Saturday, December 31, 2011

California road trip - 1 team, 3 arenas, 900+ miles

In November, I did the California road trip to see the Blackhawks play in San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles. It's an easy trip and very doable within the same 5-day timeframe that the team usually has in California. (Although I did it in 10 days so I'd have plenty of time to play tourist!)

TRAVEL TIPS BEYOND HOCKEY

There's three options on traveling between Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Jose. Obviously, you can fly; Southwest is a fairly inexpensive option between the two markets if you book early enough. You can also take Amtrak or the bus between the two cities. Or, you can drive yourself, as we did, and that makes for a memorable California experience.

One thing you should note if you are opting to drive yourself: if you get a rental car one-way, then you will be assessed a drop-off charge. This is $150 with most car rental companies these days. It's roughly 6.5 hrs direct drive between San Jose and LA, so it's up to you whether you want to drive yourself for this, especially round-trip - but it's worth doing. The California coastline is spectacular, and driving Big Sur is one of the great scenic routes in the U.S. (I would recommend driving it south to north, not the other way around, however!) 


We flew into Los Angeles the weekend before the California games, and drove north along the coast/Big Sur from there. Santa Barbara is worth some time to wander around; it's a gorgeous small city on the Pacific, and there are plenty of wineries located between there and nearby Solvang - this is the area where the indie film hit Sideways was filmed. The charming town of Solvang is designed to be the "Danish capital of America" - touristy, sure, but still worth a visit. Be aware there aren't many places to stop for gas along the Big Sur coastline, so you'll want to fuel up somewhere between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo (northbound) or Monterey/Carmel (southbound). At the southern end of the Big Sur drive, you will pass through San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle, one of the most opulent private homes ever built in the U.S. If you have a few hours to spare, and make reservations far enough in advance, you can tour part or all of the Hearst property.


Big Sur coastline - November 2011
If you choose to do Big Sur, it's one of the most dramatic and amazing drives you can do, but you definitely want to allow a full day to experience it. It's curvy and dramatic, you'll want to pull over frequently for photo stops, there's neat little places to stop off along the way, and you just can't drive it all that fast. Driving it northbound is an adventure; driving it southbound can be heart-pounding! Still, it's definitely worth the time, and I loved doing it, even if we didn't have perfect weather for the drive.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park - November 2011


Are you into photography or just like some really dramatic scenery for a nice walk on the beach? Then you'll want to keep an eye out for Sycamore Canyon Road within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, off the west side of the road a half mile or so north of the Big Sur post office. This narrow road winds down a couple miles off Route 1/Cabrillo Highway to a small parking lot (there are bathroom facilities available) which is easily adjacent to a secluded, spectacular beach. Here you will find the big surf which lends this stretch of California coastline its name; photographers will easily find themselves drawn in by the surf and rock formations for long stretches of time!

17-Mile Drive, Carmel - November 2011


At the north end of the Big Sur drive, you will pass through the upscale towns of Carmel and Monterey; between the two is the famous "17-Mile Drive", which can also be worth the time to visit, but is always busy - like Big Sur and the lovely coastline north of San Francisco, the 17-Mile Drive is dramatic with huge wave action, but much more accessible both time-wise and for ease of driving than other stretches of Route 1. If you are not going to drive between LA and the Bay Area, you may still want to take a morning or afternoon and make the trip down to Monterey/Carmel.

San Jose is located at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. While there are some museums and other sites in the San Jose area, San Francisco is less than an hour north, and wine country is 90 minutes away. This is a wonderful part of the country to visit, but if you're a fan of wine, you might especially enjoy visiting during October ("crush" season), or in March when the mustard is in bloom in the vineyards.

Hockey is alive and well in California. Fans and teams alike love visiting there, and no surprise there, as the warm weather is a welcome mini-vacation in the middle of the hockey season. While Anaheim is struggling to fill its seats, San Jose and LA's hockey markets are busy and popular. Overall, I had a great time in California, and would definitely encourage other fans to visit.


