Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Blackhawks fan in Vancouver: trip review

Pregame graphics on the ice at Rogers Arena, Vancouver

My trip to Vancouver was definitely my most anticipated trip, for a number of reasons. First, I was getting to see friends I had not seen in a long time in both Seattle and Vancouver - always a plus. I hadn't been to Seattle since 1989, and had never been to Vancouver - actually, I don't think I've been to Canada since I was, oh, two years old - and I was going to get to see hockey in the same venue where Olympic hockey played out. Lots of pluses, all around, so I was very eager for this trip.

My time in Seattle was altogether too short, made shorter by a late-evening flight arrival, and then I spent part of Wednesday morning driving around looking for a Best Buy where I could buy an upgrade card for my Garmin GPS. It hadn't occurred to me to check my Garmin before I left on my trip if it included maps for Canada (it didn't). On the bright side, my new upgrade card is good for all of North America, including the Caribbean, so I'm apparently all set for a while. I love my little GPS unit - most of the time. Sometimes GPS units take that "direct route" thing a little too seriously and take you in odd routes, but I digress.

The drive from Seattle to Vancouver is supposed to be gorgeous. I'll take everybody's word for it, because it rained most of the drive up, and snowed most of the way back. However, just after crossing the Canadian border (which took about all of 90 seconds), the sun broke out and I got some really beautiful vistas heading north into Vancouver during what passes for local rush hour. My first glimpses of the city were far off, temptingly pretty, and after driving through residential areas, suddenly crested a ridge on Granville, and there was my first proper view of the city.

Yes, that's a Starbucks on the right, and no, I didn't stop. I stuck to Tim Horton's and Blenz and other local coffee shops for my caffeine fixes in Vancouver. I can get Starbucks at home!

I managed to get into town just in time to see a pretty good sunset. I swear I fell instantly in love with Vancouver the minute I was crossing the Granville Bridge into the city. Vancouver is ringed by mountains, of course, but the city itself is somewhat hilly, sprawled around a bay/harbor, not unlike Sydney or San Francisco. It's a very modern place: the architecture is absolutely studded with glass, which not only allows its residents eye-popping views of their beautiful city, but also creates a glistening, futuristic look. At sunset, the city is it up, shimmering citadels lining the shore, spectacular. I would call it one of the top five entrances I've ever had into a city: a moment that seared itself into my memory. 

 Science World dome on the harbor

Of course, the Vancouver skyline is more familiar than most would realize, since so many movies and TV shows are shot here. The first night, I was too tired from 24 hours of traveling to do much exploring, although I did drive around the city a bit. I also had some fabulous tapas at a Spanish restaurant called La Bodega (1277 Howe St), which was a short walk from my hotel. If you go, try the Plato Variado, an assortment of their cold appetizers - I thought the Mejillones Picantes were especially good. I would've eaten there every night, it was so good, but hey, I'm in a new city, I have to keep trying new places!

Unfortunately, the weather wasn't particularly cooperative, but that didn't keep me from exploring the city and the suburbs a bit on Thursday. Did some shopping and some sight-seeing, but didn't feel much like museums or the like. I had planned to spend Thursday exploring some of the local natural attractions and maybe driving to Whistler, but rain kept me close to the city. 

View of Vancouver as seen from Granville Island

Thursday, I went to Granville Island - a collection of shops, market and artists' studios - with a friend, and we ate at a restaurant called The Sandbar, which was located under Granville Bridge with great views of the city. Excellent seafood - thumbs up for their mahi-mahi with a chipolte sauce - and good wine.

Did you know British Columbia is home to wineries? Several, in fact. At The Sandbar, I enjoyed a really good Red Rooster Riesling - I think that if you're going to travel, you should try out local vintages, not stuff you can get at home. Red Rooster was so yum I had it again on Saturday; unfortunately, I didn't have much luck tracking down a bottle or two to take home.

Also on Granville Island: one of Rogers' Chocolates retail outlets, close to The Sandbar. Rogers' celebrated their 125th anniversary in 2010, and let me tell you - their chocolates are delicious. I just might have to order some of them by mail order, they are that good. Make sure to try their Empress Squares and Victoria Creams!

I found out that you could take tours of Rogers Arena for CA$12. Tours run twice a week (Wednesdays and Fridays), three times a day, arena schedule permitting. If you tour in the summer, you'll get to see the Canucks' or visitors' locker rooms; during the hockey season, they show you a video of the locker rooms instead, because the team is usually using the facilities during tour times.

The team store is located at a corner of the arena, and it's open every day. Tours depart from the upper level of the store, which opens into the main concourse of the arena.

Review of the store:  LOTS of selections, notably in their broad range of T-shirts, hats, and oh yes, women's gear! You may remember myself, Chicks Who Give A Puck, and other female fans/blogs supporting a wider variety/range of women-targeted gear. Well, the female Canucks fans are very lucky, because they have tons to choose from. Despite the store's odd configuration (small area downstairs; V-shaped shopping area upstairs), there is plenty to choose from here. I ended up with a team puck, and a hat with the orca "C" logo. (I bought one, ended up getting it signed by several guys on the team; then had to buy myself another one.) I would've bought the 3-pack of Christmas ornament mini-pucks (and used stickers to make them into Blackhawks pucks!) but they were really expensive and there was no choice to buy just a single one.


