Friday, January 28, 2011

Empire State of Roadtrip

While watching the World Junior Hockey Championship in Buffalo, I saw an advertisement for the WWE Raw show that will take place there on February 28th. I quickly checked the Sabres and Bandits schedules but they weren't conducive to a 3-day sports weekend. Not that I'd be able to attend but I thought my friend Sharpy might be interested. Alas, no go.

When I got back to Japan though, I had a look at neighbouring teams in Rochester and Syracuse. It turned out that a simple 4-day road trip was possible once you included those cities. That got me to thinking: how about looking at all the teams in New York? Turns out that there's more than a few sports teams in the Empire State, so once I got checking for possible events, I realized that you could spend nearly 3 weeks on the road watching sports only in New York.

You know of the 3 NHL teams and the Knicks in the NBA, but there's also 5 AHL squads, the ECHL's Elmira Jackals, 2 NLL teams (indoor lacrosse for the uninitiated), 3 franchises in the Federal Hockey League, the Rochester RazorSharks of the Premier Basketball League and a number of college basketball teams of which I considered just 3. All told, that's 19 franchises plus the WWE.

So I tried to make a road trip with the usual simple rules: at least one event per day and no home team is seen more than once. Amazingly, you can see each team mentioned above exactly once and finish off in Buffalo for Raw. Here's the schedule:
Feb  9  Abbotsford at Rochester (AHL) 7:05
Feb 10  Connecticut at St. Johns (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 11  Rome at 1000 Islands (FHL) 7:05
Feb 12  Minnesota at Rochester (NLL) 7:35
Feb 13  NY Islanders at Buffalo (NHL) 3:00
Feb 14  West Virginia at Syracuse (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 15  Ohio at Buffalo (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 16  Atlanta at New York (NBA) 7:30
Feb 17  Los Angeles at NY Rangers (NHL) 7:00
Feb 18  Connecticut at Adirondack (AHL) 7:30
Feb 19  Philadelphia at Buffalo (NLL) 7:30
Feb 20  Adirondack at Albany (AHL) 4:00
Feb 21  Florida at NY Islanders (NHL) 1:00
Feb 22  Charlotte at Syracuse (AHL) 7:00
Feb 23  Wilkes Barre/Scranton at Binghamton (AHL) 7:05
Feb 24  Cape Cod at New York (FHL) 7:05
Feb 25  Wheeling at Elmira (ECHL) 7:35
Feb 26  Dayton at Rochester (PBL) 1:05
Feb 27  Cape Cod at Rome (FHL) 2:05
Feb 28  WWE Raw at Buffalo 8:15
There you have it. Now I'll be the first to admit that there's a lot of driving and you would be criss-crossing the state several times (and going through New Jersey and Pennsylvania a lot too). There's only one occasion where back-to-back games are in the same city, which means a lot of checking into and out of hotels. But if you love sports and you love New York, this can't be beat.

I found out about the FHL through Our Sports Central. The FHL is a small league with 7 teams, including a new team in Akwesasne, Ontario. It seems to lie beneath the ECHL, so it's highly unlikely you'll see future NHL'ers here, but it looks like a decent league with a good internet presence. The New York team plays in Brooklyn so check them out when you get a chance. The PBL is only 3 years old but already has fallen from 13 teams to just 7, so I'm not sure how much longer it will be around.



Update (Feb 9th): The FHL should change their name to the F%*ked-Up Hockey League. They are shortening their schedule, so a couple of games later on the roadtrip wouldn't happen. I know, this is just a possible roadtrip and I'm not even going, but it's the principle; road trippers need schedule certainty!
Thanks to Gary and his friend Dom for the info on this.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Morning with NHL GameCenter Live

I've been meaning to do a post detailing a typical morning where I try to watch a full slate of games on the NHL's online package known as GameCenter Live (GCL). Lately I've been working at my part-time translating job so I haven't been following the games closely, but today promised 4 interesting tilts out of the 6 on the schedule, including my Stanley Cup prediction of Boston vs Los Angeles, so I'm going to try to live blog it.

There are only two early games: Toronto at Carolina at 7 pm (9 am in Tokyo) and the Rangers at Washington 30 minutes later. The staggered start times mean I can watch most of both games before Nashville at Calgary and Colorado at St. Louis face-off at 9:30 pm. Then Dallas visits Vancouver at 10 pm and the Bruins/Kings battle starts at 10:30. (I'm going to use North American times here.) So let's get going!

7:00 The Leafs/Canes broadcast starts. One of the great things about GCL is that I can choose either broadcast, and I'll take Joe Bowen and the Leafs here. Actually, I have no choice in this game as it isn't being broadcast in Carolina.

