Monday, December 5, 2016

NFL Playoff Picture After 12 Games


With Week 13 complete, all teams have played 12 games, so here are the standings at that mark. I'm including teams within a game of the playoffs.
AFC

Bal 3-0    NE  5-1    NE  7-2   Oak 10-2
NE  3-0    Pit 4-2    KC  7-2   NE  10-2
Den 3-0    Hou 4-2    Hou 6-3   Bal  7-5
Hou 2-1    KC  4-2    Bal 5-4   Hou  6-6
Pit 2-1    Oak 4-2    Oak 7-2   KC   9-3   
KC  2-1    Den 4-2    Den 6-3   Den  8-4
--------   --------   --------  ---------
Oak 2-1    Buf 4-2    Mia 5-4   Mia  7-5
                                Pit  7-5
                                Ind  6-6
                                Ten  6-6
Oakland and NE are both 7-1 in conference, but the Raiders have a much better strength of victory than the Patriots, so they are the #1 seed. Pittsburgh has lost to both Baltimore and Miami. The Steelers have the easier remaining schedule than the Ravens, so the final meeting between them should decide the AFC North. Houston has won all 3 of their divisional games, so they are the South champ even at 6-6. Indianapolis won both games against the Titans.
NFC

Min 3-0    Dal 5-1    Dal 8-1   Dal 11-1
Phi 3-0    Min 5-1    Sea 6-2-1 Sea  8-3-1
LA  2-1    Sea 4-1-1  Atl 6-3   Det  8-4
Atl 2-1    Atl 4-2    Det 5-4   Atl  7-5
NYG 2-1    Was 4-2    NYG 6-3   NYG  8-4  
Dal 2-1    GB  4-2    Was 5-3-1 TB   7-5
--------   ---------  --------- ---------- 
Sea 2-1    Phi 4-2    Phi 5-4   Was  6-5-1
GB  2-1               Min 5-4   Min  6-6
                                GB   6-6
Atlanta split with surprising Tampa Bay who make their first appearance after a 4-game winning streak, but the Falcons have a slightly better divisional record (3-1 to 2-1) to take the fourth spot right now. Minnesota beat Green Bay in week 2, but both teams face an uphill struggle. The Cowboys were the first team to clinch a spot.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Oral Roberts Golden Eagles 76 at Michigan State Spartans 80 (NCAA Basketball) - December 3, 2016


The final day of this trip took me to East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, where the Spartans basketball team was hosting Oral Roberts. Power conference teams often schedule mid-major patsies to pad their record; I don't particularly care for the practice but it is good exposure for the smaller school and does occasionally lead to interesting games.



The Spartans play in the Jack Breslin Student Events Center, which is generally referred to as Breslin Center. Located at the corner of Harrison Road and Kalamazoo Street, the arena is close to Harrison Roadhouse, a Spartan (not spartan) bar that is definitely worth a stop before or after the game. It was recommended by the good people at Stadium Journey as the best place in the area and it certainly lived up to its billing, with great food and service. On game days, you can park here for $20 and receive a $20 credit towards food, but by the time I arrived, the parking lot was full, Fortunately, the surrounding neighbourhood allows two-hour parking until 4 pm; since I arrived at 2:30 for the 4:30 tip, I just left the car on the street without worry.



After a short respite at the Roadhouse, I walked the half mile to the arena, stopping to pick up a lower level ticket for slightly less than face from a friendly neighbourhood scalper (view from my seat above). It was a season ticket, which means a nice design and worth a bit extra as a collectible when compared to the plain Ticketmaster stubs (or even worse, paper tickets).



Inside, the arena has a single concourse that goes all the way around the building. There are a few trophy cases that are worth examining, as they include awards belonging to Magic Johnson, who starred here for two seasons in the late 1970s. He was actually given the nickname ‘Magic’ when he was still in high school, though it doesn't appear on the trophy below. The arena is undergoing a renovation that will result in a Hall of History to open in 2018 so I expect there to me a lot more cool stuff like this next time I visit.



The seating bowl has three levels. The lowest is a set of retractable benches and mostly reserved for students and known as the Izzone after coach Tom Izzo. You need a student ID to sit here, so be careful if you are buying on the secondary market. Three sections at this level are open to the general public from what I could tell, you can see them in the foreground below wearing something other than the white t-shirts that adorned the Izzone members.