Rogers Arena (original General Motors Place) was opened in 1995, original built to be the home of both the Vancouver Canucks and the Vancouver Grizzles (NBA). The Grizzles lasted six seasons in Vancouver before relocating to Nashville; the Canucks still call Rogers home.

Rogers seats 18,860 for ice hockey and 19,700 for basketball, including 88 luxury suites, 12 hospitality suites and almost 2,200 club seats. Rogers is also known for having some of the most expensive ticket prices in the NHL - the very-top-row seats that set us back CA$125 apiece at Rogers would cost somewhere between $40-65 in Chicago. And although the Canucks have never brought home the Stanley Cup in 40 years of team history, their hockey fans are as die-hard as any in Canada, and Canucks tickets are hard to come by.

The tour started up in the Best Buy Club at the top level of the arena. In addition to the private boxes, there are two club/restaurant areas with season ticket holder seating - the Best Buy Club and the Wiser's Centre Ice Grill. These STHs include some food and drinks, but I think you were also required to buy a certain amount more per game. There is also a private dining area called the Captain's Club that you can buy membership for.

We got to walk through the press boxes (both home and visiting) as well as spend some time in the GM's box, located between the two press suites. The tour then showed us one of the private suites, which were decorated in pictures of Canucks team history. The pictures in the suite we went into caught my eye, because they featured Brent Sopel, who used to play for the Canucks, and who spent the past few years with the Blackhawks before being traded to Atlanta this past summer.

An interesting view down to the ice level: they were folding out the seats for the hockey game, something you don't see every day:

We walked around to the other side of the arena and got to see the broadcast gondola, where the radio and TV broadcasters are during a game. Below that was Wiser's, which gave us a really nice view of the center ice emblem, and the start of that morning's practice.

The tour was very thorough, but the best part was we got to watch about 20 minutes of the Canucks practice. Then our guide took us down to the service corridor level - again, we didn't get to see either team's locker rooms, but hey, I got to sit on a Zamboni - actually, not technically a Zamboni, I think they were Olympia brand. Close enough; I was happy. We also got to watch the practice from right behind one of the goal nets - we were standing behind Corey Schneider - for another 10 or 15 minutes, and I got a used practice puck! 

Sorry, no practice pictures - we weren't supposed to/allowed to take pics of the players during practice. (I sooooo wanted pictures of Schneider's goalie mask!)

Saturday, I spend the day with friends playing tourist around the city, which was a lot of fun, and had lunch at an outstanding brewpub in Gastown called Steamworks Brewing Company. Get the Beer Soup, and the Brew House Burger - both wow.

Saturday night, of course, was the big event - the Chicago Blackhawks vs Vancouver Canucks matchup! I have to say that although I got plenty of ribbing about wearing my Blackhawks shirt/jersey around the city, the Vancouver fans were mostly pretty cool. I didn't have one bad/jackass-level incident on this trip (unlike MN or TN), which was especially gratifying, considering how heated the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry has become. But there were lots of little verbal jabs and comments about my team attire everywhere I went. (One waiter we had made so many "ha ha just kidding" cracks that I seriously inspected my food when it arrived.) If you're wearing an opposing team's jersey/gear, brace yourself for it. Just because they are so gosh-darn NICE doesn't make the insults disappear.

My favorite moment? I got to meet Aaron Douglas from Battlestar Gallactica during one of the game intermissions. (Yeah, me - huge sci fi nerd glee.) He was so nice. We took pictures with him. Said he loved meeting fans, said science fiction fans were awesome, and yes ... he teased me for being a Blackhawks fan. But he was so cool, really nice guy, totally down to earth. (Hey, that's a given - he's both a sci fi actor guy and he's a hockey fan. Enough said.)

Anyway, I know you want the hockey pictures, so here they are - if you want to see more, go to my Vancouver set on Flickr:

Corey Crawford led team onto the ice. He won in goal, 7-1. 

Alex Burrows, #14 of the Canucks
(Gotta have at least one shot of the opposition!)

Team warming up. A few of the Blackhawks are from the Vancouver area, so the Cup made its rounds here this summer with Troy Brouwer, Brent Seabrook, Andrew Ladd (now ATL), and Colin Fraser (now EDM). Duncan Keith is also from British Columbia, but a town called Penticton, a few hours away.

The game had special meaning for Troy Brouwer, whose dad was at the game. His father had suffered a brain aneurysm in the final days of the Blackhawks' regular season. The Blackhawks-Canucks game was the first game his dad had been able to see live since the previous spring. Brouwer scored one of the goals during the game. 

Captain Jonathan Toews during warmup. You don't hear about this kind of thing on the sports channels, because they're usually busy doing pregame chat during warmups, but as the Blackhawks skated off the ice after warmups, Toews tossed his stick up into the crowd of Blackhawks fans who were clustered around the visitors' bench/entry.


Jack Skille, #20. I like getting these player profile pics. 
So far, I have good ones of Hossa and Hjalmarsson; now Skille.

