Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Orix Buffaloes 3 at Nippon Ham Fighters 2 - March 31, 2010


The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters play most of their home games in Sapporo now, but they have three series in Tokyo this season. I'm not sure why this is, but it is a bit strange that their first home game is not even in their regular home ballpark. But I'm not complaining, it gives me a chance to get to the Tokyo Dome without having to watch a Giants game. Today was the second in a two-game set against the Orix Buffaloes. The defending Pacific League champion Fighters are off to a terrible start at 1-5-1 while Orix, who finished in last place in 2009, is leading the Pacific League at 6-1.

The Game

Buddy Carlyle got the start for the Fighters. He's a journeyman who pitched for Hanshin back in 2001-02 and he spent last three seasons with the Atlanta organization, where he won 8 games in 2007. He was opposed by Shogo Yamamoto, whose in his 10th NPB season but only his 3rd as a regular starter. He's a control pitcher who averages just over 2 walks per 9 innings.

Both pitchers were on their game tonight, albeit with completely different styles. Carlyle challenged the Orix hitters, only walking one and scattering 4 hits over his 6 scoreless innings. He was taken out after 6 with a remarkably efficient pitch count of 72. I'm not sure why he was taken out either as it seemed like he could have continued without a problem.

Yamamoto had a tough second inning giving up a run-scoring double to Tomohiro Nioka but he struck out Sho Nakata and induced Shota Ohno into a ground out to leave two runners stranded. He settled down after that but his pitch count was quite high - still he remained in game through 8 innings, ending with 134 pitches but only one walk. But he was in line to be the hard-luck loser as the Buffaloes couldn't get anything off relievers Yoshinori Tateyama and Naoki Miyanishi.

Alex Cabrera watches a towering popup

Orix was down to their last three outs but with the Nippon Ham bullpen struggling this season, it wasn't game over. Closer Hisashi Takeda blew two saves over the weekend and is currently sporting a 20.25 ERA, so in the top of the 9th, newcomer Brian Wolfe trotted out to close the game. Wolfe had spent the last 3 years with the Blue Jays organization and had an ERA under 3 for the first two season, but he struggled in 2009 and now he's in Japan. So far this season he's made three 1-inning appearances without yielding a run, so he was a good candidate for the closer role.


Unfortunately, the role seems to be jinxed. Alex Cabrera lined the first pitch to left for a single, and Greg LaRocca (shown above) followed with a single of his own to bring Takahiro Okada to the plate. For some reason, he likes to be called T-Okada. He was the Buffaloes' first round pick in 2006 but has spent most of his career in the Western League, where he bashed 21 homers last year. Wolfe challenged him and Okada responded, belting the first pitch just over the left field fence for a 3-run shot! Wow. I was sitting near 3rd base and was surrounded by Orix employees who were extremely excited at this sudden development. Wolfe was less than thrilled, but he managed to get the next three hitters in order to send us to the bottom of the ninth with the Fighters down 3-1.

Jon Leicester entered for Orix and after getting one out, gave up a walk and a single. This brought Nioka to the plate, and he got his second RBI of the game with a single to left and it was 3-2. Tomochika Tsuboi pinch-hit and crushed the first pitch to deep center. It looked like the Fighters would win after all but centerfielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi raced back and made a game-saving catch at the wall. Kazuya Murata pinch-hit for the slumping Ohno but he swung on the first pitch and grounded weakly to first. Leicester took the throw covering and the game was over just like that. Wolfe takes the loss and Carlyle gets nothing for his work. But Yamamoto was rewarded for his stamina, getting the comeback win.

This was a strange affair with all the action packed into the last 20 minutes. I enjoyed the different pitching styles on display, but was happy that only 3 walks were given up by both teams. There was also some great defense, including a leaping grab at the hot corner by LaRocca to take a double away from Atsunori Inaba. That's Inaba below on 3rd with LaRocca defending in the 6th inning. Needless to see, Inaba was stranded there.


Notes

Tickets to the upper deck were not sold and still there were plenty of empty seats. The Fighters simply don't rate here in Tokyo, which is why they moved to Hokkaido, where their fan base is strong. The next Tokyo Dome series for the Fighters is in July against Softbank.

The Japanese national anthem was played before the game but most fans didn't bother standing. It's not a tradition here so I think most people don't know how to react.

The 2009 Pacific League Pennant was hoisted to the top of the dome along with the team flags as you can see in the picture below.


After the game, my friend Chris and I stopped at a cafe which was showing the Giants game. They were down in Yokohama to take on the Bay Stars. It was 5-5 when we arrived but ex-Fighter Termel Sledge ended things with a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th. I found it ironic that the Fighters are struggling and lost on a 3-run shot while one of their best players from last year was winning his game with a 3-run jack just a few miles away.

Next Up

I'm flying to Singapore tomorrow morning and hoping to catch the Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend. Check back next week for an update.

Best,

Sean

Nippon Ham Fighters 0 at Yomiuri Giants 4 - March 30 - Eastern League


One of the best things about Japanese baseball is the early season start. The Pacific League got underway on March 20th while the Central League began on the 26th. The Western League began even earlier with a couple of games on Friday the 19th. As for the Eastern League, which has 6 teams in the greater Tokyo area, it also began on the 20th but poor weather has kept me at home for the first week. But today was a relatively balmy 10 degrees so I decided to visit Giants Stadium to get back into baseball.

