Sunday, February 28, 2016
To get back from Portland to NYC I booked two buses: one from Portland to Boston for $1, and then another from Boston for $10. That is cheaper than the $15 toll to get into the city by the way. I had a few hours in Boston between arriving and departing, enough time to sneak over to Boston University for college hoops starting at noon. The Terriers were hosting Holy Cross at Case Gym in the final regular season game for both teams.
The gym is also known as The Roof because it is on the top floor of the Case Physical Education Facility, above Walter Brown Arena, where the women's hockey team plays. The men's hockey team plays in nearby Agannis Arena, which was supposed to host conference basketball games as well when the Terriers moved to the Patriot League in 2013. However, as in many northeast schools, basketball is second fiddle to hockey and the team draws very poorly, so they now play all games at Case, which seats 1,800 compared to over 6,000 at Agannis. Below is Walter Brown Arena, which had a game between the Boston Junior Eagles and New England Junior Falcons, a couple of elite teams with players born in 2004. I watched the first period and was quite impressed with the skill level displayed by these kids.
To get to Case Gymnasium, take the B Branch of the Green Line to Babcock Street and walk north a couple of blocks. You will pass Braves Field Way, so named because Braves Field used to sit here. Part of the structure still exists as Nickerson Field (below), where the soccer and lacrosse teams play. The grandstand and concourse underneath are much the same as when it was a baseball stadium. You can also see the field is set up for lacrosse; Boston was hosting Navy but the game started at 1:00, conflicting with the second half of the basketball game. When that was over, it was nearly halftime, so too late to complete the official doubleheader (Boston won 10-9 in double overtime).
There are pictures of the construction of Braves Field and an informative plaque inside the lobby of the PE Center.
There is also a small Hall of Fame honouring past stars. The most recognizable name was Chris Drury, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 1998. Jack Eichel will be added here shortly. I expect that Agannis Arena houses the hockey trophies that have been awarded and I'll have to come back to check that out next season.
Tickets are $12 for any seat, and as the place normally draws about 500, you can generally choose where you want to sit. On this afternoon however, nearby Holy Cross was visiting and over 1,200 fans showed up (you can see the full sections below), making it a more energetic experience than expected. It was also quite comical as many fans did not sit in their assigned seats, so latecomers struggled to find empty spots. There are no ushers here, and I think that many fans thought it was general admission. So keep that in mind if you are attending a game with the Crusaders or another local school visiting.
There are five sections on either side of the court, with no end zone seating. Section 1 is reserved for the band, so if you don't like loud music in your ear for two hours, avoid sitting low in Section 2. Buy your tickets at the window in the main lobby and then take the stairs which lead outside to the main entrance to The Roof.
The highlight for men's basketball happened in 1959 when they made the Elite Eight. They haven't been to the tournament since 2011, and nobody cares about the CBI semifinals, but they still put it on the banner.
Overall, Case Gym is a basic facility with its place in baseball history the biggest attraction. The large crowd made a difference in the atmosphere on this day, but I think that if you attend a game against a distant opponent, you will find a game here rather mundane.
Holy Cross came in 4-13 in conference play while Boston was 10-7. Off the tip, Karl Charles (#1 below, giving me the evil eye) of the Crusaders had an easy layup, but that was the only lead of the night for the visitors. The Terriers went on a 22-7 run, with Eric Fanning (at the line below) leading the way with 10 points.
Holy Cross got back within 3 as the half wound down but Fanning scored the frame's final four points as Boston went into the break 34-27. Holy Cross kept it within reason and were down 49-43 after Robert Champion (#22 below) drained a three but a quick 9-2 Terrier run ended any real chance of the upset.
The game moved quickly as the officials were letting them play (only 33 fouls called), and both teams sacrificed defense down the stretch to pad their final numbers as Boston won 83-68, giving them third place in the conference and a home game in the tournament.
Fanning was dominant with 25 points and 16 boards, while Champion led the Crusaders with 14 despite 2/8 shooting from downtown. Boston shot a very impressive 58% from the field and if they keep that up, they could surprise in the tournament.
Update: Holy Cross was the one who surprised in the tournament, winning 4 games on the road to clinch a bid. Their final record is 14-19, which is why conference tournaments suck. Only the top 4 teams in a conference should participate; let's have the regular season mean something.
