bookishwhimsy2

Bookish Whimsy

Hockey Road Trip: The Great Southern Sports Adventure

18 NOVEMBER 2016

My family moved to Kentucky halfway through my junior year in high school, staying there until my graduation, which was quickly followed by my father’s retirement from the Navy.  Outside of this 18-month stretch of my life, I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in the South.  Technically, my father was briefly stationed in Florida when I was very young, and my mother’s family is mostly from Arkansas, but I’ve got the virtues of a tried-and-true Yankee.  As a result, I’ve always found the South to be quite mystifying: it’s not so much a place as it is a “state of mind”, personified by a relaxed way of life with hospitable inhabitants.  I had every intention of visiting after we left, but I just never got around to finding the time.

Enter Dave.

Dave is one of my oldest friends – we met while working together at an ACE Hardware store in Illinois, but he was originally from Kentucky (and wound up moving there after he finished high school).  After I had moved to Los Angeles, Dave followed suit and settled into Orange County, about an hour away.  He was also a longtime hockey fan, so we would often watch games together on television or make the occasional trip to a game itself.  After a few years, Dave moved to Mississippi to help run one of his family’s grocery stores – he seized the opportunity for several reasons, most notably being his yearning for the Southern lifestyle.

From the moment he arrived, Dave suggested that I come visit so that he could show me this region that he loved so much.  His grocery store had a connection to get free tickets for New Orleans Saints games, and Dave also had family members who were season ticket holders for LSU’s football team, so we naturally tried to find a weekend in which we could see both teams play.  When I began my Hockey Road Trip “quest“, Dave suggested we expand our Louisiana football plan one step further, and work in a trip to see the nearest NHL team: the Dallas Stars.

Once the NHL announced their 2014-15 schedule, I found one particular weekend in October which allowed us the chance to see all three teams: we would watch LSU on Saturday, the Saints on Sunday, then drive to Dallas to see the Stars on Tuesday.  But what to do on Monday?  As luck would have it, the Dallas Cowboys were scheduled to play on Monday Night Football that exact night – it was too perfect!  I talked it over with my traveling buddy Chad, and he decided to opt out of the first part of the trip: he’d been to New Orleans and had seen the Superdome six months earlier (for Wrestlemania), so he would instead fly directly to Dallas and meet us there.  

TRIP COMPANION: Chad, always down for a sports-related road trip; Dave, longtime friend and “Southern Gentleman”
TRAVEL: Friday, October 24 to Wednesday, October 29 [Southwest Airlines: LAX to New Orleans; Dallas (Love Field) to LAX]
LODGING: Suburban Extended Stay (Avondale, LA); Doubletree Hotel Dallas Near The Galleria

Hotels in New Orleans are rather expensive, and I couldn’t find any Airbnb options to my liking, so we opted for a hotel 15 miles west of downtown.  Dave booked the Dallas hotel, which was one where he’d stayed in the past.  The plans were set, and off we went…

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 24

I arrived in New Orleans not long after the sun went down – Dave made the three-hour trip from his Mississippi home to pick me up from the airport – and we went straight to the hotel to drop off our things.  Since it was the nearest major city, Dave had spent plenty of time in New Orleans, so he brought us downtown and we walked around the historic area for hours.  Like so many other tourists before us, our first stop was Bourbon Street, which was just as I had imagined – basically, one giant block party with lots of drunk people, closely watched by cops on horseback.  We made a quick stop at the famous Pat O’Brien’s before ultimately continuing through the French Quarter to soak in the sights.  Most notably, I got my first taste of the local cuisine – we stopped at the Corner Oyster House and I took advantage of their “New Orleans Sampler” platter (Dave went with the Crawfish Étouffée).

Pleasantly satisfied, we left the restaurant and spent the rest of the evening wandering the streets, even ducking into a small club to listen to some live music for a while.  We knew that Saturday would be a very long day, so it was back to Avondale for some much-needed rest.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 25

SEC Football on gameday.  I’ve been told there’s nothing like it, and this was my first chance to experience it for myself.  LSU was hosting Ole Miss, who was undefeated and ranked #3 in the nation.  As an added bonus, ESPN would be filming their “College Football Gameday” program from the LSU campus, so we went up to Baton Rouge early enough to be a part of the broadcast – Dave even got a photograph with ESPN analyst, Kirk Herbstreit! 

We stuck around for an hour or so until ESPN was done broadcasting, then made our way around the premises to soak in the sights of the tailgating experience.  It was everything I imagined it would be: people tossing footballs around, various forms of meat being grilled, and everyone was incredibly pleasant to deal with.  Two curiosities stood out: the awesome LSU-themed R2-D2 keg, and the lone Ole Miss tent staged in the midst of enemy territory:

Being the proud mascot of this historic university, there is Tiger imagery all over the campus – including a bronze statue…and a REAL TIGER!!

We still had several hours to kill before the game, so we continued walking around the campus before we finally stopped to eat lunch.  Being a game day, virtually every restaurant was packed with fans, but we found a nice little spot off the beaten path called Louie’s Cafe.  Since it was slightly hidden away, it wasn’t nearly as crowded on the inside – perfect for us to take in some home-cooked Southern cuisine…

On the left are hash browns, covered in cheese and jalapeños.  My favorite Southern dish, biscuits and gravy, can be seen on the right.  I mistakenly was under the impression that these would be side dishes, rather than entree-sized, and was instantly shocked by the feast laid out in front of me.  I jokingly told the waitress that there was no way I could possibly eat all of this food, to which she responded, “You can always give the rest to a hobo outside.”  Yeah, this place was great!

It was time to head back to campus for another pre-game tradition: the marching band serenading the players as they walked into the stadium.  The pageantry was incredible – we had an ideal spot right next to where the team bus ultimately stopped, and once the players and coaches gathered their belongings, the band followed soon behind.

With the band acting as pied pipers, we followed them directly into the stadium – a mass of humanity chanting words of encouragement toward the gridiron heroes.

The excitement outside the stadium would carry over to the interior, as the large contingent of football fans (mostly clad in purple and gold) roared incessantly from the opening fireworks until the final whistle four hours later.  In that time, Dave and I witnessed a hard-fought defensive struggle, with the home team pulling the upset of the previously unbeaten opponents – this, of course, would lead to the fans storming onto the field.

All in all, it was a very fun but exhausting day – we made some new friends, had some good food, and I even bought a cool LSU t-shirt.  We stuck around the stadium as long as we could after the game, both to soak in the atmosphere and avoid the traffic, but we knew there was more fun in store tomorrow and headed back south.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26

Today was the day to experience New Orleans: we had no specific plans other than to walk around and see as much as we could possibly see.  We started the day out at Jackson Square, walking around to view the various street art, admire the architecture, and eat the delicious food at the legendary Cafe Du Monde.

With our bellies full of beignets and coffee, we continued with a stroll along the Mississippi River banks and ultimately wound up at the markets in the French Quarter to do some shopping.  It’s a beautiful part of this historic city, and I cannot recommend it enough.  When it came time for lunch, I tried some more local cuisine: a po’ boy sandwich made with alligator meat (it’s an acquired taste for sure, which I wouldn’t necessarily need to try again).

The day was growing long and our walking tour was concluding, so we prepared for our next game on the trip by walking toward the tailgating area around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints.  While the pre-game festivities certainly didn’t match the pageantry and tradition of the college game the day before, there was still a vibrant buzz outside the stadium – a live concert was taking place on an outdoor stage, and Dave got a picture and autograph from NBA All-Star Anthony Davis (whose New Orleans Pelicans play in the arena right next door to the Superdome).

Davis and his New Orleans Pelicans teammates play in the arena right next door to the Superdome.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing sports stadiums, so I knew we’d be in for a treat on this evening.  Despite only having been open for about 40 years – a brief period, by comparison to other famous venues – the Superdome has quite a rich history with includes major events from the Super Bowl to the aforementioned WrestleMania.

The excitement for this NFL game was palpable, as the seemingly-always-popular Green Bay Packers were in town to play the Saints.  Two high-octane offenses gave us a very thrilling game, which the home team would go on to win.  We ducked out early before the game had finished in order to get on the road for our lengthy 3-hour drive back to Dave’s house, but I made sure to take a picture of the Packers fans (KISS fans as well, I presume) sitting behind us before we departed:

MONDAY, OCTOBER 27

Today was the “driving day”: more than five hours in the car, covering three states.  We began in the quiet Mississippi town of Natchez – a pleasant and sleepy village nestled just across the Louisiana border along the Mississippi River, where Dave has lived for the past few years.  Amidst the buzzing of various insects and the quickly-evaporating morning dew, we ventured west through the Louisiana cities of Alexandria and Shreveport, before crossing into “The Lone Star State”.  While I certainly appreciate the peacefulness and serenity of its wide open spaces, there is really not a whole lot to see as one drives through East Texas.  But the freeway rest stop is quite welcoming!

We arrived in Dallas by mid-afternoon and even had some time to relax after checking into the hotel – Chad was waiting for us in the lobby, his flight having arrived a couple of hours earlier.  Refreshed, we fought through the traffic and made our way to Arlington and a peculiar dining experience.  It was called Redneck Heaven, and it was…”unique”.  Well, not THAT unique, as it definitely has a real Hooters vibe to it – but like everything in Texas, it just felt bigger.

Scantily-clad waitresses.  Enormous portions of food.  Southern hospitality and charm.  If you’re coming to Dallas – and especially if you’re going to a game at either of the nearby football or baseball stadiums – it’s a must-see on your visit.

We then made the short drive over to the colossus known as AT&T Stadium – a gargantuan complex which is home to the Dallas Cowboys.  I’ve seen some large stadiums, including the SuperDome the day before, but this place was massive.

I’m not sure if the Cowboys do this for every home game – or just because it was Monday night – but the atmosphere felt like being at a large party.  In addition to the expected tailgating, there was live music on an outdoor stage AND on a patio inside the stadium as well, which was a great way to kill some time before kickoff.

Fans of both teams can appreciate good music – and patriotism!

Over the next four hours (NOTE: football games take forever, especially nationally televised NFL contests), we were treated to a very entertaining game between two longtime rivals, which culminated in the visiting Washington Redskins defeating the home team in an overtime nail-biter.  Being so close to Halloween, one of the more amusing highlights was the halftime show, which included a large choreographed dance number featuring various “zombies” getting down to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”:

Time to head back to the hotel, but not before stopping for a late-night snack at a nearby In-N-Out Burger (Dave reminded me that they don’t have these fine burger joints in Mississippi, so he wanted to make sure he got his “fix” while we were in Texas).

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28

The final day in Dallas had a full itinerary, so we headed downtown fairly early to find a spot to leave the car for the rest of the day.  Our walking tour of downtown began with a visit to the historic Majestic Theatre, which was the filming location of my favorite musical, 1974’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Aside from a ten-year stretch in the 1970’s – during which the filming of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE took place – the Majestic Theatre has served the Dallas community for nearly 100 years! 

After contacting the staff ahead of time to express my love of the film and my interest in seeing the theater, we were offered a private tour of the building from the venue’s event coordinator, Hayley Dyer.  She couldn’t have been more gracious and I couldn’t have been more grateful – Hayley guided us through the palace, evoking the rich history of the theater and patiently answering any and all questions (of which I had many). 

It was a memorable morning that any fan of the film – or architecture in general – would truly appreciate.

After a brief moment to recharge at Stupid Good Coffee (how can you not love that name for a business?), we continued walking around the area on the cloudy morning…until this caught our eye – pun intended:

Yep, just a 30-foot-tall sculpture of an eyeball.  Nothing to see here.  Carry on.

I was a huge Presidential history buff as a child, so any potential trip I had ever planned for Dallas had to include the infamous Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the location of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. 

To say that I was fascinated with my visit here would be a tremendous understatement: I must have covered every inch of the premises, from the notorious “grassy knoll” outside (where conspiracy theorists can peddle their propaganda) to virtually every corner inside the museum itself.  Though you cannot see through the very window where Lee Harvey Oswald was alleged to have carried out the assassination, you can look through the window right next to it – and it is a very eerie sensation to see that fateful intersection below.

We had a couple of hours until the hockey game started so we filled up on some delicious Tex-Mex at the El Fenix restaurant (“Brisket enchiladas?!?! Yes please!”), then proceeded to aimlessly wander around the bustling streets until we stumbled upon the serene beauty of Klyde Warren Park – a perfect place to relax!

I love this picture - it could have been included in the liner notes of any alt-rock album released in the 1990's.

I love this picture – it could have been included in the liner notes of any alt-rock album released in the 1990’s.

It was time to finally walk to American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Stars.  More than anything, I was just excited to meet their recently-unveiled mascot, Victor E. Green, who would be greeting fans outside the arena before the game.  I make no apologies for the simple fact that no matter how old I get I will always love sports mascots – they bring out the kid in you, which is always welcome.  Chad also shares my feeling on the subject, and the two of us immediately hunted down the lovable alien:

So awesome.

So awesome.

We made our way inside the cavernous arena (one of the tallest and most expansive I’ve visited) and proceeded to the lower bowl in front of the glass to watch warmups, and get a close-up glimpse of the St.  Louis Blues and their budding superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko – little did we know he would put on a show for us this evening…

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

Even though it was a Tuesday night contest played in front of a sparse crowd during the first month of the NHL season, the game was highly entertaining – two Central Division foes squaring off, with neither giving an inch and routinely displaying varying levels of physicality.  Dallas opened the scoring in the latter half of the first period, only to see Tarasenko tie the game 35 seconds later.  The seesaw match had begun…

The teams would trade goals in the second period, before Dallas grabbed a 3-2 lead early in the third.  The Stars continue their tight checking while preserving the lead, only to see the skillful Tarasenko notch his second goal of the night to even the score with less than nine minutes remaining in regulation.