I was in for a bit of a shock when I arrived. Last season tickets here were only 700 yen but inflation has hit the minor leagues suddenly and this year it's now 1,000 yen to get in. That's a whopping 43% increase! It's still a bargain though, but it means that 3 of the local stadiums charge 1,000 yen (unless they've raised their prices this season) while 3 are still free.

The Game

I got to the park just a few minutes before first pitch and was surprised to see that Kazuhito Tadano was starting for the Fighters. Despite being a highly touted prospect back in 2002, he was blackballed by the NPB after appearing in a gay porn video. Instead he made his way to the majors where he appeared in 15 games for Cleveland in 2004-05. But he couldn't stick in MLB and was finally drafted in Japan in 2007, pitching for Nippon Ham the last two years. I'm not sure why he's in the minors at this time. He was opposed by Satoshi Fukuda, who has pitched in 48 games over 5 seasons with the big team but seems to be a career minor leaguer.

Tadano delivers

Both pitchers were strong over the first four innings but Fukuda was slightly better, yielding just a single and a walk in that time. In the 5th, Giants' rookie catcher Tomoya Ichikawa crushed a double to left to score Takanori Hoshi and give the Giants a 1-0 lead. But Tadano escaped with no further damage and left after 6 innings still trailing by a run.

Daijiro Tanaka grounds out


In the 7th, ex-Fighter Kazunari Sanematsu hit a sharp grounder to third but Takahiro Imanami made a poor throw and Sanematsu was safe. Next up was Daisuke Fujimura who grounded to second. But Kenshi Sugiya lost his grip on the ball throwing to first and suddenly there were runners on first and second with nobody out. After a sacrifice bunt, Ryota Wakiya (shown below) singled to score both runners. Wakiya later scored on a Kenji Yano double to make it 4-0. All 3 runs were unearned for Shintaro Ejiri, who has pitched with the big club already this season.


Fukuda was replaced by Takahiko Nomaguchi who pitched the final 3 innings, yielding just two more hits and notching the save as the Giants won 4-0. It wasn't a great game for the Fighters who had 4 hits and 3 errors to snap a 5-game winning streak and drop to 5-3. The Giants moved to 3-1 on the year. Because there are 7 teams in the league, teams have several days off and the Giants have already had 3 off days and two rainouts. As an aside, I really can't understand why they don't just merge the two minor leagues; Japan is not that big and travel costs shouldn't be prohibitive. Doesn't make sense to have players not playing.

Balls and Strikes

One interesting change this year in Japanese baseball is that balls are now counted first. Until now, strikes were always first, so a full count was 2-3. But the powers that be decided to follow the west and modified the rule. I noticed it when the umpire called out "Suree-two" when the count was full. Scoreboards have not been fixed yet as you can see below - strikes are still above balls. I wonder if they will bother...


The Gondola

I had some time after the game so took the gondola ride over Yomiuriland, the amusement park that is next to the stadium. If you are visiting, I highly recommend this ride as you get a great view of the ballpark as you go by. It's only 200 yen and takes about 5 minutes. The pictures below show the steps that you need to take to the stadium, as well as the Giants working out after the game. Yep, in Japan there is always work to be done, even after a win. The players were running sprints as I passed overhead.



Next Up

The big-league Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have a 2-game set in Tokyo this week. So I'll go to the game tonight with my friend Chris, who has yet to see a baseball game in Japan. Then I'm off to Singapore tomorrow for a couple of days before heading to Malaysia for the Grand Prix this weekend. Not sure how much time I'll have to post, but check back on occasion for updates.

Best,

Sean

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sendai 89ers 89 at Tokyo Apache 85 - March 25, 2010


OK, I'm going to try to see more games in Japan when I'm here. To that end, I went back to the Yoyogi #2 gym last night to see the Sendai 89ers take on the Tokyo Apache in bj League action. When I saw them in December, the Apache were in last place, but they have improved slightly, winning 4 in a row to move into a tie for 4th in the East with a 14-24 record. Nothing to write home about, but it is a playoff spot. Sendai is the second best team in the league at 26-12 and were enjoying a 9-game winning streak as they visited Tokyo for the second time this season.

The Game

The first quarter was great - back and forth action, lots of good shots with little defense, and only 4 fouls. The 10 minutes of game time took maybe 12 minutes to play, and Sendai had a 23-21 lead. The second quarter was more of the same and we entered the half with Sendai up 45-42.

The halftime chat must have stressed defense because when the teams began the 3rd quarter, there was a noticeable difference in the play. Shots were contested, fouls were called more often, and points were harder to come by. Tokyo had trouble adjusting to the extra pressure and fell behind by 10, but Sendai couldn't deliver the knockout punch and the Apache ended the quarter on an 11-2 run to the final stanza down just a point at 62-61.

