29 May 2020

Hockey Road Trip: The Great Nor'easter (Part 2)

In the first part of our final Hockey Road Trip, we braved the frigid conditions in Connecticut and Rhode Island - but now, it was time to return to Boston to complete "The Quest"...


After arriving in the Boston suburb of Revere late the night before, we slept in a bit before heading out into the cold surroundings on our way to the first stop of the day: the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.  I was a Presidential history buff as a child, so I've found myself enjoying these museums as an adult.  My wife, however, is not a fan so she stayed in the warm Airbnb apartment while Chad and I took the subway to south Boston. 

For the next few hours, we slowly wandered through the building learning about our nation's 35th President and his accomplishments.  There are very informative exhibits devoted to Kennedy's election and inauguration, as well as the development of the space program and the drama surrounding the Bay of Pigs and subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis.  I found it all fascinating and took my time strolling around - maybe I just didn't want to go back out into the cold, but we had a date with history!

Charlene met us for dinner at Hurricane's at the Garden, conveniently located within a block of TD Garden, home of the Boston Bruins.  As expected, this and every other establishment near the arena was packed with hockey fans, many of them wearing Bruins jerseys.  But there was also an added touch to this evening: the presence of the Hartford Whalers!

When I planned this trip, I knew I had two Bruins games to choose from this week: the first was against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the other would see Boston face the Florida Panthers.  Before I made up my mind, the NHL made it for me - the Hurricanes announced they would be wearing Hartford Whalers uniforms for two games against Boston in the 2018-19 season, and March 5 was the second date.  That sealed it - I HAD to be there to see those sweet jerseys!!

22 May 2020

Hockey Road Trip: The Great Nor'easter (Part 1)

I can't pinpoint the exact date, but I know it occurred sometime in 2012: I was having a conversation with a friend and she mentioned how she had hoped to spend her retirement by driving across the country in an RV with her husband, watching a game in every NHL arena.  I never forgot that moment, and the idea of "The Quest" was born.  It took even greater shape not long after, during some very emotional phone calls with my father.

My mother had gotten very sick about five years earlier, and as a result, I would use virtually all of my vacation time from work to fly home and visit her.  After she passed away, my father used to always bring up the idea of me traveling, as he had circled the globe when he was in the United States Navy.  I never could come up with the best way to start this adventure, but I figured Dad would be supportive - during our phone calls, he would always say "don't worry about visiting me too much, since you can always come back and see me around Christmas."  When I told him I wanted to travel across the continent to see a game in every NHL arena, he loved the idea immediately.

As I mentioned during the first Hockey Road Trip to Denver, I had a great "travel companion" in my college buddy Chad, who had also moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.  When "The Quest" began in 2013, I had already been to six NHL arenas, though I would end up going back to five of them so that Chad could cross them off his personal list.  We had now come to the final trip, so I wanted to make it a real "labor of love" by packing in as much time and locations as possible.

The trips were always planned the same, usually beginning on the day the NHL released their schedule.  I maintained a massive spreadsheet that would allow me a greater look at not just the NHL games, but also any other sporting events that were happening during the time of the prospective road trip.  The Boston trip was always going to be massive: I would cover several states over the course of nine days, seeing games in multiple leagues (and sports) - I knew I had to end it all with a bang!


My wife and I packed a bunch of thick winter clothes and were ready when Chad showed up at our doorstep at the crack of dawn - I'm not a big fan of going to the airport before the sun rises, but it was a great opportunity to take a six-hour non-stop flight and arrive early enough to squeeze in a hockey game the same night.  Plus, the traffic around Boston airport was chaotic, so arriving at 2pm did give us extra time to get out of the greater metropolitan area and head west through Massachusetts.  Our first stop of the trip would be Springfield for some AHL action.

After a quick stop for some fast food just off the freeway, we completed the 90-mile trip from Boston and arrived in Springfield in the early evening.  Yeah, it was cold - really cold.  We quickly scampered inside the warm arena to buy tickets and take our seats in the MassMutual Center, which has a long history of its own: during a brief period in the late 1970's, it was the home of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, who had to relocate to Springfield while their home arena was undergoing renovations from a roof collapse!

Tonight we would watch the Springfield Thunderbirds host their rivals from nearby Connecticut, the Hartford Wolfpack.  There was a pretty solid turnout for a minor league game, which I guess was to be expected when seeing hockey in the Northeast, so we had a great time walking through the concourse and getting our obligatory photo with the team's mascot, Boomer (all of the fans in attendance that night received a bobble-head figure of the mascot as well).