Overtime ensued, and Dallas soon found themselves short-handed after Tyler Seguin took an unfortunate high-sticking penalty.  Then…this happened:

Hat trick.  1st Star of the game.  Blues escape with a 4-3 victory.  Excellent conclusion to this very fun trip!

MEMORABILIA

I often find myself checking eBay for NHL shot glasses before embarking on these trips, so that I can compare them to the ones I find in the arena’s team store and ultimately buy my favorite one.  But this trip was different, because the Dallas Stars had updated their logo going into the season and all of the merchandise online featured their previous design.  As a result, I found this beauty on-site and quickly snatched it up:

…and let’s put it up on the big board!

NEXT ROAD TRIP

Our longest trip so far: a week-long Holiday outing, which found us circling around one of the largest states in America…

The Greatest Goal I’ve Ever Seen

17 JUNE 2015

4. NEW JERSEY, Scott Niedermayer 4 (Jim Dowd) 9:47

June 20, 1995.  That’s how it looked in the box score.  Pity the poor hockey fan who didn’t see it happen, and only saw this in print the next day.

The question is often asked: what’s the greatest play you’ve ever seen?  For sports fans, it usually involves a superstar like Michael Jordan or Joe Montana, presumably executing a clutch play during an important playoff game.  If you narrow it down to just hockey, the greatest moment would also lean toward some sort of overtime heroics from the Stanley Cup playoffs.  But for this hockey fan, it wasn’t an overtime goal that will always resonate – but it was a pivotal play at an incredibly crucial time, and as we approach the 20th anniversary of that moment, it’s hard not to look back and revel in the same sense of awe that I had while watching on television that fateful evening.

THE PLAYER

Scott Niedermayer was born and raised in western Canada, and began turning heads during his first season in junior hockey.  Playing defense for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League, Scott would score 69 points (14 goals, 55 assists) in 64 games to help them win the league’s championship.  He was only 16 years old.  The next season saw Scott improve upon those statistics, with 82 points (26 goals, 56 assists) in 57 games, making him one of the top prospects heading into the 1991 NHL Entry Draft.  Due in part to a fortuitous series of events, the most notable being a hotly debated trade from two years prior, the New Jersey Devils selected Scott with the 3rd overall pick in the draft.

Niedermayer would play only four games with the Devils as an 18-year-old, returning to Kamloops to once again lead his team to the Western Hockey League championship.  From there, he would go on to win the Most Valuable Player award during the season-ending Memorial Cup tournament, as his team captured the championship of the Canadian Hockey League.

Ready to make his mark in the NHL, Scott flourished during his first two seasons in the league – he was named to the All-Rookie team in 1992-93, and was a key contributor as the Devils had their best season in franchise history the following year (they would come within one game of reaching the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, before suffering a heartbreaking defeat – in double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final – to their arch-rivals, the New York Rangers).  

THE BUILDUP

A league-wide lockout would delay the start of the 1994-95 season until the following January, and the Devils concluded the season by finishing in second place in the Atlantic Division for the second consecutive year.   While the continued adaptation of head coach Jacques Lemaire’s tight defensive structure inhibited the offensively-gifted defenseman from posting impressive statistics during the compressed 48-game schedule, Scott proved more than ready to handle the pressure as the spotlight grew stronger going in to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  New Jersey’s fifth-place position in the Eastern Conference meant they would start the postseason on the road against the Boston Bruins – but, as history would eventually show, the Devils found no disadvantage while playing in visiting arenas that spring.

New Jersey would go on to dispatch the Bruins in five games, winning all three road contests in the historic Boston Garden (the final season of its existence), before eliminating the favored Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the following round.  The Eastern Conference Final saw the underdog Devils matched up against the Atlantic Division champion Philadelphia Flyers, led by league MVP, Eric Lindros.  Once again, the Devils defied the odds and were victorious in six games, prevailing in all three road games in Philadelphia.  For the first time in team history, the New Jersey Devils would play for the Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings were demolishing the competition, eventually winning the Presidents’ Trophy and entering the playoffs as the conference’s #1 seed for the second straight year.  The playoffs proved no different, as the Red Wings would cruise through the first three rounds while only losing two games (neither of which occurred at home in Detroit), and emerged as the clear-cut favorite when the Stanley Cup Final began in June.

The truncated schedule from the shortened season would prevent the Eastern Conference teams from playing their Western Conference adversaries during the regular season, so the Final matchup did give the Devils an element of surprise – this was somewhat evident during Game 1, as New Jersey’s suffocating defense stifled the high-powered Red Wings, allowing Claude Lemieux’s 3rd period tie-breaking goal to stand as the game-winner in a surprising 2-1 victory for the visitors.  The Devils were now 9-1 in road playoff games, and Detroit had lost at home for the first time in the postseason.  Though he was absent from the score sheet that evening, Scott Niedermayer saved his best performance for when the series resumed three nights later.

THE GAME

The most interesting piece of news going into the game was that the Devils would be inserting Jim Dowd into the lineup, after he was a healthy scratch for Game 1.  Hailing from Brick Township, Dowd was the first New Jersey native to play for the Devils, and he would prove to be an important contributor during this memorable game – even as Scott Niedermayer used the same platform to vault himself into the consciousness of the hockey world.

Seeking to even the series, the Red Wings came out energized and forced their physical presence onto the Devils.  Not to be deterred, Neidermayer was playing like a man possessed – he was flying around the ice, jumping in to several offensive rushes, only to dart back on defense and use his body to knock Detroit players off the puck.  He played like a man that was fully aware of the importance of stealing the first two games of the series on the road, rather than simply settling for a 1-1 split.  However, the first sign of adversity came seven minutes into the 2nd period, as Detroit would score the game’s first goal during a power play – Scott was on the ice killing the penalty, but was helpless to stop Slava Kozlov from tapping in a rebound to give the Wings a 1-0 lead.

Just over two minutes later, we get our first glimpse of Niedermayer’s greatness – a face-off in the New Jersey zone is won by Detroit, and the puck goes back to the point.  Red Wing defenseman Paul Coffey throws the puck on net, where Scott fights off an opposing forward and drops to his knees to deflect the puck backwards to a teammate.  In a flash, Scott jumps to his feet and takes off in the other direction, promptly receiving the puck as part of a 3-on-1 break toward the Detroit zone.  With a quick flick of the wrist, he leads forward John MacLean into the offensive zone with a perfect pass, then proceeds to head toward the net to gain the attention of the lone Detroit defender, leaving MacLean isolated against goaltender Mike Vernon.  MacLean gathers the puck, makes a quick head-fake, and rifles a shot between Vernon’s pads to tie the game:

The crowd is hushed, as Scott tallies his first point of the series, and helps the team steal back some of the momentum from the Red Wings.  Four minutes later, the Devils silence the home fans even further, as team captain Scott Stevens delivers one of the most memorable body checks in recent memory:

His earlier goal seeming like a distant memory, Slava Kozlov is absolutely laid out by the future Hall-of-Famer, to the shock of the faithful home crowd (given the magnitude of the hit, I’ll forgive ESPN’s Bill Clement for confusing Slava with Viktor Kozlov, who had just finished his rookie season with the San Jose Sharks).  The rest of the period is a continuation of the tight checking we’d seen throughout the series, but the Red Wings would jump back on top early in the next frame…

In the midst of having an outstanding game, Niedermayer commits a costly turnover, which ultimately leads to Sergei Fedorov beating Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur with a precise wrist shot to break the 1-1 tie.  The crowd is going absolutely crazy at this point, with the overwhelming noise only growing louder with each passing moment – the prospects of evening the series have crept into their collective mindset, and they shower the players with a deafening roar for the next eight minutes.  That’s when Scott Niedermayer embraces his destiny and stakes his claim for hockey immortality…

THE GOAL

I’ll let play-by-play legend Gary Thorne take it from here:

Two decades later, it still gives me chills.

With ten minutes remaining in a Stanley Cup Final game, trailing by a goal on the road, in front of one of the league’s most hostile crowds clamoring at a fever pitch, the 21-year-old defenseman:

– Gathers the puck in his defensive zone, with only one hand on his stick;

– Darts through the middle of the ice, leaving the Detroit forwards in the dust;

– Continues end-to-end, deftly stick-handling into the offensive zone;

– Splits past TWO Hall-of-Fame defensemen: Paul Coffey AND Nicklas Lidstrom;

– Quickly pulls the puck from his backhand to his forehand, and rips a shot on net;

– Continues forward past the prone Coffey, as the puck rebounds off the end boards back toward him; and

– Deflects the puck OUT OF MID-AIR past a sprawling Mike Vernon and into the Detroit net.

It’s a moment I’ll never forget, as I can vividly remember watching on television and jumping out of my chair at home.  The game was now tied.  The crowd had been brought back to Earth.  The rest of the game seemed like an after-thought, though the tension was still present amongst the anxious crowd.  Nearly nine more minutes of hard-fought hockey would follow, before one of Niedermayer’s teammates would cement his own legacy in New Jersey Devils history:

While Jim Dowd’s goal may be considered more dramatic, I maintain that it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact without Niedermayer’s heroics from earlier in the period (it’s also interesting to note that Dowd’s game-winner was the only goal scored that night in which Niedermayer was NOT on the ice).  Stephane Richer would add an empty-net goal moments later to seal the 4-2 victory, sending the Wings fans home in a confused bewilderment.  Ultimately, those fans would not get the chance to see their beloved team on home ice again that season, as the Devils completed the series sweep by crushing Detroit in the next two games in New Jersey, winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.  To this day, I’m still convinced that Niedermayer’s goal lifted the tide in the Devils favor and they never looked back.  

THE POST-SCRIPT

Scott Niedermayer played another FOURTEEN NHL seasons, winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman for the 2003-04 season, and capturing the Stanley Cup three more times (twice with New Jersey in 2000 and 2003, and again with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, during which he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP).  He finished his career in 2010 having played nearly 1300 regular-season games (as well as 200 playoff games), and was an NHL First-Team All-Star for three consecutive seasons from 2004-07.  The final accolade was bestowed upon him in 2013, when Scott was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame*.  For me, it’s easy to trace all of Niedermayer’s accomplishments back to one profound moment, which took place on a Tuesday night in Detroit.  But don’t just take my word for it – even his Wikipedia entry calls it out:

The Devils made another long playoff run in the lockout-shortened 1994–95 season, reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. Niedermayer scored 11 points in 20 playoff games, including a key goal in Game Two of the Final, as the Devils won the Stanley Cup with a four-game sweep of the Detroit Red Wings.


*Editor’s Note: As of this writing, there are SEVEN players from this game who have been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Niedermayer and Scott Stevens from New Jersey; and Steve Yzerman, Paul Coffey, Dino Ciccarelli, Mark Howe and Slava Fetisov from Detroit.  That number will soon rise to TEN, with this year’s expected selection of Red Wing teammates Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Listrom, and the inevitable induction of Martin Brodeur, once he becomes eligible in the near future.

Hockey Road Trip: Once More Into the Valley of the Sun

12 JUNE 2015

As we head towards the end of the 2014-15 NHL season, I finally have time to recap my final road trip of the 2013-14 season (sorry – I’ve been VERY busy).  Needless to say, it was a very quick trip to a nearby destination, but it’s always fun to escape from the craziness of Los Angeles and spend a weekend in the even-sunnier confines of the greater Phoenix area.

At the end of the last decade (do you call them “the aughts”?), I often found myself visiting Arizona in late February every year.  The purpose?  MLB Spring Training.  Each trip always seemed to coincide with the weekend of the Academy Awards, which was a perfect time to skip town and relax with some baseball.  We would arrive in Arizona soon after the players had first reported to camps, but before they started playing actual games – this meant dealing with smaller crowds of people, which allowed us the opportunity to interact with the players on many occasions.  But the practices only occurred during the day, which left us with little to do in the evenings.  Sports fans that we are, my buddy Dave and I used the nighttime to watch live contests: one year, it was an Arena Football game featuring the very successful Arizona Rattlers, once it was a Phoenix Suns game (in which I got to scratch “see Shaquille O’Neal play in-person” off of my sports bucket list), and on two occasions we saw the Phoenix Coyotes.

Jobing.com Arena (as it was known then) is a terrific place to see a hockey game, without a doubt.  The sight lines are terrific, the staff is very friendly, and the food is superb.  In fact, it was only after visiting this arena, as well as Nationwide Arena in Columbus, that I was finally inspired to start my quest of seeing all the other NHL venues – and as it stands right now, these two are still my favorite places.  So why go back now?  Two reasons: my dear friend, Chad – trusty companion throughout my Hockey Road Trips – had yet to see a game there; and more importantly, I had recently reconnected with an old friend from high school who lived in Arizona, and this was a great opportunity to finally see him again after more than two decades.

