Monday, March 30, 2015
The AHL schedule maker was kind enough to slate a Syracuse Crunch game on the Saturday between the NCAA tournament days. The visitors were nearby rival Rochester Americans and this would be the eighth and final meeting of the season between the two, who happen to play in opposite conferences in the wacky setup of the AHL.
After an afternoon spent gorging at the original Dinosaur BBQ (this Syracuse standout is worth the four-hour drive from NYC alone), Sharpy and I headed over to the War Memorial Arena, just a few blocks south of downtown and easily walkable. The Crunch had a brilliant promotion, putting flyers in hotels advertising $10 off tickets to entice basketball fans who were not heading to Albany to watch the NCAA women's regional. The promo worked as the game was sold out; unfortunately those getting their first taste of AHL hockey probably won't return.
Before getting to that, a quick word on the arena, one of the more interesting in the league. Opened in 1951 as the Onodaga County War Memorial, it is now part of the OnCenter complex that includes a convention center and theaters. The Crunch are the fourth AHL team to play here, and are celebrating their 21st season this year.
After entering, you take a set of stairs to the main concourse (above). The seating bowl is hidden behind several sets of doors, so before you enter, take the time to find the tribute to the Syracuse Nationals, NBA champions in 1955.
There will be a 60th-anniversary celebration on April 10, the date of their 92-91 Game 7 win over the Fort Wayne Pistons that was held at this very venue. Note that the NBA regular season doesn't even finish by April 10 these days! Sadly for Syracuse hoops fans, the Nationals moved to Philadelphia in 1963, but the championship banner remains.
In the same alcove is a plaque commemorating the creation of the 24-second shot clock, which
happened in Syracuse in 1954. There is an actual clock downtown with the same plaque, but they did not change the wording on the one here in the arena, so it refers to "This clock" when there is no clock around.
Having completed the requisite tour, you can enter the horseshoe-shaped seating bowl, with the top of one end displaying a message honouring veterans (below). There are seats in this section, but the angle and distance from the ice makes them a poor choice.
The best option is sitting high up in the middle of the ice which give you a mostly unobstructed view of the action. All tickets are $24 on game day (discounted to $14 with the flyer) and $3 cheaper if bought in advance.
The visitors wore their home whites (the AHL has smartly kept this tradition while the NHL cynically promotes the third jersey concept with home darks) and it has to be one of the most timeless uniforms in sports. The Amerks logo has remained essentially unchanged since 1970 (save for a season when the Vancouver Canucks messed with it, foreshadowing that franchise's long road through uniform hell). It looks really sharp, particularly when compared to the Crunch's cartoon superhero.
Returning to the game, the first two periods were scoreless, and although each team generated their share of shots (23-21 in favour of Syracuse), there were few scoring opportunities. Four minutes into the third, Allan McPherson one-timed a beautiful pass from Dan Catenacci that beat Kristers Gudlevskis high on the shoulder side. That was all the Amerks needed as Catenacci added an empty netter with eight seconds to go, giving Andrey Makarov (above) the shutout and the first star.
My first AHL game was in Rochester when the Crunch visited in the middle of a snowstorm back in April, 2003. The Amerks goalie was Ryan Miller, completing his rookie season as a pro. I also saw Makarov play in Saskatoon back in 2011. I expect I'll see him in a Sabres uniform next time.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Last year when I first saw the NCAA tournament schedule, I considered the possibility of traveling to Dayton for the First Four, then Columbus and Pittsburgh for the first weekend, and Cleveland and Syracuse for the second. Such a trip would require a lot of time, which my job precludes, so I ended up just visiting Syracuse for the East Regional. After attending two games on Friday night, I'm glad that I couldn't make it to the other venues. During the season, college ball, especially in the mid-majors, can be exciting and fast paced, but in the tournament, the games become a slog. The first weekend hides this fact by throwing 48 games at you over four days, but by the Sweet Sixteen, it becomes more obvious. Long TV timeouts extend the game to well over two hours (for 40 minutes of action) and late start times mean that by the end of the evening, you are just waiting for the final whistle.