7:04 The Hurricanes are going for their 1,000th win all time, including their days in Hartford.

7:08 The Leafs are starting J.S. Giguere with Jonas Gustavsson on the bench despite James Reimer being called up yesterday. The Monster's confidence is shot, another in the long line of Leaf goalies who have gone from good to terrible while in Toronto (see Vesa Toskala). Cam Ward starts for Carolina. Hard to believe this is a battle of Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winning goalies.

7:09 Puck drop!

7:10 Bowen nearly has a heart attack as Dion Phaneuf hammers Tuomo Ruutuu at center ice. A great chance to use the 10-second rewind function a few times.

7:16 Tomas Kaberle gets 2 minutes for tripping after Jeff Skinner steps on his stick. Crap call.

7:19 Leafs kill it and almost score a shorty but Ward stops a Tyler Bozak slapshot.

7:22 Halfway through the first, Leafs being outplayed but Carolina having trouble hitting the net. That won't last long. TV timeout.

7:25 Another Leaf penalty. Another TV timeout.

7:28 Carolina scores on the PP when a Joe Corvo shot goes off Phaneuf. Ninth straight game that the Leafs give up the first goal. Last time they scored first? Against St. Louis, a game I was at nearly 3 weeks ago!

7:29 Clarke MacArthur and Chad LaRose have a scrap, more of a sumo match than a hockey fight. Give the decision to MacArthur and hope it insipres Toronto.

7: 35 I add the Caps/Rangers game on Versus using the picture-in-picture option.

7:37 Leafs finally get some sustained pressure and draw a penalty. But their power play is ineffective.

7:41 Joey Crabb deflects a Kaberle shot in with just 8 seconds left to tie the game. It's Crabb's first goal as a Leaf.

7:42 Face-off in Washington. Martin Biron in nets for New York while Braden Holtby starts for the Caps. I saw Holtby play for Hershey when I was in Charlotte last month. He won the game in a shootout.

7:43 After the first period ends, Toronto's Nikolai Kulemin is decked by Carolina's Tim Gleason during a scuffle. Looks like a broken nose for Nikolai as he leaves the ice bleeding profusely. Things are going to get ugly after this as Kulemin didn't have his gloves off, although he was trying to punch Gleason. I switch over to the other game.

8:00 Not much going on in Washington, shots 1-1 with 9 minutes to go. Back to Carolina for the second.

8:03 Gleason gets five and a game misconduct and Kulemin two (but he leaves the game), so the Leafs have a 3-minute power play to avenge their fallen comrade.

8:06 Did I say 3 minutes? Try 58 seconds after MacArthur gives it away to LaRose who breaks in and is slashed by Kris Versteeg.

8:10 Carolina scores on a wraparound but the ref doesn't see it. A seven-minute video review says no goal. Tough break for the Hurricanes, but the video evidence wasn't conclusive. Still, 7 minutes to make sure?! Meanwhile, the Caps and Rangers hit the first intermission scoreless.

8:18 Ex-Leaf Ian White takes a hooking call but Toronto can't capitalize. Carolina's PK is 25th in the league but that's because they've only played the Leafs once.

8:25 Versus replays the Gleason punch and Brian Engblom wonders where the Leaf tough guys were. Phaneuf was on the ice but just asked Gleason why he did it. Given nothing has happened in the second yet, it does appear as if the Leafs are going to let it slide. Frankly Kulemin learned a tough lesson: don't pick a fight you can't finish.

8:27 Carolina scores on a long slapshot from Jamie McBain that beats Giguere up high. Ugh.

8:35 Washington and New York start the second and Caps' tough guy Matt Hendricks tips a shot above Biron for the game's first goal.

8:39 Carolina goes down 2 men for 1:26. Leafs are 4-10 in this situation. Despite lots of pressure, Ward shows why he is an all-star as the Hurricanes kill both. More ugh.

8:47 The period ends with the Leafs short-handed and still down 2-1. I go back to the other game.

8:55 Caps' coach Bruce Boudreau interviewed and tells everyone "Not an exciting game". Duh. At least he managed to not drop any F-bombs (watch HBO's 24/7 if you don't know what I mean). Brian Boyle then takes a high sticking penalty for the Rangers.

9:06 Back to Carolina where Brandon Sutter scores 1:49 into the third to give the home team a 3-1 lead. The Hurricanes are 15-0-0 when leading after two.

9:08 Tim Brent beats Ward on a backhand shot to bring Toronto back within one. A weak goal, let's see if the Leafs can tie it up now. Lots of time left.

