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Bookish Whimsy

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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.

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.

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]

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:

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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)

 

My Book Blog

If you are looking for my blog – please follow the link!

Bookish Whimsy

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Mission Statement

So I’ve decided to start a blog.  About hockey.  

Hockey IS one of my great passions, and I do enjoy writing – this seems like a logical step.  There’s plenty of hockey bloggers out there, so I think my mission is to do my best to stand out.  I listen to the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast virtually every day, and I admire Jeff Marek a great deal (no disrespect to Wysh).  When asked for advice about breaking in, Marek usually responds, “Start a blog, start a podcast – if you’re good, people will find you”.  Okay then, Jeff, here goes…

But how to stand out?

I could go the humorous route, and try to be a funny hockey blogger.  But I think people like JR Lind (with his incredibly witty III Communication blog) and Sean McIndoe (of Down Goes Brown fame) do such a great job, that I would only pale in comparison.  Plus, I certainly wouldn’t want to have to keep coming up with funny material (and I’m still amazed at how well those two guys do it).

I could pick one team and follow them closely, perhaps becoming a go-to source for fans of said team.  But that could prove difficult, since I’m a huge St. Louis Blues fan and I live in Los Angeles.  Being 2000 miles away certainly prevents me from accessing the players/management and providing any meaningful insight into my favorite team, and there are also a handful of Blues blogs, presumably written by people currently living in the St. Louis area.  Plus, the Blues already have a great beat writer in Jeremy Rutherford.  And though I do live nearby, I certainly wouldn’t want to exclusively write about the Kings – there are several blogs devoted to that team, and one of their beat writers, Helene Elliott, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame!

I definitely pride myself on having a vast array of hockey knowledge, with an ability to discuss the sport with fans of every team, not just my fellow Blues fans.  As such, I’d like to use this blog to be a “hockey hodgepodge” of sorts – a place where any hockey fan could come to see some perceptive and articulate writing on our beloved sport, and perhaps spark debate or discourse.  I’d even be ecstatic if non-hockey fans felt compelled to read my work!

If Jeff Marek is correct and there’s plenty of room for good hockey bloggers, then it’s my duty to prove him right.  The best writing I’ve seen on the Internet is that which proves to be captivating as well as entertaining, while citing credible and informative references – I’m constantly inspired by Katie Baker’s intelligent writing at Grantland, or the insightful work that John Barr does with his NHL to Seattle blog.  I’d like to follow along those same lines, and I will make sure that any opinions that are not my own are clearly linked back to their original source, and any solid facts that I quote are backed up to their web-based resource.

Finally, I’ll need a theme, a brand – an “Internet Identity”, if you will.  I’ve been a hockey fan for over 20 years, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for half of that time, so I’m always a bit disappointed when I see how little of a presence hockey has in this city.  The Stanley Cup victory in 2012 was a great start, and there’s certainly more buzz now than there was when I moved here in 2003, but this town still belongs to the Lakers and Dodgers.  This city is also well known for its “transplants”, as many of us have re-located to Los Angeles from far-off (i.e. colder) cities and towns.  Enter the Hockey Transplant – a hockey fan “transplanted” to the City of Angels, giving his take on his favorite sport while enjoying the benefits of his adopted hometown…

Savior of the franchise?

Savior of the franchise?