Sunday, October 19, 2014
The 2014-15 NHL schedule is not conducive to my goal of seeing the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road in every city by the end of 2016. I always look for trips where the Leafs will visit at least two rinks within driving distance in 2 or 3 days. Now that most of my remaining venues are in the Midwest though, this is quite a bit more difficult as Toronto is close enough that they almost never have a road trip to two proximate rinks. So I am forced to pick only single games this year and then hope for better luck next season. As I am also working right now, I am limited to weekend jaunts, which reduces my options choices even more. When the schedule came out in July, before I had found my job, I decided on the game in Detroit on Saturday, October 18, and Carolina and Columbus on weekdays in 2015. With the job, those last two are no longer on the schedule, so my Leafs road venue list will only increase by 1 this season, with Joe Louis Arena the lucky beneficiary.
Joe Louis Arena
A few days before I visited, there was an announcement that a city creditor had agreed to develop the riverfront area, a plan that would see JLA demolished in 2017. The Wings are already expecting to have a new arena open by then, so this was not big news, but I realized that this would likely be my last visit to the Joe (which is not saying much, I have only seen one other game there).
Located next to the Detroit River, Joe Louis Arena was opened in 1979 but seems like it is twice its age. When the Islanders move to Brooklyn next year, JLA will be the third oldest rink in the league behind Madison Square Garden and Rexall Place, and one of only two without a corporate name (MSG is the other). Without suites, there is only a single concourse and the upper bowl (200s) is still very close to the ice. There is no reason to sit in the lower level as the views from upstairs are excellent and quite a bit cheaper. Lower level tickets range from $110-220 while those up top go from $47-80, although there is variable pricing and the Leafs game was even costlier than this. There are specials though, including a $59 Fan Pack which includes 2 tickets, hot dogs, and soft drinks for $59 for select (in other words not select) games.
Sculptures of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Alex Delvecchio greet you as you enter through the Gordie Howe Gate. The arena looks small but can hold 20,027, second in the league behind the Bell Centre. Concourses are therefore very crowded and restroom lines can take an entire intermission to peter out. Aisle seats are advantageous so you can sneak out during a break in the action and save yourself 15 minutes of waiting during the intermission.
Get there early (gates open an hour before game time) and wander around, noting the historical touches that detail the history of this Original 6 franchise, including those recent Stanley Cup banners.
Food is bland but relatively cheap (a slice of Little Caesars is S4), with sandwiches the most intriguing option at $9. Still, I would eat before or after at Tommy's Bar and Grill (above), a bar just a few minutes away that has an incredible grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and bacon for $5. The place is packed for the pregame, but more manageable afterwards as many fans need to make the trek back home to the suburbs. Ciccarelli's (owned by the famous agitator of the 80s and 90s) and The Anchor Bar are two more establishments nearby - note that Ciccarelli's is only open for events. Hockeytown Cafe, next to Comerica Park, offers free shuttles should you be staying up in that area, or you can take the PeopleMover elevated train at 75 cents per ride.
Of course, the famed octopus gets some love too. Not sure why he is so angry though, the Wings have been a perennial contender since the early 1990s.
Being an old barn, there are few amenities. There are no replays except of goals, and no stat boards or other information to pass the time during the commercial breaks. One thing I did appreciate was TVs in the concourse showing college hockey before the game. In general though, JLA is a very functional rink and the Red Wings don't bother putting on a show to entertain you, since the team is entertaining enough as it is. After the game, stick around because exiting the arena also takes a long time, with most fans using the main gate to return to the parking garage across the street.
￼All-in-all, Joe Louis Arena is where I would like to be a season ticket holder. A successful team, relatively convenient location with decent and affordable bars nearby, and a distinct lack of hype and noise. I hope the Red Wings maintain this atmosphere in their new arena, which I will be visiting as soon as it opens.
My friend Sharpy joined me for this trip and we splurged, getting seats three rows from the ice in the end that Toronto would attack twice. The teams had played the night before in Toronto with Detroit dominating in a 4-1 win. This time, Jonathan Bernier started for the Buds against Jonas Gustavsson, the ex-Leaf who is now backing up in Detroit. Gustavsson had been the goat in a couple of games that we had attended previously, and we hoped that would continue. Of course, you know it wouldn't.
