Monday March 7th, 2016

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler is known as one of the NHL’s premier agitators who constantly talks trash at opponents. While what he does can be seen on TV or from the stands, it’s not all that easy to hear his chirps. The Ducks, however, are trying to give fans an earful to go along with a real up close and personal view of the action with their "Between the Benches" experience.

At approximately 20 games per season, the Ducks offer the chance to sit between the teams at the Honda Center, separated from the players by just a pane of glass. Most NHL clubs allow fans to sit on the bench or penalty box during warmups, ride the Zamboni between periods, push the goal horn or even play on the ice during pregame or intermission—and yes, there are ice-level seats behind the glass around entire rinks—but nothing puts a spectator at this particular vantage point during a game.

Anaheim is one of the league's pioneers of this level of fan experience, along with the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. According to Ducks CMO Aaron Teats, several other teams have inquired about it and are considering doing it themselves, which could help even more fans really get into the game in a whole new way.

“You try to do things that are a little bit different each year and we thought, ‘What kind of experiences can we create here that would be a little bit unique, that would give the opportunity for fans in this market to see the game in a totally different light?’ Teats says. “So we thought let’s put some seats there and do the full experience. This was a package that we thought did something really special.”

Nick Forrester/Sports Illustrated

Beware, though. These perches aren't cheap by the wildest stretch of the definition unless money is no object to you, but the $5,000 per seat package sold right away during the first half of the season and Teats started getting more and more calls from fans inquiring about it. He says the team will likely keep making it available for roughly half of Anaheim's home games in future seasons in order to still give media-rights holders the opportunity to use that space for coverage. (It's like the area NBC's Pierre Maguire reports from.)

For the most part, the seats are used by fans who are affiliated with the team and its corporate sponsors in some way, but on Feb. 26, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was given the opportunity to watch the Ducks' play the Edmonton Oilers from one of the closest vantage points possible in professional sports. And that was just part of the deal.

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Right from the beginning of the night, when you park your car in the same lot the players use, the enhanced intimacy begins. You have your picture taken on the ice, and are given a stadium tour that takes you to within 10 feet of the players as they warm up outside their locker rooms with a soccer ball. Then you get to check out the press box, the arena organ, and the sound rooms for TV and the scoreboard. After dinner at the Jack Daniels club, the fun really begins when you truly see, hear, smell and experience a hockey game like the players do.

Shortly before the player introductions, you are escorted down to the seats.

During the national anthems, the floor and seats vibrate while Ducks forward Corey Perry jumps up and down on the bench as he gets himself amped up for the game. Once the puck drops, there’s a sense of hesitation about sitting on the edge of your seat, basically a fear of blocking the players’ view of particular areas of the ice, since they actually need to see what’s going on. (They are working, after all.)

Oh yeah, about the sound. When Kesler and Oilers winger Lauri Korpikoski were separated after a first-period skirmish, they refused to stop trading barbs, even as officials escorted the pair back to their respective benches (photo below). Thanks to their proximity to the ice and the slits in the glass in front of the seats, fans in the box were able to hear what was being said. While most of it was inappropriate for a family publication, children and otherwise civilized company, it provided some laughs.

Nick Forrester/Sports Illustrated

In addition to hearing the goings-on among the players—and sometimes being right in the action itself—you can see what they see, hear the line changes being barked by coaches, and feel the banging of the bench doors. By the time the second period starts, the smell of sweaty hockey gear begins to set in and overpower the usual NHL arena aromas of hot dogs and beer.

When sitting in the stands, it’s customary to stand, cheer and celebrate with those around you after a goal is scored, but between the benches you find yourself still riveted by the action on the ice. For example, after the Ducks score, it looks like the players on the ice are heading straight for you for a fist bump.

All through the night you see their expressions, their anger and excitement, and the way they’ve mastered the art of ignoring potential distractions around them. On this night, Edmonton’s Taylor Hall slammed his stick in frustration, not even glancing at the expressions of startled fans as he got a new twig and prepared for his next shift. Players exchanged less-than-pleasantries with the occasional f-bomb coloring their banter, and as boos rained down from the stands, Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf not-so-gently jabbed at the referees about a missed hooking call.

Even with all the in-your-face stuff, the novelty never wears off. All the talk in the box revolves around how cool it is. The coolness factor was boosted another notch by being in the midst of the excitement after Ducks forward Rickard Rakell scored a sudden-death overtime goal and the Anaheim bench jumped up in joy at Anaheim's first true 3-on-3 overtime victory (the other had come on a power play goal against Chicago).

“I hope people see it for what it’s intended to be and that is a truly unique experience to see this game for what it is,” Teats says. “All of us will be able to watch the game, but to be able to look to your right and see what’s going on on the bench, you can hear them calling out line changes, it brings you into the world of what it’s like to sit on the bench during a hockey game.”

Now the question is if this can ever be topped.

“I guess you top it when the coach lets you sit on the bench, and I don’t see that happening,” Teats says with a laugh. “Other than getting on the actual bench and getting sweat on, this is as close as you can possibly get.”

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