Patrick Kane. One one of his skates around, he slapshot the puck into the glass right above my head. (Yes, I was startled - I saw him make a move with his stick, and then *smack!*) I was the only Blackhawks-jersey-wearing fan standing among a bunch of Canucks fans on that stretch of glass, so that was a fun moment. 

Our seats, very last row, 300s. I don't think there's any SRO in this arena, at least, not that I noticed. If this was the UC, there would be an upper concourse above us where the SRO was; here, it was just walls. You can't see it too well in this picture, but there's railings between the rows because the arena is so steep on the upper levels, with little warnings on them to please not lean forward because it obstructs other people's views.

Home team taking the ice

They unfurled these screens during pre-game introduction. They looked very fine/thin, but were substantial enough to project images onto during the pre-game video montage. There were two on each end, it looked pretty cool, actually.

Honoring Pat Burns with a moment of silence.

National Anthem. Pretty awesome listening to almost 19,000 fans singing their national anthem together. (Yes, I learned the words to "O, Canada" so I could sing along, too.) Notice that the seats were full for the start of the game.

Patrick Sharp took the first penalty; he got visited by the famous Green Men (and two Little Green Men). The Green Men were a little lonely - Chicago only took 3 penalties all night.

Late in the 3rd, right before Vancouver scored. (Score was 7-0 Chicago at that point.) Notice how much emptier the place is. Some people just didn't come back after the second period; the people started leaving in bunches around five minutes into the third.

Hawks win! Hawks win! 7-1.

 * * *

Thank you, Vancouver. I had a lot of fun, loved your city, and I cannot wait to visit again!

Final picture to leave you with: Merry Christmas, Canadian style:

TeamVancouver Canucks
ArenaRogers Arena
800 Griffiths Way
Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 6G1

Seating capacity for hockey: 18,860
Cost of ticketsKnown for some of the priciest tickets in the league. Expect to pay CA$100+ for high-300's in the end zones.
Ease of accessAirports:
Vancouver International (YVR) - approx. 25 minutes

One of the Skytrain's stations, Stadium/Chinatown, is directly adjacent to the arena; and the arena is also on bus lines. There are a few parking garages in the area, but most of the streets surrounding the arena are one-way, and sometimes car GPS can lead you in unexpected directions on streets in the area. It is simply easier to walk or take public transportation to the stadium on game days/nights.
Parking costsVariety of parking choices in the area; prices vary (starting at CA$10+).
Practice facility
Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre at the University of British Columbia
6066 Thunderbird Boulevard
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3 Canada
(604) 822-6121
Located approximately 13 km / 20 minutes west of Rogers Arena. Call for schedules. (Practices held at Rogers are not open to the public; although if you take a tour of Rogers Arena, you might get to see part of a practice.) There has been ongoing discussions about building a dedicated practice facility for the team much closer to Rogers.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaNot many options within a one-block range of the arena. Better to either choose to eat at the arena; or eat before you arrive. The "Gastown" and Chinatown areas of Vancouver are both within a few blocks' walk north of the arena and are home to many excellent dining choices.
Local hotelsThere are plenty of hotels in the popular West End district and Downtown areas. I stayed at The Inn at False Creek and absolutely loved it; the hotel was in walking distance (across the bridge) from Granville Island, and easy walking distance to the entertainment districts (ie. Granville St., Robson St.). If you're looking for an upscale hotel or major chain (ie. Hyatt, Westin, Fairmont), you will end up staying on the Coal Harbor side of West End - hotels there have some spectacular views of Vancouver Harbor, Stanley Park and the mountains north of the city.
Arena exteriorRogers is directly across the street from BC Place; several high-traffic streets circle both arenas.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openNot much to do if you arrive early - any sort of seating is nonexistent; and not really much in terms of bars/restaurants within a 1-block radius of the arena. Two blocks north of the arena on Abbott St. is a Starbucks. However, the area is booming with new construction, so I would expect that the immediate area gains new choices soon.
Arena facilitiesATMs
Arena dining optionsOne of the widest and varieties of selections I've seen so far. LOTS of excellent choices including healthy options. Look for the stand that sells fresh-made doughnut holes - wickedly addictive.
Team store(s)Arena store (southeast corner  of arena at corner of Abbott St & Georgia St) is open before game time. Fantastic selection of team items.
Camera policyFrom Rogers Arena website: "For hockey games there is NO flash photography or video recording. Any cameras with detachable lens or any professional lens that exceeds 75 mm will be confiscated or taken to our Guest Services Centres. Any items stored at the Guest Services Centre is at your own risk."
SignsSigns allowed. No facilities on-site for signs; make your own at home.
Allowed to go down to glass for pre-game picturesYes. Fans were allowed all the way to front row. If you are facing the team benches, the visitors bench is the one on the left.
Special notesMy standard for judging other arenas' pre-game video production/getting the fans amped up is based on the United Center, which I'd rate as "10". I would also give Vancouver's a "10". They have pair of super-thin column-style screens which get dropped down for the pre-game, and they project a variety of pictures and videos of the current team and team history of them. It's pretty spectacular, and the best pre-game warmup show I've seen outside of the UC. Worth making sure you're at the area, and in your seat early enough to witness.