Above here is the 100 level, where all seats come with chairbacks. Face value is $32 for all seats at this level.



Upstairs, you have about ten rows of chairback seats ($24) and then six rows of benches ($15). The arena holds over 16,000 but it is still quite compact and there are no bad seats.



The Spartans have enjoyed two national championships, including Johnson's 1979 team that beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the final.



Their final four banners are above one end of the court, which gives you a good overview of the entire building.



The Spartans also won the 2000 title in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and now use the court where that championship was clinched, as the school purchased the floor from the NCAA after the title game, adding their own oversized logo to personalize it.



There's not a lot of bells and whistles here, but I appreciated the ribbon boards here that updated stats in real time, making it a bit easier to follow the game.



Overall, Breslin Center is considered one of the best venues in college basketball, and I'd have to agree. The place was not sold out for this lesser-known opponent, but students were still out in force and active throughout the game. If you are a college hoops fan, make a point to get out to East Lansing during the season to see Tom Izzo and the Izzone.

The Game

Oral Roberts, based in Tulsa and playing in the Summit League, might have appeared to be a patsy with their 1-6 record, but they had lost to other power teams Baylor and Mississippi, so they couldn’t be underestimated. I’m sure Izzo reminded his team that Oral Roberts defeated #3 Kansas ten years before.

Both teams had key starters out to injury, with leading scorer Mile Bridges missing for the Spartans, while two seniors were absent for the Golden Eagles. Early on, the visitors showed no signs of being intimidated by the crowd or their illustrious hosts, taking a 7-point lead midway through the first half. The Spartans fought back however for a 34-33 edge at the break in a fast-paced half with 15 fouls.

I’ve noticed that when the first half is relatively foul-free, the refs often make up for it in the second half, and that was no different today as they called seven infractions in the first three minutes and didn’t let up the rest of the way. I didn’t see any difference in the style of play and am sure that it is the three officials who changed their approach rather than 10 players. Anyway, the teams continued to trade the lead over the first few minutes of the half and no doubt the home fans were getting very antsy as their team was down 56-53 with 10:51 to go. But an 11-2 run gave the Spartans a 6-point lead which held up the rest of the way. A late 4-point play by Kris Martin got the Eagles within a pair, but Michigan State sank their last two free throws to win 80-76, sending the fans home muttering in disgust at the close score.



This was a decent game but again, the officiating was ridiculous. In the 20-minute second half, a total of 29 fouls were called. Nobody wants to watch games like this and something has to be done so that the teams are allowed to play.

Notes

When this trip was originally planned, the game time was TBD. I wanted an early afternoon tip so I could make Western Michigan hockey in Kalamazoo, about 90 minutes away. At one point, the game was set to start at noon, which was ideal, but a week before, it was suddenly changed to 4:30, eliminating the hockey game as a possible nightcap. Thankfully, the Spartans women’s volleyball team had made the NCAA tournament as the #9 seed and was hosting a second-round game at nearby Jenison Field House, starting at 7:30.



When the basketball game ended around 6:40, I walked across the street and paid $8 for a GA seat. I did not know it at the time, but Jenison was opened in 1940 and housed the school’s basketball teams until Breslin debuted in 1989. The Field House is a classic arena with an arched roof that you don’t see very often anymore and seats along all four sides flush against the wall. In 1963, Jenison hosted the Mideast Regionals in which a segregated team from Mississippi State, defying a court order, played against integrated Loyola, who eventually won the championship. This was the beginning of the end of segregation at the college level and there is a plaque outside commemorating this “Game of Change”, though I did not see it in the darkness.



The Spartans were hosting Arizona and took the first set 25-17, but the Wildcats rebounded to take the next two at 19 and 16. The fourth set went to Michigan State 26-24, setting up a final set to 15 for the match. The Wildcats stormed to a quick 8-3 lead and cruised to a 15-10 win for the upset. It was a really gutsy display by both teams and by far the most entertaining volleyball game I have seen, made even more memorable by being held in such a historic venue. Sometimes things work out after all.