The East Regional was held in the Carrier Dome, a venue that I had driven by many times but never had the pleasure of entering. It is actually on the Syracuse University campus, but for the tournament, all nearby parking was sold out. Fortunately, the organizers arranged free shuttles from downtown and a nearby mall. My basketball buddy Eddie drove me up from New York while Sharpy drove down from Ottawa to meet us. We took the shuttle from Armory Square and got to the dome about 45 minutes before the tip.
As we made our way around to our seats, the concourse gradually became more and more crowded. The picture above does not do justice to what happened between the two games, when it was nearly gridlocked on both levels.
My seat (actually a bench) was in the corner (view above) while Sharpy and Eddie were sitting nearby. The court was arranged at one end of the stadium, which limited the seating possibilities, while the other half of the football field was covered by a media area (below).
The first game featured two ACC teams as #4 seed Louisville took on #8 NC State. The first half was slow as both teams controlled the ball, with few fast breaks in either direction. With the Cardinals up 28-27 and a minute to go, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner made back-to-back threes for the Wolfpack before Terry Rozier closed the frame with another three for Louisville to get them back within two. This was about the only time the crowd was into the game; the size of the dome really makes it difficult for fans to maintain an atmosphere.
The first five minutes of the second half saw Montrezl Harrell (#24 above) score 8 points but NC State kept the game close and approached the final media timeout up 54-53. Then Anton Gill (#1 below, guarding Anthony 'Cat' Barber) hit a jumper and a trey and Louisville never trailed after that. Another Turner three got the Wolfpack back within one but a couple of Rozier free throws, a steal by Mangok Mathiang, leading to a Gill layup made it 62-57. NC State missed their next two shots and turned the ball over once more, with Harrell capitalizing with a layup to make it 67-57 and salt the game away.
The last minute had six fouls, but it made no difference in the outcome as Louisville and Rick Pitino advanced to the Elite Eight with a 75-65 win. A good game in the end, with the teams combining for only 12 turnovers. The Cardinals were solid from inside the arc, shooting 24/42 with Harrell leading all scorers with 24 points.
With all the fouling at the end, the game didn't finish until 9:45 so the next game wouldn't get started until 10:17. I took the opportunity to move over to Sharpy's seat, which was right behind the basket. His neighbours had left after the first game, so we sat there to watch Michigan State take on Oklahoma.
The #3 seeded Sooners jumped out to a 23-13 lead on the #7 Spartans but never count Tom Izzo out in the tournament. Michigan State fought back to get within four at the half, with the last 2:39 seeing 7 missed shots and not a single point.
The Spartans tied the game at 39 early in the second half and the teams fought for the lead for the next while. Travis Trice (shooting above) sank a three to make it 54-49 with 5 minutes to go. Oklahoma's TaShawn Thomas made four foul shots while Trice added a jumper and two free throws of his own to keep the five point lead. But then Big 12 player of the year Buddy Hield drained a three, and the Sooners were within 2, down 58-56 with a minute to go. After each team took a time out, Trice tried for a clinching three which missed. Matt Costello got the offensive board but his tip shot also missed. Still the Sooners could not grab the ball as Denzel Valentine grabbed it and was fouled by Buddy Hield. The game essentially ended there as Valentine made both free throws (in a 1-and-1 situation). Thomas added a layup to make it 60-58 and the Sooners fouled Trice in a last-ditch attempt. But Trice calmly sank both shots to finish with 24 points leading all scorers as his Spartans held on for the 62-58 win.
This would have been a thrilling finish if it wasn't 12:30 in the morning after a long day. I was so tired I just wanted to get out of there. These back-to-back games have to start earlier, many fans were likely asleep as this one finished.
As the game neared an end, we decided to make our way to the other side of the dome, near the exit that would be close to the shuttle buses. We walked around the seating bowl, allowing for some pictures of the commemorative banners scattered throughout. The Carrier Dome is a pretty nice venue (for a dome) and they do a good job of honouring basketball, football, and lacrosse there.
