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.

22 November 2017

Hockey Road Trip: Northwest Holiday


After years of anticipation, I finally made my first trip to Canada in 2015 - and just as I had feared, I was eager to return almost immediately. At this point, I was just over halfway finished with my tour of all of the NHL arenas, but I still had six more Canadian cities to visit. The next trip would be the result of a scheduling quirk involving an American icon.

I’ve been a fan of Madonna and her music for as long as I could remember, a period spanning more than 30 years. I can vividly remember seeing her videos on MTV constantly, hearing her music on the radio, and just being kept updated on her whereabouts throughout my entire life - I even got to proudly cheer on my older sister as she finished second place in a talent show by lip-synching "Lucky Star"!

In the fall of 2015, Madonna embarked on a worldwide tour to celebrate the release of her latest album, Rebel Heart.  I quickly found Los Angeles on the tour schedule once the dates were announced, but was astonished by the exorbitant price of the tickets.  My travel companion Chad, who was also interested in witnessing this concert, suggested we check the rest of the tour schedule to see if Madonna would be performing in a city that was home to an NHL arena we had yet to visit.  But would we be in luck?

As it turned out, she'd be playing in Vancouver just after the hockey season started, and both the Canucks and the WHL's Vancouver Giants were in town during the same week.  As I continue to tour the continent to see these NHL arenas, I've made my best effort to see older arenas that hosted NHL teams in the past: thankfully for me, the Vancouver Giants play their home games in the Pacific Coliseum, the longtime home of the Canucks.  It was too perfect!

Quick backstory: my father served in the United States Navy for 25 years.  He travelled all over the world, and told me that THE most beautiful city he'd ever been to was Vancouver (he was there for Expo 86).  In fact, when I told him of my mission to see a game in every NHL arena, he was very excited about the idea of my visit to the beautiful surroundings in British Columbia.  I couldn't wait, so Chad and I quickly made our reservations and set off to the Great White North once again!

26 October 2017

Squire Report, Vol 3: History!


So much to talk about, so let's get right to it - the inaugural regular season has begun!!

HISTORY IN DALLAS

Yes, the 31st National Hockey League team played its first game in Dallas on Friday, October 7.  It was a hard-fought, up-tempo contest that saw Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turn in a dazzling performance, stopping 45 of 46 Dallas Stars shots to earn 1st Star of the Game.  Just when it seemed bleak in the 3rd period, the Knights found another hero in winger James Neal, who scored twice in the final 10 minutes to help carry Vegas to an improbable 2-1 win.  After all of the months of planning, it was amazing to see the team actually take the ice and come out of a very hostile environment with a tough road victory.  

To make matters even better, the Knights carried this momentum into Arizona the very next day - it was a tight-checking game and Vegas trailed 1-0 going into the late stages, before Nate Schmidt tied the game just after Fleury was pulled for an extra attacker with a little over a minute to play.  Building on his heroics from the opening game, James Neal would bury the OT winner and send the Coyotes fans home unhappy on the wrong end of a 2-1 defeat.  

Two wins in two road games.  Now it was time to head home, to face an adoring crowd in need of healing...

THE EMOTIONAL HOME OPENER


When I booked my flight and hotel room earlier this summer to see the first home game in Vegas Golden Knights history, there was no way I could imagine that I would be on hand for one of the most dramatic games one could possibly witness.  After the tragic events that rocked the city just nine days earlier, Las Vegas was now ready to throw all of their emotional support into their new hockey team, and the Knights pulled out all of the stops.

20 October 2017

Hockey Road Trip: All Up In Alberta


The Great White North.

It’s always been there, hovering above my home country like an angel looking down upon us - yet it seemed so distant for so many years. I knew I’d have to visit when I started these hockey trips, but it didn’t really sink in until I finally got my passport in 2013.

Now it was time to finally set foot in Canada.

Seven NHL cities to choose from: there was no priority placed on any of them, except one. The city of Edmonton had already announced that they were building a new home for the Oilers, which would open in the fall of 2016 and replace the historic confines of Rexall Place. I knew this had to be my first stop, as the arena's penultimate season was drawing to a close.

My travel companion Chad had just started a new job and wouldn’t be able to take any days off from work, which meant we had to see a weekend game. Of course this wasn’t a problem for me, as it would coincide with an opportunity for us to see a Hockey Night in Canada game on Saturday night, which I had always longed to do and specifically scheduled when planning this initial visit north.  Even better - the Oilers would be playing their provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames!

Since I had accumulated several vacation days and really needed the time away from work, I decided to go up a few days earlier, with the intent of traversing Alberta and seeing some WHL playoff games in person. I booked my flights, grabbed my passport and off I went!

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