Next Up

I have one last trip this year to Washington, where I will see GWU basketball on Saturday. Check back next week for a recap of that and my 2016 year in review.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Iowa Wild 4 at Grand Rapids Griffins 3 (SO, AHL) - December 2, 2016


This hectic trip continued as I visited a fourth city in four days in three time zones. I am back on Eastern Time and in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of the AHL's Griffins, farm team of the Detroit Red Wings. The AHL is another one of my quest leagues and this visit to Van Andel Arena would be the 26th active rink in the circuit and 33rd overall.

After flying in from Minneapolis and taking a short break at my hotel, I drove to downtown Grand Rapids, arriving about an hour before the scheduled start time. There are parking lots around the rink, but they charge a minimum of $10 so I spent a few minutes looking for street parking, eventually finding a spot about four blocks away and walking back. There are a number of bars and restaurants nearby so if you are looking to eat beforehand, you won't have a problem finding something.



The arena is named for Jay and Betty Van Andel, who were the largest benefactors when it was built in 1996. There is a statue of Jay in front of the main entrance as well as some works of art. Note the holiday touch in the photo above.



There were scalpers out front but I went inside first to see what was available, checking out the mini Hall of Fame display next to the box office.



I ended up buying a hard ticket there for $19, since I prefer stubs to paper tickets as they are better collectibles. However, my precious souvenir was immediately ruined when the ticket taker ripped it in half because it didn't scan properly, likely because it had just been purchased. Aaargh!



Still in shock after having my ticket brutally torn to pieces, I walked up a set of stairs to the main concourse, where I was handed a  free programs, known as Griffiti. How cute. As you can see above, the concourse is fairly narrow at places. Along its walls are more displays of local sports heroes, with Jim Kaat perhaps the most notable, though former Expo John Vander Wal is also represented here.



The seating bowl is horseshoe shaped with two levels of seating on all three sides, quite a typical layout for the minor leagues. The lower level is guarded by ushers, but the upper level offers a better view and you can move around here.



At the far end there is a small party area for private group functions. There is also a nice videoboard that shows replays and complements the scoreboard above center ice. Several banners can be found at this end too, including the 2013 Calder Cup Championship, in which the Griffins beat the Marlies in the second round before defeating the Syracuse Crunch to win it all.



Food at Van Andel is relatively cheap. Friday nights sees hot dogs and (crap) beer for $2 apiece, but I opted for a pizza sub, which is pepperoni and cheese on a hoagie. It was hot and fresh and very good, a bargain at $5.25.



Attendance was over 8,000, a great crowd considering capacity is 10,834. However, a large number of college kids were among the throng in the upper level, and the game was definitely not the prime attraction for them. Instead, many were intent on downing as much cheap swill as they could. Of course, they had to get up during the game to run down to the concourse, staggering back with 2 beers and climbing over seats to return to their spot. Even more annoying, they spent the evening chatting amongst themselves. You could hear a constant murmur across the whole arena as they  yapped. Some even stood while play was going on like they were at a bar! I understand the increasing social aspect of baseball, but I would think that hockey requires a bit of concentration lest you miss a goal. Sadly, live sports for many of the younger generation is more about meeting friends and posting selfies on Facebook than being entertained by the action. I've noticed this more and more at NHL games too, where people pay upwards of 100 bucks per ticket and $10-15 per beer but couldn't care less about who is even playing.

Despite these inattentive fans, I had a good time here. I was able to find a spot to myself and enjoyed a decent contest.

The Game

The Iowa Wild were visiting and started former Sharks backup Alex Stalock in net while the Griffins had Eddie Pasquale, who I saw in Brampton last year, between the pipes. Neither was particularly sharp in the first period as Iowa took a 2-1 lead. Midway through the second, Iowa's Hunter Warner flipped the puck in from center ice. It bounced right in front of Pasquale and took an odd bounce to his left and into the net for a 3-1 lead. Matt Lorito got that one back for Grand Rapids late in the period, but they couldn't find the tying marker as time wound down in the third. With under 2 minutes to go in regulation, Iowa took a stupid boarding penalty, and Martin Frk (Detroit's 2nd-round pick in 2012) capitalized with 9 seconds left, his second tally sending the game to overtime. Nothing was settled there and, and Iowa's Colton Beck notched the only goal in the skills competition to give the visitors the 4-3 shootout win. There's the scoreboard before the shootout began.