Bucknell won the Patriot League by a game over Lehigh. I saw those two teams play back in January in the game that essentially decided first place. It is always interesting to look back at the games I've attended to see how they affected the final standings in short seasons such as this.
Boston will host American, while Holy Cross finished ninth and will play #8 Loyola for the right to face Bucknell.
Army finished fourth in the Patriot League, thus they will host Colgate in the first round of the tournament at West Point. Can Army finally make the NCAA tournament? I was going to go there on Thursday to see if they can take the first step, but then I found out The Who was in concert that night at MSG. So Army will have to wait until next season, I hope it will be for a football/basketball doubleheader.
I am heading to St. John's, Newfoundland in the middle of next week for a couple of games, so check back for recaps then.
Saturday, February 27, 2016
The primary objective of the past winter has been to see as many AHL venues as possible. I visited Hershey and Utica as well as the five new rinks in California, leaving just five (Portland, St. John's, Grand Rapids, Iowa, and Winnipeg) to complete the circuit. With the warmer weather this year, I decided to get up to Portland in February, something that would have been a lot more difficult last year when New England was suffering from record snowfall.
The Pirates, who are affiliated with the Florida Panthers this season, play at the Cross Insurance Arena, not to be confused with the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The venue is located in downtown Portland and is surrounded by a large number of bars and restaurants, good for both pre-game and post-game libations. The arena was opened in 1977 as the Cumberland County Civic Center and ZZ Top was the first act to play there. Elvis was supposed to fly to Portland for a concert here on the day he was found dead.
Two incarnations of the Maine Mariners played here between 1977 and 1992 before the Pirates took over in 1993, moving from Baltimore. Cross Insurance bought the naming rights in 2014, but there is one entrance that is sponsored by a competitor, Clark Insurance. The negotiators at Clark probably should have added a clause to ensure that they were not upstaged by Cross.
In 2013, renovations were undertaken that led the team to schedule their first few games in Lewiston, about 45 minutes north. However, a dispute between the Pirates and the arena led to them play the entire season in Lewiston and there were concerns that the team might have to leave Maine altogether. Fortunately an agreement was reached and the Pirates returned to the CCCC (it wasn't the CIA quite yet) for the 2014-15 season.
There is street parking around with meters expiring at 6 p.m., and a few lots and garages too, but I walked from my hotel so have no idea about prices. The box office is at the southwest corner of the venue inside a large lobby. Tickets are $20 for end zone and high rows at the blue line, and $24 for others. You can save $2 if you buy your tickets before 5 p.m. on game day. The seating bowl is quite steep, so you are above the glass even in the low rows.
Inside, the concourse is probably the blandest I have ever seen. There is nothing on the walls, no banners or decorations in the ceilings, or anything to indicate that a hockey team plays here. Perhaps the dispute during the renovations led the arena management to avoid making any mention of the Pirates, but whatever the case, only a few advertisements add any colour. There is a small party area called the C.N. Brown Landing that is above the Clark Entrance, and Friday nights there is a radio show held here. Fans can come in for Happy Hour, which starts at 4:56 and includes $4 beers, $5 appetizers, and $6 cocktails. I would recommend visiting one of the local eateries instead.
Inside the seating bowl, only a few banners indicate that the Pirates call the CCCC home. The team won the Calder Cup in their first season, but haven't done much since then, though the AHL All-Star Game was held here on two occasions.
There are railings all the way up the aisles, so if you have an aisle seat, you might be mildly bothered by these. Fortunately, there are plenty of empty seats to move to should you be dissatisfied.
Avoid the end zones though, as they are quite far from the ice.
There are also a couple of towers with suites which provide a cool view.
That's all I have to say about this place. It is purely a functional facility, with no history on display or anything else to make it a warmer or more interesting venue. Thankfully it is in a good area and the sightlines are excellent, thus making it worth a visit. Portland is just over 100 miles from Boston, but it doesn't get much tourism in the winter, keeping it a cheap destination. If you are in New England during the hockey season, consider taking a trip to Portland for the Pirates and adding a bit of life to the Cross Insurance Arena.