Julius Ashby gets by Chris Holm while Josh Peppers watches

In the 4th, Sendai used a couple of threes from Josh Peppers to take a 7 point lead which they maintained until the last couple of minutes. But Apache guard Cohey Aoki grabbed an offensive rebound off a free throw miss and sank a quick jumper to narrow the deficit to 4. After Peppers missed a three, Aoki was fouled attempting a trey of his own. Although he's one of the best free throw shooters in the league at 86.5%, Aoki botched two of his three chances and Tokyo trailed by 3 with a minute to go. That's Aoki in purple below with fellow shrimp Takehiko Shimura, who is only 160cm tall (even shorter than I am!)


Sendai missed a two on their trip down but center Chris Holm grabbed a critical offensive board (his game-leading 16th rebound) and Peppers converted a lay-up to make it 85-80 with just 17 seconds left. Although Tokyo's Michael Chappell sank a desperation 3 to make it close, Sendai didn't miss their free throws after being fouled and went on to win 89-85. The 89ers score 89 points!

There's no doubt that Sendai were the more polished team and that was shown by their 19 assists and only 7 turnovers. Tokyo kept it close but were undone by poor free throw shooting down the stretch and some poor turnovers. Gyno Pomare (pictured below) of Sendai led all scorers with 26 points while Julius Ashby paced the Apache with 20.


This was a great game, with both teams shooting 50% or better, but what I liked most is that it was close, so the last few minutes did not degrade into a foul-shooting contest. I really like the layout of the stadium here; the closest seat is right at the corner of the court which provides a unique view of the game as you can see in the picture below. Unfortunately only 955 other people attended the game which amazes me. In a city of 15 million, why can't they get a few more people to something this interesting.


bj League now officially recognized

The Japanese Basketball Association, which is the sports governing body and not a league, has finally recognized the bj League as an official league. This means that players in the league are now eligible for the national team. It may not sound like much, but it could be the first step in giving the league the additional publicity it deserves.

Tap Room Harajuku

If you are looking for a place to enjoy a couple of beers after an Apache game, try the Taproom which is just a few minutes walk from the stadium. Baird Beer is a microbrewery in Shizuoka prefecture, run by American Bryan Baird and his wife.

In the last couple of years, they have opened a two pubs in Tokyo which they call Taprooms. The first Taproom was launched in Nakameguro in May 2008 and quickly became a favourite of the local crowd, as the wide variety of home-crafted brews is so much better than the typical Japanese beers offered by other pubs. The highlight of this place is the frequent-drinker card, which allows you to enjoy 12 pints for 9,000 yen.

In August of last year, the Harajuku Taproom was opened. It has more of a Japanese style to it with the culinary choices lying towards local foods such as yakitori. Even the beers are different, with some selections only available at this location, such as the Harajuku Ale. Definitely worth visiting either of these places if you are in the mood for top-quality brews.

Next up

Baseball season is back in Japan and I'll try to head to one minor league game next week at Giants stadium when the Fighters are visiting. After that I'm off to Malaysia where I hope to catch the Formula 1 race and then Singapore, where I'll watch an AFC Champions League game. After I'm back, I'll watch one more Apache game, but this one will be played in the new Sumida City Gymnasium, which is just a few minutes from where I live. The rest of April will be spent watching the NHL playoffs in Tokyo before the big trip in May to California, Nevada, and Arizona for plenty of baseball, including the Jays in Phoenix. The full schedule for that journey is still being decided, but once it is set, I'll post it here.

Best,

Sean

Monday, March 22, 2010

Formula 1, AFC Champions League and other updates


Schedule Changes

OK, so the tentative Sports Road Trip schedule has seen some changes over the past couple of weeks. My week-long trip to Western Japan has been postponed, and I've had to cut back on my baseball extravaganza to California and Arizona (more on that in a later post). There are a couple of reasons for these changes.

First, the trip to Florida, the surprise trip to Canada and then the jaunt in Thailand and Manila meant that I was out of the country for 41 out of the first 80 days this year, which has not put me in good stead with my girlfriend. The second reason is that she is changing jobs, and has a couple of weeks of free time. For some odd reason, she wasn't intrigued with my idea of a two-week long MLB trip to the West Coast, so we are going to visit Singapore and Malaysia instead.

But don't worry, the sporting gods have smiled on me still. Turns out the Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix is in Kuala Lumpur on April 3rd and 4th, which is something I've been meaning to see for some time. I'll also catch an AFC Champions League game between the Singapore Armed Forces and Henan Construction on April 13th.

Japanese Sports Updates

Speaking of the AFC CL, the competition began last month and tomorrow is already the third match-day. Melbourne Victory is visiting Kawasaki Frontale in a battle of 0-2 squads. The loser likely will be eliminated from the knockout stage, but it's not a game that excites me greatly, so I won't be attending. There are three other Japanese teams in the group stage, with Kashima Antlers the only one picking up wins. They are 2-0 while Gamba Osaka has two draws and Sanfrecce Hiroshima have yet to notch a point. So it could be a quiet round of 16 here in Japan.

The J League started a couple of weeks ago and there's not much to report there. I hope to get to some new stadiums this season, but the schedule makes it difficult to combine more than a couple of games in a weekend. It's just not worth the money or time to travel to Osaka to see two soccer games and nothing else.

Of course, baseball is a different matter, and the Japanese baseball season began for the Pacific League over the weekend, while the Central League starts this Friday. The minor leagues are underway as well, so I might try to catch a game or two when time permits, but having seen all the local stadiums last year makes this season a bit less compelling. I do hope to see some of the minor league stadiums in the Western League, but that schedule is not as road-trip friendly with only 5 teams.