Notes

Grand Rapids is also home to the Drive, to a D-League team, but they were playing at the same time a few miles away at the DeltaPlex. I realize the two leagues can't arrange their schedules for the convenience of fans, but it still rankles, even though the D-League is no longer one of my quest leagues.

My four remaining AHL venues are Milwaukee (who moved to a different arena this season), Iowa, Winnipeg, and Tuscon. Hoping to finish those in 2017.

Best

Sean

Friday, December 2, 2016

Dallas Cowboys 17 at Minnesota Vikings 15 - December 1, 2016


After a brief sojourn back to Canada to see the Leafs split their Alberta trip, I returned to the States to add yet another new Club 122 venue to my list. Yet again I found myself in Minneapolis to see the Minnesota Vikings as they finally moved into US Bank Stadium after two seasons in TCF Bank Stadium.



Built on the site of the old Metrodome, US Bank Stadium is similar to its predecessor in being indoors. Other than that, it is entirely different. To begin with, it cost in excess of a billion dollars, over 5 times more than the Metrodome would have in 2016 dollars. The stadium is uniquely designed, looking like a Sandcrawler from Star Wars from the south side.



The exterior is 60% ETFE (ethylene-tetra-fluoro-ethylene, a transparent material, not glass as it appears to be) so you can see into the stadium from both far away and above, which makes for great TV shots during night games. Sunglasses are recommended for day games by the Vikings.



Getting there is easy on the LRT, which has a stop right outside the stadium. Get there early though, as the trains get very crowded, as do nearby bars. I met Eddie and Steve, fellow stadium chasers, at the Day Block, and highly recommend the Korean sandwich served there.



Before entering, you'll want to take a walk around. The main attraction on the outside is the Viking Ship near the main entrance, which makes for a good meeting spot. There are bricks in the ground commemorating Viking feats as well as many smaller bricks bought by fans to celebrate their support or remember a lost loved one. Worth taking a few minutes to look around here, and then walk into the ship itself to find the Vikings history recounted year-by-year.



Enter by the Pentair Gate on the south side of the stadium in order to get a look at some of the club areas. You cannot enter the club seats here without having your ticket scanned, but the hallways are decorated with various works of art that are worth checking out, including one where old football cards are turned into paintings (above). There is also a painting of Prince in a stairwell that is worth a closer look. It is hard to tell from the photo below but the painting is composed entirely of his lyrics.



The hallways are bright and colourful too. Skol means "Cheers" in many Nordic languages and is used in the Vikings cheer song, suitably entitled Skol, Vikings. If you are fortunate, one or more drunken patrons will teach you the lyrics on the train.



Eventually, you will make your way to the seating bowl and that is where you will realize just how big this place really is. I found it overwhelming, much like AT&T Stadium in Dallas, which this resembles in many ways. There are three levels of seating, but as you can see, the lower club level really pushes the upper level seats away from the field. Despite its size, total capacity is only 66,655, 25th in the league.



Fortunately, there are several standing areas, even on the first level, and many fans choose to stay here rather than to sit up high. The shot below is from a standing spot right inside the main entrance, known as the Legacy Gate.



Half of the roof is ETFE, but it is hard to tell from inside, at least when it is dark outside. The design is reminiscent of the hull of a ship as well, only upside down.



The lower concourse is quite tight behind the club seats, and it was starting to get crowded, so I quickly made my way upstairs to the 300 level.



Here is where you will find the new and improved Gjallerhorn (just beneath section 301).



As well, there is a large drum here that I believe is used by the Skol Line, the team's drumline that performs during the game.



There is a club seating area here as well (sections 201-205) that doesn't even show up on the stadium map.



Concourses on the 300 level are tight and can get very crowded after the game. My advice is to move down midway through the fourth quarter and stand near the Legacy Gate for quick egress.



The shot below is from my seat in row 22 of section 302 (face value was $58 plus fees). Truly a nosebleed seat; many fans were exhausted by the time they reached the top rows of these sections. I rested here before the game, but ended up moving down and standing in various spots during the contest.



