15 June 2018

Squire Report, Vol 10: Astonishment


Astonishment - it's pretty much the only word that comes to mind...

A MAGICAL SEASON ENDS ONE STEP SHORT

The unpredictable spring continued with an upset victory over the Winnipeg Jets, which gave the Golden Knights a surprising berth in the Stanley Cup Final against Washington.  The Capitals have had their share of playoff heartbreak over the years - they'd only made it to one Cup Final in their 44-year history and were swept by Detroit - so it was a nice matchup featuring two teams looking to make history.  While Vegas was able to win the first game of the series at home, they would suffer defeat in each of the next four games, allowing Washington to hoist the Stanley Cup after Game 5.

The Golden Knights had repeatedly shocked the hockey world, but it looked as though the team had simply run out of gas by the end.  The disappointment that I felt was ever so brief, as that would be replaced by the admiration of seeing the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and company deliver a championship to those long-suffering Capitals fans.  On the day of their victory parade, the Capitals even made the classy gesture of taking out a full-page ad in a prominent Las Vegas newspaper to extend their gratitude:


It was an entertaining series with a bittersweet finish, which finally gave me a chance to reflect on this amazing ride:

- I followed the Expansion Draft closely, even appearing as a guest on the popular Puck Podcast twice to discuss the newly-formed roster of players.  
- I was at the first rookie scrimmage between the Golden Knights and the Los Angeles Kings, where I met some esteemed media members to "talk shop".
- I was at a preseason game in Anaheim, wearing my Vegas hat and marveling at the small handful of visiting fans sporting Golden Knights apparel.
- I was there at the first home game in Vegas on October 10, somberly watching Deryk Engelland give his pre-game speech which sent chills down my spine.

While I wasn't able to attend any of the playoff games, my friend Chad and I did consider driving over for a watch party during the Cup Final.  We ultimately chose not to make the trip, but my sister was in Las Vegas that week and did manage to pick up a puck and program for me:


08 June 2018

Hockey Road Trip: Sweetness, Liberty and the Great White Way


The year was now 2017, and we were coming down the homestretch of The Quest with only a handful of arenas left to see.  Always the opportunist, I've found myself trying to maximize these trips to see as many games as possible during one vacation.  While we were seeing three NHL games in three nights on our initial trip to New York City, I met with the NHL Network's E.J. Hradek and he suggested taking a train to Philadelphia since it was so close - we didn't have the time on that particular trip, but this gave me an idea.

I knew I'd need to come back to New York once the Islanders moved into the Barclays Center in 2015, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross Philadelphia off my list as well.  But there was a new wrinkle to my plans: as mentioned in the recap of my previous trip (to Carolina), my travel companion Chad had just started a new job and had not yet accumulated enough vacation days to take significant time off; in addition, he'd already done plenty of sightseeing in the area as part of multiple visits to see the Pennsylvania-based independent wrestling promotion, Chikara.  He would respectfully choose to skip this road trip, while at the same time, my girlfriend Charlene had asked if she could come along instead - she'd long been jealous when hearing of our hockey-related adventures, and she also had an ulterior motive for wanting to tag along (more on that later).

From there, it was just a matter of finding a stretch of days that would include all of the sporting events that I'd like to witness as part of this quick trek to the eastern seaboard: NHL games in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, as well as seeing the historic Palestra basketball arena and an AHL game in the city of Hershey.  The stage was set, and the trip would commence in February, during some brutally unforgiving weather conditions.  Our cross-country flight brought us to Philadelphia on a chilly Wednesday evening, and we grabbed a quick bite at a pizza place located next door to the Airbnb where we were staying.  The rest of the night allowed us to unwind and acclimate ourselves to the frigid surroundings.

THURSDAY: 9 FEBRUARY 2017

We woke up to see a thin blanket of snow and ice had covered the streets, with sub-freezing temperatures awaiting us outside.  Bundled in several layers each, Charlene and I headed into the bitter cold for a 45-minute walk to downtown Philadelphia.  Our first stop was the iconic Liberty Bell, where we learned about the history of the famed symbol before posing for pictures.  

Located next door was Independence Hall, another historic landmark with a rich history.  I've been fascinated with the Founding Fathers and the birth of our country since I was a child, so I was very eager to learn more inside - a wonderful park ranger guided us through the Assembly Room where the Constitution AND Declaration of Independence were both signed!