New outside the arena this year is a statue commemorating Roger Neilson and the famous "towel incident" in the 1982 Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. The Canucks would eventually go on to the Finals that year, and "rally towels" would become a motivational symbol not just for the Canucks but across the NHL.
Good experience for families?Yes, although expensive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wrap-up post: Trip to Nashville 11/13

The past few weeks I've been traveling and working quite a bit, so I haven't gotten to all my updates - as a result, I'm posting twice tonight to bring things up to speed. After Minneapolis, I've had two more road trips, Nashville and Vancouver.

Nashville is a 90-minute flight or a several-hour drive from Chicago. As a relatively close hop, it's one of those markets (like Minneapolis) where Blackhawks fans tend to road trip en masse. I actually saw way more people in Blackhawks jerseys walking around the downtown district near the arena throughout the day - at least until game time.

From the airport to downtown, it's only perhaps 15 minutes, and there's a number of hotels within walking distance or a short cab ride from Bridgestone Arena.

This is Broadway - a street lined with honky-tonks, restaurants, tourists, shops (note: only tourists wear cowboy hats and boots), and colorful characters. And some of those colorful characters' colorful pets.

I had lunch at a Nashville bar-b-que institution, Jack's BBQ (416 Broadway), which was worth every single minute spent waiting in line, and where I spotted this neon NHL mask. Jack's is delicious. Highly recommend it if you're heading to Nashville for any reason!


I love country music, so I loved seeing the "Hockey tonkin'" sign on the Bridgestone.

Bridgestone Arena, main gate, with "Smashville" sign, before gates opened.

Bridgestone, before the warmups

Pre-game introductions.

Nashville is one of the few teams that has not only ice girls,
but "ice dancers" (cheerleaders) also.


Forget the Zamboni, I want to drive this bad boy.
A Preds fan told me they can fire T-shirts as high as the upper 300's from it.

Pekka Rinne, the Predator's Finnish goalie. Rinne made a splash in the Central division the past two years, going 52-29-15/.917/2.38 GAA and 58-32-16/.911/2.53 for the Predators. He faced off against fellow Finnish goaltender Antti Niemi when Nashville and Chicago faced off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring; the Predators' tough play and steady goaltending almost won the series.

Tomas Kopecky, Fernando Pisani in warmups

Jordin Tootoo, a popular player on the Preds, during warmups. Whenever he took a shift, you could hear fans in attendance tooting train whistles. (toot-toot, get it?)

Predators win in a shootout, 4-3.

Overall, had a pretty fun time in Nashville. The locals were mostly great, the restaurants were awesome, and the hockey crowd at Bridgestone was highly energetic. Enjoying 70 degree weather in mid-November didn't hurt, either. I look forward to another opportunity to take in more games in Nashville - hopefully with more time to spend exploring the city a bit, as I didn't have a chance to see a whole lot this trip.

See my full set of pictures from Nashville on my Flickr stream.

Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN
Home of the Nashville Predators (NHL)

TeamNashville Predators (NHL)
ArenaBridgestone Arena
501 Broadway
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 770-2000

Seating capacity for hockey: 17,113
Cost of ticketsSeason tickets start as low as $19/seat.

Regular season tickets start around $30-35 and go up from there. One of the better bargains around the league.
Ease of accessAirport:
Nashville International (BNA) - approximately 9 miles / 15 minutes

Public transportation (bus) available to arena.
Parking costsParking available in several garages within walking distance of the arena. Directly across the street most expensive (around $20). Nashville is easily navigated by car. Shuttle service to some outlying parking, including parking across the river at LP Field (home of the Tennessee Titans).
Practice facilityCentennial Sportsplex
222 25th Avenue North
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 862-8480

Practices at Centennial Sportsplex are open to the public; check the Predators website for details.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaNearly unlimited. Bridgestone Arena is directly adjacent to a stretch of Broadway loaded with restaurants and honky-tonks. Plenty of dining options in the area, but opt for BBQ, a Southern specialty. (I particularly enjoyed Jack's; the wait was worth it.)
Local hotelsHilton Nashville Downtown is directly across the street; a lot of teams stay there because it's readily adjacent to the arena. (This also makes it easy to get autographs from visiting teams' players.)

Within walking distance: Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Renaissance, Hometown Suites, Best Western Downtown, Doubletree, more. Plenty of other options around town if you have a car or don't mind public transportation.
Arena exteriorNortheast corner of the building is the main/plaza entrance with the building's iconic tower & saucer look.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openThe Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum is directly across the street. There's also a few parks, plenty of honky-tonks with live music to be had for the price of a drink, the State Capital is within a few blocks, and plenty of shops in the area.
Arena facilitiesATMs
Arena dining optionsVarious food stands around the arena, typical burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, etc.
Team store(s)Main store located near main entrance. Selection of jerseys, T-shirts, etc. Worth noting is they not only carry Predators jerseys and pucks but many other teams as well. "All hockey is green to us," one staff joked.
Camera policyAllowed. Not sure on restrictions; I had no problem with my camera (4" lens)
SignsAllowed; bring your own - no sign-making facilities.
Allowed to go down to glass for pre-game picturesYes. When facing the benches, home team is on the left.
Special notesUnusual configuration of arena means one end zone is larger than the other.
Visiting fan experience notesLive band plays during intermissions; platform built into arena above the 100's on one end.