The teams showed no signs of fatigue in a fast-paced first period that finished scoreless but had plenty of chances for both sides. The same can be said for the second and third periods too. In other words, the game went to overtime knotted at naught. It may sound boring but it was quite an exciting tilt, especially as it became obvious that a single goal would likely win the game.
Unfortunately for Toronto, that goal came off the stick of Henrik Zetterberg with 9.9 seconds left in overtime he came in to the zone unmarked and one-timed a pass from Niklas Kronwall (above). The puck hit the tip of Bernier's pad, then the post, and slid over the line for a goal. It happened right in front of us, but we didn't bother to stand up to see the celebration, glumly sitting there while everyone around us cheered. Oh well, at least the Leafs got a point.
Although the result was not favourable, this was a very enjoyable evening for 64 minutes and 50 seconds. l'd rather see a battle like this with back and forth action and quality goaltending than a 7-3 drubbing.
l have seen 9 periods of NHL hockey this season plus two overtimes and only six goals.
My Leafs on the Road record is now 9-11-3. I still have Phoenix, Winnipeg, Chicago, Minnesota, Carolina, Columbus, and St. Louis left to see in the hopes that the final tally will be above .500. With my other trips taking up various weekends this year, all those seven cities will have to be hit in the 2015-16 season. Hope the schedule helps.
Friday, October 17, 2014
As I began to look at flight tickets, I chanced a peek at the ECHL schedule and was pleased to find the Stockton Thunder home on a Friday night. So that makes a nice three-day, four-game trip to San Francisco with two new venues. Except I won't actually spend any time in San Francisco. After landing at the airport, I'll make my way south to Santa Clara and use that as my base, with trips to Stockton, San Jose and Oakland before returning to the airport, which is actually in San Mateo County. So I guess I'll call this one the 2014 Bay Area trip.
The full schedule is below:
Fri Dec 19 Idaho at Stockton (ECHL) 7:05 Sat Dec 20 Chargers at 49ers 1:30 Sat Dec 20 Blues at Sharks 7:00 Sun Dec 21 Bills at Raiders 1:00
As always, check back for the exciting recaps.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Why was I in Boston on Columbus Day after spending the weekend in Minneapolis? Flights back to New York were too expensive even months in advance, but flights to Boston on Sun Country were not. From Boston, I was able to book a cheap flight to Newark, although in hindsight, a bus would have been even cheaper.
Anyway, I chose Boston because the Bruins happened to have a matinee game against the Avalanche. My friend Dom would also be attending so I met him at South Station and we made our way to TD Garden. I visited here as part of my quest to enter Club 122 back in January (Leafs won!) but was happy to spend the afternoon here, as the Garden is one of the league’s better venues, although it is also one of the most expensive. We found loge seats from a friendly neighborhood scalper and ended up sitting behind several of the players’ wives (view from the seat below). They can be distracting in more ways than one; they are obviously attractive and very well dressed, but what is less appealing is that they are not at all interested in the game. Their children bounce around while the wives have conversations with each other, sometimes standing at inopportune times. Not a major problem but a minor inconvenience; I found it interesting that they really couldn’t care less about the action on the ice, even when their husband was out there.
Other than that, not much else to say. I usually won't post here when I revisit a stadium I have seen before, unless it is for a Toronto game, but this afternoon affair had a surprising finish.
The Avs came in having been shutout through their first two games against Minnesota, while Boston was also struggling to score, netting only three goals in three games, going 1-2 in that time. A low-scoring tilt was expected, and that is exactly what happened, even with both teams starting their backups.
After a scoreless first period that saw some good saves by both Colorado's Reto Berra (above) and Niklas Svedberg of Boston, the Avalanche finally managed their first goal of the season 7 minutes into the second when Jamie McGinn’s wrist shot trickled through Svedberg’s arm. It should have been stopped, but the Avs weren’t complaining. Boston tied it on a power play a few minutes later after Loui Eriksson took a pass and slid the puck into the net behind a sprawling Berra. The only other highlight was a fight between Adam McQuaid and Cody McLeod in what must be the latest battle in an ancient Scottish feud. McQuaid won decisively.