Finally, a quick update on the bj League, Japan's pro basketball circuit. I saw games in 3 cities at the end of last year but obviously have not had much time to revisit the Tokyo Apache or other teams. The league still has a couple of months to go, so I'm planning to attend a couple of more games and perhaps some playoff action depending on who makes it.

Self-Indulgent Time

As you can see by the above updates, Japan has a rich and varied sports scene. But I don't spend as much time going to the games as I should. There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that I'm much more interested in doing true road trips. I prefer having a car and being able to see several games in different stadiums and cities over an extended period. It's not difficult to watch the local teams every day, that just takes cash, time, and an understanding partner. But I find that it gets boring after a while and I need some variety.

The second is that traveling in Japan is not cheap and not that easy. The bullet train is expensive and local trains are time-consuming and their fares can add up quickly. The sports venues are often quite far apart and not necessarily easy to get to on public transport. Hotels here are small and not that cheap either. So the best bet for road trips here is a short weekend with two or three games in a concentrated area, particularly if there's a travel package that can be found. I'll be looking for opportunities to do so in Hiroshima, Sapporo, and Nagoya later this year.

For now, the next month will be quiet, with just the Singapore and Malaysia trip on the schedule. After that, I should get busy again. I'm still set for two weeks in Arizona, Nevada, and California in May, as well as some time in Minneapolis and Kansas City in July. Finally, there will be a Christmas trip to Ottawa and the World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo around the New Year. It promises to be a busy season of road trips, so hope you can ride along.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Philippine Basketball League - March 18, 2010


I was in Manila last week and was fortunate to discover that the Philippine Basketball League was holding its season-opening tournament. Known as the PG Flex/Erase Placenta Cup (after two sponsors), the 8 teams in the league play each other once over a month, with the top 4 teams facing off in the playoffs.


Yesterday was the final round robin games held at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City (shown above). My hotel was close enough to walk there, although I wouldn't recommend the pedestrian option to those unfamiliar with Manila's streets - sidewalks are optional in places and traffic can be dangerous if you are not attentive.

When I arrived, I saw a sign that said entry was 700 pesos (about $14) which is outrageously expensive for here. But that must have been for another event, because I noticed a few fans just walking in, so I followed them in without any problem. Free sports! Doesn't get much better.

The arena is quite small, with about 1,000 seats in 9 rows that run along the sidelines and one end of the court. Obviously you can sit anywhere. There are some local delicacies outside and inside a few vendors walk around with pop and snacks throughout the afternoon.

There were two games scheduled and after they were complete, the semi-final matchups would be known.

Game 1 - Cobra Energy Drink Iron Men 88 vs Fern-C 82

The game was scheduled to start at 2:00 but I guess everybody had hot dates that night because they got things underway 20 minutes early! The game was even televised, so I don't know how they managed that, but nobody in the crowd of about 300 seemed to even notice.

Before the game, they played the Philippine National Anthem and then one of the players prayed, asking God for fair competition that is free from injury. The games here consist of 4 10-minute quarters, similar to the bj League in Japan.

Fern-C came in with just one win in their first 6 games while the Cobra Iron Men were 4-2. Both teams demonstrated horrible shooting off the start, with the first basket coming 2:20 into the game. But the Iron Men managed to get reasonably hot from 3-point land and took a 24-14 lead after one quarter.


Fern-C is in white, while Cobra is in yellow and black

Fern-C continued to throw up bricks but the Energy Drink squad couldn't break free until late in the 3rd when an 11-2 run gave them a 67-52 lead. The Ferntastics then went on a short 9-2 run to get within 8 but leading scorer Patrick Cabuhug netted two quick treys that pretty much settled the game. Although Fern-C used garbage time to get within 5 points on some good long range shooting, the final of 88-82 for Cobra was not as close as you might think.

Cobra's Marvin Hayes


Overall, this was a fast-paced game that took about 90 minutes to complete. With no TV timeouts and just a 10-minute halftime, there wasn't a lot of sitting around. The PBL is the development league (the Philippine Basketball Association is the big league here) and the players are clearly not the best at shooting. The cumulative shooting percentage was about 35% and often teams would take poor shots with plenty of time left on the shot clock.


The second game was not nearly as interesting. It turns out that the Cobra's victory in the first game meant that the Cossack Blue Spirits had clinched a spot in the playoffs, so they gave little effort. The first quarter ended 16-11 in favour of AddMix and that was the closest the game was as AddMix cruised to a meaningless 88-53 victory. I really didn't pay attention so have no comment on this tilt.


Probably the highlight of this game was AddMix's Jerick Cañada (shown shooting below), a small, speedy guard who notched 8 points. I know his last name is slightly different than my country of origin, but it was fun to watch him for that reason.


Notes

There were no foreign players in this league that I could tell. There were a couple of non-Filipinos, but investigation showed them to be locally based.

For those who don't know, basketball is huge in the Philippines, which is interesting as the population is not that tall in general. Every morning, there was one or two live NBA or NCAA games on various channels. They have two leagues plus a women's league, with most games seeming to take place in Manila.