Team is unusual in that it has both ice girls and cheerleaders.

If you're looking for the "prime" hometown fan experience, try to get tickets close to 303, known as "Cellblock 303". Known for leading cheering and being very noisy during games.

Overall, as a visiting fan, I had a really good time in Nashville. If you stick close to the arena, it's touristy and occasionally cheesy, but you can enjoy good hockey, good music, and have a good time. There's more to do in the city beyond Broadway, though.

The Predators' goal celebration song is "I Like It, I Love It, I Want Some More Of It". It is then followed by a bit of Rock n' Roll Part 2 with the fans chanting "Hey, you suck!" a couple times. The "you suck" part is more AHL/ECHL than NHL, but it's so goofy that it's fun in its own way.

My only bad experience this trip was after Nashville won (that wasn't the bad part), I was standing near the end of an empty row, taking pictures as they announced the stars of the game. The post-goal/win song was still going on. A Preds fan snuck up behind me, and from a distance of no more than an inch or two, screamed in my ear "You suck!" along to the post-goal chant. I was so startled I almost dropped my camera (I use a pro-grade camera, so I'm not talking some cheapo pocket camera), and when I whipped around, the jerk was booking away from me as fast as possible. Not very cool. Look, you want to insult me for being a fan of the opposing team? I can take it. If you're funny about it, I might even have a sense of humor about it. But screaming in somebody's ear? Even worse, when they're holding expensive camera equipment and you might cause them to drop it? Seriously not cool. Every fan base has a few idiots; I've been fortunate so far to mostly not witness them.

But, other than that tool, it was a very pleasant weekend in Nashville.
Good experience for families?Yes. Nashville fans love to bring their kids out.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Preview: HBO's Winter Classic 24/7 show, Pens vs Caps

Whether or not you're a Capitals or Penguins fan, the opening words of this preview speak to the beauty of the game of hockey. It's a nice preview of the Caps vs Pens 24/7 reality show that will be playing on HBO this fall, leading up to the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh.

If you've been living under a rock, or just aren't as familiar with the NHL yet, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are Eastern Conference rivals - the rivalry fed by facing off against one another repeatedly not only in cross-EC matchups, but they've knocked one another out of the Stanley Cup playoff runs in the past dozen years. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 after beating the Capitals in the Conference Semi-finals (second round), for example. 

Sidney Crosby (captain, Penguins) and Alex Ovechkin (captain, Capitals) are also two of the highest-profile and most-talented players currently playing professional hockey. Crosby is seen as an aw-gee-shucks, clean-cut Canadian player - the "Next One", who scored the "Golden Goal" for Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics.

Ovechkin is a study in contrasts to him - a bit dark, a bit rough, but humorous; raised in tough circumstances in Moscow, and now lightning up the North American hockey stage as he seeks his own elusive Stanley Cup win. Ovechkin - tabbed "the GR8", in reference to the number he wears on his back as well as his skill level - is widely regarded as the best hockey player in the world right now.

HBO has promised that the series will take a wider look at the two teams than just their respective dynamic captains. Hockey fans certainly hope that is the case, as both Crosby and Ovechkin have received tons of publicity over the past few years, leading many fans to be weary of both. The two teams are both loaded with talent, and the 24/7 series will not only offer the opportunity to get to know many more of these players, but to also allow people a more in-depth look at the sport of hockey.

More so than any other professional sport, hockey is the ultimate team sport. While a single player can be a huge motivational fulcrum for a team, it is impossible for a single player to muscle their team through to a championship, or even just a playoff berth, on their own shoulders. And it is not simply about what happens on the ice; it is also about what it takes off the ice - as a family; as a community - to make somebody into a hockey player. The time, the commitment, the dedication. So hopefully, HBO can really give a sense of that over the course of the series. 

The NHL 24/7 show debuts on HBO on December 15th and will also be available via HBO On Demand.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons from the past week, and hope looking forward for the Blackhawks

Wednesday night should've been a victory. Not an easy one, perhaps, because the Devils have shown that they can play with 2/3 of their roster against a team like the Penguins and not be beaten into submission. But it should've been a victory nonetheless; all the signs pointed to it being as such.

The Devils were coming into the United Center at the end of a 5-game road trip and on a losing season that had seen just three wins: an October 13 OT win vs Buffalo; an October 21 win against Montreal; and the October 29 win against Anaheim. The team is missing their top forward and top D-man, been dealing with one injury after another, and add to that the burdens of their own salary cap issues and the $100-million man wreaking havoc on the nightly roster has seen the team limping its way through the first month of the season. Through the first 13 games of the season, the Devils had eked out just an average 1.54 goals per game (they've been shut out once, and scored only 1 goal six times).

In other words, a good rousing, butt-kicking first period should've given plenty of momentum to carry the Blackhawks to a victory. Even with the inconsistent play that has plagued the team for the past month, this should've been the kind of situation that wasn't necessarily a "gimme", but certainly didn't look like it was set up to just hand the worst team in the league two free points.