The Atlantic Division leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were in town to take on Portland, who were third. Mike McKenna (below), who is in his 11th pro season, started for the Pirates. He was with Portland last year when they were Arizona's affiliate and signed with Florida to stay here. Matt Murray (Pittsburgh's 3rd round pick in 2012) completed the alliterative goalie trend for WBS. Murray is only 21 and in his second pro season, and based on what I saw tonight and a brief stint in Pittsburgh earlier this season (1.72 GAA in 4 games), he will be in the NHL soon enough (in fact, he was called up the next day and started against Washington in a nationally televised game on March 1st). Update: Murray went on to lead Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup, so pretty sure that this was his last AHL game.
The first period was goalless despite chances for both clubs. The highlight was a solid check by Ty Loney, who then had to fight Mackenzie Weegar to atone for playing the game properly. One thing that annoys me is when a clean hit is considered cause for dropping the gloves. Weegar should have been penalized for instigating, but the refs just gave them both five for fighting.
The second period saw more chances and another fight, but it wasn't until the 14:11 mark that a goal was scored when Dominik Simon (above, 5th round, 2015, out of the Czech Republic) banged home a juicy rebound for the only marker of the frame.
The Penguins started the third period down a man, and when Carter Rowney took a stupid cross-checking penalty just 10 seconds in, the Pirates had a 5-on-3. It took just 32 seconds for Connor Brickley (2nd round, 2010) to score, though he was helped by Murray (in net below) kicking the puck into the goal. A couple of minutes later, Rocco Grimaldi (above, 2nd round, 2011) took a penalty but the Pirates were able to kill it. As Grimaldi exited the sin bin, he received a pass from Brickley and broke in alone on Murray, deking him and tucking the puck home for the 2-1 advantage.
That only lasted a couple of minutes as Kael Mouillierat (#21 above, spent 6 games with the Islanders last season) tied things up by beautifully deflecting a shot from Will O'Neill (7th round by Atlanta in 2006, spent his college career at Maine). The rest of the period saw both teams trying for the winner, but both goalies kept the puck out of the net and we went to a 3-on-3 overtime. The AHL employs a dry scrape between the third period and overtime that takes about 5 minutes and really kills the game. The NHL did away with this stupid idea soon after the season began and the AHL needs to follow suit. Anyway, the overtime solved nothing, so it was time for the shootout.
Simon went first for the Penguins and beat McKenna (above). Grimaldi missed, as did O'Neill and then Rob Schremp (Edmonton's 1st-round pick in 2004 who has 114 games of NHL experience but spent the last few seasons in Europe). Mouillierat then shot for WBS and easily beat McKenna high to the glove side to clinch the contest for the visitors.
This turned out to be a very good game that took about 20 minutes longer than it should have. I don't particularly like the 3-on-3 overtime or the shootout, but it is even worse when you have to wait for it.
After the regular season ended, it was announced that Portland would be moving to Springfield to replace the Falcons, who are relocating to Tucson to be closer to parent club Arizona.
Friday, February 26, 2016
I chose this week to visit the AHL's Portland Pirates because the other minor league team that plays in Portland was home the day before. The Maine Red Claws are the D-League affiliate of the Boston Celtics and were hosting the Delaware 87ers at the Portland Exposition Building on Thursday night.
The Expo was built in 1915 and is celebrating 100 years this season. It is located east of downtown, right next to Hadlock Field, where the minor league Portland Sea Dogs play. As you would expect from such an old venue, there are not a lot of amenities. Out front there is only one ticket window and if you have a couple in front of you going over all the options, the wait can take a while.
There are five different price points here, quite a large number for a venue that seats 3,100. The cheapest option is the $6 end zone benches (below), which are quite far from the court due to the presence of "courtside suites" in front of them. Along the sides, prices start at $10 for seats that don't face the court, and rise for each section closer to center, with the best seats costing $30.
I bought the cheapest ticket and sat there until I was surrounded by the high school band that was to play the national anthem. It was not very comfortable so I moved to the sideline and managed to stay there for the entire game. The building is quite small and it can be difficult to move around beforehand as the Red Claws draw quite well, with 2,243 on hand for this one. There is a large concession stand to the left of the main entrance, with a very good selection for this level. Of course, you can buy a lobster roll or lobster mac'n'cheese but at $12, those are costing you twice as much as the ticket! Two smaller concession stands with just popcorn, pretzels, and soda are at the other end of the court.