During the game, they played music, but not your typical top 40. Instead, there was an ongoing drumbeat that seemed to energize the players. Very interesting and much better than the stupid "Defense" chants that permeate most other basketball games.

Next up

Real life has intervened again. I was hoping to travel to Osaka, Hiroshima, and Nagoya this weekend, but my girlfriend is changing jobs and that means she gets some vacation. So I'll be taking another non-sports trip in early April.

But I'll be visiting Phoenix and Las Vegas in May, so check back here for an updated schedule.

Best,

Sean

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hartford Wolf Pack 2 at Toronto Marlies 3 (OT) - March 7, 2010



After watching the Leafs in Ottawa the night before, I grabbed a Porter flight to Toronto on Sunday morning and made my way back to Ricoh Coliseum to watch their affiliate take on the Rangers' AHL team, the Hartford Wolf Pack. In a neat coincidence, the Rangers were the other team I had seen in Ottawa.

Ricoh Coliseum with the CN Tower in the background

When I saw the Marlies play last week, Joey MacDonald was the star in shutting down the league-leading Hershey Bears. But he was traded to Anaheim on deadline day, so I didn't expect him to be here. As it turns out though, the Ducks don't have an AHL affiliate of their own, so MacDonald stayed put, but today he was on the bench as James Reimer got the start.

I was also hoping to see Miika Wiikman again. He played for the ECHL's Charlotte Checkers when I saw them in Gwinnett back in January, and had recently been assigned to Hartford. But he was also moved on deadline day, this time to Phoenix, so the Hartford keeper was Chad Johnson.

The Game

Kyle Calder

After the great game last night, today was bound to be a bit of a letdown, and the first two periods were pretty dull. The Marlies' Ryan Hamilton scored on a snap shot late in the first but the shots were just 10-3 Toronto. The teams traded power play goals in the second, with ex-Leaf Kris Newbury tallying for Hartford, but the shots were a woeful 6-5 in Toronto's favour.

Chad Johnson relaxes in net


In the third, Hartford picked it up, and tough guy Donald Brashear (pictured above) tied the game midway through the period. The Wolf Pack pressure continued but Reimer was solid and the game went to overtime. It looked like I would witness another shootout, but with just a few seconds left, Brendan Mikkleson broke in down the right wing and snapped a shot that beat Johnson. There was just 1.1 seconds left, but it was enough as the Marlies won 3-2 in overtime. A great way to end the trip!

One note is that Wolf Pack defenceman Corey Potter also played for the Rangers in Ottawa just a few days ago. He was recalled for a few games while Michael Del Zotto was hurt, but was returned to Hartford once Del Zotto recovered. That's him below battling Andre Deveaux for the puck.


The final score

Thoughts

I now know why the Marlies have such trouble drawing fans. Parking at the CNE is $12 and it takes at least 45 minutes to get out of the parking lot after the game, with just 3, 000 fans. I'm afraid the Ricoh Coliseum, despite being a good arena, is in a bad area for transit and driving. I'm sure this is why Toronto fans would rather just avoid the team.

Thanks to Boyd and his family for joining me today and for the drive back to the airport hotel, which took over an hour due to the traffic getting out of the parking lot.

Next Up

I'm back in Japan for two days. On Thursday, I'm starting a 10-day non-sports trip to Thailand and the Philippines. The blog will be quiet for a while, but check back in late March for news of the summer's plans!

Best,

Sean

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Toronto Maple Leafs 2 at Ottawa Senators 1 (SO) - March 6, 2010


Despite being born in Ottawa, I'm a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and have developed a healthy hatred for my hometown Senators. So when Toronto visits Scotiabank Place and I am in town too, I have to go. It was Hockey Night in Canada too, so the place would be hopping.

Salute to Canada


The ceremonial faceoff was handled by three Olympic gold medalists: women's hockey player Jennifer Botterill (on the left below) and ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (waving below). A large Canadian flag was passed around the lower bowl (see the picture above) while Canadian Olympic highlights played overhead. When the anthem was sung, the crowd joined in. There were plenty of Leaf fans in attendance, but for this one moment, everyone sang together. A nice start to the evening.


Turning Over New Leafs?

Opening faceoff

This was the 5th Leaf road game that I'd be watching this season, but this squad and the one I saw back in Florida in late January bore little resemblance. Out of the 20 players who had dressed for Toronto's 2-0 loss to the Panthers, 8 were no longer with the team. And the result was happily quite different. These Leafs showed speed, good transition into the offensive zone, and physical play for most of the game. Only a great performance by Pascal Leclaire kept the Senators in the contest.

Dion Phaneuf above and Nikolai Kulemin below



The first period was tough with a lot of hitting and scuffling after the whistles. Chris Neil knocked in a rebound on the power play to give Ottawa a 1-0 lead, but the story of the period was the fight between Toronto's Colton Orr and Ottawa's Matt Carkner. The two had fought three times previously this season, with Orr having won two of those bouts. With two minutes to go in the period, they went at it again, first having to extricate themselves from a linesman who was trying to prevent the fight from starting. Both players landed a few good punches as the fisticuffs lasted well over a minute to the fans' delight, but Orr eventually got Carkner onto the ice. Orr felt he had won the fight and as he skated off he raised three fingers to indicate his 3rd victory over Carkner. Not a classy move, and in my mind, not necessarily a true statement in this case. The picture below shows Orr connecting with a solid right.