Of course, the Hawks looked so good in Minnesota last Saturday that it was easy to believe that the team was finally starting to click. They pickpocketed the Wild left and right, owned the Minnesota zone, and showed the prolonged domination that made last season so exciting.

Monday's game against New York could've/should've been a win, too; they outshot the Rangers by a 5-3 margin. But it was another case of couldn't get it done, which has been a little too common this fall for most Blackhawks' fans liking.

Wednesday's game against the Devils started out sluggishly. Perhaps the Blackhawks were a victim of thinking - expecting - that they would just roll right over the Devils. Unfortunately, this is something we have seen all too frequently last season: the Hawks have opened a game with lackluster play and then scrambled to catch up. Sometimes they've won and sometimes they lost, but the lament heard repeatedly was "play 60".  The fans said it, the coach said it, the players said it.

The problem is that the Blackhawks didn't play 60, not every game, not even through the playoffs, and they still walked off with the Stanley Cup. 

So maybe, somewhere deep in the unconscious, is the thought of, "Well, it managed to work last year..."

It's not last year anymore, though, and this isn't last year's squad.

The guys who are showing up and appearing to make the most effort - even if they're a bit sloppy about it - aren't all the star players. Sure, you have Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, bright stars in the dark nights. But you also have Jake Dowell, willingly grinding away every night with grit and determination. You have Viktor Stalberg storming the net in a flash of speed. Even Nick Boynton, who has been slammed for some poorly-timed penalties and stick handling, should at least be recognized for his effort, turning into this year's Brent Sopel, with the second highest tally in the league for blocked shots. You have Rockford call ups, giving it their all each night they're granted play, in the effort to impress enough to stay up with the show.

You also have Patrick Kane, who seems to have left his "A" game on a tour bus this summer, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who's played lost without his usual defensive partner. You have John Scott, who nobody can seem to figure out what, exactly, he's doing on the ice, because it isn't blocking and it isn't fighting. Even minus his absences from injury, Dave Bolland has been nowhere near what his play was last season. Jonathan Toews has been making a lot of effort, but aside from his league-leading faceoff wins (196 at 58.3%) and being second in the league for takeaways (18), has had a lackluster opening month. Even Duncan Keith, the team's ironman, is showing the strain of the workload - his giveaways are worst in the league (23) although he has 17 takeaways (tied for 3rd in league) to balance that out.

Watching training camp was enough to give hope to the new season. The team is loaded with talent. The new guys looked like they had been around the veteran players before. Even those guys who ended up being shipped off to Rockford looked pretty exciting.

The returning players from last season's team are tired of talking about the Cup, but now the whispers of a Cup hangover have become more strongly voiced. The team had a shorter summer off and it was busy and exciting. The new guys have to come into town and hear ad naseum about what an awesome team last season's squad was, and try to live up to that.

As a whole, they could be forgiven for wishing it were all so easy as flipping a switch or the raising of a banner to the rafters that marked a clean-cut change between two seasons; that people would stop talking about last year and reminding them that they're defending champions. They're no doubt proud to be that; but even the best praise in the world becomes tiresome when repeatedly heaped upon you.

The Hawks lost three top players to extended injuries within the first month. This has clearly hurt their game, but there's a lot of inconsistencies across the lineup.

Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times compiled these stats today, as an illustration of how mind-blowingly erratic the season has been thus far:
• The Hawks have a .333 winning percentage when trailing first, but only a .556 winning percentage when scoring first.
 • When the Hawks outshoot their opponent, they are 2-4; when the Hawks have been outshot, they're 5-3-1.
• As a team at the United Center, they're minus-8; on the road, they're even.
• Leading after the first period, the Hawks are 2-2; leading after the second, they're 5-2.
• In one-goal games, the Hawks are 4-4-1.
• The Hawks have allowed 32 goals at even strength while scoring just 26.
• As of Thursday, the Hawks had the NHL's third-best power play, converting 25% of the time.

So, what's going on with the team? Why so much struggle and inconsistency?

It's easy to blame it on "Cup hangover", but there's more to it. Coach Quenneville has been juggling the lines (no surprise there), working to find chemistry and see who works together well.  Training camp is only a couple of short weeks before it rolls into preseason games and then the primary season, so with so much turnover on the team, it's inevitable that the chemistry is not there right off the bat.

Part of it, too, is for the players to be learning each others' styles and rhythm of play. You see it happening with bad plays, but you also see them learning when things happen like one of the players makes a rush down the ice, then checks to see where the rest of the team is and waits for them to catch up. Sometimes, those players need to just throw it on the net. Maybe it'll go in and maybe it'll be a rebound, but you're never going to score by only holding on to the puck and shooting when the odds are in your favor.

The team is loaded with talent - yes, even the guys who are busy riding the Rockford Express or filling out the fourth line have plenty. They wouldn't be in Chicago otherwise.  But talent alone can't win the games, although one talented player making extra effort can certainly turn the tide, as witnessed with Marian Hossa making game-momentum-changing efforts in some of the games before his injury.

Based on post-practice interviews, Coach Q has sat the team down for talks in the past couple of days. Fans: Quenneville is to be trusted; he's worked magic with this team for the past couple of years and the fanbase needs more faith that he can do it again.