9:10 Crabb takes a stupid penalty to kill any momentum. Giguere makes a great save off Eric Staal for a whistle.

9:11 Wow! Off the faceoff, Phaneuf makes a slap pass to Brent who is breaking down the wing. He fakes a slapshot, gets Ward to fall, and puts the puck into the empty net to tie it up. A shorthanded goal, only the Leafs second of the season! A great play and we are 3-3 with 15 minutes to go.

9:20 Sutter scores on a Leaf breakdown. Still 11 minutes left but I fear that could be the back breaker.

9:25 Yep, that's the sound of the Leafs spine cracking. Fredrik Sjostrom takes a questionable goalie interference penalty and Jeff Skinner scores on the ensuing power play.

9:27 Another penalty, this time to Carolina. Last chance for the Leafs with just 7:29 to go.

9:31 Mike Brown tips in a perfect backhand pass from Brent, who is having a great period. 5:45 left and back to a one-goal game.

9:32 The Rangers/Caps game continues unchanged.

9:33 Aarrgh. Sjostrom takes another penalty. The Leafs must be the most frustrating team to follow.

9:36 I go to the 4 game screen to add the two games starting now. You can only listen to one, so I'll keep the audio on the Leafs game for now.

9:41 Carolina adds an empty netter to clinch it. An interesting game but the result as expected. There's 3 other games going on though. In Colorado, a long fight between the Avs' David Koci and St. Louis' Cam Janssen. The Blues lead the league in fighting majors.

9:45 Nashville is in Calgary with two Finnish keepers: Mikka Kiprusoff for the Flames and Pekka Rinne for the Predators.

9:46 Still 1-0 for the Capitals in Washington.

9:47 Jinx! As soon as I write that, the Rangers tie in when Boyle takes a shot that bounces in off a stick and then Marion Gaborik's glove. Video review confirms the good goal.

9:55 BTW, it's two Slovaks manning the cages in Denver: Jaroslav Halak for the Blues and Peter Budaj for the Avalanche. So far all 4 Europeans are perfect as both games are scoreless midway through the first.

9:58 Jinx! As soon as I write that, Curtis Glencross beats Rinne to give the Flames a 1-0 lead.

9:59 Two minutes left in Washington, still knotted at 1.

10:00 The Dallas/Vancouver broadcast gets underway. I'll be following this game closely as it features two of the top three teams in the West.

10:01 Overtime in Washington. The Capitals had only 17 shots, their lowest total of the season.

10:06 Thomas Gradin's #23 is added to the ring of honour in Vancouver in a pre-game ceremony. His grandson is on the ice in full hockey gear, a great touch.

10:10 A shootout is necessary to settle things between the Capitals and Rangers.

10:12 Alex Ovechkin goes first and is stopped by Biron. Wojtek Wolski scores for the Rangers, faking Holtby and pushing the puck past him.

10:13 Hendricks scores for Washington and then Mats Zucarello, last in the league alphabetically but first in shootouts as he is 3-for-3 after beating Holtby with another excellent deke.

10:15 Nicklas Backstrom beats Biron 5-hole to tie it. Holtby pokechecks Boyle and the shootout needs an extra round.

10:17 After Biron saves Marcus Johannson, Artem Anisimov comes through with yet another impressive deke to win the game for New York. I'd recommend watching the highlights of this one, poor Holtby doesn't know which way to go on any of the goals.

10:20 Crap, while watching the shootout, I missed Vancouver open the scoring when Alex Burrows beat Kari Lehtonen with a long shot. Meanwhile, the other two games are in the first intermission.

10:28 A rare giveaway by Henrik Sedin ends up on Brad Richards' stick and he dekes Roberto Luongo to tie the game. Dallas is outplaying Vancouver early, up in shots 7-1 but a Jamie Benn high-stick a few seconds later sends the Canucks to the power-play.

10:30 The Boston/LA broadcast starts just as the other two games return for their second period. I'll be watching 4 screens for a while now.

10:31 Ryan Kesler deflects an Alex Edler point shot and Vancouver quickly regains the lead in a game that looks to be as good as expected.

10:33 The Blues can't clear and Brandon Yip beats Halak from 45 feet out to open the scoring in Colorado.

10:35 Another Canuck powerplay and another goal. This one looks to be Christian Ehrhoff's on a slapper from the point. 3-1 Vancouver and not even 11 minutes gone.

10:45 In Colorado, St. Louis ties it on a great shot from Jay McClement. A video review isn't really necessary but is taken anyway.

10:48 In Calgary, Nashville ties it when David Legwand pushes a puck across the line.