The Red Claws were formed in 2009 and their name pays tribute to the lobster industry, as well as Celtic legend Red Auerbach. The logo is unique and includes the outline of Maine on the floor.
Another great touch is calling the Red Claw fans Crustacean Nation. It even rhymes!
I usually don't bother collecting giveaways as they serve no purpose other than to take up space, but on this night the freebie was a replica of the building that was issued to commemorate its 100th anniversary.
The roof even comes off to reveal a basketball court! Only 1,000 of these were given away, so it is relatively rare in the memorabilia game and I'll be keeping this one.
The team hasn't had much success, with just a couple of playoff appearances in six seasons. As such, the banners celebrate players that were called up to the NBA, which isn't that much of a thing as many of them see just a few minutes of action before being sent back down.
Last year they finished first in their division but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Tim Frazier (recently waived by Portland) won both the MVP and Rookie of the Year while PEI native Scott Morrison (below in the tie) won coach of the year.
Overall, the Expo is in surprisingly good condition for being 100. I didn't realize how old it was until I opened the replica! It was renovated when the Red Claws were formed in 2009, but it is still too small to handle the crowd before the game. I also wish that some of the history that has happened here was documented somewhere in the lobby, but that's a minor complaint. If you are in Portland for the Pirates, check out the Red Claws schedule too and if you can see a game here, you should do so.
I've made this joke before, but the D in D-League doesn't stand for defense. That was the case on this night as Delaware and Maine went back and forth all night.
The score after the first quarter was 38-33 Maine, but Delaware dominated the second stanza 38-25 to take an eight-point lead into the break. Maine took the third quarter 41-35 to enter the final frame down 106-104. The teams traded the lead a few times and with two minutes to go the game was tied at 129. At that point, Davion Berry sank a three for Maine, and then Delaware's Jordan McRae (#4 above, who recently played for Phoenix) missed a jumper. Berry followed with a jumper and then Russ Smith missed another. After both clubs missed threes, Delaware had to foul, and the Red Claws made their final four shots to win 138-131.
McRae, who sent the D-League scoring record earlier this season with a 61-point game, led Delaware with 27 points but was also -11. Coty Clarke (#4 above) was the Player of the Game as he led Maine with 31 points and 11 rebounds. Both teams shot 50% from the field, including 50% or better from beyond the arc. It was an impressive display of shooting ability, much like the NBA All-Star Game.
An entertaining affair, made more so by the referees letting them play. Only 30 fouls were called, and although the players often questioned the officials after they felt their missed shot was due to an uncalled infraction, I thought the refs did a really good job. This game was far more fun to watch than those whistlefests that dominate the college game today.
The D-League has added another franchise for next season, the Windy City Bulls, who will play out of Hoffman Estates, a Chicago suburb. I expect those NBA teams without an affiliate to eventually create one so that the league will have 30 teams with a 1-to-1 relationship with the NBA, like the AHL has with the NHL. As such, I am removing the D-League from my venue quest as I can't keep chasing these tiny venues all around the country. Once I finish the AHL and CFL next season, I'll just have minor league baseball to complete before I finally retire from sports road tripping.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
The second game of this trip featured the Maine Black Bears basketball team. Like many schools in the northeast, hockey is the primary sport, and that is no different here, where Black Bears hockey enjoyed two national championships back in the 1990s while boasting future stars such as Paul Kariya. The basketball team, on the other hand, plays in the America East and has never appeared in the NCAA tournament. To make matters worse, the team doesn't play on campus in Orono, choosing instead to host visitors at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, about 15 miles south.
The arena is very easy to get to, just a few blocks off I-395, a spur from I-95. Parking is free in two lots behind the venue; note that the lot closest to the building is reserved for those who have prepaid.
The box office is located at the Southwest entrance shown above, but before you go in, walk around to the front to see the Paul Bunyan statue that is reported to be the biggest in the world. Note the Canadian flag as well; Bangor is just 96 miles from St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
Tickets are $11 for general admission (end zones) and $13 for reserved seats. As the team barely draws over 1,000 in a venue that seats 5,800, you can easily move around, so get the GA ticket and do just that.
Upon entering, you will see the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame to your right. This takes up most of the concourse on this side of the building and focuses mostly on high school hoops, so it is of limited interest to visitors.
Below is the first display that shows teams from the early part of the 20th century, which is probably the most intriguing bit.