While I wouldn't call Jonathan Toews "relaxed" in the post-practice interviews today, he was at least smiling at times, which is a vast improvement over his post-game interviews from a week ago after the Oilers game, where he grimly set his lips together and admitted he didn't want to say too much for fear of saying something he might regret. There is nobody harder on themselves on the team than Toews, who is the kind of player who doesn't like to lose, and who has clearly been incredibly frustrated by the first few weeks of play.

A day or two ago, after that loss to New Jersey, I would've thought that perhaps nothing would shake the other players out of the apparent complacency than to have Toews have a ripping, let-the-emotions out, put-some-fire-in-your-belly kind of discussion with his teammates. I don't know if Toews is the type to lead via pep talk or simply by force of example. He was frequently the last one to leave the ice during training camp or during practices. And he is always just as intense in practices as he is during games, but he also can cut up and make jokes during practices, too. The intensity is always lurking there, though - whether it's taking the extra time to work on faceoffs with one of the rookies, or shooting dozens of pucks into an empty net to perfect a shot.

Nobody on the team faces more pressure this season than Toews. He's the leader and the prime example. This year, he was showered in accolades, from a gold medal for his home country at the Olympics, to Stanley Cup silver - he had a building and a lake named for him, even. He is the most public face of the Blackhawks and it's hard to remember sometimes that he's only 22. As the type of player who is his own worst critic, there has to be no doubt that he is acutely aware of the intensity of the focus on him as the leader of this team this season, and that has got to be influencing his performance, at least a little bit.

My prediciton is for the next three weeks for the Blackhawks to be cathartic. It starts tonight and Saturday with the Atlanta roadtrip. The current Blackhawks and the ex-Hawks-turned-Thrashers are getting together for dinner; no doubt there will be far less talk about hockey, and much more about just enjoying time together as friends.

Then the Blackhawks face off against Atlanta at 7pm ET tomorrow night. There's been lots of good-natured smack talk on both sides of the ice, and the players all mean it when they say it will be a fun game. It's always fun to play with your friends, even if they're now wearing different colors on their jerseys. (Atlanta fans, if you don't sell out the Philips Center for this one, I'll be amazed.) Both teams need the points, however, so expect to see a good contest.

The Blackhawks have had some time to rest and practice this week, and that schedule repeats next week, with games on Sunday, Wednesday, and then back to back weekend contests. Hossa will be back in the mix and Bolland will possibly be ready as the team prepares for the Circus Trip.

The Circus Trip - dubbed as such because it is the annual 2-week stretch when the circus comes to the United Center, forcing the Blackhawks and the Bulls out onto the road for the duration - is going to be important this year. Landing after this rough start to the season, but with still plenty of games left in the schedule, it could not be any more timely. Last season, the team talked about how important the time on the road was for building team comraderie. Surely the Mario Kart will come out. Patrick Kane's birthday falls the night they play Calgary, so perhaps the boys will have a bit a night out in Vancouver after the Canucks game. They're going to face the Sharks the night before Thanksgiving (a game for which I have no doubt that Niemi will be in net) and then the holiday weekend is spent playing the other California teams.

Last season, the team was dominant at home, but they played pretty good on the road, too. Players late in the season were quoted as saying that they tended to play a little different on the road: less need to impress the home crowds; and more basic, simple, straightforward hockey.

The mantra for successful hockey remains the same: keep it clean and simple. Get the puck on the net. Crash and look for rebounds.

Can they remember that philosophy, and get back to basics?

Here's hoping that the men of winter can find their focus in the weeks to come. Don't hit the panic button quite yet.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

HockeyBroad goes Wild! Errr, goes to the Wild!

This weekend, I did my first road trip for hockey. I've been to quite a few baseball parks over the year - spring training ones especially - but this is the first season that I've decided to really start working on my hockey arena "bucket list".

This is what my list looks like so far; those cities with team icons are the cities where I have attended an NHL game. Of course, I have been to many games at the United Center now. I have also been to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals at the Verizon Center, and now, the Wild at the Xcel. This map will be updated several times this year.

The Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul is home to the MN Wild. It's a good-looking building on the outside, but inside is a really nice hockey arena, with wide concourses that allow you to keep an eye inside the playing arena from almost anywhere in the building. Like the team it hosts, the Xcel is 10 years old, and the arena seats 18,064 for hockey games. It's not surprising to know that this arena is consistently ranked for "Best Stadium Experience" in ESPN polls.

The 100-level concourse near the main entrance. Notice all the jerseys up on the wall above the private suite level. Also, you can't really tell much from this picture, but the interior wall on the left is open to views of the inner arena, which really makes the place feel very wide-open. It also makes you feel less like you're missing any of the game if you are out in the concessions area.

It was the night before Halloween, so fans came out in costumes.

A view into one of the suites at the top of the 100 level. 

Pre-game, view of the ice from one of the corners.

Team captain, Mikko Koivu #9, who was on the bronze-winning 2010 Finnish Olympic men's hockey team. The Wild sent three players to the Finnish team for the Olympics, the most from any single NHL team.