Exhausted from our cross-country flight, we ducked out before the game was over, and drove to our home for the next couple of days: an Airbnb apartment in Hartford, which was less than 30 miles away.  Snow covered the ground as we checked in, and we quickly nestled into our warm beds for some much-needed rest.  The final trip of "The Quest" had begun!!

15 May 2020

The Joy of Roster Building as an Armchair GM

Simply put: there are a lot of layers to being a sports fan.  On the surface, we enjoy watching athletes engaged in fierce competition and the drama within, but at the same time, many like to look deeper.  For some, that involves a dive into statistics in an attempt to predict future success, but for others like myself it all comes down to roster construction.  My wife once asked me if I fantasized about being a professional athlete, and while the answer was a resounding yes during my childhood, as I've gotten older that dream has shifted to being a general manager.

I truly believe that this idea has led to the rise of fantasy sports in recent years, and the impact it has on fans in their daily life.  People who participate in fantasy sports aren't actually playing the game, they're simply building a team and setting a lineup, then sitting back to watch the real players do their thing.  Football is the perfect sport for fantasy, since each professional team only plays one game a week, and the lineups are easy to set.  In fact, I credit the role of fantasy football for making the NFL the country's most popular league - I can't tell you how many times I've overheard conversations between fans concerning the players on their fantasy team during football season, especially from those who don't have a favorite among the actual NFL teams.

When it comes to fantasy football, the draft is my favorite part of the whole season, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.  We see roster construction being done in real time, with most participants being very optimistic about their team before the glory or anguish of the season has commenced.  This "pre-production" work can take up a lot of time, but I've always found it to be a fun endeavor that reinvigorates my passion as a fan.  So why doesn't this feel this same with my favorite sport?


Given my love of hockey, as well as my continued interest in fantasy football, I've given fantasy hockey a chance but cannot get into it.  Perhaps this is due to the real games being more spread out throughout each week, or maybe it's just because I enjoy all the "pre-production" work and don't care (or are too afraid) to see what happens next.  But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the wonder of roster construction as a hockey fan, and that seed was firmly planted 25 years ago...

A screen I saw far too often in those days
As I mentioned in my Developing a Hockey Fan series, video games played a major role in shaping me into the fan that I am, and the EA Sports NHL franchise led the way.  In the first EA games, I learned about all of the teams and players, but I was not prepared for how the landscape would change with their fourth entry, NHL 95.  For the first time, you could play the role of general manager, engineering trades and even creating new players from scratch.  I rushed to the store to buy the Sega Genesis game as soon as it was released, then proceeded to spend the following weekend playing the game endlessly, first trading a few players to my favorite team (St. Louis Blues) and then creating "Mike DeKalb", the new star right winger for the Blues.

NHL 95 also allowed you to play out an entire season, another excellent addition that only served to take up even more of my time.  I was working part time while living at home and attending the local community college, so virtually every free night and weekend was spent engaging in some intense NHL 95 action.  But as is often the case, life does get in the way as time passes and I slowly drifted away from the game after I moved out of the house.  I was more focused on my studies at film school, while the video game systems improved and became much more complicated.  I still busted out the old Genesis from time to time (those NHL 95 skills certainly didn't go away), but by the time I moved to Los Angeles, the old gaming console would end up spending its days boxed up in the closet.


As the 21st century unfolded, it should come as no surprise that a well-produced website would be the key to driving creativity, thereby stoking the flames of passion I once felt as young man.  Though the use of a video game as a tool to build a fictitious roster was still around and going strong, I once again found myself slightly bored by having to play out the actual games on my newest system, the Xbox 360.  Could I just do the "pre-production" work and leave it at that?  The web developers must have heard my cries...

12 May 2020

Hockey Road Trip: Mid-Atlantic Mission

In my head, it would probably go something like this:

Good afternoon, Mike.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to travel across several states in the Mid-Atlantic Region of the country over one week, visiting as many historical landmarks and state capitols as possible.  You'll also see a Washington Capitals game in-person, which would be Team 30 as part of "The Quest" to see a game in all 31 NHL arenas.

The obstacle you'll face along the way: the US government has instituted a "shutdown", causing many tourist attractions to remain closed throughout your trip.  The most notable of these will be ALL of the museums included in The Smithsonian Institution, though you should still be able to make the most of your time and enjoy yourself.

Your team will consist of the following "travel companions":

- Chad Smart, your longtime friend from college, who has accompanied you on nearly all of the road trips throughout "The Quest", but since he has already visited the region he will not need to stay with you the entire time.

- Charlene DeKalb, your new bride of less than one year, who has always wanted to visit Washington D.C., but also cannot stand being outside in cold weather, and this trip will take place during Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.