REVIEWING THE ARENAS - THE VISITING FAN EXPERIENCE

HP Pavilion, San Jose - 11/23/11
HP Pavilion, San Jose, CA
a.k.a. "The Shark Tank", Home of the San Jose Sharks (NHL)

TeamSan Jose Sharks
ArenaHP Pavilion
525 West Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA

Seating capacity for hockey: 17,562
Cost of tickets$50+; lower bowl tickets start as low as $88 for some games
Ease of accessAirports:
San Jose International (SJC), 4.5 miles / 12 minutes
Oakland International (OAK), 40 minutes
San Francisco International (SFO), 45 minutes


Train:
Caltrain's San Jose Diridon Station is across the street from the HP Pavilion, with service north to San Francisco and south to Gilroy. According to the HPP's website, Caltrain usually holds their last northbound train of the day (10:30pm), M-Sa, until 15 minutes after the Sharks games let out. (Check the Caltrain website for details)

Buses:
ACE bus service and VTA bus/light rail also service the HP Pavilion area.
Parking costs$25 for HPP parking; $10-20 in local lots; some street parking available in the area
Practice facility













Sharks ICE at San Jose
1500 South Tenth Street
San Jose CA, 95112
(408) 279-6000

Practices at Sharks ICE are free & open to the public, but check the current schedule on their website. The practice schedule can be hard to find because it is not accessible from the regular menu bar: instead, click the link from the Sharks banner ("announcements") which runs directly under the website's menu bar.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaNumber of options along The Alameda/West Santa Clara, west of the HPP. Tailgating is prohibited.
Local hotelsThere are a variety of choices in the area, ranging from budget to high-end.

We stayed at the Arena Hotel, located just a couple blocks west (easy walking distance) of the HPP. (This turned out to be a popular place for visiting fans.) The rate was very reasonable; it included an excellent hot buffet breakfast; every room has a huge jacuzzi tub; the rooms were clean. Best part - free hotel guest parking and walking distance to HPP meant we didn't have to drive/pay for arena parking! We would readily stay there again.
Arena exteriorDoors open 75 minutes prior to game time for Sharks. Weather in San Jose is temperate, so you shouldn't have to worry much about it being too cold if you have to stand around waiting for the doors to open!

What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openNot very much within a one-block radius of the HPP, so say hello to your fellow fans while you wait in line!
Arena facilitiesATMs; bicycle racks; lockers available (inside South entrance); parents room (parents can use while their child attends an event at HP)
Arena dining optionsThe HPP has one of the better selections of arena dining options, ranging from typical arena fare (hot dogs, hamburgers) to Mexican, Panda Express, sushi, and more healthy fare. Their website includes a current directory of food vendors.
Team store(s)There is a team store at HPP, and you will find some unique and fun items here (like the awesome shark hat for $20), but the store is not that big and it's extremely crowded before game time. Sharks hockey is very popular in the area, however, so it is not hard to find Sharks gear at local sports stores.
Camera policyStill photography cameras with 6" or less lens, w/o flash.
SignsSigns allowed. No facilities on-site for signs; make your own at home.

Guidelines, per HPP's website: "Handheld signs are allowed at HP Pavilion at San Jose as long as they are no larger than poster size (20”x30”), do not impair the view of other guests and do not contain vulgar, offensive or graphic content."
Allowed to go down to glass for pre-game picturesYes. Fans were allowed all the way to front row unless of course those seat holders were there.

When facing the team boxes, the Sharks' box is on the left. The giant shark head that the SJ players skate out from is lowered to the ice to the left of the Sharks' box.
Special notesThe Sharks' power play song is the "Jaws" theme music (dun-dun-dun-dun....) and the fans make a shark-chomping motion with their arms to go along with it. Local fans were pretty good towards visiting fans - and were particularly friendly to folks wearing jerseys of players that are now Sharks players, notably Niemi. ("Well, you're wearing a Blackhawks jersey, but it's Niemi, so you're ok!")
Good experience for families?Yes.


Honda Center - 11/25/11


Honda Center, Anaheim, CA
a.k.a. "The Ponda", home of the Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

TeamAnaheim Ducks
ArenaHonda Center
2695 E Katella Ave
Anaheim, CA 92806

Seating capacity for hockey: 17,174
Cost of ticketsSeats start as low as $25; package deals (including drinks, food, or other incentives) may run as little as $29/seat. 100-level seats start at $80 and you can sit on the glass for as low as $290.

One of the bargains of the NHL, and no surprise that this is a popular destination for other teams' fans to road trip to, especially Canadian fans.
Ease of accessAirports:
John Wayne/Orange County Airport (SNA), 20 minutes
Los Angeles International (LAX), 45 minutes

Metrolink connects to the Honda via the local bus system. Check the Ducks website for connection information.
Parking costs$15 regular; $25 preferred. Not many choices for parking around here so you probably have to go with Honda's lots.
Practice facilityThe Rinks at Anaheim Ice
300 West Lincoln Avenue           
Anaheim, CA 92805
(714) 535-7465

Call AI to find out if there are any open practices when you might be visiting - was not able to find any schedules on either website. Practices at the Honda are closed to the public.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaJT Schmid's Restaurant & Brewery, directly across the street, is the closest dining option, so it's popular with fans both before and after games. If you head down Katella, especially heading east, you'll find more dining options.
Local hotelsAyres Hotel is located across the street if you are looking for a hotel within walking distance. I have not visited there, so I cannot tell you anything about the hotel.

