes down a list of things he's superstitious about when it comes to hockey, Woods then admits that he always ties his laces with 12 minutes left in intermission between the second and third period.
It looks like Brendan Woods, to quote Michael Scott in The Office, is not superstitious... he's just a little stitious.