Key sightseeing targets will include: the memorials and monuments at the National Mall in Washington; the state capitols in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania; and the military history on display at both the Arlington National Cemetery and Gettysburg.

Your accommodations will be an Airbnb in the Maryland suburbs and luckily for you, Washington D.C. has a very extensive subway system that should get you all around the city very easily.  As an added bonus, your Airbnb host will drive you back and forth to the subway station each morning - and if she cannot, the station is only a short Lyft ride away from your lodging, so you will not need to rent a car for the first part of your journey.

The weather will not be ideal, as you will experience extremely cold temperatures for your stay in Washington, and severe rain as you drive toward the Atlantic coastline.  Be sure to pack up all of those thick clothes that you never get to wear in California and be off on your way.  Good luck, Mike!

For sure, it would be a treacherous mission - but I was up for the challenge!  We arrived at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport early on a cold Sunday evening, where our wonderful Airbnb host, Donna, picked us up and drove us 45 minutes south to her home.  It was a massive house with plenty of room to plan our entire trip, and Donna was very helpful with an assortment of maps and various tips to bear in mind while visiting Washington.

06 May 2020

One Memorable Night: I Lost on (Sports) Jeopardy!

Yep, that's me as a contestant on Sports Jeopardy!  May 17th, 2016 to be exact.  The culmination of a lifelong passion for sports and a longtime love of trivia brought me to the set of the short-lived show that beautiful spring day, and it was a day I'll never forget.  I was living in Culver City, California - home of Sony Pictures Studios, where the Jeopardy! shows are taped - and was even able to walk to the taping.  But in a way, it actually took a long time to get there...


As far back as the 1980's, I can remember my parents and I watching Jeopardy! while we ate dinner, which I've long credited with giving me a ridiculous amount of trivial knowledge and pop culture information.  Our family bonded over that dinner table, and I can remember my parents occasionally supplying extra facts during the commercial breaks if we had any questions about one of the clues presented earlier.  They began my love of trivia, and I'll always be grateful.

Then there was this very funny and clever music video, also released during my formative years:

I was a HUGE "Weird Al" Yankovic fan, and this song was one of my favorites.  The ironic part is that the first contestant in this video is from Carbondale, Illinois - a town where I went to college 15 years after the song was released.  But the first college I attended (Northern Illinois University in DeKalb) also gave me a chance to flex my trivia muscle as I would join several of my fellow classmates in our dormitory lounge to watch Jeopardy! nearly every night during my first year in school.

After finishing up with my film degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, I decided to move to Los Angeles in 2003 to pursue a job in the film industry.  My first roommate and I lived very close to Culver City, and he suggested I try out for the show not long after I moved in with him.  It seemed simple enough, but there was a lengthy process to it...

01 May 2020

Hockey Road Trip: The Prodigal Son Returns

After moving to Los Angeles in 2003, I always make it a point to go back to Illinois to visit my family over the Christmas break, where my Dad likes to greet me with the same expression: "The Prodigal Son Returns!"  My plans have gotten a slight tweak since I met my wife Charlene, when I also need to make time to see her family, who thankfully live nearby.  As a result, we've had the same ritual since we got together: spend Christmas day with her family, then fly home to visit my Dad on December 26.

Charlene has slowly been meeting members of my family each year, mostly at weddings and family gatherings, so when my Aunt Patty and Uncle Gary suggested we stay with them for a night around Christmas 2018, we gladly took them up on their offer.  Gary and Patty live in the suburb of Wentzville, not too far from the St. Louis airport, so we joined them on the night of the 26th before departing in the morning.  They have a huge house and we had a great time catching up over dinner, where something interesting happened...

Gary mentioned that one of his son's friends worked for the St. Louis Blues - Charlene and I were going to see a game the next night, and planned on buying tickets at the last minute before Gary stopped me to make a quick phone call.  Within minutes, he had arranged for us to receive free tickets through his contact - this trip was already off to a terrific start!


We left Gary and Patty fairly early in the morning and headed to nearby St. Charles, which has a wonderful historic downtown district and is famously known as the point at which Lewis and Clark began their expedition west.  We walked up and down the cobblestone streets, ducking into various shops and learning some history at the First Missouri State Capital State Historic Site.  We observed even more history by visiting the Lewis and Clark Boat House Museum, which details the legendary trip made by the Corps of Discovery after the Louisiana Purchase, led by the two famed explorers.

From there, we drove to St. Louis for a brief walk around the downtown area - unfortunately, the government was in the midst of a shutdown which had closed all national parks, including the St. Louis Arch.  But that wasn't going to stop us from exploring the grounds and taking plenty of pictures.

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