We stayed in Los Angeles and had a car; the Honda Center is approximately half an hour from downtown LA. Disneyland is also located just 10 minutes west of the Honda, so there are a number of dining and hotel options there.
Arena exteriorNot a lot around the Honda - the Angels baseball park is also quite close. Tailgating prohibited. Note that you will go through a metal detector on the way in.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openPose with the statue of Wild Wing, the Ducks mascot.
Arena facilitiesATMs
Arena dining optionsBasic arena food (hot dogs, burgers, etc) and pretty limited choices. Their Philly cheese steaks were not bad.
Team store(s)Pretty good sized team store with satellite locations around the concourse.
Camera policyNon-flash, non-commercial photography; lenses under 6" permitted.
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 unless of course those seat holders were there.

When facing the team boxes, the Ducks box is on the left.
Special notesNote: for Ducks goals, there are some pyrotechnics (and resulting smoke) off the Jumbotron.

As stated above, tickets here are some of the cheapest in the NHL; and with its proximity to LA's arena, no surprise that many visiting fans make traveling to Los Angeles/Anaheim a 2-for-1 package. There were probably more visiting fans than local fans at the Blackhawks vs. Ducks game we attended. A local fan who apparently had not been to many games seemed bewildered that there were so many visitor's fans in the building.


Good experience for families?Yes - and family ticket prices make it extremely affordable for NHL games



Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Home of the Los Angeles Kings (NHL)

TeamLos Angeles Kings
ArenaSTAPLES Center
1111 South Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, CA 90015

Seating capacity for hockey: 18,118
Cost of ticketsThe Kings tickets operate on a sliding cost scale. Bargain games may start as low as $17/seat; premium games start at $48. Lower bowl seats start from $81-89 depending on the game. Staples Center has one of the oddest configurations of seats in the league: a two-tiered lower bowl (100 and 200 level seats) with three levels of box/suite seating above that, and finally, the top 300 seats far above. Be certain you know which kind of seats you are buying.

Ease of accessAirports:
Los Angeles International, 30 minutes

Check LA Live's website for information on local Metrolink (bus/rail) options.
Parking costs$10-25, depending on which garage you use. Street parking in the area is extremely limited.
Practice facilityToyota Sports Center
555 N. Nash Street
El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 535-4400

Call ahead to find out if the Kings will be practicing at TSC.
Pre-game meal options outside arenaLA Live has many options, although most of them are of the sit-down variety. More "fast casual" options in the nearby downtown areas to the northeast of LA Live.
Local hotelsThere are two hotels on the LA Live property, JW Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton. Both are expensive ($200+). You can also find several other hotels within several blocks, including the Westin Bonaventure. However, most downtown-area hotels also cost you quite a lot for parking ($30-40+ for overnight, even as guest), so these hotels may end up costing you a lot more.

We based ourselves at the Bonaventure for a couple nights in LA, which was a lovely Westin property, and had great staff. It made it very convenient to get to LA Live ($7 cab ride) and was a short drive (25-30 minutes) to Anaheim.

But if I go to LA for hockey again, I would more than likely opt instead to stay somewhere like Manhattan Beach or Venice Beach, and commute to the hockey venues instead. The downtown/business core of LA is very quiet after business hours (M-F, 8am-6pm) and you end up driving elsewhere for entertainment options anyway, so if you already plan to rent a car, just do yourself a favor and stay someplace interesting.
Arena exterior
Outside the Staples Center are statues to the greats who have played their sport for Los Angeles, such as Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson. The Staples Center is part of the LA Live complex.
What to do to fill time if you arrive before doors openThe Staples Center is part of a multi-use entertainment facility called "LA Live!",which has many restaurant choices, a movie theater, live action theater, Starbucks, nightclubs, the Grammy Awards museum, and other entertainment options.
Arena facilitiesATMs
Arena dining optionsThe Staples Center crowd wants more than just burgers and hot dogs - this is one of the busiest arenas in the world. Sushi, fresh food, smoothies, you name it, you can probably find it in here.
Team store(s)The LA Kings store is large with a really good variety of team items. One of the best stores in the league.
Camera policyVERY strict - probably due to the high volume of celebrity sightings here. No detachable lenses; no telescoping lenses. If it's a pocket camera and/or a small-size lens, you are probably ok.
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 unless of course those seat holders were there.