TRIP COMPANIONS: the aforementioned Chad; Estell, high school pal and Prescott Valley resident
TRAVEL: Saturday, April 12 to Sunday, April 13 [Southwest Airlines: LAX to Phoenix]
LODGING: Travelodge, Phoenix

It’s about a five-hour drive to Phoenix, which is what we always did in the past, but it is a rather boring trip through the Mojave Desert – this time, I settled for the one-hour flight.  The funny part is that after our New York trip, Chad flew back to St. Louis (watching a Blues game while he was there), and then flew directly to Phoenix to meet me at the airport.  Estell met us at the hotel, and we ventured out into the balmy city…

SATURDAY, APRIL 12

Sometimes it can be hard to describe the feelings you have when seeing a dear friend after such a long time apart.  Growing up as Navy brats in Hawaii, Estell and I were very close – we often walked (or took the bus) to school together through much of junior high and high school.  After school, we played video games for hours on end, listened to the same music, and went to the mall on the weekends.  As is often the case with military families, the dreaded “transfer” splits everyone up, and since this occurred for us in 1992 it was quite difficult to keep track of one another as the years went on.  This is one of the reasons why I love social media, since I was able to find Estell on Facebook, and re-establish our friendship.  Just seeing him show up at the hotel brought back a host of memories, and confirmed how we’ve both aged quite well (perhaps being single without any children had something to do with that?).  But enough sentimentality – we were all hungry, and we can always reminisce over a meal.

Our first stop was Matt’s Big Breakfast – not just a clever name, but a charming little diner with great food.  The laid-back atmosphere gave us the perfect chance to simply relax after our respective trips (while Chad and I took separate flights to Phoenix, Estell had to drive two hours to meet us) and comb through old stories.  For Chad, it proved somewhat revelatory: he and I had met in college, so here was a person that could tell him stories about me from many years before.  Honestly, I thought he would be bored listening to us wax philosophically about the old days, but he actually peppered Estell with questions concerning the validity of stories that I had told him over the years – all of which are true, to the best of my knowledge.

Outside the restaurant, we saw some really cool street art as we were leaving – this was my personal favorite (yes, it looks like something from the liner notes of a TOOL album, but I think it’s awesome):

We still had a few hours to kill before the Coyotes game that evening, and then a funny thing happened: while driving aimlessly around the streets of suburban Phoenix, we saw a series of banners advertising a Hollywood Costume exhibit at the nearby Phoenix Art Museum.  After unwinding in the hotel for a brief period (i.e. digesting our “big breakfast”), we decided to visit the museum – it seemed like fate.

Now here’s the point where I would normally include a handful of photographs to help describe the interesting exhibit, but unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside.  Instead, I can tell you that it was very impressive – it featured many of the more recognizable wardrobes from film history, as well as several displays that had interviews with the costume designers and film directors themselves.  Chad and I would actually wind up seeing this exhibit again a year later when it came to Los Angeles.  Off to the arena…

The immediate area surrounding Jobing.com Arena is a sight to behold: after all, it IS hockey in the middle of the desert, so one should expect a certain kitschy charm.  There’s a movie theater, some chain restaurants, a giant fountain, an upscale hotel – maybe not the most typical pre-game surroundings, but the uniqueness is what I find so fascinating.  The team has made it so that you really feel like you’re getting an evening’s worth of entertainment, in addition to a hockey game.

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

Seeing as how it was the second-to-last day of the season, and the Coyotes were already eliminated from playoff contention, I expected a rather dull atmosphere – luckily for us, that was not necessarily the case.  The visiting San Jose Sharks fans, of which there were many and who were all very respectable towards the home fans, helped make for the one of the most cordial games I’ve ever attended.  Although Chad and I do prefer to sit in the upper deck of the arena, we knew this would be our best chance to get affordable tickets that were close to the ice and so we went for it.  This was our view for the evening:

As anyone who has ever sat in similar seats can tell you, the perspective is drastically different.  I felt so much more in tune with the players on the ice, as I could hear a lot of their discussions with each other and the referees.  I saw the players react as the plays developed in real time, and in the case of one particular goal, I got to see first-hand what a prolific sniper visualizes as he releases a shot: already leading 1-0 after he scored on an early power play, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski received a perfect pass from Matt Irwin and unleashed a blistering one-timer into the back of the net for his second goal of the night.  As this photo (taken from the TV broadcast) shows, my bald head at the left of the frame was in the perfect position to see the shot as it flew past the helpless goalie:

It was absolutely exhilarating to see a goal scored at the angle, with that velocity.  I figured the rest of the game couldn’t possibly live up to that moment, and I was somewhat correct – surviving a late flurry from the Coyotes, the Sharks escaped with a 3-2 victory.  Time to head out for a late dinner, but not before Estell and I could grab a quick photo inside (it was his first time ever seeing a professional hockey game!):

My favorite dinner spot in the entire Phoenix area is the Four Peaks Brewery.  Recommended by a co-worker before a previous Arizona trip, it’s a great place to wrap up an evening – the food is excellent, and the Tempe location is close enough to the Arizona State University campus to give it a good “college sports bar” vibe.  Being a brewery, there is a wide selection of good beers (be sure to order a sampler flight to try them all), as well as their famous concoction, the Oatmeal Stout Shake.  We stayed there for quite a while, before finally calling it a night.  But let me reiterate: if you’re going to visit Phoenix, do yourself a favor and check this place out!

SUNDAY, APRIL 13

As if it wasn’t already apparent, Phoenix is a great sports town.  The addition of the Coyotes in 1996 gave the city a team in all four major sports leagues, with nearby Arizona State University supplying top-level college competition.  Being the newest sport means that hockey is still making inroads into the region, though that should only increase when Arizona State’s hockey team makes the jump to Division I next season (be sure to read Justin Emerson’s terrific piece on how he inadvertently helped to make this happen).  Jobing.com Arena’s location in Glendale also allows for an easy opportunity to see an NFL game at University of Phoenix Stadium, located next door to the arena, while you’re in town – we did this once, in 2011, where we made the lengthy drive from Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon, saw a Coyotes game that night, an Arizona Cardinals game the next afternoon, and then drove back home after the football game.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been able to see several sporting events while visiting the Phoenix area, though I had never attended an Arizona Diamondbacks game at that point.  As luck would have it, their season had just begun and the Los Angeles Dodgers were in town for a weekend series.  This also gave us an opportunity to have lunch at one of the coolest places that I’ve ever eaten:

Yes, legendary rocker and avid sports fan Alice Cooper owns a terrific sports-themed restaurant in downtown Phoenix known as Cooperstown – conveniently located very close to both the US Airways Center, home to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and the Diamondbacks’ home park, Chase Field.  A longtime resident of the area (who we once saw at a Coyotes game), Cooper has expertly combined two of his loves to create a one-of-a-kind dining experience: the walls are lined with autographed memorabilia from notable names in the world of both sports and music, with several of the menu items also bearing some sort of clever name from one of these two passions (I previously ordered the “Megadeth Meatloaf”).  I cannot imagine a better place for a pre-game meal, just for the ambiance alone.

From there, we made the short walk east to Chase Field – easily one of the most impressive stadiums I’ve ever seen.  Much like the Coyotes game the night before, there was a wonderful atmosphere surrounding the venue, with fans of both teams hanging out and enjoying a pre-game beverage or snack.

The inside of the stadium was immaculate – it may have been 16 years old (which makes it older than half of all Major League Baseball stadiums), but it still looks brand new.  There’s a definite fan-friendly environment to be seen, with plenty of helpful employees and many unique artifacts on display (“Is that Mickey Mouse?”).  It was quite hot on this particular day, so the retractable roof was closed, but that only provided a more intimate feel inside the massive facility.

“The Happiest Place in Arizona”?

Maybe it was the heat, the amount of travel we’d done recently, or the slow nature of the sport – but Chad and I grew tired about halfway through the game (he even started to doze off at one point).  We wanted to have enough time to catch our departing flight, so we left the game after the 6th inning.  Thankfully, the airport wasn’t far, and Estell dropped us off on his way back to Prescott Valley.

I know that the Coyotes seem to endure ownership-related issues that lead to relocation rumors every summer, but until those come to fruition, I’ll be sure to come back to see them again in the near future. 

MEMORABILIA

Seeing as it was the penultimate game of the Coyotes’ season, the team store at Jobing.com Arena was completely sold out of various merchandise, including shot glasses.  Though I had already purchased an older glass with their original logo (to honor my previous visits to Glendale), I decided to add this sweet souvenir from the NHL’s online store to my collection:

…and let’s put it up on the big board!

NEXT ROAD TRIP

My most ambitious trip yet: four sporting events in four days, across two states in the Deep South… 

The Cinematic Virtue of Soviet Hockey

5 JUNE 2015

Drama.

It’s what we, as an audience, look for when watching movies.  Good writing, strong characters, and great presentation are all required to make us feel wrapped up in a solid story.  Every visit to a movie theater is nothing more than staring at light flickering upon a wall, and every moment spent sitting in front of the television is simply watching electricity being beamed across a paneled screen.  So why do we do it?  In a word…

Drama.

Personally, it’s also what I admire the most about sports.  I would argue that no film can match the dramatic quality of a live sporting event – and just like movies, the best moments in sports are due to good story lines.  One common theme in movies is the idea of cheering for the underdog, which we often do in sports as well.  But what if the underdog is someone that we’ve been told to fear historically? 

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union lasted all the way through my childhood, and while I certainly wasn’t old enough to experience the most tense moments of the conflict during its formative years (my father has some hilarious stories of the “air raid drills” he endured throughout junior high school), I vividly remember President Ronald Reagan instilling hatred and fear of this potential enemy into our minds during the 1980’s.  I also wasn’t quite old enough to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York – site of arguably the most dramatic moment in sports history, the “Miracle on Ice” game between the US and Soviet hockey teams.  When Disney announced they would be making a film based on the events surrounding that game, my initial thought was, “How can they possibly make a movie that will be more dramatic than the game itself?”

More than thirty years after the “Miracle on Ice” game, and a decade after Disney’s Miracle, three filmmakers told three separate stories to best encapsulate the experience of the men involved with the Soviet hockey team: two American directors (one of whom was born to Soviet immigrants) used the documentary format to give audiences a glimpse behind hockey’s version of the “Iron Curtain”; while the third director, a Russian, crafted a narrative biopic to lovingly honor the men who would form the foundation of his country’s hockey history.  While each film treads into similar territory, they differentiate themselves from each other via one particular component that the filmmaker pulls to the forefront of the story:

THE SPORT OF SOVIET HOCKEY in OF MIRACLES AND MEN

Just before the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” game, ESPN debuted the latest addition to their award-winning “30 for 30” series, Of Miracles and Men.  The film, directed by Emmy-winner Jonathan Hock, expertly shows American audiences the internal strife faced by their Soviet foes from that historic game – beginning with the grueling training program and tight structure which led to their hockey dominance in the 1970’s, followed by the aftermath of losing to the underdog Americans and their players’ eventual acceptance into the NHL.  

Hock has compiled an impressive list of interview subjects:

– Prolific Russian journalists that covered the team throughout their success – notably Vsevolod Kukushkin, whose amusing anecdote about Sophia Loren could be the most memorable moment of the film;

– Tatiana Tarasova, herself an accomplished figure-skating coach, but also the daughter of the architect of Soviet hockey, Anatoli Tarasov – her insightful stories admirably carry the weight and spirit of her late father;

– Soviet players from the 1970’s, namely Vladimir Petrov and the always-entertaining Boris Mikhailov (two-thirds of the Soviet’s top line from that decade, with the late Valeri Kharlamov) – they discuss the team’s ascension to greatness leading to the ill-fated game in Lake Placid, as each man would leave the national team not long after the loss.  Petrov also offered up my favorite quote of the film, when asked if he was disappointed in the loss to the Americans, he responded, “That silver medal’s still worth a lot – I sacrificed blood for it!”;

– Finally, the superstar skaters from the 1980’s, including four members of the famous “Russian Five” – Alexei Kasatonov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov – who share intricate stories of playing for a nation in turmoil, while aspiring to play with the best professionals in the NHL.

Being an ESPN production gives the film the added bonus of being able to license a treasure trove of footage, the most important of which is ABC’s Olympic coverage, featuring play-by-play from the legendary Al Michaels.  This glimpse into the past is also intertwined with Fetisov and his daughter making a present-day pilgrimage to Lake Placid, his first visit since the Soviet defeat.  This juxtaposition is often at the core of  films in the “30 For 30” series, and using the context of the foreign players in settings familiar to American sports fans gives Hock the opportunity to both inform and educate them on the dense subject at hand.

THE POLITICS OF SOVIET HOCKEY in RED ARMY

Premiering at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Red Army discusses the dramatic history of Soviet sports, mostly through the eyes of one of its greatest hockey players, Slava Fetisov.  Director Gabe Polsky (a hockey player himself, raised by Ukrainian parents) deftly combines archival news reels and poignant interviews to show the overwhelming demands placed upon the players and their families.  By choosing to focus on the years surrounding Fetisov’s rise to prominence, Polsky also places the viewer in the midst of the tumultuous decline and political upheaval of the Soviet Union during the 1980’s.

Inevitably due to their respective release dates and subject matter, Red Army and Of Miracles and Men will forever draw comparisons to each other – but as a testament to Polsky’s background (he studied politics and history while attending Yale University), he has made a film that rises above the conventions of a typical sports documentary, in an attempt to reach a broader audience who might not watch such films.  He succeeds by spotlighting Fetisov, a salt-of-the-Earth everyman who becomes a de facto linchpin for the Soviet political regime – as the athletes under their watch became worldwide phenomenons, they were also used as propagandists for “perestroika” and “glasnost”.