As Michigan State clinched the game, we hurried down and out of the dome, getting on the second bus back to Armory Square. We could hear the radio chatter from the other bus drivers and it seemed like it was a bit disorganized as the full crowd reached the buses, with some trying to push their way on buses that were far back in the line. In the end, we were back downtown by 1 am, giving us a bit of time to enjoy one of the local bars before finally calling it a day. A very long day.
At halftime, we moved over to Eddie's area, which was quite far away (below). Bring your binoculars if you end up here.
Michigan State won the regional with a 70-65 overtime victory over Louisville on the Sunday, a game that was very entertaining. When there is only one game in a day, the tournament becomes much more palatable as a sports road trip.
Monday, March 23, 2015
My AHL weekend continued on Sunday when I drove about 50 miles west to Springfield. If you do this, take US-20 (the longest road in the nation) and stop at one of the small restaurants along the way. J&Es Yankee Diner was a nice find in Red Sox country.
Springfield is the city where basketball was invented by James Naismith back in 1891 and the National Basketball Hall of Fame is located here, but it deserves a full day and so I will return alone at some point to enjoy it at my leisure. There are several other museums here, including a sculpture garden dedicated to childhood hero Dr. Seuss, that offer a single admission card for only $18, so Springfield is definitely worth a visit for reasons other than a sporting event.
After a brief stop at McCaffrey's Public House to watch Duke defeat San Diego State, my wife (who could not escape attending this game) and I headed over to the MassMutual Center, home of the Springfield Falcons. The main entrance has both pucks and basketballs out front; of course the latter could be due to the city's claim to being the birthplace of the game, but the Springfield Armor of the D-League also played here for five years before moving to Grand Rapids for the 2014-15 season.
Box office prices started at $22, but some fans had extras here, although they were not willing to part with them for nothing. I picked up a season stub from one guy and then a normal ticket from another. As we entered, the season stub was revealed to have been already used. So the guy must print them out, sell the stub, and then enter on the printout. I was surprised that there was a scammer at this level, but it mattered not as they just tore the bottom off the ticket and let us in anyway.
A tour of the concourse revealed a number of concession stands with absolutely nothing out of the
ordinary, and a couple of lounges (one with a slightly expanded menu if you wanted a slightly expanded waistline) showing some NCAA basketball games. The main attraction was the Springfield Hockey Hall of Fame (above) with some familiar names, including Brian Kilrea, who played nine seasons for the Springfield Indians (his last season they became the Kings). He also played in 25 games for the LA Kings in their first season. Interestingly, he had played one NHL game in the 1957-58 season for Detroit, meaning that he spent 10 seasons between call ups, which must be some sort of record.
Inside you had a small lower bowl of 6-8 rows and a large upper deck, all blue seats. The Falcons do not draw well and you could pretty much sit wherever you wanted.
I found the poor turnout to be rather depressing, but not unusual as Springfield ranks 29th of the 30 AHL teams in attendance (link). The 2,198 on hand for this one brought their season average to just 3,129, a far cry from the 8,202 that Providence manages to top the New England teams. Of course, Providence is the affiliate of the Bruins, while Springfield develops players for Columbus (the uniforms are very similar) and that no doubt has something to do with the disparity.
This was the Falcons third home game in as many nights, and they had 4,200 the night before, so I can forgive the locals for being a bit lethargic. The team, on the other hand, deserves no sympathy for their pathetic performance, especially as they are fighting with Worcester for that final playoff spot.
Yes, it was their third game in three days, but that was true for Syracuse as well, who had the added disadvantage of having travelled after two home games. This was a horrible contest with neither team showing much energy from start to finish. Syracuse won 4-1 as Springfield could only muster 14 shots on Kristers Gudjevskis (above, you might remember him from his star turn against Canada in last year's Olympics). As an aside, I appreciated the Syracuse third jersey, even with its garish orange.
My wife spent the game shopping on the Internet (probably for divorce lawyers) and I am severely
indebted to her for having asked her to attend two AHL games in as many weeks. Which means many
more nice (i.e. expensive) dinners in my future.