Large scoreboards are behind each end zone and are obviously state-of-the-art, though again, it is hard to tell from these pictures.



There is no doubt that US Bank Stadium is a top-notch venue and a must visit for any stadium fan. Still, I found it overwhelming in one sense (it is so big that one game might not be enough to see everything) yet underwhelming in other ways (access in particular). I suspect after seeing so many new venues that I have become a bit jaded. I'd like to come back here for a day game sometime to see how the experience differs.

The Game

When the schedule was released, I didn't have high hopes for this one, but the emergence of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott has made the Cowboys the league's best team. Thankfully I bought tickets when they went on sale because the secondary market here was more than twice face value.



It was another "Color Rush" affair in which the teams are dressed in uniforms that are dominated by one shade. Dallas was nicely white, but Minnesota's purple was garish. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was absent due to emergency eye surgery, and after seeing these uniforms, I think he made the right choice.



The first half saw teams move the ball well enough (there was only one 3-and-out in the first half) but the defenses were solid too, bending but not breaking. The Vikings new kicker Kai Forbath notched a field goal in the first quarter, and Elliot (almost certain to be rookie of the year) scored on a 1-yard run in the second as the visitors took a 7-3 lead into the locker room. There were nine penalties in the half, including one on a Dallas interception just after they had scored their TD.

The second half was just as sloppy, with another nine accepted flags, while lengthy reviews just added to the overall sense of incompetence. The Vikings had added two field goals to take a brief 9-7 lead, but Prescott connected with Dez Bryant on an 8-yard score midway through the fourth. A Dan Bailey FG on their next possession gave them an 8-point advantage with 4:20 to go. After Minnesota failed to do anything, Dallas took over with three minutes left, essentially needing just a first down to end things. Prescott ran on a second down play and looked to have the first down, but a very, very, long review declared that he was a yard short. On the next play, a fumbled snap forced the Cowboys to punt and the Vikings still had life. Sam Bradford marched the team 65 yards, completing 7 of 8 passes including a 3-yard touchdown to Jerick McKinnon. Down 17-15, the Vikes needed a 2-point conversion, but a false start penalty pushed the ball back to the 7-yard-line and Bradford's pass sailed out of the end zone. The onside kick failed and the Cowboys escaped with the win to go to 11-1 on the season, while Minnesota dropped to 6-6, a bitter pill to swallow after their 5-0 start.



This was not a terrible game like the one I saw in Los Angeles. This was an entertaining defensive battle, whereas the Rams-Panthers tilt was crap offense. Still, penalties really hurt both teams and were frustrating to watch. I can't imagine how the coaches must feel.

Notes

I still have the Sacramento Kings new arena, Golden Center, to complete the new Club 122 venues and I'll be going there in mid-January to check that one off.

Next Up

I'm spending a couple of days in Michigan, first to see the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL and then a Michigan State doubleheader with hoops in the afternoon and volleyball in the evening. Check back next week for recaps.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Toronto Maple Leafs 4 at Edmonton Oilers 2 - November 29, 2016


It is still early in the NHL season, but the Edmonton Oilers are finally reaping the benefits of so many first-overall picks, leading the Pacific Division at the quarter pole. Their success comes just in time as they have moved into a brand-new downtown arena, which means expensive tickets, and if they want fans to keep coming, the team needs to win. Rogers Place (not to be confused with Rogers Arena in Vancouver) is part of a large revitalization project that will be known as the ICE District when it is complete.



The building is located at the corner of 104th Avenue NW and 104th Street NW, on the north edge of downtown Edmonton. It is a huge structure that stretches down the entire block and at the very end crosses over the street as you can see below. Note the Mercer sign; this building houses the Mercer Pub, which is a great pregame spot for a drink or two.



The extension shown above houses Ford Hall, which is really just the main lobby (below) as well as the Molson Canadian Hockey House, the entrance of which can be seen in the distance.



Access is easy via the LRT system, with a station just three blocks away, though parking seems simple to find too. The main entrance to the arena is a few steps east along the avenue, where you will also find the iconic Gretzky statue. After walking up a couple of staircases, you will enter Ford Hall, where you will also find the box office.



