16 February 2018

Hockey Road Trip: Empire State Excursion (Part 1)


My original intent with the quest to see all 30 NHL arenas was to use this as a way to see portions of North America that I might not otherwise visit. It would be a travelogue of sorts, and I would take every opportunity to see as many historical landmarks and tourist attractions as I could along the way. A quick glance at the list of NHL markets reveals a wide assortment of some of the most popular destinations around.

And then there’s Buffalo.

Everything I had heard about Buffalo said that it was a terrific place to live, with loads of young professionals choosing to relocate and start families there - but it wasn’t known for great tourist attractions, other than nearby Niagara Falls. As a result, I always planned to use my Buffalo trip as a chance to see as much of upstate and western New York as possible, with one extra wrinkle: Canada was close as well.

Considering their proximity, I figured I would visit Toronto and Buffalo on the same trip in order to knock two markets off my list. But there were so many other teams in the area that I wanted to see in person (specifically those in the OHL and AHL), and I found that I could go one step further by going the other direction around Lake Erie to see Montreal and Ottawa instead - thereby knocking out THREE teams along the way! What ensued was my most ambitious trip yet: the Empire State Excursion, which would see my travel companion Chad and I take in EIGHT hockey games in NINE days!

In order to maximize our vacation days in the spring of 2016, I used the Good Friday/Easter holiday as the bookend for the trip. We would fly out of Los Angeles on St. Patrick’s Day, and arrive in Buffalo just before midnight. The massive journey would commence the following morning…

FRIDAY: 18 MARCH 2016

Since the itinerary would have us driving hundreds of miles across two different countries - and also due to the previously-mentioned lack of tourist attractions - I knew my time in Buffalo would be limited. However, I made sure to begin the trip at the one local landmark that I had to visit: the Teddy Roosevelt Inauguration Site. A modest house on the outskirts of the downtown area, the museum houses a terrific display of artifacts relating to the 1901 World’s Fair, notoriously remembered as the site of President William McKinley’s assassination.

01 February 2018

Squire Report, Vol 6: Midseason


We've reached the halfway point of the season and the Vegas Golden Knights hold the best record in the Western Conference - just like we all predicted, right?

HANDING OUT SOME CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

A new calendar year also brought forth contract extensions for a trio of players, most notably Jonathan Marchessault.  Perhaps GM George McPhee must be reading my blog - how else to explain the fact that Marchessault received his 6-year, $30 million contract extension on the day AFTER I posted my last Squire Report, in which I mentioned how the Knights' leading scorer needed to be locked up immediately.  As you can imagine, I'm quite happy with the deal: Marchessault just turned 27 a month ago, and has helped to solidify one of the best scoring lines in the NHL.  Theoretically, his production should continue to remain in line with the money he's set to make, and it sets a good example to the fanbase that not every pending free agent will be traded, no matter how valuable.

It was also nice to see Deryk Engelland receive a one-year extension this past month.  A questionable selection in the Expansion Draft since he could have been signed as an unrestricted free agent a week later, "Captain Concierge" has proved his importance both on and off the ice - his heartfelt speech during the emotional home opener will cement his status as a beloved fan favorite for years to come.  But he's still got something left in the tank, and I can easily see him inking one-year deals every year until he's done playing, at which point I definitely picture him taking a job within the organization.

The last extension was a bit of a head-scratcher, mostly because Jon Merrill has spent more than half of the season as a healthy scratch.  I honestly thought that management would want to see him in action a little bit more, but they were impressed enough during his limited time to award him with a two-year extension.  Here's hoping this translates to improved play when he returns from the injured reserve, where he's spent the last three weeks.  From there, maybe we can work on finally getting his picture corrected on the Hockey News website!

26 January 2018

Hockeywood!