While Red Army features fewer interviewees than the ESPN film, it does include fascinating observations from two people noticeably absent from Of Miracles and Men:

– Ladlena Fetisova, Slava’s wife – her harrowing tales of emotional (and sometimes physical) devastation to her husband at the hands of the Soviet politburo give the film a passionate center, as well as a face to the frustration of the otherwise anonymous Russian population;

– Vladimir Krutov, sometimes considered the best player of the vaunted “KLM Line” (with Larionov and Makarov) – his well-publicized failures in the NHL reveal a man who is a shell of his former self, riddled with both guilt and despair for his actions during the turbulent era of which he was an unwilling political spokesperson.  The only member of the Russian Five to not appear in Of Miracles and Men, Krutov’s inclusion in Red Army is especially sorrowful when the film tells us of his untimely death at age 52, shortly after being interviewed by Polsky.

THE HEART OF SOVIET HOCKEY in LEGEND No. 17 (LEGENDA #17)

One of the biggest advantages that narrative filmmakers have over their documentarian counterparts is the ability to artificially craft a compelling story and manipulate the audience through sentimentality – and in the case of a biopic, they can strategically recreate actual moments that documentary subjects can only describe with their words.  In telling the story of Valeri Kharlamov, arguably Russia’s most famous hockey player, the creators of Legend No. 17 successfully demonstrate the principles of this visual medium.

I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of Legend No. 17 during a series on contemporary Russian cinema at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica in 2013.  The film, directed by Nikolay Lebedev, traces Kharlamov’s life from his infancy in Spain to his eventual superstardom as a young man in his native Russia.  While capturing the frenetic pace of hockey on film can prove difficult, Lebedev skillfully handles the unenviable task by constantly keeping the camera in motion and inserting the viewer squarely into the action.  In contrast to these scenes are wonderful quiet moments between Kharlamov and his wife, Irina, adding a tender touch to the otherwise masculine aspects of this male-driven sport.

Terrific performances are turned in from all of the principal actors:  

– Danila Kozlovsky is eloquent as Kharlamov, a man torn between love, honor and accomplishment;

– Though slightly underused, Svetlana Ivanova brings depth to the role of Irina, futilely attempting to charm her husband into a labored sense of happiness;

– Last, but certainly not least, is the scene-stealing work of Oleg Menshikov, stoically adding grace and gravitas to his portrayal of Kharlamov’s coach and mentor, Anatoli Tarasov.

While it might seem obvious to use Irina as the emotional center of the film, Lebedev instead turns his eye toward the men directly involved in the sport.  As we would learn in the documentaries about the Soviet hockey program, the players would spend a majority of their time together with their coaches, away from their families – as a result, the bond that is formed surpasses common friendship and servitude to become emotionally gripping.  Undoubtedly, the most powerful moment in the film features the players from the team embracing their recently-fired coach just before they board a flight to Canada for their most important game.

Three films.  All weaving a similar tale, told from a slightly different angle, to showcase the captivating history of the Soviet hockey system.  While the goal for the players in Of Miracles and Men was to prove they belonged in the upper echelon of athletic greatness as their North American counterparts in the NHL, the players featured in Red Army (in most cases, the exact same men) sought political asylum in the form of Western capitalism.  Freed from the oppression of the Soviet regime, these men tell fascinating stories of will and determination, with the help of talented documentarians – and in the case of Legend No. 17, a Russian filmmaker uses vivid recreations of historical events to take you inside the strict regimen of the Soviet sports program itself, ably assisted by gifted performers.

By all means, please check out these films if you can.

ADDENDUM

Of Miracles and Men can be viewed on several online platforms, including Amazon.  See Noel Murray’s review from the A.V. Club here.

Red Army will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray on June 9.  See Ken Campbell’s review from The Hockey News here.

– As you might imagine, Legend No. 17 can be difficult to locate in North America, though Amazon does sell a DVD-r with English subtitles here.

– In 2012, NBC produced a terrific documentary about the 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet Union, entitled “Cold War On Ice” (Game 1 of this series is brought to life, in dramatic fashion, throughout the entire final act of Legend No. 17).  At the moment, the film can be found on YouTube.

Hockey Road Trip: Big Apple Trifecta

13 MARCH 2015

As typical Navy families do, we often moved during my childhood, but while I did get to see much of the country (including a six-year residency in Hawaii), I haven’t gone to many of the major metropolitan areas on the east coast.  Though I’ve now spent over a decade living in the heavily-populated urban setting of Los Angeles, New York City has always struck me as a mythical land, frequently depicted in movies and television shows, where life is happening at a breakneck pace.  Aside from the similar traffic and cost-of-living issues, these two major cities are quite different: I wanted to work in the film industry and I missed the warm weather, so California became my adopted home – but I always held a deep-rooted longing to eventually visit “The City That Never Sleeps”.  That’s where my hockey quest comes in…

During my first Hockey Road Trip to Denver, my friend Chad was having a great time and asked, “Where are we going next?”  I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, so Chad and I immediately started to analyze the remaining cities on my list and came up with two questions to consider moving forward: “Are there any NHL arenas that are going to be replaced soon?” and “Are there any NHL veteran stars that I’d like to see who are close to retirement?”  There are a few answers to the first question, but Nassau Coliseum (home of the New York Islanders since 1972) quickly came to mind; while the only answer I could come up with for the second question was two members of the New Jersey Devils: Martin Brodeur and Jaromir Jagr, who were both 41 years old at the time, and are certain to be in the Hall of Fame at the conclusion of their NHL careers.  Chad had been to New York a couple of years prior, but had been eager to go back, so this seemed like the perfect chance.

I looked over the schedule to find a weekend that would allow us to see home games for both the Islanders and Devils, while also having to factor in Chad’s work schedule, which didn’t allow him any lengthy time off until the end of March.  I also had a nice conversation with Yahoo hockey writer (and noted Devils fan) Greg Wyshynski in January and asked him about going to see my first Devils game.  He suggested that I try to find a Saturday night contest against a rival team, or else he feared that I would not get to see a well-attended game.  As luck would have it, the Devils were hosting their arch rivals from across the Hudson River, the New York Rangers, on a Saturday night at the end of March.  The Islanders were playing the following day, and it was a week after Chad’s job would have concluded, so the decision was made.  I started making the plans and found one interesting quirk in the NHL schedule: the New York Rangers would be playing a home game the day after the Islanders game, so we decided to make it a “trifecta” and see all three teams from the area in three days!

TRIP COMPANION: Chad, who I believe I’ve successfully turned into a hockey fan; Matt, a dear friend and fellow hockey-lover, who now resides in Baltimore
TRAVEL: Friday, March 21 to Tuesday, March 25 [Virgin Airlines: LAX to Newark]
LODGING: Ramada, Jersey City

I spent a lot of time searching for hotels in the New York area, and was astounded by the prices, so we settled on a cozy little inn near a subway stop in New Jersey – it was a perfect “base of operations” as we ventured throughout the sprawling metro area.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

Flying Virgin Airlines had the added bonus of allowing me to watch live NCAA Basketball Tournament games on the televisions located on the backs of the seats – this certainly made the 5-hour non-stop flight go by that much quicker.  While taking the airport shuttle to our hotel, I was able to look out the window and see the skyline of New York, but the enormity and history of the city still hadn’t really sunk in from this distance.  That would change soon enough, as we quickly checked in to the hotel and walked to the nearby subway station to begin our first night in the city.

We came out of the subway in Manhattan, walked 10-12 blocks, and were confronted with this:

Times Square.  Just like in the movies.  So many lights.  Sure, we have areas in Los Angeles that are filled with flashing lights and other forms of electronic stimuli (Universal City Walk, L.A. Live), but the ebb-and-flow of the cars in traffic, combined with the hustling pedestrians, makes this a unique experience.  Just stay away from the creepy dudes in the Elmo costumes…

From there, we continued walking around Manhattan, getting lost in the scenery – I’m still amazed at how many iconic landmarks are so close to each other in this general vicinity.  Case in point: while standing on 50th St., you have Radio City Music Hall on one side and Rockefeller Center on the other.

No time for ice skating - we've got more sights to see!

No time for ice skating – we’ve got more sights to see!

Only a few short blocks away is the NHL Store, located next door to the headquarters of the National Hockey League.  My own personal heaven in retail form, the NHL Store offers clothing and memorabilia from every team – including some which don’t exist anymore (the Hartford Whalers stuff was cool) – and also features a compact television studio where they tape the daily “NHL Live” show.  The show is co-hosted by EJ Hradek, a writer I’ve admired a great deal over the years, so my hope was to get the opportunity to meet him.  One of the store’s employees suggested I come back on Monday before the show went live, and mentioned that EJ is usually very easy to approach, so I had that to look forward to.  In the meantime, I just wanted to enjoy the surroundings:

Interesting display in the window, which encapsulated the three NHL teams that I had come to New York to see.

Interesting display in the window, which encapsulated the three NHL teams that I had come to New York to see.

Alright, now it was time to eat.  Whenever you hear about New York, you always hear about its amazing food – and I’m sure everyone else knew that on this evening too, as virtually every restaurant we encountered during our walk was packed and had a longer wait than we’d hoped.  I was in the mood for some Greek food, and luckily we stumbled upon the Pita Grill, a little spot tucked away on 9th Ave.  There was plenty of room to sit, with prices that fell into our budget, so we got our first chance to relax and enjoy some pretty good food.  Of course, the large amount of food, combined with a pretty exhausting day of travel and walking around the city, quickly took its toll on our energy, so we figured it would be time to head back to the hotel – but not before I convinced Chad to let me see one more sight that was only a few blocks from the restaurant:  

I’ve been watching The Colbert Report for several years now, so I had to make it a point to come see where the magic happened, even though I knew we wouldn’t be in town at a time when I could go inside to see a taping of the show.  Still, it was interesting to see how this nondescript location fit into the neighborhood as a whole.

SATURDAY, MARCH 22

We reserved Saturday morning/afternoon for arguably the most famous stop on the trip: the Statue of Liberty.  After a quick continental breakfast in the hotel, we set out on a rather curious public transportation adventure, which included brief rides on both a PATH train and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, before a random shuttle van dropped us off in Liberty State Park.  From there, an airport-style security check led us on to a ferry bound for Liberty Island.

Unbeknownst to me, the Liberty Island Ferry takes a specific route that goes around the island, allowing visitors to see Lady Liberty from the front – a most awe-inspiring sight:

Just like when I saw the Golden Gate Bridge during my road trip to San Jose, I was once again left speechless by the sight of such a historic landmark.  You find yourself deep in thought, imagining countless numbers of immigrants who passed this very spot.  As the ferry pulled around the island, I did manage to take another decent picture from inside the boat: here, the Statue of Liberty is nicely framed with Lower Manhattan across the river.  (If you look closely, just to the right edge of the pedestal, you can see the Empire State Building off in the distance)

A museum is housed inside the monument, containing a treasure trove of archival newspapers and photographs which wonderfully depict the history of this great attraction.  Visitors are allowed to walk throughout the monument, with several “lookout points” along the way – they even allow people to go up inside the torch, but those tickets had sold out long before we arrived.  We made sure to grab a quick picture at the final lookout point near the top of the pedestal.  

 Simply put – I can’t imagine visiting New York City without stopping here.  Oh, and here’s one more picture:

We left Liberty Island and took the ferry back to Battery Park, then made the short walk through Lower Manhattan to the World Trade Center site.  In the midst of a very busy city, here is a place for quiet reflection: two twin pools memorializing the locations of the demolished Twin Towers, each surrounded by a ring engraved with the names of the victims from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  A museum dedicated to the events of that fateful day would open two months after our visit.

After a quick lunch break at a nearby ramen restaurant, we were back on the subway going uptown to Penn Station.  From there, we took another train back to Newark, and our final destination for the day: Prudential Center, home to the New Jersey Devils.

We arrived a couple of hours before the game began, which gave us time to casually walk around and survey the local surroundings – from some incredibly old churches to modern sculptures:

The inside of the arena is quite impressive, and I was immediately drawn to this amazing display which featured jerseys from many of the state’s high school hockey teams:

The game-day atmosphere was terrific, as the Devils mascot could be seen walking throughout the concourse, and there were several places to meet various members of the Devils Dancers, the home team’s dance squad.  They even had face painting!  We chose to skip that, and continued to walk through the complex, before heading to our seats for puck drop.

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

The sheer number of visiting Rangers fans brought a certain electricity to the building that night, with many of them sitting in our section.  What we saw was a hard-fought, tight-checking defensive struggle in which both goalies (New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and the aforementioned Martin Brodeur) were outstanding.  I personally felt vindicated in my decision to make the trip to New Jersey, as both Brodeur and Jaromir Jagr (the two players I specifically came to see) were the best on the ice during this game.  Playing opposite men almost two decades his junior, Jagr was a physical force on the ice and controlled play every time he had the puck.  Then there was Brodeur, two months shy of his 42nd birthday, making terrific saves at almost every opportunity, as he stopped 25 New York shots on the evening.  Unfortunately, he faced 26 – and the one shot he didn’t stop was all the Rangers needed, as they added an empty-net goal and left Newark with a 2-0 road victory.  

SUNDAY, MARCH 23

While we were at the game in Newark, our friend Matt had arrived at our hotel in Jersey City to join us for the Sunday game in Long Island.  Having done my own exhaustive research on the possible routes to the Islanders arena (which involved some combination of subway, railroad, cab, or bus), I was certainly grateful that we would have Matt guiding our way in his car – I even paid for his game ticket, as a small token of my gratitude.

After the lengthy trip through the Holland Tunnel and down the Long Island Expressway, we arrived at the historic Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum – however, the doors to the building hadn’t yet opened, which gave us plenty of time to wander the premises in the slightly frigid weather.