When facing the team boxes, the Kings box is on the right.
Special notesThe Staples Center runs a laser light show during pre-game. In order to make the lasers show up more effectively, they fill the arena with smoke/steam prior to warmups.
Good experience for families?Of all the arenas I've been to, I have to say that unfortunately, LA has been the least friendly to visiting fans. Lots of rude smack talk, some outright insults, and, after the visiting team beat the Kings, got to watch some young kids - who were perhaps 8 or 9 - being encouraged by their dad to insult fans in non-Kings jerseys while he filmed them on video. (Way to set an example there, guy.) If I had kids, I would probably hesitate to take my kids to the Staples Center, and would instead opt to head to the much friendlier Honda Center. 


Thursday, December 1, 2011

The good, the bad, & what's in the middle



As most teams hit or approach the 25-games-played mark, let's take a look around the league and see how the season is shaping up.

THE GOOD

- The Minnesota Wild have decided they're not going to be helping anybody into the playoffs next April - in fact, at the pace they're winning, they just might be in contention for the Presidents' Trophy themselves. They currently sit atop the NHL with 33 points.

- After lingering near the bottom of the league for October, the Boston Bruins remembered that they're the defending Stanley Cup champions. They had a historic November, going a staggering 12-0-1 during the past month. This not only catapulted them up to 2nd in the East / 4th overall, but they now lead the league with a mind-blowing +31 goal differential. Guess somebody learned from Chicago's mistakes last year...

- Likewise, over in the West, the Vancouver Canucks have quietly resurged, now up to 29 points, which puts them 6th in the West with a +13 goal differential. The interesting story for the Canucks is the goaltending controversy: backup Cory Schneider is currently outplaying the well-paid Roberto Luongo - and getting the starts, too.

- Detroit also remembered that hey, they're the Red Wings, and they now sit atop the Central division with 31 points. If Jimmy Howard can stay healthy, then Detroit should have no problem making yet another post-season appearance come April.

- The Florida Panthers continue to impress, currently holding the top slot in the Southeast division and #3 in the East. If you bet money on that pre-season, then go play Powerball.

THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

- Toronto has begun slipping in the standings. They started the season extremely strongly, and built up enough points that even if they "return to form" (that is, the form we're used to seeing them at), chances are still very, very good that the Maple Leafs will hold on to a playoff position. There's no reason they shouldn't - Leafs are peppered across the leader boards; and they currently have 30 points, good enough for 4th in the East. However, their backup goalies need to tighten up, and/or James Reimer needs to get healthy and get back in the net for them.

- The Chicago Blackhawks are doing very well as far as the standings go - they continue to fight it out not only for first in the Central and the West, but the league overall. However, while their consistency issues are nowhere near the nightmare they were last year, the team is still struggling to put together a long string of games where the team looks as solid and capable as they're capable of being. The talent is there; but the Hawks need to find their drive to keep it up through the rest of the season.

- Ottawa has taken a bit of a punch to the gut, slipping to 8th in the East. Chances are good that we will see the Senators continue to flirt with a playoff berth for the rest of the season, but Washington, Tampa Bay, and Montréal - all regular post-season teams - are also fighting for playoff positioning. Surprisingly, the bottom-8 race in the East is currently closer than the race in the West. Who might end up in the final top 8 for the East is anybody's guess right now.

- Edmonton continues to be exciting to watch, but they've dropped down the standings to 10th in the West. If they can be more consistent about their play, then the Oilers might actually find themselves in playoff position.

THE UGLY

- The Blue Jackets are currently on pace for a 51 point season. On average, it takes ~98 points to make it into the playoffs in the Western Conference. At only 15 points right now, the Blue Jackets would have to get 83 points out of their remaining 58 games - in other words, a record no worse than say, 39-14-5 (or, at very minimum, 41-16-1). So let's say that it will take Columbus 16 games to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs - which means they may be out the picture as early as January 7th.

- The Anaheim Ducks are close behind CBJ, with tonight's win giving them just 3 points' advantage over CBJ. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Teemu Selanne definitely does not want to go out on a season like this; if the Ducks can't climb into contention, will the Finnish Flash be back for one more season?

- So far, the Blues, the Capitals, and the Hurricanes have all fired their coaches and brought in new blood. How far behind can teams like the Flames, Ducks*, Blue Jackets and Islanders be?


* Even as I wrote this, the Ducks were busy firing their coach, and hiring Bruce Boudreau - who just got fired from the Washington Capitals earlier this week. Well, uh, at least the previous Ducks coaching staff went out on a win.