The Springfield Indians and Kings were the same franchise and one of the original AHL teams, but they moved to Worcester in 1994, then Peoria in 2005, and are now in Utica. The Falcons were an expansion team in 1994. Still, the old banners remain, as they should because at this level it is the city that matters more than the franchise.
Those expensive dinners will have to wait a bit as we are in the middle of March Madness! I will be in Syracuse on the weekend to watch the East Regional games featuring Oklahoma, Michigan State,
Louisville, and NC State. The Crunch have a home game on the rest day so I'll add another AHL rink to the list. Check back next week to see how it went.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
With the college basketball season pretty much over, I'm running out of new venues to visit in New York City. The nascent MLS team NYCFC plays out of Yankee Stadium and I'll be going there next month, and there are some college baseball games but the weather has not been conducive to enjoying those quite yet. So each weekend, I'm heading out of the city to add to my AHL venue count, concentrating on those teams that are moving west after the season. This past weekend all of the nearby New England venues that I've yet to see (Bridgeport, Hartford, Springfield, Worcester, and Manchester) were hosting games, with some having two or even three contests to choose from, I initially planned on Hartford on Friday, Worcester on Saturday, and Manchester on Sunday, but ended up changing that slate as other factors came into play.
My wife decided to accompany me, so immediately the chance for three games disappeared, with Friday's contest stricken from the schedule to make room for something called "a nice dinner". I always thought arena hot dogs and chicken tenders qualified as "nice", but let's just say I was politely told otherwise. As it turned out, it snowed on Friday (the last "storm" of the season I hope) which made getting to Hartford in time for the game impossible regardless of my intentions. We continued on to Worcester, with the 175-mile drive taking nearly five hours thanks to the snow and rush hour traffic through Connecticut, reminding me of my recent southern sojourn. After this winter, I am glad that the AHL is moving west and I can look forward to a trip in 2016 without weather worries.
Worcester (it kind of rhymes with rooster depending on who is speaking) is the second-largest city in New England and known as the Heart of the Commonwealth, because of its proximity to the center of Massachusetts. As I drove through town on Saturday afternoon, I commented to my wife that I had never seen such terrible drivers. It seems like the rules of the road are merely suggestions here. At one large intersection where all four lights were flashing red (which means it should be treated as a stop sign) drivers just followed the car in front without stopping. Only when both perpendicular directions were free could you risk entering the intersection, and then every other driver would follow. Yield signs were routinely ignored; I was cut off a couple of times, and generally found many others pointlessly aggressive for such a small town. In a shopping mall parking lot we witnessed one person speeding up to yell at a minivan driver who had committed some perceived offense. Turns out that this was not a small sample size, but a reflection of Worcester actually having the worst drivers in the country. It was gratifying to know that all my road trip experience allowed me to identify them as such.
After our tour, I returning to the safety of our hotel to drop my wife off, before again braving Worcester's worst, zooming downtown to the DCU Center where the Sharks were hosting the Phantoms of Lehigh Valley. San Jose is moving their affiliate to California, where they will play in the same arena as the parent club next season. No ECHL team is replacing them, so this was one of the last chances to see a pro hockey game in the DCU Center, at least until 2017 if an arena bartender is to be believed. I arrived about an hour before game time and as I was standing in front of the arena, I heard a child ask "Where is Granny going?" The reply "She is going to see if anyone needs a ticket," was music to my ears. I scooted up and casually asked if she had an extra, and after giving me the once-over to, she handed me a ticket. Free hockey! Thanks Granny!
Upon entering the venue (#540 lifetime), I saw a long line of fans, many dressed in New England Patriots gear. They were all waiting to receive an autograph from Malcolm Butler, whose last-second interception sealed the Super Bowl for the Pats just over a month before. I'd say the queue snaked halfway around the concourse. I didn't bother lining up, but followed it around until I could snap a surreptitious shot (above). Butler also performed the ceremonial face-off. The concourse is also where you can find a large inflated shark above a game where kids can take slap shots. I am not sure what they will do with this after the game, but I would guess only San Jose can use it.