10:55 After Joel Ward takes a high-sticking penalty, Jarome Iginla gives Calgary the lead when he's left all alone at the side of the net.

10:56 St. Louis' Eric Brewer comes in off the blue line and receives a beautiful pass, then snaps the puck past Pekka Rinne to give the Blues the 2-1 lead.

10:59 This is getting tiring. The Kings' Ryan Smyth scores a PP goal off a rebound top open the scoring. At least the Canuck game is in intermission.

11:04 Another power play goal, this time Colorado's Yip scores his second of the game to tie things at 2.

11:07 A good fight in LA between the Kings Kyle Clifford and Shawn Thornton of the Bruins, a couple of Ontario boys. Looks to be a draw.

11:16 With the Canucks/Stars early for the second period, the other 3 games are all in intermission. Time to relax for 10 minutes.

11:17 Nope, no relaxing as Mikhael Samuelsson scores a beauty from the left wing to give Vancouver a 3-goal lead.

11:30 Henrik Sedin scores to make it 5-1 Vancouver and this game turns out to be a blowout. It's fun to watch a good team like Vancouver who control the puck and are confident in possession. Watching Toronto is just depressing.

11:33 All games are underway again. I'll be focusing on the Blues and Avalanche as they're tied.

11:40 The Blues' announcer makes a terrible joke while talking about concussions. Relating that one of Blues lost 7-8 pounds after sustaining a concussion, he said "I asked where can I get a concussion...hahahaha". He then apologized but really the joke was not necessary. The hockey gods punish him by giving the Blues a double minor for high sticking.

11:44 Kevin Shattenkirk scores the expected goal to give the Avalanche the 3-2 lead with just over 9 minutes to go. Make a note announcers: no making fun of head injuries!

11:46 Power-plays in the other 3 games and Calgary scores on theirs when Brendan Morrison finishes a fantastic four-way passing play to make it 3-1 Flames with just 5 minutes left.

11:49 Colorado's Ryan Stoa sneaks one through Halak's legs, called no goal but it will be overturned on review as the puck is clearly over the goal line. It's 4-2 for the Avalanche as they score twice in 55 seconds.

11:56 Shea Weber makes a great skate save to stop Iginla from an empty net goal but Calgary holds on for the 3-1 win. I go back to the picture-in-picture and will watch the LA/Boston battle the rest of the way.

11:58 Oops, a bug. I can't go from the 4-game screen to picture-in-picture. Need to restart the browser.

12:04 St. Louis pulls their goalie and they score with the extra skater when David Backes pops home a rebound with 87 seconds left. It's not over yet.

12:07 Budaj makes a spectacular save in the dying seconds as Colorado holds on for the 4-3 victory as home teams are 4 out of 5 so far (assuming Vancouver doesn't blow the 4-goal lead). Only the Rangers managed to grab two points on the road.

12:10 Second intermission in LA, still 1-0 Kings. With the other remaining game a blowout, I'm going to take a break.

12:30 Vancouver have added a couple more to make it 7-1. Lehtonen is finally replaced by Andrew Raycroft. Meanwhile the 3rd period in the last game has begun and already a penalty against the Kings. Today's story is really the number of penalties, just tons of them in almost every game.

12:35 LA kills the penalty and Andrei Loktionov scores shortly thereafter to make it 2-0 Kings.

12:43 Vancouver gets their 30th win of the season in convincing fashion. Doubtless the favourite to come out of the West but there's still lots of hockey to play.

12:53 Damn, a phone call that lasts 20 minutes.

1:03 LA holds on and Jonathan Quick gets the shutout. I'm still on the phone. Ah, the problems of being unemployed. Anybody need a hockey recapper?

1:13 The phone call ends and that's it for this post! Six hours for six games. 33 goals were scored (I only saw 21 of them, using the rewind function to catch those I missed). There were 54 power plays, which averages out to 9 a game, and 11 PP goals (3 scored by Vancouver). Toronto scored the only short-handed goal.


Overall, not a fantastic morning of hockey; the Toronto game was the most entertaining but the result was disappointing, at least for me. Otherwise some fairly pedestrian action with the referees the most prominent players in several games.

When there are 4 screens going, you really can't follow the action closely enough to get a sense of the better team or the flow of the game. Still, it's fun to sit and watch all that hockey.

When there's more than 6 games, this sort of post becomes even worse and more disjointed (I tried it with 10 games first, then 8 and gave up both times). Today was nearly perfect with 6 staggered games.

GCL is best used when overseas, because there are no blackouts. When I'm traveling in North America, a game on Versus will not be available on GCL, regardless of whether or not I can watch it.