18 May 2018

Au Revoir, Le Colisee: Coupe Memorial 2015


When I started my quest to see a game in every NHL arena, I also hoped to see as many games in some of the older arenas which previously hosted NHL franchises.  In most cases, this would be due to the team moving to a newer building and keeping their previous arena open - but there were also a few markets in which the NHL team relocated.  Such was the case with Quebec City.

After entertaining hockey fans for over 20 years in both the WHA and NHL, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, leaving the city - and its historic arena, Le Colisee - devoid of the highest level of professional hockey.  A minor league team would quickly move into the vacated building for the following season, before giving way in 1999 to the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).  That year also saw the naming rights purchased by a large soda company, with the arena being re-named Colisee Pepsi.

While researching the "defunct" NHL arenas, I learned that Le Colisee would be closing its doors for good in 2015, after more than 65 years of serving Quebec City with various sporting events and concerts.  The new state-of-the-art Videotron Centre was set to open right next door with the hope of luring a new NHL franchise back to the province, but the legendary venue was given a very prominent swan song: hosting the MasterCard Memorial Cup (or Coupe Memorial, as the French-speaking locals called it), the trophy awarded to the ultimate winner of the Canadian Hockey League.

The round-robin tournament would feature the champions of the CHL's three individual leagues - the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the QMJHL - as well as the host Remparts, and was to be held during the last ten days of May.  The opening weekend of the tournament coincided with the Memorial Day holiday, so I planned a four-day vacation in order to see every team in action over the course of three games.  I even found an Airbnb that was walking distance from Le Colisee!

09 May 2018

Squire Report, Vol 9: Playoffs


The magical run extends into the postseason, and away we go...

A HEAVY FIRST-ROUND MATCHUP WITH LOS ANGELES

I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little skeptical about the Knights’ chances in this series: the Kings were an experienced team that had been through some physical playoff battles in the past, and I wasn’t sure that Vegas could match that intensity. I also keep waiting for the clock to strike midnight on this Cinderella season, but it was just not meant to be.

Right from the first game, the Knights established their own physical presence and showed that they would not be pushed around. They clamped down on defense and limited the Kings to low-percentage shots from the outside, keeping the area around Marc-Andre Fleury’s crease clear from high-danger opportunities. As a result, Los Angeles would only score THREE goals in the midst of the four-game Vegas sweep.

Fleury was outstanding in the series, pitching two shutouts and finishing with an other-worldly save percentage of .977! I’ve long been a critic of Brayden McNabb, but the former King was a warrior in the series, and ultimately scored the only goal in the clinching Game 4. This Vegas season would continue with another matchup against a California team - could they keep up their stellar play?

SHARK HUNTING IN THE SECOND ROUND

For their next series, the Knights would face a team who stood as a polar opposite to Los Angeles: the San Jose Sharks, who preferred a speed-oriented attack, in contrast to the heavy style played by the Kings. Seeing as how this would match the Vegas identity, the winning team would have to simply find another dimension to their game and rise up. Both teams finished off their first-round opponents with a sweep, giving each group an entire week to rest before the “track meet” began. And they’re off…

Vegas wound up shaking off the rust better than San Jose, jumping on them quick and often to cruise to a 7-0 victory in Game 1. The next two games were more evenly matched, with each team winning once in overtime, before Sharks goalie Martin Jones recorded a shutout of his own in Game 4 to even things up. Now a best-of-3 series, Vegas utilized their depth and turned to one of their impressive rookies to help close out their foes from northern California.

26 April 2018

Hockey Road Trip: Tobacco Road Tumble


When we set out to do all these hockey road trips, I always had my eye on North Carolina - I knew very little about the state (besides its tobacco-infused history), but it always seemed like a hotbed of sports success. Expansion teams in the NFL and NBA arrived in Charlotte at the dawn of the 1990’s, which set the stage for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers to relocate to Raleigh in the latter part of the decade.