Much like my visit to Joe Louis Arena, going inside the Nassau Coliseum was like stepping back in time.  Opened in 1972, the Nassau Coliseum is the second-oldest arena in the NHL – behind only our destination for the next night, New York’s Madison Square Garden – and walking through the building brought a sense of appreciation.  The team is far removed from its glory days of winning four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980’s, but the history is undeniable in the facility.  The cramped confines harken back to the arenas of yesteryear, and our seats were a prime indicator – we were located in what must have been some sort of makeshift row that was added to increase seating, but at the cost of any sense of comfort (once seated, my legs were so packed in that I wasn’t really able to move).  The view was slightly limited, so there were television screens installed into the ceiling above us to fill in any necessary gaps:

As you can imagine, there was no way that I was going to be able to stay in that seat for the entire game, so we spent most of the first period scanning the arena to find a group of empty seats (of which there were many), and moved during the intermission.  And being so sparsely-attended resulted in a rather subdued crowd, mostly made up of families with young children – very indicative of matinee games.  Unfortunately for us, this particular matinee game also gave the Islanders mascot, Sparky the Dragon, most of the day off – instead, the spotlight had shifted to Curious George and his pals, including The Man With The Yellow Hat, as they would entertain the crowd during stoppages in play.  We wandered downstairs before the game to find people lined up to meet the beloved children’s icons, in an area located next to where the MSG Network was doing their live pre-game broadcast – which gave me the chance to meet the Hockey Maven himself, legendary journalist Stan Fischler.

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

After losing star player John Tavares to a season-ending injury during the Olympics in February, the Islanders’ playoff chances quickly vanished and they were left with little more than pride to play for during this game – and they put forth a very solid effort.  Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov stopped all 41 shots from the Columbus Blue Jackets, leading the way to a 2-0 victory for the home team.  

Matt had to head back to Baltimore once the game was over, so we had him drop us off at the Brooklyn Bridge on his way out of town – what a majestic sight!

At that point, we continued walking through Brooklyn for the rest of the afternoon and early evening, making a stop for dinner at Sal’s Pizzeria.  Chad was working for the Fox series, Kitchen Nightmares, which featured the restaurant on the show during the previous season.

Of course, we couldn’t leave Brooklyn without making one more stop at a place I hold dear to my heart:

For years, I’ve had to deal with having my last name mispronounced and misspelled (the ‘K’ is capitalized!), so it was very refreshing to come to a subway station that properly honored my ancestry. [Editor’s Note: There is no definitive proof that my family is genetically linked to the station’s namesake, Revolutionary War hero Johann de Kalb, but why let that get in the way of a good story?]

The DeKalb Avenue station was also our final locale in Brooklyn, as we took the subway back across the East River to Manhattan to wrap up the evening with another brief walking tour.  As I discovered two days earlier, Manhattan is absolutely magical at night, so we used the opportunity to check out a few more of the sights that we had missed on Friday.  First up was the New York Public LibraryGhostbusters fans that we are, Chad and I made sure to visit this familiar location from the film.

We concluded the evening just a few blocks away, at the world-famous Grand Central Station – an absolute marvel of opulent architectural design, both inside and out.

MONDAY, MARCH 24

Our final day in New York had a full itinerary, so we set out into the brisk 30-degree weather (i.e. we miss California!) quite early and headed for the PATH train that would take us to Wall Street.  Being a Monday morning, both the train and platform were absolutely jam-packed with commuters on their way to work – when we got off the train and made our way above ground, Chad and I both joked that there were more people on that subway platform than there were in both of our Illinois hometowns!

After stopping for the obligatory photo with the bull statue, we continued walking through the Financial District to the New York Stock Exchange.  Chad had heard rumors that the Stock Exchange was open to the public for tours, but sadly that was not to be – an exterior photo would have to suffice.

Once again emphasizing the close proximity from one New York City landmark to another, we walked about one mile north to reach Hook & Ladder 8 – another Ghostbusters filming location, which served as the firehouse for exterior shots.  They even have a Ghostbusters logo painted on the sidewalk (which was slightly worn down during our visit).

There was still plenty of walking to do, and it was still pretty cold, so we used the opportunity to go underground and keep warm on the subway as we headed back uptown.  My friend Lisa works at NBC, so we took her up on her offer to have lunch in Rockefeller Center – this also gave us a chance to see the observation deck on the roof, known as Top of the Rock.  We specifically chose to come here for a panoramic view of the city, rather than the taller Empire State Building, since Chad said it made more sense by allowing us to see the Empire State Building itself (which we obviously wouldn’t have seen in the skyline since we would have been in the building – makes sense, right?).  His decision was justified when we got to the Top of the Rock and looked outside:

This was the view of Central Park on one side, and here is the view of Manhattan on the other (with the Empire State Building in the foreground, and the Freedom Tower in the distance):

We stayed on that Observation Deck for as long as we could withstand the howling winds (did I mention it was cold on this day?), and then it was time to head inside and meet Lisa.  The NBC Commissary had a wide variety of food to choose from, and it was nice to relax and catch up with an old friend whom I’d known since college [Editor’s Note: New York has been great for Lisa, and she still looks the same as she did when I first met her all those years ago – we should all be so lucky].  But we were burning daylight and it was time to head back out and continue the adventure…

Our next stop was the famous FAO Schwarz toy store, best known for the giant piano seen in the film, Big.  Even for a Monday afternoon, the store (and the line to stand on the piano) was quite crowded, but I did manage to snag a photo with the store’s “security guard”.  From there, we stepped outside and walked across 5th Avenue into Central Park, where we would spend the next hour or so.  Thankfully, the weather had warmed up a bit, so we took our time to enjoy a somewhat quiet break from the bustling city – including a somber moment of reflection at the John Lennon-inspired memorial, Strawberry Fields (his final residence, the Dakota Apartments, borders the park itself).

We made our way out of the park, and went back to the NHL Store.  As they had promised on Friday night, the store’s employees said that I could meet NHL Live co-host EJ Hradek – I just had to kill some time in the store until he had a moment to come and visit with me.  What to do when killing time in the NHL Store, you ask?  How about…a photo machine?!?

Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long, and EJ was very gracious to meet us.  We told him about our quest to see all 30 NHL arenas, and how we had managed to see all three New York venues in three days – he even joked that we should have taken a train to Philadelphia to include a Flyers game on our trip!  I’m certain he must have been terribly busy preparing to go live on national TV, yet he talked hockey with us for about 10 minutes and could not have been nicer.  Here’s hoping I get another opportunity to cross paths with him in the years ahead.

We wrapped things up in the NHL Store (without spending a small fortune, which I could have done rather easily), and made the one-mile walk through Manhattan to…

The World’s Most Famous Arena!

From the outside, Madison Square Garden looks like an ordinary office building, but once you step inside you know you’re ready for some hockey…

Though it is technically the oldest arena in the National Hockey League, a recently-completed three-year renovation project has turned Madison Square Garden into one of the most extravagant venues imaginable.  Walking through the concourse had the feel of strolling through the lobby of a five-star hotel – it was absolutely night-and-day from the Nassau Coliseum the day before.

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

The evening’s festivities began with a tribute to Henrik Lundqvist: tonight was the first home game since he had broken Mike Richter’s record for most wins by a Ranger goalie during the previous week.  The team honored him with a series of gifts presented by his current teammates, as well as Richter and Hall of Fame goalie Ed Giacomin.

The visiting Phoenix Coyotes would start the scoring less than five minutes into the game, before jumping out to a 2-0 lead a few minutes later.  Undaunted, the Rangers stormed back to the tie the game in the second period, before falling behind once again before the intermission.  

But with less than four minutes remaining in the game, the Rangers would tie the game and force overtime – setting the stage for defenseman Ryan McDonagh to be the hero and net the game-winner to complete the comeback win.

We escaped into the freezing New York evening for one last walk around Manhattan, including a stop for a late snack at White Castle, where I chatted up a few Rangers fans who had come from the game.  But then it was time to take the subway back to Jersey City, and return to warm California in the morning.  It had been an incredible trip, full of monumental sights and memories I won’t soon forget.

MEMORABILIA

Sadly, neither Nassau Coliseum nor Madison Square Garden had any shot glasses for sale at their respective team stores, so I would have to look online for my collectibles.  I also wasn’t too thrilled with the lone shot glass that the Devils were selling at the Prudential Center, so I opted for this sweet souvenir celebrating New Jersey’s last Stanley Cup championship from 2003:

…and let’s put them up on the big board!

NEXT ROAD TRIP

A reunion with a high-school classmate, as part of a return visit to see one of the “hottest” teams in the league…

Are You Ready For Some Hockey??

26 SEPTEMBER 2014

Domestic violence.  Racist owners.  *Derek Jeter’s farewell tour.  In what has seemingly been an endless summer of controversies and off-the-field distractions embroiling most of the professional sports leagues in North America, we hockey fans should consider ourselves lucky to have the shortest offseason of each of them (well, unless you count NASCAR).  But to me, it seems like this has been the LONGEST summer break the NHL has endured – it feels like forever since the Kings won the Stanley Cup in dramatic fashion, yet it was only just over three months ago.  14 weeks, in fact.  But now…it’s time for hockey…

(Hank Hanna / The Business of Losing Weight)

(Hank Hanna / The Business of Losing Weight)

But how can you tell?  The kids are heading back to school.  The weather is starting to change (okay, maybe not here in Los Angeles, but you get my drift).  And yes, we’re starting to see the first few signs that hockey is returning.  Here in southern California, it started even sooner, as the Stanley Cup has been making its way around the city all summer, courtesy of the Kings victory tour.  

UP CLOSE WITH THE CUP

For the second time in three years, the Cup even appeared at my office, due to our “broadcast relationship” with the champions:

A “Cup” Cake?

As in 2012, the company pulled out all of the stops for its special “guest of honor”, including a full-size replica cake!  Seeing as this was the FIFTH time that I’ve seen the Stanley Cup in-person, I instead looked to take advantage of a photo op with Bailey, the team’s mascot.  As an added bonus, I got a few minutes to chat with Kings radio color commentator Daryl Evans, a former player with the Kings who is well known for scoring one of the most famous goals in team history:

Daryl is a wonderful man who’s done a great job spreading the game here in southern California, and it was a real treat to talk hockey with him on that day:

HOMEGROWN TALENT WITH A BRIGHT FUTURE

Less than a week after seeing the Cup, my buddy Chad and I ventured down to Anaheim to see the “Futures Game” between the rookies/prospects of the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.  It was the second of two games between the teams, and tickets were a mere $5.  The Ducks would prevail in front of a crowd of about 4000 people, but the game itself was an afterthought: to us, it was just nice to be back in an NHL arena to watch some hockey, ESPECIALLY since the temperature hovered around 100 degrees that day.  We wandered around the concourse, and even made sure to take advantage of a “clearance sale” in the team store, which afforded me the chance to buy a couple of T-shirts and a cool Scott Niedermayer bobble head – he’s probably my favorite Duck of all-time, even though my admiration comes from his years of playing in New Jersey.

I’ve always argued that it takes approximately one generation (20 years or so) for an NHL expansion team to really gain a foothold in the marketplace, and to prove that the sport can be accepted in a new environment.  Most southern California hockey fans understood how the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles in 1988 really started the trend of kids embracing the sport, but it was the creation of the (Mighty) Ducks five years later that really cemented hockey’s presence in the region.  Now two decades later, we’re starting to see the influx of California-grown talent into the NHL, especially in Anaheim: after selecting Long Beach native Emerson Etem in the 1st Round of the 2010 Entry Draft, the Ducks would follow up two years later by choosing Nicolas Kerdiles in the 2nd Round.  Though born in Texas, Kerdiles grew up in Irvine and was actually born during the Ducks’ inaugural season.  He attended the University of Wisconsin, before leaving school early to sign with the Ducks in April, ultimately playing in a handful of minor-league games to close out last season.  I’d seen a few Wisconsin games on television, so it was nice to finally watch him in-person at the Futures Game – especially since he looked strong out on the ice, and is poised to gain some attention this year from the Ducks management.  I’d argue that even Kings fans should find themselves pulling for Kerdiles, as well as Etem, as a testament to the area’s strength in developing young hockey talent.

A CAMP FIT FOR A KING

The following weekend saw me head down to the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo to take in my first-ever NHL training camp, courtesy of that other local team – the reigning Stanley Cup champions themselves.  After their 2012 title, I attended the Kings prospect camp and was somewhat disappointed with the minuscule crowd, but that was certainly not the case on this day – several hundred people were packed into the intimate confines of their state-of-the-art practice facility.  It began at 11am with Saturday’s morning session, which featured one half of the roster known as “Group B”.  Some notable names who appeared during the 90-minute practice included veterans Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, as well as some of the team’s future stars like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.  I also got my first glimpse of 2010 1st Round draft pick Derek Forbort, who looked particularly impressive.  I’ve been to Arizona for Spring Training a few times, and this was quite similar: it’s fascinating to watch professional athletes receiving instruction, especially the young guys desperate the make the team.

After a quick trip back home for lunch, I returned to El Segundo for the 2pm afternoon session, which featured the star-studded “Group A”.  I now got to see Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll, team captain Dustin Brown, defenseman Jake Muzzin, and sniper Marian Gaborik skating through drills and thrilling the fans.  It was also great to see Adam Cracknell, who just signed with the Kings after spending the five previous seasons in the St. Louis Blues organization, as well as Trevor Lewis, who I would consider to be my favorite member of the team.  Last but not least, goalie Jonathan Quick – recently recovered from offseason wrist surgery – stood tall in net, and looked perfectly primed for the season to begin.