I love being able to rewind to watch goals or hits or fights and then return to the live action. It's so much better than live TV. If you are a hockey fan and living outside of North America, I'd suggest trying GCL. At $20 a month, it's a bargain. I think I got my money's worth for January today.



Monday, January 24, 2011

Boston Celtics to Win the NBA title

A couple of weeks ago I posted the NHL mid-season standings and used the results of the season series to date to predict that the LA Kings would defeat the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. It was a bit of a joke as LA have been crap since then, but it also shows you just how tight the playoff races are in the NHL.

That's not the case in the NBA, which has just passed its halfway point. Here, the conference leaders are just so much better that there is little point in doing this sort of predictive analysis; the top teams almost never lose a season series. Boston hit the midway mark at 32-9 to lead the East while San Antonio dominated the West with a 35-6 record. With so few defeats, it would be very unlikely that either team would have lost an intra-conference season series and that turns out to be the case. So Boston would face San Antonio in the final and would win based on their victory back on Jan 5.

Using 41-game records and NBA tiebreakers, the playoffs would set up like this:

Boston over Charlotte
Atlanta over Orlando
Miami over Philadelphia
New York over Chicago*

San Antonio over Portland
Dallas over Utah
Denver over LA Lakers*
Oklahoma City over New Orleans

Boston over Atlanta
Miami over New York
San Antonio over Dallas
Oklahoma City over Denver

Boston over Miami
San Antonio over Oklahoma City

Boston over San Antonio*

The * represents a series where the team with the better record is losing the season series. The Lakers-Denver matchup is a bit unfair; they played once in Denver before the midway point with the Nuggets winning and the Lakers home win a couple of days ago isn't counted here. Not that it matters, San Antonio wins the West over all comers.

This analysis isn't that interesting because talent differential between the top teams and those sneaking into the playoffs is significant in basketball. In the NHL, teams can be quite close in talent levels and there is no dominant squad, so it can be a bit more fun to guess what might happen, and the playoffs will have more upsets.

Still, with blockbuster trades to come (Carmelo Anthony for example) and injuries lurking, anything can happen, so I'll post another update for the NBA after 62 games have been played. Check back in 2 months for that.



Thursday, January 20, 2011

Takamatsu Five Arrows 78 at Tokyo Apache 79 (OT, bj League) - January 19, 2011

Yeah, yeah, I said I wasn't going to post for every game I go to. But last night's bj League contest between the Tokyo Apache and the Takamatsu Five Arrows was interesting in a number of different ways, so I figure I'll indulge myself just this once.

New Owners

The Apache were purchased by L.A.-based Evolution Capital Management during the off-season and I was interested to see what changes they would make to the product. One of the most important decisions they made was to play all home games at the Yoyogi #2 gymnasium. However, their contract with the facility didn't start until 2011, so the Apache spent the first 3 months of the season playing on the road. This didn't seem to affect attendance as the team averaged around 1,400 fans in their first four home games in early January, similar to numbers last year.

The Apache also hired a new bench boss, Bob Hill, who brings 8 years of NBA coaching experience to the team, including a couple of years with San Antonio, where he preceded Gregg Popovich.

There were a few new faces in the lineup too, most notably Jeremy Tyler (above), a projected 2nd-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Tyler skipped his senior year of high school and has no college experience, so he is quite raw and doesn't see much floor time because of it.

One-time Seattle Super Sonic Robert Swift (above) is playing center while Byron "Always" Eaton has found his way to the bj League after falling out of the NBDL last season. Eaton has had weight problems throughout his career and is certainly on the heavier side now. That's him chasing the loose ball below.

A new addition is the Tokyo Girls, a mixed Japanese/American group of dancers who perform during timeouts and toss T-shirts to the crowd, much like you would see in a basketball game back home. Speaking of back home, you might have noticed the team colours are similar to the Los Angeles Lakers. They wore purple on this night, but they also have a gold uniform too.

Tickets are now 3,000 yen (compared to 2,800 yen last year) and you can sit anywhere on the 2nd floor (the dark seats in the picture below). For big spenders, there is a 10,000 yen option called the Premier Package which allows you to sit slightly closer (the orange seats below) and comes with a pre-game buffet as well as snacks during the game. There are also courtside seats but I couldn't determine how much those were.

Last season they handed out flyers which had discount coupons for future games (knocking the price down to 2,000 yen), but those have disappeared unfortunately.