The third period was similar to the first, with chances at both ends but no goals. It looked like overtime would be required until Colorado began to press with about 30 seconds to go. A couple of shots were saved but Boston could not clear the zone. A shot from the point by Jan Hedja was kicked out by Svedberg, right onto the stick of Daniel Briere, who scored into the gaping net as time expired. The green light indicating the end of the period was on, so at first it looked like the goal would not count, but the shot had entered the next with half a second to spare; the goal judge was just too slow to activate the red light. Colorado went wild while stunned Bruins fans looked at each other in disbelief. Really an incredible ending to what was a pretty average NHL game. It was so unbelievable that the scoreboard operator took a while to update the final score.
The Bruins wore their very cool third jersey, with Zdeno Chara sporting a matching shiner. I like that the scoreboard uses this logo as well, a nice touch that shows somebody is paying attention to the little things in Boston.
The winner was Briere's 300th career goal. He's now just 260 behind teammate Jarome Iginla, who had played for the Bruins last season.
I’m in Detroit this weekend for another episode in my Toronto on the Road series as the Red Wings and Leafs engage in an Atlantic Division battle. Sunday sees the Saints at the Lions in what should be an intriguing game – can the Saints offense overcome the #1 defense in the NFL? Check back next week for the recap.
Monday, October 13, 2014
The fun part about Club 122 is that you are always trying to maintain your membership. Franchises in the Big 4 leagues move on occasion, while those that stay put open new venues on a regular basis, so there are always cities to revisit. This season sees the 49ers playing out of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, so every member of the club is heading to the Bay Area at some point this year. Meanwhile, the Vikings are using temporary digs at TCF Bank Stadium, which for some doesn't qualify as a necessary stop. It does for me though, and so I spent the weekend in Minneapolis, my fourth time there in the last five years. With the Golden Gophers playing on Saturday, it made for a great weekend. Until the Vikings took the field.
I wrote about TCF Bank Stadium in yesterday’s post, but there are a few differences when the Vikings are the home team. The ribbon boards are covered with Vikings signs or NFL sponsors (you might be able to see that above), and the field is also repainted with Minnesota in gold and purple instead of maroon and gold. The Vikings also appear through a gate meant to evoke a Viking attack (below). Sadly, this image did not take root in the minds of the team.
The most surprising difference though was in the food prices. Nearly everything was a little more expensive for the NFL game. The bread bowl stew went from $5.50 to $6 as an example. Check out the two menus below – an extra $2 for chili renders it overpriced and no longer an option.
Other than those superficial changes, the stadium was identical, with no special Vikings displays. As the team is only here for two seasons, there is really no need to personalize it beyond what has been done. Again, if you want to see TCF Bank Stadium, go for the college game and wait for the Vikings to open their new stadium in 2016.
With Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush both injured, points promised to be scarce. The Vikings have a terrible rushing offense without Adrian Peterson, and Detroit has the best defense in the league. The game would be decided by Teddy Bridgewater, making his second career start. Could he pass the Vikings to victory? Ummmmm, no.
I told my buddy Eddie (who has now seen games in all 32 current NFL venues) that this would be a very low-scoring game and was promptly made to look foolish at Matthew Stafford drove the Lions 80 yards on just 7 plays, hitting Theo Riddick for the touchdown just four minutes in. That was the highlight of the game. After that, it was punt after punt after punt (14 in all). On a couple of occasions, Detroit attempted field goals. Matt Prater, recently signed after being cut by Denver, missed his first field goal from 50 yards out (above), although he hit his second just before halftime from 52, giving the Lions a 10-0 lead at the break.
The Lions added another touchdown early in the 3rd quarter on a 1-yard run from Joique Bell to make it 17-0, while Prater hit the upright with his third attempt on their next possession. The Lions are 5-15 on field goals so far this season, but it is expected that Prater will stabilize the situation; there were swirling winds throughout the game that made kicking a bit more difficult than it would normally be. Bridgewater meanwhile failed to impress. His line of 23-37 for 188 yards is nothing special, but being sacked eight times and throwing three interceptions and fumbling the ball (above) make it a very bad day indeed. The Vikings avoided the shutout with a late field goal.