Kyle Clifford (in green) and others look on as Adam Cracknell makes a move toward the net

Kyle Clifford (in green) and others look on as Adam Cracknell makes a move toward the net

Goalie Jonathan Quick, receiving coaching tips in mid-stretch

Goalie Jonathan Quick, receiving coaching tips in mid-stretch

After another 90-minute workout, it was time to leave the building – but not before I once again ran into Daryl Evans.  He actually recognized me from the previous week, and took a few minutes to continue our conversation about the state of hockey in southern California.  When I asked if it was the biggest crowd he’d seen at a Kings training camp, he agreed and reminded me how the older fans were rewarded for their long-suffering loyalty, and how the newer fans had a perfect point in which to start following the team.  I’ve seen that growth myself in the 10-plus years that I’ve lived here, and so I only hope it will continue with each passing season.

“So long from Kings camp!”

NOW WHAT?

Well there’s another couple of weeks until the season starts, so thankfully the NHL Network has helped to fill the void by airing live preseason games every day, culminating with the annual Frozen Fury matchup between the Kings and the Colorado Avalanche, live from Las Vegas on Saturday, October 4.  I’m very curious to see this game in particular, as rumors of the NHL possibly expanding to Las Vegas swirled around all summer, and I’d love to see a passionate crowd proving to the skeptics that hockey could thrive in the gambling capital.

So, to answer my original question: Yes, I AM ready for hockey.  As it should be.  Now let’s drop the puck…

*[Editor’s Note: I kid about Derek Jeter – he’s a terrific baseball player who’s had a tremendous career, but his name sure commanded the sports news cycle this summer]

Hockey Road Trip: The Mysteries of Silicon Valley

19 SEPTEMBER 2014

It amazes me to think that I lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade before I ever traveled up the coast to see northern California – and when I did, to attend a friend’s bachelor party, I only stayed one night and flew back home the next day.  After continually putting off plans to finally go back to the Bay Area, I decided that my “quest” to see all of the NHL arenas would be a good excuse to visit San Jose for a weekend.

TRIP COMPANION: Chad, my friend who is really starting to enjoy these trips
TRAVEL: Saturday, January 25 to Sunday, January 26 [via car ride in Chad’s Toyota Prius]
LODGING: Four Points by Sheraton, San Jose Downtown

Interestingly enough, this trip only came about because I had another plan in place to go to Alberta at the end of January, but when that fell through, I saw that the Sharks would also be playing at home that weekend and seized the opportunity.  It wasn’t until after we bought the tickets and booked the hotel room that I realized our game was on the same day as the Kings-Ducks outdoor game at Dodger Stadium.  Not that I had necessarily planned on attending that game, but I guess it would have been nice to have had that option.  (NOTE: The NHL has announced that the Sharks will be hosting the Kings for an outdoor game this season, which seems like a great chance for me to finally see some hockey under the California stars)

SATURDAY, JANUARY 25

Chad picked me up around 8am, and after a quick stop for snacks/drinks at the local 7-Eleven, we were on our way.  On the I-5 Freeway.  For the next six hours.  SIX.  HOURS.  I really can’t stress that enough.  To put it best, this was pretty much our entire view that morning and early afternoon:

Yep.  Just this.  All morning.

Yep.  Just this.  All morning.

Making matters worse, when we finally DID arrive in San Francisco just before 3pm, traffic was at an absolute stand-still.  We got a nice view of downtown while we crept patiently along the Bay Bridge though:

Being from Los Angeles, I’m used to spending time in traffic – but this didn’t seem right.  It was almost as if the streets in the area were closed for some reason.  A quick check of the internet on my phone revealed that my hunch was correct: an anti-abortion group had staged a march downtown, forcing the closure of many of the streets, sending drivers scrambling to find alternate routes with which to get around the protesters.  Resourceful as we are, Chad and I managed to find a quick detour that took us around the chaos and into the beautiful city of San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the traffic slowed us down enough to where we didn’t really have a whole lot of time to take in the sights.  We took a quick spin through the Mission District, as well as Haight/Ashbury and the Castro, before reaching The Presidio.  While I certainly remember the 1988 movie of the same name, and have heard wondrous stories about the beauty of the surrounding area, we were pretty much here for one reason: it is now the home to Lucasfilm headquarters, and specifically, this awesome statue of Yoda:

Chad and I are huge fans of STAR WARS (is there anyone from our generation who ISN’T?!?), so this was a must-see on our trip.  After offering up the proper amount of admiration for the 900-year-old Jedi, it was off to that other tourist attraction nearby.

Golden Gate Selfie

Golden Gate Selfie

“Welcome to ‘The Rock'”

It’s really hard not to be amazed by the views as you stare out upon the northern end of the San Francisco Bay: you’ve got Alcatraz to one side, and on the other, The Golden Gate Bridge.  THE Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s one of the most famous sights in the entire world, and it took my breath away.  I mean, just look at it:

The awe.  The majesty.  A marvel of engineering and design.  An iconic visual landmark that encapsulates the prevailing sense of wonder of a major metropolitan area.  The Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, there’s only so much you can do there, and since Chad and I didn’t have time to walk across the bridge itself, we thought it would be best to head down to San Jose before it got too late.  We checked in to our hotel, then walked the short distance to the SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks.

We arrived with plenty of time to kill before face-off, which afforded us the chance to walk around the “Shark Tank”, as it is affectionately known.  It’s a very cozy arena, one of only seven in the NHL that are more than 20 years old, and it has a certain charm to it – a “hometown vibe”, if you will.  The fans reminded me of those friends and family members I encountered in the Midwest, and the mascot (SJ Sharkie) is a real character.  This was going to be a fun Saturday night!

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

After a rousing introduction, which involved the players skating on to the ice through a gigantic shark’s mouth, we were treated to a very entertaining contest.  The visiting Minnesota Wild jumped out to a 2-0 lead, before the Sharks evened the score with two quick goals midway through the second period from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, popular fan favorites who each signed 3-year contract extensions that morning.  At that point, Chad and I used the second intermission and the third period to continue our tour of the facility, starting in the team store and randomly wandering around to get different views of the ice:

We made it back to our seats to watch the final moments of the game, which came to a 2-2 tie at the end of regulation.  It was now on to overtime!  After a tense few minutes, featuring scoring chances for both teams, the Sharks and their fans would soon go home happy as the aforementioned Thornton netted the game-winner with 90 seconds left in the extra period

I’m sure I’ll be back at the Shark Tank again at some point in the near future, but we did make sure to walk around and soak in the ambiance one more time after the game was over.  From there, a nice leisurely stroll through the pleasant San Jose night concluded with a return to our hotel, and some much-needed rest after a rather long day.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 26

So, what else is there to do in San Jose?  My father spent years traveling the world during his time in the United States Navy and fell in love with the Bay Area when he came there to visit in the 1970’s, so when I posed this question to him, he had a simple response:  The Winchester Mystery House.  He said that he’d always heard the stories of this famous mansion, and urged me to see it on his behalf.  It might have been an odd suggestion, but it turned out to be a worthwhile outing – it’s a fun way to spend a Sunday morning, and I’d recommend it to anyone who visits the area.  You’re not allowed to take photos inside, so I waited until after the 90-minute tour had ended, and found a nice view of the front of the building:

But a funny thing happened on our way out of the Mystery House: within a display case full of brochures for the various tourist attractions in the area, I saw a card promoting a STAR WARS exhibit at the museum that was located next door to our hotel.  We still had time before heading home, and Chad didn’t need much convincing, so we back-tracked and returned to where we began the day.

The Tech Museum of Innovation, a state-of-the-art science center in the heart of San Jose, served as a host for the traveling exhibit known as Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination.  It featured a fascinating display of Star Wars memorabilia, from props to costumes, in addition to presenting various interactive experiences designed to educate visitors on the modern-day concepts that grew from ideas originated in the beloved film franchise.

Of course, putting a dork in a room full of nerdy artifacts will eventually lead to some goofy photos, especially in the presence of a Tusken Raider or Sith Lord…

Apparently, he “found my lack of faith disturbing”, and insisted that I had “failed him for the last time”.

It was an unexpected surprise during our stay, and a timely one at that – the exhibit would only remain for three more months before ending its tour for good.  I could not think of a better “parting gift” as we left San Jose…

At this point, we were starting to lose what was left of the day’s sunlight, so we made a quick 30-mile jaunt through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the town of Felton, home of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.  I’ve got several friends from northern California, and when I told them I was going up to see a Sharks game and asked for a good spot to see some redwoods, Felton was the recommendation.  We arrived just before the park closed, which gave us enough time for a nice half-hour walk through the woods.  These enormous trees really are a sight to behold – you can’t help but be humbled by your surroundings.  I tried to document the area accordingly, but it’s hard to get perspective through the frame of a photograph, so here’s the best I could do, using Chad as a visual reference to show the enormity of the Sequoia:

After having experienced the crowded San Francisco cityscape, it was nice to spend some time in the confines of nature, complete with the subdued echo of the various insects who inhabit the forest.  Our relaxing walk took us along a circular trail through the woods, before wrapping up at the Nature Center, which featured a cross-section of one of the mighty trees (several plaques detailing the historical events that occurred during its extended lifetime were mounted on display):

Famished, we headed back toward civilization just as the sun was setting, arriving in nearby Santa Cruz for dinner at a local institution, the Santa Cruz Diner.  This charming little restaurant was a great spot for our final meal before the lengthy drive back to Los Angeles – the decor was inviting, the prices were great, and the food was terrific (I had the delicious Pineapple Tofu Scramble).

For a quick weekend adventure, I’d say we had a wonderful time – I’m kicking myself for having waited so long to make this trip up the coast, but I’m sure I’ll be back again fairly soon.

MEMORABILIA

Befitting for an arena of its age, the team store at SAP Center was rather small, at times forcing the fans to wait in line in the concourse until the people inside departed.  Once we finally entered, I found that there was only one shot glass to choose from, and I didn’t much care for it.  Instead, I went online when I got home and found this sweet glass, depicting the team’s original logo:

…and let’s put it up on the big board!

[Editor’s Note: You’ll notice in the bottom row of my collection that I’ve created a “wing” honoring the NHL teams that I cannot watch in person, as they no longer exist.  I’ve started with the defunct Atlanta Thrashers and Minnesota North Stars, and will continue to add more as I come across these unique souvenirs]

NEXT ROAD TRIP

A long-awaited trip to “The City That Never Sleeps”…

Developing a Hockey Fan, Part 3

12 SEPTEMBER 2014

1991-1993: THE ENDURING LEGACY OF PARK PLACE PRODUCTIONS

In Part 1 of this series, I described how hockey played virtually no role in my childhood in Illinois, which was followed by Part 2, where I detailed how a few significant events that occurred during my adolescence in Hawaii began to shape my impending love of the sport.  As I progressed through my high school years on the island, I found that my “sports priorities” began to change.  For starters, I chose to stop playing Little League baseball once I finished junior high, which is also when I experienced the growth spurt that sprang me up to a towering 6’5″, leading me to a somewhat obvious decision to start playing basketball.  Though I’d become a bonafide “sports fan”, hockey was little more than a fun video game or occasional TV program (if I remembered when to change the channel). 

By the fall of 1991, I was your typical teenager who spent countless hours at the local shopping mall and played a LOT of video games.  We’d moved on from the NES to the Sega Genesis, and our sports fix came from the fine people at EA Sports – the soon-to-be titans had just released the first entry in their innovative and wildly popular John Madden Football games for the Genesis, with the initial game being developed by a small software company known as Park Place Productions (who would go on to become the largest independent video game developer in North America).  Following the success of the Madden game, Park Place and EA Sports teamed up to add a new sport to their gaming repertoire, releasing NHL HOCKEY.  Just another video game, perhaps, but I can safely say that it was the most important moment in my becoming the enormous hockey fan that I am today.

Still in my collection!

Still in my collection!

Whereas Nintendo’s ICE HOCKEY taught me about the flow of the game, NHL HOCKEY for the Sega Genesis introduced me to the league itself.  Sure, I knew who the Kings and several of the other teams were, and years of watching ESPN Sportscenter highlights allowed me to recognize names like Steve Yzerman and Pat LaFontaine, but now I knew ALL of the teams in the entire league – like the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and even the St. Louis Blues.  The video game also taught me many of the rules, such as icing and offsides, as well as all of the penalties and resulting power play scenarios.  Unfortunately, the NHL Players Association did not give EA their consent, so the game only offered the numbers of the respective players instead of their individual names.  With no Internet or media coverage (newspaper OR television), I would have to wait to learn the identities of many of the men who filled the NHL rosters of that era.

I soon found myself playing NHL HOCKEY during much of my free time, as it quickly surpassed most of the other video games in my collection and wound up being a close personal friend as I began the next phase of my life…

I scored a total of 8 points…for the entire season.

In the spring of 1992, my father got transferred to a Naval station in Louisville and the government put us up in the Army housing at Fort Knox.  Once again, I was the new kid in school, but thankfully I had my video games.  When the movers arrived with our stuff, I frantically went through box after box to find my Sega Genesis and my copy of NHL HOCKEY (true story, I kid you not).  I soon settled in to my new life in the Eastern Time Zone, staying active in sports and even joined the school’s basketball team.  It was quite a thrill being able to play in some of those high school gymnasiums in Kentucky and Indiana, where the local fans shower the players with undying support and adoration.  But while I continued on with basketball, often playing pickup games in the nearby playgrounds and recreation centers, hockey was starting to creep up on my radar.