The second period was still physical, but there were only a couple of minor penalties. Phil Kessel scored a great goal for Toronto, beating Leclaire low to the stick side to tie the game at 1. Kessel added a goal late in the period, but it was waved off as the puck had been touched with a high stick.

Brian Lee takes a tumble

The Leafs dominated the third period, outshooting the Senators 11-3, but Leclaire (below) kept the puck out of the net and we went to overtime.



A quiet five minutes decided nothing, so the shootout was required. Ottawa went first and Alex Kovalev hit the post behind Jonas Gustavsson. Kessel then shot for Toronto, and scored on a weird play, coming all the way over to the right boards and then cutting across, putting the puck between Leclaire's legs for the goal, shown below.


Jason Spezza then shot for Ottawa and Gustavsson saved it, which brought Nikolai Kulemin out for Toronto. He calmly skated in and blew a shot by Leclaire to give the Leafs the win. Leafs win! Leafs win! I was ecstatic. The Leafs winning in Ottawa in a shootout - it couldn't get any better than this!


Overall, it was a great hockey game. There were many Leaf fans in attendance and as Ottawa wilted, these fans took over, cheering "Go Leafs Go" down the stretch. It was good to see the Leafs outskating the Senators and generally taking it to them in the third period. Ottawa was suffering from a bout of the flu that forced captain Daniel Alfredsson to miss the game, but I think Toronto wanted it more. But it looks like Ottawa's goaltending crisis has been solved for now as Leclaire took first star. That's him below before overtime.


Notes

I found a season-ticket holder who was selling his seats at a discount on-line. We were just two rows from the ice near the Senators bench, which are obviously great seats as I think you can tell by some of the pictures. But they also came with valet parking, a $30 value if you want to use it without a voucher. Regular parking is $11, and frankly the additional $19 is not worth it, but it was certainly a new experience to drop off the car and walk straight into the arena.

We also ate dinner at Frank Finnigan's, one of the Bank's (Scotiabank Place's nickname) restaurants. It's named after the last surviving member of the 1927 Ottawa Senators championship team, who died in 1991 before the Senators began playing. The food was OK, prices were not outrageous, and the place was packed more than two hours before game time. It's a much better choice than eating inside the arena and certainly worth trying if you want to beat the rush.


Next Up

I'm flying to Toronto in a few hours and hoping to catch the Marlies and Hartford. After last night's game, this will be a bit of an anti-climax, but check back for a short report on that tomorrow.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Barrie Colts 3 at Ottawa 67s 6 (OHL) - March 5, 2010


The Ontario Hockey League (OHL) is one of three junior circuits that provide opportunities for young players to hone their skills as they prepare for the NHL. The other two leagues are based in Quebec (QMJHL) and Western Canada and the Northwest US (WHL). The three leagues hold an annual championship known as the Memorial Cup, which is a great chance to see top prospects before they hit the big time. But we're still a couple of months away from that as each league is nearing playoff time.

With 17 teams scattered around the province and 3 in the US, the OHL is a great league for a road trip, if you can handle the winter weather. As for me, I'm just visiting home this time, so I couldn't pass up a chance to see the 67s take on the top team in the nation. But I hope to do a more comprehensive trip in the future.

The Arena

The Ottawa 67s play their games at the Urbandale Centre, which used to be called the Ottawa Civic Centre. Sigh. Always with the name changes. Although in this case, there was no signage that I noticed indicating the new moniker. Although only the 67s play here these days, the Ottawa Senators spent 3.5 seasons here before moving out to Kanata, and the Ottawa Rebel of the NLL also played here before folding in 2003.

Outside at dusk

The rink is located at Landsdowne Park on Bank Street, home of the Central Canadian Exhibition which runs in late summer. There is plenty of on-site parking for just $5 and it seemed like there was plenty of parking. Transit is also an option, but it's quite expensive and no special buses are run after the game, so I'd suggest just driving in.

The arena is unique in that one half of the seating bowl lies directly underneath the seats for an adjacent football stadium. That side of the rink therefore has a very low ceiling, so low that you can't see the scoreboard from the top seats, so a separate board is required as seen below.


The rest of the seating bowl is normal, and capacity is nearly 10,000, making it the largest venue in the league. Tickets are reasonably priced, starting at $15 for the upper level and topping out at $20 for lower level down the sides. One thing that I should mention is that there are no seats at ice-level. It's hard to tell in the shot above, but row A is actually a few feet off the ground, so be aware of that. There's a small path that circles the rink and is used for staff and photographers, but no seats right next to the glass.


There are even suites that were added back when the Senators joined the NHL. The picture below shows them - not a bad idea for a group who want to be above it all.


Food is typical although not cheap. A jumbo hot dog costs $4.75 and there are some burgers that are over $10. There's a 24-hour bagel place across the street and I'd recommend eating there before or after the game.

There are three retired numbers shown below, as well as a banner honouring long-time coach Brian Kilrea, who is still the general manager of the club.