There are a handful of events that every hockey fan should make their best effort to see: an outdoor game (did that), a Stanley Cup Final game (I didn’t want to pay the exorbitant ticket price), and the NHL All-Star Game. The midseason exhibition game has become quite the spectacle, as the league has taken great strides to present several special events throughout the entire weekend. I had planned on going for many years, but it seemed like all of the recent All-Star games were being hosted on the other side of the continent. In addition, the NHL did not hold an All-Star Game during the years in which their players would compete in the Olympics. As a result, Dallas had been the only city west of the Mississippi to play host since the 2005 lockout.

Neither Anaheim nor Arizona has hosted the All-Star Game, and the Los Angeles Kings were the hosts for the 2002 game, so I feared that it might not be near me again anytime soon. But 2017 was a special year - the 100th anniversary of the NHL - and the league was going to honor the 100 best players in its history during the All-Star break, so they needed an ideal venue.  During the 2016 NHL All-Star Weekend in Nashville, the league announced Los Angeles would host the following year - we were in luck!

I had every intention of going to an All-Star Game even if I had to travel, so this was perfect. I wouldn’t need to book a hotel or buy a plane ticket, so I could use the money I had saved to pay the seemingly inflated prices for tickets to the various events surrounding All-Star weekend. And were they ever inflated: once the tickets had sold out due to Kings season-ticket holders and assorted brokers/scalpers buying them all up, we were expected to pay around $500 to see it all.

But when the final weekend of January 2017 rolled around, I didn’t think about the money. No, I was only concerned with seeing the fabulous events. I would be a giddy hockey fan for a couple of days and I couldn’t wait!

12 January 2018

Hockey Road Trip: From Missouri to Music City


As a longtime NFL fan living in Southern Illinois, I vividly remember the Rams moving from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1994. After missing out on an expansion team, the Gateway City would now have a football team to call their own - unfortunately, this would be at the expense of the Rams fans in Los Angeles, who undoubtedly felt the same as the football fans in St. Louis did when the Cardinals moved to Phoenix in 1988 (as you can see, it’s a vicious cycle).

I followed the St. Louis Rams closely during those initial seasons, and I continued to keep an eye on them when I went off to college. I was ecstatic when they won the Super Bowl in 2000, and continued to watch them often when I moved to Los Angeles three years later. But I never actually made it to a game in St. Louis, even though I often considered going to see them during my various trips back home over the Christmas holiday.

But now it appeared the Rams time in St. Louis was coming to a close. By 2015, relocation rumors were swirling and it seemed like only a matter of time before they were headed back to their previous home in Southern California. Fearing that I couldn’t wait any longer, my travel companion Chad and I decided to attend the Rams final home game of that season - a Thursday night contest to be played a week before Christmas. But could we also include a hockey game during this trip?

We’d already seen games in St. Louis and Chicago, but Nashville wasn’t too far away. We’d yet to see a game in Tennessee and a trip in December would also allow us to see the Grand Ole Opry show at the historic Ryman Auditorium. The trip was perfectly set up, and I couldn’t wait to go!

02 January 2018

Squire Report, Vol 5: Believer


The incredible run continues, leading to a change of heart from your humble narrator...

THIS TEAM IS FOR REAL

When I decided I was going to become a fan of the Vegas Golden Knights, I did so with the idea that I would be witness to a team slowly being built in the salary cap era. The Expansion Draft was supposed to stock the roster with average players, and I imagined the team was going to struggle to compete in the Pacific Division. Meanwhile, the team would trade away all of the players with expiring contracts and build a “war chest” of draft picks for the future.

But then the season started.

Two surprising wins on the road, followed by a very successful 7-game home stand, propelled the Knights into first place by the end of the season’s first month. They were the talk of the NHL, but that couldn’t possibly last. On top of that, the top three goalies on the roster all suffered injuries and a formidable road trip in November would seemingly bring the team back to Earth.

But it didn’t.

Yes, the team did limp through that road trip and fall out of first place, but they quickly rebounded once they returned to Vegas to continue their hot streak at home. Convincing wins over strong teams in the West (Winnipeg, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim) helped to solidify their status as a serious contender.