The NFL gets a lot of bad press from its stupid and drunk fan base (one stole a prosthetic leg in Philadelphia this past weekend), but fans here are among the best in the league. The team placed an ad in the free program stating “We are Vikings not Barbarians” and everybody followed along. Sure, there were a couple of drunks here and there, but Minnesotans lack the chip on their shoulder that so many other fans seem to possess, enjoying the game despite it being really an ugly affair for the home team. I've seen three NFL games here and never had a problem nor seen one. Looking forward to my next visit when the Vikings open the new stadium in two years.
Both visiting teams scored 17 points on the weekend. The Vikings just needed 3 touchdowns to match the Gophers score. So close and yet so far.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
This season sees the Minnesota Vikings playing out of TCF Bank Stadium while their new stadium is being built on the site of the Metrodome. TCF Bank Stadium is the relatively new home of the Big Ten's University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, having been opened in 2009. As part of Club 122, I would have to revisit the Twin Cities to see this temporary venue. The key was finding the best weekend for sports. The Wild recently opened their NHL season, and there are a couple of weekends when they are home on a Saturday night before the Vikings play on Sunday, but both of those are in the winter, when weather can wreak havoc with weekend travel plans and outdoor games can be a bitter experience. My friend Eddie suggested Columbus Day weekend, as the Golden Gophers were home on the Saturday. I had yet to see a Big 10 football game, and with Monday being a holiday for me, that was obviously the better option.
Saturday was a picture perfect fall day, with temps just above freezing as we arrived at the stadium at 8:30 for the 11 a.m. start. Parking was $30 a block from the stadium but that came with $20 for coupons at the bar next door, so not a bad deal. Those on a budget can find free street parking a few blocks away. TCF Bank Stadium reminded me a bit of Lambeau Field in its exterior design, not tall and encircled by windows along the top. It is still bright and shiny, and you should walk around, taking note that each Minnesota county is honoured by being cast in stone that is inlaid in the bricks as you can see below. It is actually quite an impressive sight.
Tickets were $50 at the window for upper deck seats, although we probably could have done better with the scalpers. The stadium is relatively small, with no suites separating the upper and lower bowls, so there are no bad seats in the place. The corners on both levels are benches, as are the east end zone seats. but they do rent seat backs if you need one. The west end zone is temporary seating necessitated by the Vikings, with the large scoreboard just above.
My favourite part though is the maroon seats with gold seats interspersed to spell Minnesota with a giant upside down W on the lower level.
The single concourse is more than spacious enough for the 50,000 or so fans that are in attendance. Food options include some that are not found elsewhere, including a bread bowl with stew for $5.50 that is more bread than stew but still worth the price. I recommend checking out the portable stands in the horseshoe area on the west side of the stadium, where you can get burnt ends from Dave’s BBQ ($9) or a cup of chili from Jax’s for $6, both of which are good options on a cold morning. Beer is also available, with many fans partaking local lager Grain Belt while Miller Lite was the swill on offer.
TCF Bank Stadium includes posters high on the wall celebrating the university’s many successful sports teams. Football has seven national championships, but the last came in 1947. Their last Big 10 title was in 1967, so their futility equals that of the Maple Leafs. Could this be the year both end 48 years of frustration? There is also a Hall of Fame but it was not open to the public either time I went to check it out. There are a lot of private parties at the bars around the stadium, which is one of the better campus neighborhoods I have seen, with the Big 10 sports bar on Washington Avenue offering a good breakfast with $3.75 tall boys of PBR to get you ready for the game.
The Northwestern Wildcats were the visitors, coming in at 3-2 (1-1 Big Ten) while the Golden Gophers were 4-1 (1-0 Big Ten). This was a throwback affair with Minnesota running the football 39 times to only 15 passes, while Northwestern kept the ball on the ground for 34 plays, but passed 50 times. The teams exchanged scores, with Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner scoring twice on sneaks from the 1 (he’s #7 above crossing the goal line) while Justin Jackson (below being tripped up) scored on an 11-yard pass from Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats added a field goal to end the half down 14-10.
The third quarter was scoreless as defense dominated, and when Minnesota kicked a field goal early in the fourth, it looked like that might be enough especially after Solomon Vault muffed the ensuing kickoff and the ball tumbled out of bounds at the 3-yard line. But Northwestern was not perturbed, and calmly marched 97 yards on 13 plays, with Siemian (throwing below) scoring from 2 yards out to tie the game at 17.