Primary goalie Niklas Bäckström - Bäckström was the backup goalie to Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames) for the bronze-winning 2010 Finnish men's hockey team at the Olympics in Vancouver. 

Backup goalie José Théodore, who won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy last year

John Madden #11 during pre-game warmups. Madden spent 10 years with the New Jersey Devils, and won his third Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. He is a very consistent, hard-working player; I was glad that we had him on the team last year.

During the pre-game warmup, you could see various Blackhawks players greeting him with smiles. I captured this shot just a second too late to show Duncan Keith (2) sharing grins with him.

Fans watching the pre-game warmup skate. The Minnesota fans were for the most part really, really great. I expected - and got - some teasing wearing the Blackhawks sweater. People were very friendly and the whole arena had a great social atmosphere. Hockey is taken very seriously in Minnesota - it's the "State of Hockey", after all - and the fans were pretty welcoming. 

The National Anthem being sung. It was easy to pick out Blackhawks fans in the audience because they were cheering during the anthem. (psst, that's a UC tradition, other arenas don't do that... respect the local traditions.) 

Player benches right before faceoff. Notice the two guys dressed as the Blues Brothers on the Jumbotron, as it was the Halloween game. At the Wild games, they have people start off the game saying "Let's play hockey!"  These guys were chosen that evening for the annoucement.

A view of the arena banners from my seat (section 205, row 1). Yes, it does say "Wild Karoke" on the Jumbotron, and yes, that was what they were doing complete with in-game arm/dance moves during a commercial break during one of the periods.

Lots of Chicago fans in attendance for the game. 
The person near bottom center is holding up a sign that says "Thunder Bay Loves Sharp".

Troy Brouwer gets one in to put the Blackhawks on the board first.

When the Wild scored a goal, the corner that looked like a lighthouse put out smoke. I wish I'd known/seen that one of the interior corners was an organ shaped like a zamboni, but I have the feeling that I'll be back to see another game in Minneapolis one day. Really enjoyed the atmosphere at the game.

Tomas Kopecky high-fives Marty Turco after the Blackhawks win, 3-1. If you're going to another barn to see your team play, it's nice to see them come home with a win.

Tom Reid's Hockey City Pub, where I met up with friends pre- and post-game. Pure hockey awesomeness, and the burgers were really good, too. Tom Reid was an NHL player back in the 1960s and 1970s, playing for the Blackhawks for 1-1/2 seasons and then the MN North Stars for the rest of his career (10 seasons). If you're a hockey fan, then this is a great place to hang out on game day, or any time you need a little hockey.

Hockeyween isn't complete without the Hanson Brothers. Seen at Tom Reid's, and they were sitting behind the visitor's bench for the Blackhawks vs. Wild game.

The hot new trend in hockey costumes: Green Men from Vancouver.

The boards advertising behind Marty Turco stretching pre-game says it all:
It's better at the game.

 * * *

The only exception to two fun days in Minneapolis was when I had made a quick stop at a Target to pick up a quickie addition to make a "costume". (I got little red sparkly devil horns.) It's an incident that took maybe all of five seconds but is still bugging me four days later.  Some random guy decided to make some really, really nasty comment to me (I'm not going to repeat it here) - actually, he wasn't making it "to" me, he addressed his two little kids while staring pointedly at me, his expression nasty and bitter - and he said it loud enough that it was pointedly aimed at me and for me to hear. His kids were perhaps five and six years old. His wife looked ashamed, so he not only insulted me but embarrassed his wife, too.

Look, I'm not going to tell you how to raise your kids, but I took lesson from Brent Sopel's book. You want to insult me at a hockey (or other sports) game, I get it - that's part of the whole "sports atmosphere", my team vs. your team; at least in that situation, I'm braced to deal with a little rivalry. I must say, though, it never ceases to amaze me the crass and downright vicious things that some sports fans will say to each other in sports arenas. I'm also constantly surprised by the fact that sports fans will spit on or throw beers or - and this was something else - vomit onto fans for rival teams. (Those actions are assault, by the way, and being part of "sports rivalry" doesn't make them in any way okay.)

Anyway, to the jerk in the Target store: I hope you're proud of yourself for the example you're setting for your kids. I get that you're proud of your own home team. But by verbally insulting a total stranger in a non-sports forum, unprovoked, means you're setting an example for your kids that it's ok to just randomly insult, abuse, or demean other people because they don't hold the same views/opinions as you do. Way to go, dude.

And when you come to my town, I'm not going to insult you. I'm always happy to welcome fans from other teams to Chicago. They're proud of their teams, just as I am of mine; and they're taking the time and the money to come check out my city and my team's arena and to have a good time. I love my city and I'm very proud of it; if somebody tells me they're visiting here, I'm always willing to give some advice to help them get around the city better, or find a restaurant they'd enjoy, or point out some places to go/things to see and do, so that they have a good time and want to come back again.

I love Minneapolis. One random idiot isn't going to put me off visiting there again. The city and area reminds me a lot of New England, actually, so it sort of feels like visiting home. I always have a wonderful time in Minneapolis - yeah, even the time I was there and it was zero degrees the whole visit - and am looking forward to my next visit to the State of Hockey!