As mentioned, the team does not draw well, and thus you can get pictures of a completely empty concourse.
There is no scoreboard above center court and only one video board at the far end of the venue. This is quite good quality and shows the game as it is going on.
The stats boards are quite weird however, as they are along the side above the seating bowl. Tough to read quickly when there are 10 players on the court.
You might have noticed the inflatable head in the full-court photo above, this is the Black Bear that is actually kept inflated during the entire game.
On the promotions side, it was Beach Night and many students dressed up in t-shirts, shorts, and sunglasses to make it look like they were at the beach, including several members of the band. As it was 32 degrees out and freezing rain, I did not participate in this promotion.
It was also dollar dog night, and I did participate in that, ordering a couple. I wasn't expecting them to be pink. Truly pink. Turns out that Kayem has something called Old Tyme Reds and when they are steamed, a pink dye really comes out. When I first had a look, I found it completely unappetizing. Perhaps this affected my perception, but the taste was entirely different than any hot dog I have had before, bland and not meaty at all, one of the worst I have ever had. One of the buns I was given had two wieners inside, normally a lucky find, but not on this night; I threw the extra one out. I guess these are common in Maine as I saw them at another event later on the trip, but I'll be avoiding them going forward.
Overall, the Cross Insurance Center is not a very good venue for Black Bears basketball. They should really be playing in a smaller venue on campus and trying to build a following amongst their students. College hoops isn't that interesting without a strong student presence and that's the case here. Still, if you want to see college basketball in Maine, this is your only choice.
Hartford was in town with a 3-11 record in conference play, a game behind Maine. Not a battle of the titans to be sure. It was senior night, so both of Maine's seniors were honoured before the game. One of them is Till Gloger (#25 below) from Germany, so the German national anthem was sung before the game, a nice touch.
The first half was quite entertaining, with few fouls called and good pace. Maine took a 13-6 lead only to allow Hartford on a 14-2 run capped by a three pointer from Pancake Thomas (#5 below), whose real name is Cleveland. Maine recovered and ended the half on a 26-12 run to take a 41-34 lead into the locker room.
That lead disappeared quickly in the second half, and when Thomas sank another three, Hartford had a 53-51 lead with ten minutes to go. Until this point, only 22 fouls had been called, and I was looking forward to a furious finish. Unfortunately, the refs decided at this point to call everything, ruining the game. The last ten minutes saw 19 fouls whistled, killing any flow. The game was tied at 59 with seven minutes left but by then, both teams were in the bonus and the rest of the game was a battle of free throw shooting. Maine fouled far too often and Hartford sank 14 in a row while Maine went 2/5 from the line, missing a couple of 1-and-1 openers as the Hawks opened a 75-63 lead with 2:43 left.
The rest of the game was garbage time as the Hawks won 82-74 in a game that was destroyed by those zealous zebras. There were "only" 41 total fouls, but remember that 22 were called over the first 30 minutes and 19 over the last 10. The players did not change their style, the refs did. Mid-major hoops may be fun, but the officiating is absolutely atrocious. Thankfully I only have one game left to see this season.
At halftime, a student had to sink a free throw, three pointer, and half-court shot for a $500 pizza party. Amazingly he did it, draining his second shot from center court to earn him many, many friends. At Indiana the next day, a student did the same thing to win $25,000. The difference between the power conferences and mid-majors is not limited to the games; even the promotions are significantly better in the big schools.
I took a bus from Boston to Portland which turned out to be a good decision. If you book on the Megabus website early enough, you can get a one-way ticket for $1 plus fees. My return ticket to Portland cost $3.50, but the bus is actually operated by Concord Coach Lines, which is a lot nicer and more comfortable than Megabus. To get to Bangor, I rented a car in Portland. At the counter, the clerk said there was a Nissan Quest available. I know very little about car models these days, so he further informed me that it is a small SUV. Good enough, I thought. Turns out that it is neither, instead it is a huge mini-van (below). I took it anyway as I'd never driven something like this and it was OK for the short trip to Bangor and back, but nothing longer as the gas mileage was awful.
Two weeks ago, I saw San Diego State play. That's 3,207 miles away from Bangor, but those are not the two schools that are the farthest apart in the contiguous USA. That honour goes to Seattle and Miami, which are 3,306 miles from each other.