Overtime was in prospect for about 13 seconds. That is how long it took Jalen Myrick to return the kickoff 100 yards for the home team, sending the crowd into an extended celebration. I was standing at the goal line where Myrick scored, and could see the enormous hole open up at the other end. Myrick blazed through and never looked back, racing down the left sideline and into the end zone. After that, Northwestern had two meaningful drives, and got to the Minnesota 33 on one of them before a 4th down pass fell incomplete as the Gophers held on to win 24-17.
Despite running 30 less plays and being outgained 393-274, the Gophers emerged victorious, highlighting the importance of special teams and return yardage. This was the type of football game I like, where long drives are more common than the big play. Northwestern had two drives of 16 plays that resulted in their first half touchdown and field goal, along with their 13-plays touchdown. Minnesota had two drives of 11 plays resulting in 10 points; their other touchdown came on a 6-play drive that covered 75 yards. Sadly, I am in the minority in my preference for a 24-17 game than a 41-38 affair. Most football fans seem to like as many points as possible, as evidenced in this TMQ column. I like Minnesota's style and am hoping they continue to do well this season, showing the country that football is not all about flashy plays.
The plan that evening was to watch a junior hockey game as the NAHL’s Minnesota Magicians were at home in Richfield, a southern suburb of Minneapolis. During the football game however, it was announced that the Golden Gophers volleyball team had a game that evening and those with a football ticket would be granted free admission. For a cheap Canadian, this was a dilemma. Did I want to drive 15 miles and pay $15 to see hockey, or walk 5 minutes and pay nothing to see women’s volleyball? The presence of several bars near the campus answered my question. We decided to hang out at Buffalo Wild Wings (a good postgame destination if you like large crowds) for a few hours and made our way to Williams Arena to watch the Golden Gophers take on the Scarlet Knights from Rutgers.
There was a surprisingly large crowd of 3,300 fans already there as we found seats behind the court. The match wasn’t close though, as Minnesota swept Rutgers in three straight sets. The entire event lasted just over an hour, but it was fun to see. I always enjoy when teams promote their other sports this way; Duke did the same thing last year when baseball ticket holders got in free to see the eventual national champion lacrosse team. Going forward, I’ll be checking out all the sports on campus to see if any other doubleheaders can be scheduled. Stay tuned to find out what trips will be planned in 2015.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
At the beginning of the baseball season, I observed that the games had become slower than ever, with less happening on the field than at any point except 1968. Now that the season is over, the final numbers are in, and things only got worse as the summer progressed. I saved data from all 2,430 box scores from ESPN, including the score, innings, number of pitches and strikes, and game time. From this, a number of interesting statistics can be found.
The average game time remained at 3:08 (3:07:48 to be precise) - ignore any other sites that report 3:02 as that is the average 9-inning game. The ridiculous length of games is what most media outlets report on as it is the easiest figure to understand, but that doesn't tell the whole story. I use pitches per minute (PPM) to quantify the pace of a baseball game and this season saw the lowest figure ever at 1.545 - this number was at 1.692 in 2009 when the average game was 2:55. The number of pitches per game was 290.1, around the average since 1998, so the slower pace is mostly a result of the games taking longer rather than less pitches.
With pitching getting better and strikeouts at record levels, the average number of runs per game was 8.13, the lowest figure since 1981 when 8 runs were scored in an average game. With the longer games though, the average number of runs per hour was only 2.598, the lowest figure ever. In other words, the 2014 baseball season had the least amount of action for the time spent at the ballpark in history.
As I have pointed out before, few fans really care about this as they are casual observers who pay scant attention to the action on the field and leave the game whenever it suits them rather than staying until the end. But the powers that be are aware that games are taking far too long and are using the upcoming Arizona Fall League to test a number of rules that should shorten games. I'll do this study again next year to see if there is a significant improvement.
Slowest and Fastest Games and Teams
Slowest-paced game: Atlanta's 5-4 win over Milwaukee on May 22 when 273 pitches took 3 hours and 36 minutes for a PPM of 1.264.