During the game, announcements for baskets, fouls, and substitutions were made in English only. It really doesn't matter as it's mostly player names anyway, but I was interested to see that there were a large number of foreigners in attendance, particularly in the courtside seats. Out of the 799 fans, I'd say around 100 were non-Japanese, a surprisingly high number and many more than I saw at the games last year. I'm guessing that the Apache have really made an effort to market themselves to foreign firms here, but I wonder if they have done so at the expense of selling to the locals.

During the game, there were the usual lame attempts to get the crowd to shout "Dee-Fense" or "Let's Go Tokyo!" but with so few fans, it didn't really take. Personally I hate canned cheering; you should cheer depending on the game context and not because someone tells you what to say. Unfortunately Japanese fans prefer to be part of a group and blindly follow what everyone else does. The rules seem to demand constant noise as fans scream the same thing regardless of the action on the floor. Really, do we need to yell "Dee-Fense" on every single opposition possession? How about watching the game instead?

The Game

This was the second of back-to-back battles for these two teams with Tokyo winning the opener 85-72 to push themselves to an 11-8 record while Takamatsu fell to a league-worst 6-19.

The Five Arrows had one significant disadvantage, dressing only 8 players to the Apache's 13. So although Takamatsu took a 19-point lead early in the 2nd quarter, Tokyo chipped away, reaching halftime down 44-34. The third quarter was an abysmal display of shooting by both teams with Tokyo outscoring the visibly tiring Takamatsu team 15-10 to draw within 5.

Kendall Dartez

The fourth quarter saw the Apache nudging ever closer and they finally took the lead with just 1:36 left when Cohey Aoki drained a 3-pointer to make it 65-64. But Takamatsu fought back and grabbed the lead again, forcing Tokyo to foul as the clock wound down. Makoto Kita sank two free throws to make it 72-69 with just 3 seconds left and it looked like the Apache comeback would be for nought. But Eaton surprised everybody by taking a pass from Michael Chappell and launching a three-point prayer which was answered at the buzzer, sending the crowd into a frenzy and the game to overtime.

Although Takamatsu scored the first four points of the extra session, Tokyo scored the next 7, including a critical 3-pointer from Junpei Nakama that made it 79-76 with 33 seconds to go. After Takamatsu missed a three of their own, Tokyo killed about 20 seconds just tossing it around to avoid the foul, but they didn't take a shot and Takamatsu took possession when Kita stole the ball. He was fouled with just six seconds left and drained both shots to make it a one-point contest.

This is where things got strange. Tokyo inbounded the ball and Nakama was quickly fouled. In the bj League, the 1-and-1 rule is still applied, which means that you have to sink your first free throw to get your second. But Nakama missed his first and the Five Arrows took over with a final shot to win the game. After a quick timeout, Kita inbounded the ball, appearing to try for an alley-oop with Jeffrey Price on the receiving end. But amazingly the pass went directly into the basket without being touched. You can't score in this manner and although Price argued he tipped the ball (liar!) the referee was adamant and correctly ruled the play as a turnover. In the ensuing confusion, Tokyo inbounded the ball and ran out the clock to clinch the win, a thrilling comeback to mark the end of the first half of the season.

The Verdict

This was a fun game witnessed by far too few fans, sadly a common situation in the bj League. I'm not sure why the Apache can't draw more people to their games, but Ed Odeven of the Japan Times writes about the issue in a recent column. Check out the "Closing Commentary" at the bottom of the link. He mentions the fan base being alienated; I'm curious how that transpired over 5 years, but there's no doubt that the league is in trouble in Tokyo.

For me, I found the experience a bit too loud with booming music playing during every timeout and the announcer shouting all the time. That will keep me away more often than I'd like. Yeah, I'm old.

In the bigger picture, there are 18 home games left this season so the Apache still have time to get things going and attract more fans. They're an entertaining team but they have to get known in the community. A return to discount coupons for repeat visitors might help, or perhaps a 2-for-1 pack for the back-to-back games (i.e. buy the first game and we'll give you a freebie to the next day's game). There are doubtless other marketing ideas, let's hope the Apache can be creative and make basketball a success in Tokyo.



Saturday, January 15, 2011

Break Time

I'm taking a few months off from road tripping to relax. Last year was a bit crazy with five trips to North America, two to Asia and one to Europe. I spent nearly five months of the year outside of Tokyo and it shows in my pocketbook. So I'll be spending the next 3 months here to take it easy and save some money for the rest of the year. I'll still go to Japanese sports on occasion and update the schedule, but I won't be adding posts for every game I go to as there is no useful info to impart.