Programs and lineups are on sale at each entrance, and there's a small team store located on the concourse. I think the 67s have one of the more interesting uniforms in sports with the barberpole design on the sleeves, as you can see in the shot below of Senators' draft pick Corey Cowick, so check out the available goods if you are looking for something a bit different.


The Teams

The number one team in junior hockey was in town. The Barrie Colts were an unbelievable 53-8-2 and certainly look like Memorial Cup contenders. Some of their notable players include Alex Pietrangelo (drafted 4th overall by St. Louis in 2008), Alexander Burmistrov (ranked as the #7 domestic skater by Central Scouting despite weighing in at only 162 lbs), and Kyle Clifford (the LA Kings' second round pick last year).

Ottawa was a respectable 34-23-7 for first overall in the East Division, which gives them the second-place berth in the Eastern Conference. They boasted defenseman Tyler Cuma (drafted 23rd overall by Minnesota in 2008), and Tyler Toffoli and Ryan Martindale who were ranked as the #22 and #24 best domestic skaters by Central Scouting.

The Game

With the playoffs less than two weeks away and both teams having clinched spots, I expected that we might see a statement game as there's a good chance they'll meet again in a few weeks. Ottawa had lost all three previous meetings to the Colts, so I'm sure they wanted to gain some confidence. As well, the game was broadcast on Sportsnet Ontario, so it gave both teams some additional motivation.


Sure enough, Ottawa started strong, scoring 3 times in the first period, including a great shot from Cowick that made it 2-0. After the 3rd goal, Peter Di Salvo was replaced by Mavric Parks, and the Colts responded with 2 goals in the second period to cut the deficit to one. But a questionable penalty against Barrie led to an Ottawa powerplay and Toffoli made a nifty backhand move to beat Parks just 13 seconds into the man advantage. Barrie replied quickly though, when league-leading goal scorer Bryan Cameron potted his 50th of the season and we entered the third period with the 67s up 4-3.

Burmistrov skates with Cowick

The Colts couldn't generate many chances in the final frame and when Cody Lindsay scored for Ottawa with just 5 minutes to go, the deal was done. Thomas Nesbitt added an empty netter after Pietrangelo gave the puck away, and Ottawa had upset the top-ranked team in the nation.

In the end, Barrie outshot Ottawa 38-30 but Petr Mrazek (ranked #26 domestically and pictured below) was strong, earning second star honours for his performance. Overall, this was an enjoyable contest, but I picked the wrong end to sit in. Eight of the nine goals were tallied at the opposite end of the ice. Well, at least I saw some great saves.


Thoughts

I need to spend more time studying the juniors. The last game I saw was in Seattle, when the Kelowna Rockets visited the Thunderbirds for a playoff tilt in 2008. I recently checked out the boxscore from that game (which I barely remember) and notice that current NHLers Tyler Myers (Sabres), Luke Schenn (Leafs), Jamie Benn (Stars) were on the Rockets. I love minor league baseball because I know some of the up-and-coming players, but I don't have the knowledge for hockey yet. I did study the players before tonight's game though, and was able to focus on Burmistrov and Cuma, although it was Martindale who might have been the most impressive. It'll be interesting to see where they are drafted.

There were a lot of families at the game, and I think this might be due to the Senators high ticket prices. The 67s offer an entertaining alternative at 10% of the cost without the hassle of driving all the way to Kanata. It's good to have two hockey choices in the same town; Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary now also have junior teams to go along with their NHL brethren.

Next Up

The Leafs are in town Saturday night and I'm still hoping to go, although the reasonably priced tickets are all gone. Check back tomorrow to see if I made it.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New York Rangers 4 at Ottawa Senators 1 - March 2, 2010


I'm from Ottawa, which I often refer to as the worst sports city in North America. This is because a AAA baseball team, Can-Am League team, and CFL team (twice!) have all departed the nation's capital due to a distinct lack of interest of local sports fans. Thankfully, the Senators are still around to give me something to do, and they were at home tonight to start the post-Olympic stretch run, hosting the New York Rangers.

The Arena

Scotiabank Place was opened in 1996 to house the city's new NHL team, which had spent its first three seasons in the Ottawa Civic Centre. Originally known as the Palladium, it quickly became the Corel Centre when local software firm Corel bought the naming rights, which expired in 2006. Since then, Scotiabank has owned these rights, so let's hope that they hold on to them for a while. I hate when stadiums change names all the time.

The arena is located in Kanata, a suburb about 20 km west of downtown Ottawa. There is public transit available, but most people drive. There is only one way to get there, which is the Queensway, the main highway through Ottawa. As you approach the exit, the highway drops to two lanes, which when combined with commuters returning home in the evening, makes the traffic outrageous on a weekday. I've heard stories of what should be a 30-minute trip taking nearly an hour and a half. If you are driving out, you may be better off exiting the highway at Eagleson Road and taking the side streets through Kanata.

Once you arrive, expect to pay $11 for parking which is poorly organized over several lots. There is some free street parking around if you get there early enough. When the game ends, it takes a very long time to get out of the parking lot, so either leave early or spend 45 minutes at one of the arena bars like Bert's.


There is one main entrance to the stadium which is shown above. Once inside, there are stairs on both sides that take you to the upper deck. There is a small entrance behind the stairs that leads to the lower bowl. Before the game, anyone can enter the lower bowl area to watch the warmup. The picture below shows the view of the main entrance from the top of the stairs.


