29 August 2019

One Memorable Night: The Great One and Mr. Blake

As I touched on during my Developing a Hockey Fan series, I had a tough time grasping the sport as I went through high school - the influence of the other sports I followed was too great, and the lack of media coverage didn’t help either.  Thankfully, the burgeoning fan that I had become was now playing hockey video games and periodically watching games on ESPN as I approached graduation in 1993.  That was a magical spring: I finally got my driver’s license as I was completing the rigors of high school, and that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs were absolutely amazing (I still contend that those postseason games played one of the most significant roles in turning me into a hockey fan).

Living in the Eastern Time Zone in Kentucky made it somewhat difficult to stay up late enough to see the games from the west coast, but I tried my best because I wanted to see the Los Angeles Kings, who were making an improbable run though the playoffs.  After years of hearing his name, I was finally able to watch Wayne Gretzky play on a regular basis and I was completely stunned - his fluid skating and effortless passing was a thing to behold.  Though he was surrounded on that Kings team with prolific scorers and veteran role players, it was a young 23-year-old defenseman named Rob Blake who also caught my attention, due to his powerful slap shot and ability to throw perfectly-timed body checks with vicious force.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching Gretzky, Blake and company as they won three consecutive series over higher-seeded opponents to make a surprise appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, where they would ultimately fall to the most-storied franchise in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens.

Though the Kings’ Cinderella run had abruptly ended, I still enjoyed each moment of that Final series - so much so that I even stayed home to watch one of the games instead of attending my Senior Prom (not that I had a date anyway).  When my family moved to Illinois that summer, I soon adopted the nearby St. Louis Blues as my favorite team since I could watch all of their games on television - but I still made it a point to tune in for as many Kings games as possible, so I could see “The Great One” and the dynamic young blue liner.


October 6th, 1993.  It was a day that many sports fans remember: Michael Jordan, basketball’s greatest player, announced that he would be retiring from the NBA after his Chicago Bulls team had just won their third consecutive championship.  That night, I vividly recall tuning into ESPN2 - which was brand new at the time - to watch a roundtable discussion about legendary athletes and their lasting impact on sports.  Following Jordan’s retirement, the panel was asked: “Which veteran athlete on the verge of retirement should sports fans go see in person as soon as possible?”  While the most common answer was quarterback Joe Montana - who was wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring at the conclusion of the 1994 NFL season - one panelist mentioned Wayne Gretzky, passionately instructing fans to feast their eyes on the dazzling playmaker before he soon walked away from the game (his point still remains, even though Gretzky would go on to play SIX more seasons!).  Now that I was living close enough to St. Louis to see NHL action in person, I specifically perused the schedule to find out when The Great One and his teammates would be in town during the upcoming season - that day would be April 7th, 1994.

28 February 2019

Hockey Road Trip: Ontario Odyssey (Part 2)

Part 1 of the Ontario Odyssey found Charlene and I gallivanting throughout the province, but now it was time for my travel companion Chad to join us as we completed a very busy week...


Chad arrived in Toronto at 6am after taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, so we immediately brought him to our Airbnb in order to squeeze in a quick nap before the day's itinerary unfolded.  We had tickets for the Blue Jays home opener, and our initial thought was to visit both the CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium before the game (both are included in the Toronto CityPASS), since they are located directly next door to Rogers Centre.  Unfortunately, we arrived downtown amid dreary conditions and THIS was our view of the majestic CN Tower:

As a result, we decided to postpone our visit to the top of the Tower until Saturday, and instead spent the morning at the aquarium.  Charlene was an Animal Science major in college, so she took particular interest in observing the various species as we slowly made our way around the premises - it was definitely a terrific way to spend a couple of hours.

We still had some time to kill before the baseball game, and the perfect place for lunch was only a few blocks away: Wayne Gretzky's Toronto.  Packed with what seemed like an endless supply of memorabilia celebrating the game's greatest player, this restaurant is a must-see location for any hockey fan.  I had to check out every square inch of the place while I was waiting for my food - which was a delicious burger with the Great One's number 99 toasted into the bun!

13 February 2019

Hockey Road Trip: Ontario Odyssey (Part 1)

Often touted as the "Center of the Hockey Universe", Toronto holds a special place to those of us that follow this beloved sport.  The NHL has one of its three headquarters in the city, with this branch notably serving as home to the Central Scouting Bureau and the "Situation Room", where in-game video replays are scrutinized.  Many current and former players hail from the province of Ontario, often developing their skills in minor midget organizations as well as the junior teams that make up the Ontario Hockey League.  Last but certainly not least, the Hockey Hall of Fame is located in downtown Toronto, adding to the mystique of the fabled city.

Owing to its history, I had always planned on Toronto being the final city on my "quest", but I bumped it up the list when I saw that the final week of March 2018 presented several sporting opportunities in the area that I couldn't pass up.  Both the home opener of the MLB's Toronto Blue Jays and the first round of the OHL Playoffs would occur during this period, which also coincided with Good Friday to allow me one extra vacation day from work.  I even added an extra day to the beginning of the trip to visit Niagara Falls: my fiancee Charlene had always wanted to visit, and was quite jealous when I told her about my Buffalo trip.

I would spend most of the spring keeping track of the OHL standings and drafted a spreadsheet to monitor the potential playoff matchups amongst no less than a dozen different junior teams.  Once the schedule was finalized, it was just a matter of prioritizing the teams and arenas that were highly-recommended, and coming up with sightseeing suggestions to take place during each day.  We flew directly to Buffalo on a Thursday, in order to relax and prepare for the massive odyssey that would feature eight hockey games in eight days!


It was a frigid morning (what else from Buffalo?) as we headed to Niagara Falls State Park, arriving just before Noon.  We wanted to give ourselves as much time as possible to see everything, so we walked slowly around the area, crossing over to the Canadian side and back.  Charlene was just as amazed as I had hoped, which made the day that much more enjoyable.  We stopped in various shops to stay out of the cold, then ventured back to Buffalo as the sun was setting - typical tourists for the day, going home early to rest up for the longest day of the trip.

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