The long term plan is to see more of the stadiums I've yet to visit in North America. I have a goal of 500 venues world wide (I'm at 327 now) so I figure 35 a year for 5 years will get me there. In the States, there's about 80 minor league baseball parks plus 25 NFL stadiums that need to be added, as well as a few NHL and NBA arenas. I've yet to see a CFL or MLS game which is truly pathetic. Beyond that, minor leagues in hockey, basketball, and football offer plenty of out-of-the-way places, so it shouldn't be a problem to reach the goal.

In the meantime, I'll occasionally post interesting road trips or other sports commentary to keep the blog going. So stay tuned!



Thursday, January 13, 2011

LA Kings are the Stanley Cup Favourites?

The NHL has passed the halfway point and so it's time to check how each team is faring after exactly 41 games. The standings below show each squad's record at the midway mark. Naturally some teams have played games since then so the current standings are slightly different, but from the table below, we can set up the playoffs at the halfway pole.
East GP W  L  O Pts
Phil 41 26 10 5 57
TB   41 24 12 5 53
Bos  41 22 12 7 51
Pitt 41 26 12 3 55
Was  41 23 12 6 52
NYR  41 23 15 3 49
Mtl  41 22 16 3 47
Car  41 20 15 6 46
Atl  41 20 15 6 46
Buff 41 18 18 5 41
Flo  41 19 20 2 40
Tor  41 17 20 4 38
Ott  41 16 19 6 38
NYI  41 13 21 7 33
NJ   41 10 29 2 22

West GP W  L  O Pts
Van  41 27 8  6 60
Det  41 26 10 5 57
Dal  41 24 13 4 52
Nsh  41 22 13 6 50
LA   41 23 17 1 47
Minn 41 21 15 5 47
Col  41 21 15 5 47
SJ   41 21 15 5 47
Phx  41 19 13 9 47
Stl  41 20 15 6 46
Chi  41 21 17 3 45
Ana  41 20 17 4 44
Cmb  41 20 18 3 43
Cal  41 18 20 3 39
Edm  41 13 21 7 33
That's quite a logjam in the west, with 9 teams within 4 points. Ties are broken using the NHL rules which takes total wins first then head-to-head results, then goal differential.

Using the theory that the team that wins the season series will win a playoff series (with overtime wins less valuable than regulation wins but more valuable than shootout victories), the playoffs would play out like this:

Conference QF

Philadelphia over Carolina
Washington over Pittsburgh (one win each but Pittsburgh's was in a shootout)
Tampa Bay over Montreal
Boston over NY Rangers (one win each so take the better team)
Vancouver over San Jose
Los Angeles over Nashville
Detroit over Colorado
Dallas over Minnesota

Conference SF

Boston over Tampa Bay
Washington over Philadelphia (OT win vs SO win)
Dallas over Detroit
Los Angeles over Vancouver

Conference Finals
Boston over Washington
Los Angeles over Dallas

Wow, a Boston-LA final! What is this, the NBA? LA wins here too, based on their shootout victory in November. So the Los Angeles Kings are your Stanley Cup favourites.

Of course, the flaw in this theory is that early season games are just as important as those later in the season. LA knocked off Vancouver twice back in October, but the Canucks are now nearly unbeatable. So don't take this prediction to your bookie just yet; it's just for fun. I'll do it again after 62 games to see what's different.



Update (Jan 21st):  LA have gone 1-5 to open the 2nd half and are five points out of the playoffs. Guess the pressure of being the favourite got to them.

Update (June, 2011): Well, Boston won the Cup, not bad for this method that saw them take the East out of the third spot halfway through.

Update (June, 2012): LA won the Stanley Cup a year later out of the 8th spot. Hmm, maybe this theory needs 18 months to come true.

Friday, January 7, 2011

St. Louis Blues 5 at Toronto Maple Leafs 6 (SO) - January 6, 2011

After a 5-hour drive from Cleveland to Toronto, Sharpy and I found ourselves in front of the Air Canada Centre, home to our childhood heroes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. We had seen the Leafs on the road in ten different cities over the years (3-6-1) but never at home, so this would be a symbolic way to end the trip.

Air Canada Centre

Initially begun as a project for the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, the ACC was bought by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (along with the Raptors) during its construction. MLSE changed the design to make the arena acceptable for hockey and when it opened in 1999, it immediately replaced venerable Maple Leaf Gardens as the home of the Leafs. It is located along Bay Street, just south of Front Street in downtown Toronto and is connected to Union Station, so you can take the subway there and avoid going outside if it is cold. It's also connected to the PATH system of underground tunnels so you can walk from many spots in downtown without having to endure the cold or slush. If you prefer to drive, there are parking lots nearby for $10, or free street parking a bit further away, south of Lakeshore Blvd, if you arrive at 5:00.

