John Hondzinski arrives at Young Arena with his super-fan survival kit in two five-gallon buckets plastered with Waterloo Black Hawks stickers.
He’s a little behind schedule for the Sunday afternoon game against the Green Bay Gamblers, so he quickly decorates the railing, that separates the concourse from Section G to make it feel more like home. The man every Waterloo fan knows as “Hondo” secures his Black Hawks flags to the railing then grabs an assortment of cowbells and a drumstick to pound on one of his buckets just as the arena lights dim for player introductions.
Hondo perched himself here during the Black Hawks’ run to the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup championship in the spring of 2004, and he doesn’t plan to move any time soon. Too much mojo in this spot, and he refuses to jinx his Black Hawks.
“When you can sense the players are getting a little bit tired, we cheer a little bit harder and a little bit louder,” says the 49-year-old supervisor of a plastics factory in nearby Grundy Center, Iowa.
“It works. I know it works. I’ve seen it work here in Waterloo, and I’ve seen it work in Cedar Rapids. Oh boy, did I see it work in Cedar Rapids last year.”
The Pied Piper of Waterloo Black Hawks fans, Hondo organized a road trip of more than 75 fans to rival Cedar Rapids on the final weekend of the 2006-07 regular season. Hondo and his boisterous “Hockey Maniacs” gave the Black Hawks a jolt of energy, and the team responded with a late goal to win, 3-2, and clinch its first-ever Anderson Cup as regular-season champions. Those same fans stuck around and gave the players a rousing reception as they boarded the bus back to Waterloo.
Hondzinski, a Detroit native who grew up with the NHL as his preferred brand of hockey, became absolutely hooked on the USHL about five seasons ago.
“This is hockey at its purest and at its finest, because there is no money involved,” he says. “These kids are playing with their hearts to get a chance to get a college scholarship or make it in the pros.
“What I really enjoy is the fact that the fans have an opportunity to make a connection with these players and show them there are people who care about them. It’s kind of like unconditional love.
“You know you have something special with someone when you get an opportunity to break bread with someone. You get to do that with the kids at this level, and you develop friendships that go beyond hockey and beyond their time here in Waterloo.”
Hondo became so hooked on Junior hockey, he scheduled much of his life around the Black Hawks. He saves his vacation days for road trips, he frequently purchases blocks of tickets for fans new to the sport, and he has a practice of purchasing a cowbell for any member of his group attending his or her first Black Hawks game.
He has played a key role in the Black Hawks’ increasing their home attendance average in each of the past five seasons, a feat not accomplished since the NHL’s Boston Bruins did it from 1969-74. Waterloo averaged 2,821 fans to 30 home games in 2006-07, while the 12-team USHL drew 1,051,897 fans to 360 games. (See graph, page 49.)
“Hondo could run for mayor, and he’d probably win,” Black Hawks coach P.K. O’Handley says. “He’s way more popular than I am. It’s not even close.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in Junior hockey quite like him. What really sets him apart is his passion for the game and his desire to help other people feel that same passion. When I first heard he buys tickets for people, my first thought was, ‘Are you crazy?’ But he does it out of the goodness of his heart. What a tremendous asset he is for our hockey team.”
Before the game and between periods, Black Hawks fans of all ages approach Hondo with a hug or a high-five.
“I love this venue, I love the people, I love the fans, and I love the team,” Hondo gushes. “You come here, it’s like family. This is my hockey family right here.”
Wearing a personalized jersey and black and red sweatbands on his wrists, Hondo tightly grips a string of cowbells in his left hand and his drumstick in his right. He madly shakes both as the Black Hawks tie the game, 1-1, late in the first period. The noise from Section G reaches a crescendo when the Black
Hawks close out a 3-1 victory.
The highly superstitious fan doesn’t mind being interrupted while the puck is in play. Just don’t tell anyone his secret.
“My first thought is, ‘You can’t wait until the intermission to tell me that?’ ” Hondo says. “But it always happens. Always. Someone will ask me a question or tell me something, and we’ll score a goal.”
His super fan survival kit includes anything to enhance the game experience for himself or a member of his Hockey Maniacs. There’s a bell-repair kit, a rally towel “because it really worked a few years ago,” ear plugs for the kids, and a lucky Eagle Hawk charm.
Hondo’s promotional tactics work, too. Just ask Dina Petersen, who became hooked on the Black Hawks after only one game three or four seasons ago and instantly became one of Hondo’s Hockey Maniacs.
“He got my husband hooked first, then I decided to see what it was all about,” Petersen says. “My first game, I was like ‘Wow, this is really, really cool.’ It’s so much fun going to a game with Hondo, because he’s kind of rowdy, and he’s really loud. That’s kind of the way I like to be at games, too.”
Hondo purchased a season ticket for a seat just below the spot where he stands, “because there were a few complaints about me being too loud.” But, while fans in other sections might heckle the opposing goaltender or the officials, he keeps it clean.
“I don’t do negative,” Hondo says. “Even if the refs are having a bad-ref night, I don’t get on them. For me, it’s more about being positive for the Hawks.”
The players certainly notice. In addition to making all of the home games and several road trips, Hondo rarely misses one of the Black Hawks scheduled public appearances throughout the community.
“It’s such a huge advantage to have a fan like Hondo, especially when you’re on the road and you look up and see him in the crowd supporting you,” says defenseman Blake Kessel, the younger brother of Boston Bruins star Phil Kessel.
“He’s such a positive, upbeat guy, and he always has a smile on his face. Even if you lose or have a bad game, he has something positive to say. Fans like Hondo make you want to play that much harder.”