I really liked the setup at DCU Center, with two bars on concourse level at either end of the rink that were serving decent beers at only mildly inflated prices. The lower bowl has about 20 rows, with the top few high enough to avoid the glass, while the upper deck has about four open rows in front of black curtains, but it provides the better view if you can avoid the railings. There are some groups of seats that rest alone on this level which give you some privacy as well as an unfettered view of the action.
The free ticket I had received was In the corner and the DCU Center is not well designed for hockey, particularly in this area where railings block your view of one of the nets. So I went to Guest Services and asked for an upgrade. I was moved to center ice at no cost, with my new seat written directly on the ticket, something I had never experienced before. I spent the first two periods here, but the seat was not good for taking pictures, so I moved to the upper deck for the third period.
Worcester is fighting for a playoff spot and they opened the scoring five minutes in when Daniel Ciampini (above), newly signed out of defending NCAA champ Union College, potted his first pro goal, converting a perfect pass from Jimmy Bonneau. Five minutes after that, Bryan Lerg doubled the tally with his 5th in three games, netting him AHL Player of the Week honours. When Rylan Schwartz added a third after another five minutes had passed, the rout was on. The Sharks scored twice in the second to salt the game away.
The third period saw the Worcester go two men down and Brandon Manning (above) scored a power play goal just as the 5-on-3 advantage was expired, ending Aaron Dell's shutout bid.
A late goal from John McCarthy (that's the puck entering the net behind Anthony Stolarz above) made the final 6-1 Worcester. Attendance was announced at 6,131 but I'd say many of these were fans of Malcolm Butler who left before the game even started.
The referee was Jamie Koharski, son of long-time NHL official Don, who is most famous for having a character in Wayne's World named after him.
I love how the minors turn any player who toiled there into a "star" when they make the jump. Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels are solid players but not likely to make the Hall of Fame.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
March Madness refers to the NCAA Tournament, which features 68 teams playing 67 games over three consecutive weekends. The tournament invites 32 conference champions and selects 36 other teams, mostly from the six basketball power conferences. This season, there were 7 at-large selections from mid-majors (Dayton and Davidson from the Atlantic l0, Cincinnati from the American, Wichita State from the Missouri Valley, Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West, and BYU from the West Coast). The other 29 selections included teams like UCLA (which scored 7 points in a half against Kentucky and lost all 5 games against teams from other power conferences) and Oklahoma State (8-10 in Big 12 play) instead of Murray State who were perfect in the regular season in the smaller Ohio Valley Conference. Murray State was hampered by a weak strength of schedule, and that is the problem - crappy teams in the power conferences get the benefit of a strong strength of schedule and will receive most of those at-large spots. Those squads have bigger followings which means more advertising dollars as well. I know that Murray State would probably lose to pretty much any power conference team, but shouldn't they get the chance to dance? Nope, because the NCAA tournament is not about finding the best team in the land, but about finding the group of teams that will generate the most interest and revenue. To be fair, the NCAA could remove the autobid for conference tournament champions and simply pit the best 68 teams in the country, but that would kill the madness aspect. Having one spot guaranteed for each conference generates upsets and story lines throughout March and means that each school can dream of making it big on the national stage. If Murray State wanted into the tournament, they should have beaten Belmont in the OVC final.
But they didn't. So what happens? They go to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). This competition, around since 1938, invites all regular season conference champions that did not make the NCAAs plus some other quality teams from both power conferences and mid-majors to make 32 entrants. It is owned by the NCAA and the first 3 rounds are played on campus courts, with the semifinals and finals held at MSG during the week before the Final Four. Murray State received a 3 seed and beat UTEP in the first round.
