18 November 2016

Hockey Road Trip: The Great Southern Sports Adventure


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.

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...

17 June 2015

The Greatest Goal I've Ever Seen


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.

12 June 2015

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


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 Estell, 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.

05 June 2015

The Cinematic Virtue of Soviet Hockey

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:

13 March 2015

Hockey Road Trip: Big Apple Trifecta


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.

25 September 2014

Are You Ready For Some Hockey??

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)
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.

18 September 2014

Hockey Road Trip: The Mysteries of Silicon Valley


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.

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)

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