There are three levels of seating here, appropriately named the 100, 200, and 300 levels. Despite this, the upper deck is not that far from the ice. Given that tickets here have become very expensive as the Senators are one of the league's more successful franchises, this might be your best bet.

The variable pricing method is used depending on the opponent. A lower level seat for a popular team such as the Leafs is $240, which is ridiculously overpriced. Even the best upper deck seats are over $100 for these games. There is an alcohol-free Coke Zone that consists of 3 sections in the upper deck and provides a discount but these tickets are tough to come by. You can check prices for each at Capital Tickets, which is the exclusive ticket provider for the Senators but is no cheaper than TicketMaster when it comes to fees.

From the first row of the 300 seats

Concourses here are quite narrow and during the intermissions expect long lineups for concessions. As usual, I didn't bother sampling the cuisine, but the Tim Horton's donut stand is worth it from past experience. They don't gouge you and a box of 20 Timbits (donut holes) lasts the game.

Despite the franchise being around since only 1992, they've put up several Stanley Cup banners recognizing the previous Ottawa Senators' championships, which were mostly won back in the 1920s. Personally, I think putting up another franchises successes is inviting trouble from the Hockey Gods, which may be why Ottawa has yet to win a Cup of their own while fellow expansion rival Tampa Bay has.

The scoreboard here is typical with four sides. It might be a bit outdated as the quality is not as good as that in some of the newer rinks, but it does the job.

I've been here too many times to be able to give an unbiased review. I think the arena is functional, but the location is terrible for almost everyone in Ottawa. Stadiums should be built downtown and used to build up an area. Thankfully I stay in Kanata when I'm here so the stadium is close, but I feel sorry for those who have to drive an hour each way, especially when the game turns out to be useless. Speaking of a useless game...

The Game

It was the first game back after the Olympics and predictably both teams were rusty. The first period was an exercise in futility as neither squad could mount any pressure. The Senators did score a nice goal when Milan Michalek converted a cross-ice pass from Jason Spezza just four minutes in, but the rest of the period was dull.

Spezza and Dubinsky face off

In the second, the Rangers found some jump. U.S. Olympian Ryan Callahan got things started. Breaking down the left wing, he undressed rookie Matt Carkner, and came in alone on Sens' keeper Brian Elliott. Callahan snapped a quick shot and from my vantage point it looked like Elliot had made the save, but in fact, the puck had beaten him and was stuck in the net, behind the top bar and the netting. Even the goal judge didn't see it go in, but the ref did and it was 1-1 just 22 seconds into the frame.

Alfredsson readies a slap shot

Late in the period, Brandon Dubinsky skated in and took advantage of some weak Ottawa defense, moving to the top of the left faceoff circle and wristing one behind a screened Elliot. A minute later, an Ottawa giveaway in the Ranger end was quickly taken back down the ice. Sean Avery took a shot from the slot that Elliot saved, but Callahan was able to backhand the rebound on net and it squeezed by the clearly struggling goalie. Another minute later, and Avery beat Carkner to the net to convert a pass from Enver Lisin to make it 4-1 Blueshirts. The three goals were scored in just 2:02, and all were scored on rushes after Ottawa turned the puck over. Elliot was replaced by Pascal Leclaire but the damage was done.


The third period was entirely forgettable and the game ended 4-1 for New York.


The best word to describe this game was listless. Not much physical play, few penalties, and lots of choppy neutral zone action. Even the fans seemed out of sorts after the 2-week break. I'm hoping for a better game and crowd when the Leafs visit this Saturday (assuming I can find affordable tickets).

Leclaire before the game looking forward to a night off

Thoughts

During the Star Spangled Banner, the Senators played highlights of Canadian Olympic successes. Clearly a technical problem, but it still looked bad when they showed Crosby's golden goal as the singer belted out "Land of the Freeeeeeeee". I guess Callahan exacted his revenge with his 2 tallies.

Avery was given a misconduct with 19 seconds left for being a jerk, I guess. Amazes me that he continues to play in the league, but he clearly has some value as he had two points tonight. I think though that when you get a penalty like this late in the game, it should carry over to the next game. A ten-minute misconduct with only 19 seconds left isn't very meaningful.

With the Rangers leading 4-1 and less than 5 minutes to go, the ubiquitous "Make Noise Meter" made an appearance on the scoreboard. The few remaining fans dutifully screamed. I hate this device, or anything designed to get fans to act mindlessly loud. But it is even more annoying when the home team is losing badly.

In the first intermission, some local kids get the opportunity to show their stuff on the ice. They play without goalies and it's quite fun to watch as all of them just chase the puck back and forth. Hell, it was probably more entertaining than the main event.


Up Next

I'm here for 5 more days, and in that time the Ottawa 67s of the OHL have a home game on Friday, while the Leafs visit the Senators on Saturday. After that, I return to Toronto for one night and another Marlies' game, then on to Japan. No rest for me though, as I head to Phuket for a street hockey tournament on March 14th, and then visit friends in Manila for a week. Not sure if I'll be able to catch any games when I'm there, but it should be a fun trip regardless. Check back for all the exciting news.

Best,

Sean