But college basketball is the dominant obsession, as the region is filled with notable programs from Duke and the University of North Carolina, to NC State and Wake Forest. Hated as they may be in the eyes of many sports fans, I’ve always felt a fondness for Duke. Coach Mike Kryzezewski has built one of the most storied programs in the country, consistently keeping his team near the top of the polls and funneling a pipeline to the professional ranks (even though NBA success has often eluded these players). My high school years were filled with the images of Grant Hill and Christian Laettner winning championships for the Blue Devils, and the sight of Duke fans boisterously cheering on their beloved team during home games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke’s campus in the city of Durham is just down the highway from the state capital of Raleigh - this path is affectionately referred to as “Tobacco Road”, denoting the popular crop produced by the state. I knew that my trip to see the Hurricanes would HAVE to include a visit to Duke, so I specifically focused on the college basketball schedule each year. Unfortunately, given the popularity of the program and the fact that virtually all of the tickets are reserved for students and season ticket holders, I would have to pay an exorbitant price to see them in person. For conference games against their ACC rivals, Duke tickets would go for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market - as a result, I found a non-conference game at the beginning of the schedule that allowed us to see the Hurricanes the following night.

One added bonus: my cousin Courtney was attending graduate school at North Carolina State, and had offered to give us a tour of Raleigh during our visit. But she would complete her two-year program in the spring of 2017, which pushed this trip a little higher up our list and prompted a visit in November 2016. And away we go!

09 April 2018

Squire Report, Vol 8: Ontario


The Vegas Golden Knights won the Pacific Division in their inaugural season. I cannot believe I just typed that sentence. Rather than dwell on my amazement, I’ll instead use this report to focus on some of the future Knights that I was recently able to see in-person.

As part of my “quest” to see a game in every NHL arena, I found myself in Toronto last month to check the Maple Leafs off the remaining list. I timed out the vacation with the start of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, which provided the opportunity to witness many of the NHL’s future stars, including those drafted by Vegas.

SUZUKI IS GOLDEN AGAINST THE KNIGHTS

I started with the highest-profile Vegas prospect in Ontario, first-round pick Nick Suzuki. He had just completed an amazing regular season with the Owen Sound Attack, finishing fourth in league scoring with 100 points (42 goals, 58 assists). He and his teammates would square off in the opening round against the London Knights, a perennial OHL powerhouse who was in the middle of a slight rebuild after having won the Memorial Cup two years prior. We arrived in Toronto in the early afternoon, then made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Owen Sound to see the league’s smallest arena.

This was Game 2, with the Attack having prevailed two night earlier in the opening game. Right from the opening faceoff, Suzuki stood out - he played with patience, controlling possession for his line and creating several scoring chances with deft touch from his impressive hands. He finished the game with 3 assists, including the primary setup on the game-winning goal in overtime.

Two nights later, we would be in London for Game 3. While he didn’t have as much success on the road that he had in front of his home crowd, Suzuki was still dangerous every time he touched the puck. Owen Sound would go on to win again in overtime, then close out the sweep later that week - he was impressive throughout the series and while he lined up at center in the OHL, I think Nick Suzuki could be a dynamic playmaker on the wing in the NHL.

London's Evan Bouchard (in the penalty box) will be a 1st round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft

09 March 2018

Hockey Road Trip: Empire State Excursion (Part 2)


During Part 1 of this massive trip, my travel companion Chad and I found ourselves driving from Buffalo to Ottawa to Montreal to Vermont, before finally returning to the state of New York.  The Empire State Excursion would continue at one of the most famous venues in hockey history.


WEDNESDAY: 23 MARCH 2016

We awakened in our hotel room to see that a sheet of snow had fallen onto the sleepy village of Lake Placid, which only seemed fitting for its popularity among skiers.  We wasted no time in heading to the Olympic Center for a morning tour of the famed locale.  As an added bonus, our tour guide was a member of the organizing committee for the 1980 Winter Olympics, and told incredibly detailed stories with vivid imagery.  We listened quietly as we were led through the facility for about an hour - the guide even showed us a video of the final moments of the famed "Miracle on Ice" game between the United States and the Soviet Union, as we sat in the fabled arena.



Once the tour was completed, we walked over to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, which was also located inside the Olympic Center.  A perfect compliment to the stories told by our tour guide, the Museum had a great display of artifacts to commemorate the two Olympic games hosted in the city (1932 and 1980), which also included a video of the "Miracle on Ice" game playing on a loop.  


American goalie Jim Craig protected this net in the "Miracle on Ice" game
I definitely enjoyed my brief time in this quaint town, but it was time to hit the road once again - we had a 3-hour drive to Utica for our next game, stopping for dinner in Remsen at a charming little 50's-style diner called The Soda Fountain (check out their special "Garbage Plates").  We arrived at the historic Utica Memorial Auditorium with some time to spare, which would end up coming in handy.

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