But I still wasn’t convinced, until the final month of 2017 rolled around.

December would only feature five road games, but they were all in tough environments: I was sure the Knights would lose many of them, perhaps even all five. Instead, they won four of those five contests: a hard-fought shootout victory in Nashville; an impressive win in Dallas against a Stars team that had dominated Vegas during their two previous matchups; and back-to-back wins in Anaheim and Los Angeles after the Christmas holiday.

But what about their home record? Could they continue their terrific play at T-Mobile Arena?

In a word, yes. A five-game home stand against Eastern Conference opponents saw the team go 4-0-1, besting both the defending Stanley Cup champions from Pittsburgh and the Tampa Bay Lightning, owners of the NHL’s best record. The team was clicking on all cylinders and distancing themselves from the rest of the teams in the West.

As a result, I’m prepared to say something I never thought I’d say during the summer: this team is a legitimate contender in their inaugural season. But if the organizational philosophy was to seemingly blow off this season and the next to build for a playoff run in Year 3, how do they alter their course to continue winning now while also setting the team up for long-term success? I’ve got some thoughts on that…

15 December 2017

Hockey Road Trip: Rust Belt Roundabout


Years ago, one of my friends suggested we open up a sports bar that would focus exclusively on teams from some overlooked cities in the Midwest, such as St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He even had a clever name for this would-be establishment: The Rust Belt. I wasn’t overly familiar with that term, but he informed me that it referred to that region near the Great Lakes that was a booming industrial mecca at the beginning of the 20th century, only to see the manufacturing jobs disappear and the population dwindle.

From Chicago to Buffalo, the Rust Belt is home to several NHL teams - but for this trip I would focus on the rich history of western Pennsylvania. In addition to visiting Pittsburgh, I could travel to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as Johnstown, where my favorite sports movie (Slap Shot) was filmed. And though I’d already been to a couple of games in Columbus, my travel companion Chad had yet to visit the city, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to go back to one of my favorite NHL venues.

I also scheduled this trip to coincide with the Thanksgiving holiday, as I have family and friends in neighboring Ohio. My good friends Tony and Kasey live in Dayton, so they decided to make the four-hour drive and join us in Pittsburgh for the Penguins game. From there, they would drive us back to Ohio for Thanksgiving dinner - my sister would meet us for the holiday - and we could see the Blue Jackets in Columbus the following day.

30 November 2017

Squire Report, Vol 4: Futures


Another crazy month as the team continues to surprise the hockey world...

GOALIE CAROUSEL

It’s mind-boggling how unlucky the Knights have been with their goalie situation. Marc-AndrĂ© Fleury was specifically chosen in the Expansion Draft to be the starter in net and face of the franchise, while Malcolm Subban was singled out by goalie coach Dave Prior to be the future in goal. On July 1, GM George McPhee signed two free agent goalies, Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace, but both were supposed to spend the season in the AHL. Then the unthinkable happened.

Injuries to both Fleury and Subban forced the Knights to recall Dansk and Lagace, and fire up a mountain of trade speculation from media and fans around the league - this would only grow worse when Dansk got hurt as well, and the Knights had to call up 19-year-old Dylan Ferguson from the WHL. Though it was strictly an “emergency recall” in case Lagace got hurt (thankfully, he didn’t), Ferguson still got to travel and practice with the team - and even managed to take the ice in the final minutes of a blowout loss in Edmonton:


It’s easy to chastise McPhee for not bringing in another goalie, but I think he played the situation perfectly. This season is not about wins & losses so much as it is about evaluation. There is no reason for McPhee to give up assets to acquire a goalie who would have no place on the roster once the injured players returned. Furthermore, this rash of injuries gave McPhee and Prior the best chance to get an up-close look at each of the goalies in the system during NHL game action, rather than just seeing them in practice or the AHL.

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