The main gate is here too, and arranged similar to airport security as you can see above. It works well enough, though I arrived an hour before puck drop, so am not sure if it gets more crowded closer to game time.



Fellow sports traveller Gary has a friend in Edmonton named Jim who was kind enough to procure a ticket for me, and he took me around the two concourses. The lower bowl is much more spacious as you can see in the photo above, taken from the escalator to the upper bowl. It is more of an open design than the typical NHL rink, with large concession stands all around.



There are a couple of cool artworks on the walls highlighting the two greatest Oilers in history, including Mark Messier (above).



The lower seating bowl is typical of new rinks, with club seats comprising the four sections between the goal lines on both sides. If you want to see the warmup, you'll have to enter one of the corner sections. The suites hang above the last row of the lower bowl, and the upper bowl is quite steep as you can see below.



This means that the view from the upper deck (level 7) is not that bad, even though there are two levels of suites. This is a pretty nice setup for a new downtown venue. As an aside, if you do have upper level seats and arrive late, take the stairs or elevator up as the lineup for the escalator gets quite long. The upper concourse also gets very busy during intermissions so if you need to use the facilities, best to do so during one of the TV timeouts.



During the first intermission, Jim took me to his company's suite and we watched the second period from there. That's the view below. Pretty posh.



Of course, the Oilers many, many banners have been moved from Rexall Place. It is a bit of overkill to have four banners from the same season though. (I believe that teams should only have one banner to celebrate their top accomplishment that season, which had better be a championship of some sort. For example, teams in baseball commemorating wild cards is ridiculous.)



Despite the braggadocio, I was impressed with the new digs. The arena is in a great location that will only get better as the ICE District comes into being. There are a lot of seating options, though it does seem like a lot of the old fans have been priced out, with top level seats close to $100.  Unfortunately, that is the way sports are trending, with casual and corporate fans taking over the best seats and the more serious fans relegated to the nosebleeds. At least here, the nosebleeds are actually pretty decent.

The Game



The Leafs scored just over five minutes in when Auston Matthews poked home a great pass from Michael Nylander just as an Edmonton penalty expired for the only goal of the first period. Early in the second, James Van Riemsdyk was left alone in front of Cam Talbot and converted on his second chance while the Edmonton defense watched helplessly. The Oilers responded quickly on a point shot from Andrej Sekera that beat Frederick Andersen (above in the warmup) two minutes after, but just over a minute later Leo Komarov did some great work on the forecheck and passed to Nazem Kadri who slid the puck past Talbot. Late in the period, after the Leafs had killed a 5-on-3, Zach Hyman backhanded a rebound home that Talbot should have stopped and it was 4-1 entering the third.



Talbot (life-size bobblehead above), having given up 4 goals on 14 shots, was replaced by ex-Leaf Jonas Gustavsson to start the final frame, and when Connor McDavid scored a beauty just 4 minutes in, it looked like the Leafs might be on their way to another road collapse. But Andersen made a couple of big saves and the Oilers took a late penalty to end their chances as the Leafs held on to win 4-2, only their second road win of the season. They are now 13-13-4 in my first visit to a road rink.



Notes

Remaining a member of Club 122 is not easy. There are four new venues this winter, the Braves are opening a new stadium next year, the Red Wings and Pistons are moving to Little Caesars Arena for the 2017-18 season, and the Vegas Golden Knights are starting operations as well (so it will be Club 123 then). The upshot is that the blog will be around for another year or two at least. In fact, it might stay around long enough that blogs will become fashionable again!

Club 122 is not my only quest as I want to see the Leafs in every road rink and I still have Carolina, Phoenix, and Vegas to complete that. I also need to visit Buffalo, Vancouver, and Detroit after that to see them in every current rink, though that is not as much of a priority.

Next Up

I'm in Calgary and just watched the Leafs shutout by the Flames who scored two in the first minute. I should have stayed at the bar to watch the TFC game. There won't be a post on the Leafs loss since I saw the same matchup back in 2012, but tomorrow I'm off to Minneapolis for the Cowboys and Vikings in another new Club 122 venue, so check back Friday for a recap of that.

Best,

Sean