These two tourneys combine to give 100 teams a postseason experience, but that leaves 251 other clubs in Division I with nothing to do except study for final exams. How mundane! So a couple of enterprising groups created their own tournaments. In 2007, the Gazelle Group found the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) with 16 teams playing on campus sites. The tournament is often referred to as the "Cash Buy In" as teams now pay to host games. In 2009, Collegelnsider.com founded the Collegelnsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) and this now has 32 mid-major teams playing on campus sites. Last year's champion was Murray State, who beat Yale in the final, so there are arguments that these less famous tournaments give you a chance to see which teams will surprise next year.
So why all the preamble? Because this year, NJIT, the only Division I independent, was invited to the CIT and would even host a first-round game. This is one of three schools in the area that I had yet to visit (Iona and Fordham are the others) so when the game was announced, I immediately put it on my schedule. The opponents ended up being the New Hampshire Wildcats of the America East. The Wildcats blew a late lead against Albany in the conference semi-finals, and their reward was a trip to Newark to face the Highlanders.
NJIT plays out of the worst-rated venue on Stadium Journey, the Edith and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center. Located about a mile from Newark Penn Station, you can take light rail there or brave the streets of one of America's most dangerous cities. I chose the latter and discovered that Division III Rutgers-Newark is right next door. It always amazes me how many institutions of higher education there are in this country and nearly all of them have athletic programs. I don't consider these lower level schools worth visiting but I might make an exception for this one that is so close to my office.
The Fleisher Center has no amenities, it is just a simple gym with about 10 rows of seats and the worst acoustics ever. Look at the ceiling in the photo above - not very good for hearing what the announcer is saying. The lighting is also terrible; I could not get any good pictures of the action from my seat and the staff photographer had set up flashes at each corner to illuminate the floor whenever he took a shot, which was very distracting at first. To make matters worse, the mascot (below) looks like a zombie with pallid grey skin.
There were a couple of positive aspects. Free t-shirts were given out to all fans, and there is a small Hall of Fame inside the lobby. Other that that, it is just a gym. NJIT has plans to build a $100 million arena in the next few years, so it is safe to say that this was my last visit to the Fleisher Center.
For NJIT's first-ever postseason game (it was also the Wildcats' inaugural appearance in the wonderful world of March Sadness), a band was brought in to deafen the 1,300 patrons (sold out!) on hand, most of whom had paid $15 for the pleasure. The evening got off to a funny start when both microphones didn't work (this is the New Jersey Institute of Technology after all), but then again, I could barely understand the announcer anyway once they got the mike operating.
This happened to be the only men's college basketball game in the country, and perhaps the first to use a 30-second shot clock, as that innovation is being tested by the CIT. New Hampshire stormed to a quick 10-0 lead but NJIT chipped away and tied the game at 27 when Tim Coleman converted a three-point play. The half ended on a weird sequence: coming out of a timeout with 2.5 seconds left, Ronnel Jordan of UNH went for a jump shot just inside the arc, but it was blocked by Coleman. The ball came right back to Jordan who threw up a prayer from the other side of the three-point line and it swished through, giving New Hampshire a 37-32 lead at the break.
The second half saw each team score 15 points each in the first 8 minutes as the pace was quick, with neither club running too many set plays. Over the next four minutes, NJIT went on a 13-0 run to take a 60-52 lead, capped by a thunderous dunk from Odera Nweke that sent the crowd to their feet. UNH got back within 3 but NJIT rolled off another 9-2 run. With less than four minutes left, the Wildcats were forced to foul as much as possible and try to drain threes when on offense, which brought them within 6 but no closer as they ran out of time, losing 84-77.
This was a fun game to attend, with fans enjoying a rare chance to celebrate a successful season for the Highlanders. NJIT will host a second round match against Cleveland State on Monday, March 23rd. I'll update you on the result then.
If you want to annoy other fans, yell "STEPS!" whenever a player appears to commit a traveling violation. Guy behind me did it on several occasions (he was rarely right) and I am sure I was not the only one who wanted to tell him to shut up.
An AHL weekend on tap as I head to Massachusetts to see the Worcester Sharks before they move to San Jose, as well as the Springfield Falcons. I'm still only halfway through the league, but I find these games to me more enjoyable than the NHL variety; check back next week to see if that trend continued.