Fastest-paced game: Minnesota's 7-0 shutout of Toronto on April 22 when 295 pitches took just 2:38 for a PPM of 1.867.
Toronto had the quickest PPM at 1.622 while Colorado was the slowest at 1.495. Tampa Bay had the longest games, averaging 3:18:30, while Seattle had the shortest at 2:58:30, exactly 20 minutes less per game and the only club to finish under the three hour mark.
Another way to measure the pace of the game is to divide the game time by the number of innings. The worst game was the Rangers at Mets on July 4, when 8½ innings took 4:08, over 29 minutes for each inning. I attended this game, and there was an injury early on when Jon Niese was hit by a batted ball, but even after that, the game just dragged on and on and on. The Mets won 6-5, making it the longest 8.5 inning game with less than 13 runs in MLB history. I stopped going to MLB games after this one.
Interestingly, Niese started one of the quickest games, again at Citi Field. On August 1, the Giants beat Niese and the Mets 5-1 in a game that took only 2:06, or exactly 14 minutes per inning. This number was matched by the Blue Jays 1-0 home win over Seattle on September 24 which took 1:59, the only full game to come in under 2 hours this season.
The most common game time was 3:02, which happened 60 times, while 43.6% of games came in under 3 hours, while 17.4% of contests lasted longer than 3:30.
The total amount of time taken for all 2,430 MLB games was 456,331 minutes, which equates to almost 317 days.
I also analysed the percentage of strikes thrown in each game to see how much of an advantage teams that threw more strikes had. Teams throwing a higher percentage of strikes won 60% of games, not as dominant as I would have expected. But in many cases, the difference is so slight (less than 5%) that it is not significant, sometimes just one or two strikes. I removed those games from the analysis, which left 987 games to consider. The team that threw more strikes won 68% of those. So yes, throwing strikes is important, but not as much as you might expect.
Washington threw the highest percentage of strikes at 66.1% while the White Sox were worst in the majors at 62.5%. The top 4 teams in this category made the playoffs (Oakland, San Francisco, St. Louis along with the Nationals) but other playoff teams were in the middle of the pack, with the Angels at 63% ranking 26th overall.
There were 704,905 pitches thrown this past season, with 450,804 strikes (63.95%). Home teams threw 64.27% of strikes compared to 63.62% of visiting teams. Umpire bias or are pitchers just that little bit better at home?
The game with the highest percentage of strikes was on May 20 when St. Louis beat Arizona 5-0 behind an Adam Wainwright 1-hitter, with 166 of the 221 total pitches being strikes (75.1%). Brian O'Nora was the home plate umpire that game, and he happens to be the umpire who calls the most "incorrect" strikes in the majors. The game with the lowest percentage of strikes saw Minnesota beat KC 10-1 on April 11 when seven hurlers combined to throw 330 pitches and only 178 strikes (53.9%). In terms of a single team, Cleveland's Corey Kluber threw 81.1% strikes in his 3-hit win over Seattle on July 30, while five Cincinnati pitchers only tossed 81 strikes out of 169 pitches (47.9%) in a 5-0 loss to Milwaukee on September 24.
I could go on with dozens more meaningless statistics which I find fascinating but few others do. Still, I hope you found this post somewhat enlightening. Baseball is the best sport for statistical analysis and there are always new ways to think about the game, not just in terms of the action on the field, but how long the action takes. Here's hoping that MLB speeds up the game in 2015.
I wrote this as Detroit was being eliminated by Baltimore in the ALDS. That game saw only 260 pitches but took an incredible 3:41 - a PPM of 1.176, the lowest in the last six years (I only have pitch stats going back that far) and probably in history. Yes, the slowest paced game in history! I am pretty sure I am the only person to have figured this out. The overall PPM through 11 games: 1.325, 14% slower than the slowest regular season ever. The playoff are supposed to be exciting but taking nearly 4 hours for a 2-1 game is anything but exciting.
I spent my afternoon watching the NFL on Sunday Ticket and not a single one of those games, even those that went to overtime, lasted longer than 3:30 (New Orleans win over Tampa Bay took 3:29). So much more happens in a typical NFL game, it is no wonder that baseball is no longer popular among younger fans. The sport is dying in front of our eyes. Will anyone bother to try to save it?