Hockey has actually had a surprising history in Louisville, and our local team at the time was the ECHL’s Louisville Icehawks – though the presence was minimal, I do remember sportscasters showing Icehawks scores/highlights on the nightly news, which was a first for me.  Something else fascinating happened early in 1992: I can vividly remember our English teacher bringing a television into class one afternoon so that we could all watch the US Hockey team play the Unified Team (made up of Russia and its former republics) in the semifinals of the Olympic hockey tournament.  Why our teacher did that, I’ll never know, but it was a cool experience.  Later that year, two more significant events occurred which helped cement my love of hockey.

The first was ESPN’s return to covering the NHL, which happened at the dawn of the 1992-93 season.  Having hockey on the largest sports media outlet was immensely important, and they seemed to constantly have commercials promoting the NHL games during other televised events on the network.  I remember seeing the Tampa Bay Lightning during their inaugural season, the arrival of Eric Lindros, and the great Mario Lemieux returning from his battle with cancer.  I mean, that season was so great that a book was written about it!

Also still in my collection!

Also still in my collection!

And then came the December 1992 release of NHLPA HOCKEY ’93, the second entry in the EA Sports hockey video game series, once again developed by Park Place Productions.  Gameplay was virtually identical to the first NHL HOCKEY, but this time the NHLPA granted their approval and we now got to see all the names of the players (though the league itself did NOT grant approval, so there were no team names or logos in the game).  While I knew who all the superstars were at this point, I would quickly learn the names of 3rd and 4th liners and backup goalies.  As an added bonus, you could save your progress of a playoff series without having to write down a lengthy password, like in the first game.

I even had a buddy to play the video games with: my friend Kevin, who was originally from Missouri and cheered for the St. Louis Blues.  He knew that I was from southern Illinois, so he quickly saw a future Blues fan in me.  In fact, whenever we would play NHLPA HOCKEY ’93, he always chose St. Louis and made it a point to tell me about how great their players were (especially Brendan Shanahan, Curtis Joseph and Brett Hull). 

Sadly, Park Place Productions would collapse one year later, but I will always be grateful to their development team for giving me not one, but TWO incredibly influential games, thereby allowing me to gain a thorough knowledge of this wonderful sport. And though it would be followed by NHL ’94, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest sports video games ever, NHLPA HOCKEY ’93 does have its own place in history, having been immortalized in this famous movie clip:

So, the NHL games were on ESPN, I was learning who all the players were from a video game, and I had a fellow hockey fan to hang out with – all I needed was a memorable Stanley Cup playoffs to cap off the season, and did 1993 ever deliver! 

At the risk of getting side-tracked, let’s just say that the playoffs from that season were absolutely crazy, featuring stunning upsets, dramatic story lines, and a large number of thrilling games decided in overtime.  In fact, I could write an entire article about those playoffs (note to self: write an article about the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs), but I’ll be succinct here and say that anyone who watched the playoffs that year would be an instant hockey fan – honestly, ESPN could not have timed their return to covering the NHL any better.

I graduated from high school in May, and my father retired from the Navy a month later, so we moved to his hometown in southern Illinois that summer.  We now lived a mere 60 miles east of St. Louis, which gave me a favorite local team to watch on television, in addition to my regularly-scheduled viewings of the nationally broadcast games on ESPN.  I was now, for all intents and purposes, a full-fledged hockey fan…


Previous entries in this series:
Part 1 – 1982-1985: The Influence of Baseball and the Curse of SportsVision
Part 2 – 1985-1988: Fat Pigs, Prime Tickets, and the Rise of Nintendo

Hockey Road Trip: Christmas in Big Ten Country

22 AUGUST 2014

Seeing as how we don’t really get to see the seasons change here in Los Angeles, I always make it a point to come back to the Midwest for Christmas – my father still lives in Illinois, while my sister, her children, and several of my friends reside in Ohio.  During a previous visit, I was able to see a Columbus Blue Jackets game and quickly fell in love with Nationwide Arena, so I figured I could try to make this an annual ritual during my holiday visits.  At the same time, I thought this would also be a good opportunity to head up to nearby Detroit and see Joe Louis Arena, before it closes in 2017.  

TRIP COMPANIONS: Kayla, my niece; Tony and his wife Kasey, dear friends and die-hard hockey fans; Jennifer, my sister; Chris, her boyfriend
TRAVEL: Friday, December 20 [Delta Airlines: LAX to Columbus]
LODGING: Kayla’s apartment (Columbus, OH); Tony & Kasey’s house (Englewood, OH); Jennifer’s apartment (Findlay, OH)

In the summer of 2013, Kayla came to visit me in Los Angeles and suggested I return the favor by visiting her in Columbus.  I’d only been there for one brief evening (long enough to see a Blue Jackets game and then leave town), so this seemed like a great spot to start my visit.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 20

My first-ever flight on Delta Airlines was a very pleasant 4-hour non-stop trip, which put me in Columbus just as the evening began.  From there, Kayla and I soon began an impromptu walking tour of Columbus, beginning downtown.  We were greeted with holiday cheer from both One Nationwide Plaza (headquarters of Nationwide Insurance) and Nationwide Arena, whose tree-lined walkways were beautifully lit up:

Near the entrance to Nationwide Arena is Buca di Beppo, presumably the dining spot for many a Blue Jacket fan on game nights.  They have locations all across the country, and while it certainly isn’t unique to Columbus, we were both hungry and it was a nice place to unwind and catch up.  One Margherita pizza and a couple of Italian sodas later, and we were back on foot into the Columbus evening.

We continued to the historic Short North district, home to various art galleries and pubs, which runs along a stretch of High Street.  It has a feel of urban gentrification mixed with Bohemian artistry, which gives it a certain charm.  Couple that with nearby students from one of the nation’s most heavily-populated campuses, and you get a bustling Friday night environment.

After leaving The Short North, our walk took us along High Street, to the northern edge of the Ohio State campus.  An indeterminate number of pubs, restaurants and coffee shops lined the streets – including Eddie George’s Grille 27 (the sports bar named after the Heisman-winning Buckeye running back) and Kafe Kerouac, “a place that loves art in all its forms”:

Our evening would end at Oldfield’s North Fourth Tavern, “conveniently” located BENEATH Kayla’s second-floor apartment!  I can’t say that I’ve ever crashed on a couch in an apartment above a bar before, but with the cross-country plane trip and extensive walking, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep, no matter how many times I could hear Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” playing downstairs…

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 21

Saturday saw Columbus being hit with a pretty strong storm which lasted through most of the morning and afternoon, which meant that we had to scamper through the steady downpour to get lunch.  Kayla’s girlfriend, Charity, joined us for a visit to one of their favorite local diners, Hang Over Easy – a popular spot for Ohio State students, due to its close proximity to the campus, though it was somewhat empty on this day – likely due to both the rain and the fact that many of them had gone home to visit family over the holidays.  

With a sizable lunch in our stomachs, we returned home and were greeted by the arrival of Kasey and Tony, who made the 75-mile trip from Englewood.  I bid a fond farewell to my niece (thanking her for the hospitality and the informative walking tour), and then it was back to discover more of this welcoming city.

Like myself, Tony is a huge music-lover, so he made sure to take me to his favorite Columbus destination: Used Kids Records.  

Don't trust the couple in the hockey jerseys!

Don’t trust the couple in the hockey jerseys!

Tony, trying to hide from the camera

Tony, trying to hide from the camera

Believe me, I could have spent countless hours at this terrific store – in fact, one of my worst habits while on vacation is my tendency to buy multiple CD’s, which always ends up severely limiting the amount of available space in my carry-on bags on my return flight.

But we had a tight schedule and needed to grab a bite before the game, so Kayla suggested The Elevator Brewery, especially since it was walking distance from Nationwide Arena.

This might be the most charming “brewery” I’ve ever encountered – with its rich history and lush surroundings, I’d highly recommend The Elevator for anyone coming to Blue Jackets games.  We each had sandwiches, and took turns walking around the interior of the building, admiring the design and architecture.  

Finally, it was time to get out of the rain and into the arena – it was Hockey Night!!

Nationwide Arena is an awesome venue, featuring many interesting “fan attractions” – two of these caught my eye in particular.  The first was the Hat Trick Bin, a display showing EVERY hat that has been thrown on to the ice during a Blue Jackets hat trick, with the details inscribed on the outer glass:

And the other was the Hall of Hockey, an exhibit commemorating high school hockey throughout the state of Ohio:

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

The Blue Jackets hosted the Philadelphia Flyers, and their surprising number of visiting fans, in what actually wound up being the most exciting game that I attended all season.  After jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the first, the Jackets would double their lead with a goal late in the second period:

Unfortunately for the home team fans, the Flyers would score twice in a 20-second span to tie the score just before the period ended, setting up one of the more memorable third periods I’ve witnessed:

Cheerleaders in Santa hats - always a festive sight!

Cheerleaders in Santa hats – always a festive sight!

After spending the first two periods in the upper deck, we moved down to a “standing area” just above the lower bowl seating, on the penalty box side of the ice.  It was a great vantage point to see the Jackets take the lead five minutes into the period, and then go up 4-2 two minutes later.  The lead was extended to 5-2 with under eight minutes to go in the game, at which point the local fans started a clever chant, mocking a former Jacket now sitting on the opposing bench.  Goalie Steve Mason, much maligned in Columbus after he won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year then struggled for the following years, was playing in his first game at Nationwide Arena since being traded to Philadelphia late in the previous season.  Though starter Ray Emery had already allowed five goals at this point, it seemed like the Flyers coach wanted to spare Mason the embarrassment of making his return to Columbus ice at the tail end of a blowout, but that didn’t stop the fans from unleashing a “WE WANT MASON!” chant that seemed to last several deafening minutes – it didn’t work on this night, and it didn’t work one month later, when these same fans started the chant when the Flyers (again led by Emery in goal) suffered a similar defeat in Columbus:

The fun-filled period continued as Nationwide Arena played Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song” during the final television timeout, with lyrics on the scoreboard so all of the fans could sing along.  Just when I thought the night couldn’t get any better, it happened.  I heard the sound of a banging drum, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see a bright green flash.  It was Stinger.  I LOVE mascots, plain and simple.  I had to meet him.  I had to get a picture with him.  And, thankfully for me, it was quite easy – he didn’t even wait for a stoppage in play:

The Flyers would score a late goal, but the home team would add an empty-netter to wrap up a 6-3 victory on this Saturday night, sending thousands of Jackets fans back into the unseasonably warm Columbus winter night (once the rain had stopped, the temperature hovered around the low 60’s) – and sending Tony, Kasey and myself on the road back to Englewood for some well-deserved rest, though not before a brief stop at Steak ‘n Shake for a round of milkshakes.

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 22

This was the “day off” between games, as Tony worked in the morning and we relaxed at home watching football throughout the afternoon.  The evening brought a trip to nearby Dayton, which began with a very nice dinner at Thai 9 and ended with some Christmas shopping at The Mall at Fairfield Commons.  I’m actually one of those rare people that enjoys going to shopping malls during the Christmas season, and I was even able to find a nice gift for myself: a St. Louis Blues shot glass (with their current logo), to add to my collection.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 23

Tony worked another morning shift, and then it was time to head north – but we would need some “fuel” for the trip, so I convinced him to take me for my first trip to Tim Hortons:

Not. Too. Shabby.

Not. Too. Shabby.

Sufficiently nourished for our two-hour trip along Interstate 75, we arrived at my sister’s apartment in Findlay in the early afternoon.  Seeing as how she had recently celebrated a birthday, I thought taking her to her first hockey game would make for a nice present, and so her boyfriend Chris graciously drove us 100 miles north to Detroit.  Next stop…Hockeytown!

[Editor’s Note: To be honest, there was something a little unsettling about the fact that both I, a long-time St. Louis Blues fan, and Tony, a die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fan, would be spending our evening in the historic surroundings that is home to a team we both refer to as a “hated arch-rival”.  However, our collective love of hockey and its traditions would quickly dispel any negative feelings that we may have held toward this particular franchise and city, at least for this one night]

We arrived in Detroit a few hours before the game, and proceeded directly to Hockeytown Cafe – a terrific sports bar downtown, located within walking distance of the home stadiums for both the Lions and Tigers.  From the autographed jerseys to the delicious food, this place had a wonderful atmosphere (I particularly loved the Red Wings logo door handles), making it a must-see for any sports fan.

Be sure to try the “Hockeytown Burger”!

Autographed jersey commemorating the 2002 Stanley Cup Championship, a season that included a second-round playoff defeat of my St. Louis Blues.

Autographed jersey commemorating the 2002 Stanley Cup Championship, a season that included a second-round playoff defeat of my St. Louis Blues.

Obviously, there were plenty of Red Wings fans there on this cold night, which only added to the anticipation of seeing the game.  Thankfully, we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy our meal, and Tony and I also took a few minutes to roam around the restaurant to see all of the hockey memorabilia – they even had Christmas decorations displayed!

Joe Louis Arena is situated in a very odd location, pressed up against the Detroit River and surrounded by several parking garages.  In fact, it appears that the only way to enter the building is through an extended pedestrian walkway, enclosed and separated from the streets outside.  It made for a unique pre-game pilgrimage, both protecting us from the cold weather and directing us past a nice statue of Joe Louis.  But just when we got used to the warm surroundings, we were unexpectedly detoured and found ourselves walking outside along the river, through several construction areas and past a series of service entrances, before ultimately arriving at the hockey palace.

