18 November 2016

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...

17 June 2015

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:



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRh7z0i9eVc&w=420&h=315]

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:



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYQf9cxzJFg&w=420&h=315]

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:



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYGS-ooHq8w&w=480&h=360]

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:



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WE7Zs32OgK4&w=420&h=315]

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.

12 June 2015

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.



[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="2448.0"] "The Happiest Place in Arizona"?[/caption]







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... 

05 June 2015

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.



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WXqas1ZtyU&w=560&h=315]

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.



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_euhvZQMaw&w=560&h=315]

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.



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmqeH36VP9Q&w=560&h=315]

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.

13 March 2015

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.








[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="480.0"]No time for ice skating - we've got more sights to see! No time for ice skating - we've got more sights to see![/caption]


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:








[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="2500.0"]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.[/caption]


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 Library - Ghostbusters 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...

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