 

And then I was instantly speechless…

Here I was, standing at the arena’s entrance, which I’d seen on television countless times.  I don’t even remember being cold at that point – just confounded with awe.  As I journey through NHL history with each arena visit, I found myself thinking that this might be the most historic venue that I will get to see.  It was very humbling, and filled me with a sense of pride that I never thought I’d experience during my stay.

Going inside was like traveling through a time-warp – this is a 35-year-old building after all, and it’s amazing how accustomed a hockey fan can become to the pristine environment of the modern NHL arenas.  This place had an old-school charm: only one concourse circled the building; gifts were sold in kiosk stands rather than a designated “Team Store”; and there were friendly ushers situated in every section, quick to tell you about the history of the building.  One usher in particular was even nice enough to take our picture before the game started:

Tony, myself, Jennifer and Chris

Tony, myself, Jennifer and Chris

Of course, we made sure to walk around that lone concourse, taking in the ambiance of the venerable arena – which included statues devoted to Red Wing legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, as well as a display case featuring the various Stanley Cup-winning teams that Detroit has seen over the years:

“Strap on your skates, Gordie – you’re going in!”

Though nicknamed “Terrible Ted”, there is now an award which bears his name, given annually to the NHL’s most outstanding player – as voted on by the NHL Players Association.

THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

The Hockey Gods work in mysterious ways, and karma can be a funny thing: if the game in Columbus was the best game that I attended this season, then the game in Detroit may have been the worst.  The visiting New York Islanders jumped on the Wings early, scoring three goals before the first period ended, and cruising to a rather easy 3-0 shutout victory.  This led to a wide assortment of boos directed at the home team throughout the evening, as a general sense of malaise and discontent fell upon the Detroit fans.

But that was only a minor impediment to our overall enjoyment on this evening.  Tony and I still had a great time admiring the history of this old barn, and my sister was impressed with her first game – in the end, that’s really all that matters.  

Have I helped to create a new hockey fan?!?

Have I helped to create a new hockey fan?!?

We made sure to take our time exiting the building, slowly strolling around with the knowledge that we’d likely never see a game here again.  This presented a unique photo-op: Tony and I wanted to create a definitive record of our visit – simultaneously displaying both our love of hockey and this historic arena, while also alluding to our aforementioned “displeasure” with the Wings and what they’d previously done to our favorite teams.  Consider it “ennui mixed with regard”:

Note: Whereas I like to collect shot glasses from each arena I visit, Tony prefers to buy a jersey – even if it belongs to a “rival” team.

While I certainly would have preferred to have spent more time in this memorable city, the holiday season was in full swing and we all had to return to Ohio for family obligations.  I do look forward to experiencing Detroit again, preferably with an extended visit – with its close proximity to my sister, as well as the new hockey arena on the horizon, I’m sure I’ll return to the Motor City in the very near future.

MEMORABILIA

Nationwide Arena actually had several shot glasses to choose from, and I settled on a really nice one which featured the current Blue Jackets logo against a wrap-around text design.  However, I wasn’t really impressed with the lone shot glass being offered at Joe Louis Arena, so I instead chose to go online and find this beautiful “mini mug”, perfectly fitting for a franchise of such esteem:

…and let’s put them up on the big board!

NEXT ROAD TRIP

A weekend trip up the California coast, which included a visit to a “galaxy far, far away”…

Attending Two NHL Games In One Day

11 JUNE 2014

With the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks recently completing their first ever playoff series, as well as the Kings making their second appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in three seasons, I thought now might be a good time to look back at a particular day that occurred four months ago.  It was a pleasant Saturday during a very warm February in southern California – but it was also when I attended TWO NHL games in the same day…

A LITTLE HISTORY

Since opening in 1999, the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles has been home to the Los Angeles Kings, as well as both the Lakers and Clippers of the NBA.  As a result, the overlapping NBA and NHL schedule provides a very common scheduling quirk: the Lakers seem to have first priority, and frequently play home games on Friday nights, as well as Sunday afternoon/evenings.  From there, the Kings are often left to host their opponents on Saturday, with the Clippers playing home games on Saturdays while the Kings are on the road OR subjecting themselves to the “NBA to NHL” changeover when they play a matinee and the Kings host a night game on the same Saturday:

Allowing for the complex scheduling issues at the Staples Center usually results in the Ducks almost always hosting their opponents on Fridays and Sundays, providing the NHL with the opportunity for visiting teams to play both southern California clubs in a two-day stretch.  The uniqueness of this setup does raise an interesting question:

How often do the Ducks get to play a home game on Saturday?

To me, there’s nothing like hockey on a Saturday – as an NHL Center Ice subscriber, I often have the opportunity to watch approximately 12 straight hours of hockey each Saturday, beginning with east coast matinees and wrapping up with the west coast late games.  Furthermore, it’s an institution for Canadian fans, who have been viewing Hockey Night In Canada on TV every Saturday since 1952 (and the radio broadcasts began in 1931!).  But the Kings hold on Saturday home games usually leaves the Ducks fans to watch their team on the road on TV those days or having to wait until the following (or previous) day to see them at home.

Even before the Staples Center opened, both the Kings and Lakers shared the Great Western Forum  (presumably with the same scheduling quirk), so the Ducks were limited in their number of Saturday home games going back to the team’s inception in 1993.  But how limited were they?  In their 20 seasons of existence, the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks have only played 22 regular-season home games on Saturday, in addition to six playoff contests.  Further research reveals that the majority of these home games were played during seasons that had “compressed” schedules, either to account for the month-long break while the NHL players competed in the Winter Olympics (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014) or the two lockout-shortened seasons of 1995 and 2013 – the Ducks have played 12 of their Saturday home games during Olympic years, as well as four Saturday home games during lockout seasons.  That leaves SIX Saturday home games during the 13 years in which the schedule wasn’t “compressed”.  This raises another interesting question:

How often have the Kings and Ducks both played home games on the same Saturday?

Of the 22 times in which the Ducks have played a Saturday home game, there were TEN occasions in which the Kings also hosted a game on the same day – and half of those ten games occurred during Olympic years [NOTE: see Appendix below for complete listing of Ducks Saturday home games].  

Thankfully for me, this past season WAS an Olympic year, and the NHL schedule-makers were kind enough to plan Kings/Ducks home games on the same day AND allow enough time between games for a devoted hockey fan like myself to attend both.  That day was February 1 and the timeline is as follows:

12:30pm

The first game of the day was an afternoon affair that saw the Kings hosting the visiting Philadelphia Flyers.

As I said, it was a very pleasant California afternoon, especially for February – hardly a cloud in the sky!  The early afternoon start allowed the fans to have an opportunity to soak in some of the warm sunshine before the game.  I parked a few blocks south of the Staples Center and headed around to the front of the building to see the Fox Sports crew setting up for their pre-game show:

Seated in front of the camera, next to Fox Sports host Patrick O’Neal, is former Kings defenseman Sean O’Donnell.  A veteran of over 1200 NHL games, who played eight seasons in Los Angeles (and also won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007), O’Donnell re-joined the Kings earlier this season to work as Manager of Fan Development and Alumni Relations – a role which also allows him to do some TV coverage before and after games.

1:00pm

I was joined at the game by my old friend and colleague, Randy, as well as his 11-year-old son, Matthew.  I’m not going to lie – as someone who didn’t really discover hockey until I was finishing high school, I’ll forever be jealous that Matthew has been able to attend NHL games at such a young age.

The Kings have always managed to do a good job with their pre-game ceremonies, which are usually quite colorful and artistic, and today was no different.  Once the light show was done, there was an added bonus: veteran Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr, playing in his 1000th NHL game, was honored in a brief ceremony:

(Click here to see the entire ceremony, including an interview with Regehr himself)

2:30pm

After a mostly defensive and uneventful first period, it would take almost half of the second period to see the game’s first goal, which turned out to be especially important for one particular player:

That would be Wayne Simmonds, who spent his first three seasons with the Kings before being traded to Philadelphia in 2011.  As a fan favorite during his time in Los Angeles, it was nice to see him score this milestone goal at Staples Center – one can only assume that the cheering in the stands after the goal came from both Flyers fans AND Kings fans.

4:00pm

Turns out, the second half of the game featured as much scoring as the first half: Flyers captain Claude Giroux would add a power-play goal with two minutes left in the game, to help propel the visitors to a 2-0 victory.  While it certainly wasn’t the outcome the home fans would have preferred, we still had an enjoyable time at the game.

Randy, Matthew and myself

Randy, Matthew and myself

Randy and Matthew would head to the train station to take a subway home, and my friend Chad would arrive at that same train station to join me for the second half of today’s adventure.  We walked to my car, I changed from my Kings jersey to a Ducks one, and we set out on the freeway toward Orange County.

5:30pm

The sun had set, and the pleasant California afternoon had now become a cozy California evening.  Thankfully for us, the Ducks also do a great job with their pre-game activities in front of the Honda Center, which include a live DJ, dancing cheerleaders, and even a roller hockey rink:

“When I say ‘Mighty’, you say ‘Ducks’!”

They also had this giant monstrosity in front of the arena:

Mind you – I’m 6’5″ and standing quite close to this thing, and I barely go up to his kneecap.  So odd, so remarkable, so…inflatable?

It was about time to head inside to grab a bite to eat and catch some of the warmup skate – but before we did, I had to take advantage of one of my favorite photo ops ever:

What can I say?  I love mascots.

What can I say?  I love mascots.

7:00pm

The puck dropped between the Ducks and the visiting Dallas Stars, thus beginning NHL Game 2 in my day (and Saturday Home Game 22 in Ducks History).  

I wish I could elaborate in depth about the game that followed, but it wasn’t one of the more exciting games that I’d seen.  In fact, what transpired over the next couple of hours was eerily reminiscent of the events from my first game of the day: the visiting team would take a 1-0 lead in the second period, then add an insurance goal very late in the contest from their team’s captain (Jamie Benn iced the game with an empty-netter in the final minute), and skate away with a 2-0 victory.  Stars backup goalie Dan Ellis, getting a rare start, made the most of his chance and was superb in shutting out the eventual Pacific Division champion.  A former Duck himself, Ellis was shipped to Florida at the trade deadline a month later.

9:45pm

And just like that, my memorable day was complete: two separate 2-0 shutout wins for the opposing team.  While it would have been nice to have been able to cheer for at least ONE goal by either home team, I definitely had a great time and sincerely hope that the NHL schedule-makers will soon provide fans in southern California with another opportunity to experience two outstanding hockey games on the same day.

MEMORABILIA

As I established in the recap of my Denver road trip, I’ve decided to document each of my NHL arena visits by purchasing a shot glass that features the home team’s logo.  Now for those arenas that I’ve visited multiple times, I thought it would be a nice touch to get a second glass, especially if the team’s logo had changed over the years.  After originally buying glasses with the old Kings and Mighty Ducks logos, this day served as a good opportunity to upgrade my collection, including one souvenir which commemorated this anniversary season:

…and let’s put them up on the Big Board!

POSTSCRIPT

One of the most popular hockey podcasts available is the Puck Podcast, co-hosted by Eddie Garcia (an avid Kings fan) and Doug Stolhand (a longtime Ducks fan).  Due to their collective team allegiance, I thought I’d share my adventure with them over Twitter:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Just when I thought that was the end of the exchange, it turns out that this would be the Puck Podcast’s “Tweet of the Week” – and was read on the air during their February 2 podcast!


APPENDIX

DUCKS SATURDAY HOME GAMES

1993-94
April 2, 1994 vs. Toronto (Kings vs. Oilers)

1994-95
April 15, 1995 vs. Vancouver

1995-96
None

1996-97
February 22, 1997 vs. Phoenix (Kings vs. Canucks)

1997-98
January 24, 1998 vs. Los Angeles
February 7, 1998 vs. Los Angeles

1998-99
None

1999-2000
None

2000-01
None

2001-02
None

2002-03
None
PLAYOFFS: May 31, 2003 vs. New Jersey (Cup Final)
PLAYOFFS: June 7, 2003 vs. New Jersey (Cup Final)

2003-04
None

2005-06
December 3, 2005 vs. Atlanta
January 21, 2006 vs. Florida (Kings vs. Sharks)
PLAYOFFS: May 27, 2006 vs. Edmonton (Western Conference Final)

2006-07
January 13, 2007 vs. Colorado

2007-08
March 15, 2008 vs. St. Louis
PLAYOFFS: April 12, 2008 vs. Dallas (Western Conference Quarterfinal)

2008-09
None

2009-10
October 3, 2009 vs. San Jose (Kings vs. Coyotes)
October 17, 2009 vs. St. Louis
October 24, 2009 vs. Columbus
November 7, 2009 vs. Phoenix (Kings vs. Predators)
November 21, 2009 vs. San Jose (Kings vs. Flames)
December 19, 2009 vs. Phoenix

2010-11
None

2011-12
December 31, 2011 vs. Colorado (Kings vs. Canucks)
January 21, 2012 vs. Ottawa (Kings vs. Avalanche)

2012-13
January 26, 2013 vs. Nashville
February 2, 2013 vs. Los Angeles
April 27, 2013 vs. Phoenix (Kings vs. Sharks)

2013-14
December 28, 2013 vs. Phoenix
February 1, 2014 vs. Dallas (Kings vs. Flyers)
PLAYOFFS: May 3, 2014 vs. Los Angeles (Western Conference Semifinal)