The arena is located on the site of the Canada Post Delivery Building and still retains two of the outside walls from the old structure. There is a display just inside the Bay Street lobby entrance which details the history of building and how it was modified to house a new sports venue.

The ticket window is inside the large lobby that acts as the main entrance to the venue. Line ups at game time here can be long but there are several other gates around, so if you want to get in right away, I suggest you try those.

Tickets for the Leafs are very expensive yet can be difficult to get at the box office on game day. Seats are colour-coded, going from the insanely costly platinums near the ice to the upper-deck purples.

When we arrived about 3 hours before game time, there were two options: $155 for lower bowl reds in the ends or $95 for second row greens in the upper deck. There are cheaper options but most sections are sold out well before game time. Of course, there are many friendly scalpers who will be happy to do business with you, but being so early we didn't expect a deal so we chose the upper deck seats and then went over to the Real Sports Bar & Grill for dinner. ESPN voted it the best sports bar in North America which is not surprising as it is really just a copy of the ESPN Zone concept. It is owned by MLSE, who are brilliant at determining other revenue streams. I thought it was OK, but rather expensive, although apparently $10 pints (including tax and tip) are the norm in Canada.

Gates opened an hour before the game and once inside the arena, we moved to the upper bowl to explore. At one end lies the Ice Box, a full service bar with great views of the ice. It is open to the public and you can watch the game from here, which I'd like to try sometime.

The upper concourse had a couple of interesting displays, including one dedicated to James Naismith, the inventor of basketball who was born near Ottawa in 1861. Items shown here include a whistle that Naismith used as well as a copy of Spalding's basketball guide from early in the century.

For Leafs' fans, there's a captain's wall with pictures of each Leaf captain since the team's inception. Dion Phaneuf has yet to be added.

Finally, look into some of the stairwells for some old pictures. The shot below shows Borje Salming and Bill Flett behind Michel Plasse of the Kansas City Scouts, probably around 1979. There's a number of these around so take your time and check them out.

In general, I find the concourses here rather narrow (that's the upper concourse below) but such is the nature of an arena built within a limited downtown space. I tried walking around during the intermission and it was a bit slow in spots, particularly around concession stands, of which there are many. Dining options are Canadian standbys such as Pizza Pizza, Tim Horton's and Mr. Sub, although there are a few other options. Having just eaten, I didn't partake inside the ACC.

The Leafs have a storied history, at least until 1967, and there are 13 Stanley Cup banners in the rafters. I was born in 1966 and I'm really hoping they can add one more before I die but that's getting less and less likely now.

The Leafs don't retire numbers, rather they honour them. Thus you can see the same number hanging from the ceiling for different players. I like this idea, and agree that current players should build on the existing legacy. For example, Colby Armstrong is #9, he should be playing harder knowing that legends Charlie Conacher and Teeder Kennedy sported the same jersey years ago.

I really like the upper deck seats, there are railings in front of every row which encourage leaning and seem to provide more room. The view is quite good too, as you can see below.

The warmup generally starts about 25 minutes before the game, which really limits the amount of time I can tour the venue as I love watching NHL warmups from the glass where you can figure out the lines and get a rough idea of how the team is faring. This is the only sport where you can be so close to the players before the game. Below are a couple of pics of Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson.

Overall, the ACC is a good facility and I always enjoy seeing games here. As a long-time Toronto fan I love the historical touches that can be found as you wander. Unfortunately, the popularity of hockey in the city has sent ticket prices soaring but if they are selling out, I can't complain. Leaf fans are passionate but stupid (myself included) and will gladly continue to pay top dollar for a mediocre product. That shouldn't detract from the venue itself though but if you want to get in cheaply, try a Raptors' game instead.

The Game

The St. Louis Blues were in town in what was termed "Rivalry Night". It is true that these two teams used to be Norris Division rivals and had some heated playoff series in the 1980's but they are in different conferences now and this would be their only meeting this season. Interestingly, it was also the Leafs' 3000th home game in their history.

Gustavsson started for Toronto against Jaroslav Halak for the Blues. It didn't take long for a goal as Colby Armstrong scored just 15 seconds after the opening face-off, deflecting a Kris Versteeg shot off his jersey and behind a surprised Halak.

St. Louis shook off the early setback and tied it when David Backes forced Francois Beauchemin into a defensive zone turnover and ex-Leaf Alex Steen picked up the puck and beat Gustavsson low to the stick side. Backes added his own goal, popping in a rebound midway through the period and the Blues held the 2-1 lead at the break.

The Leafs started the second poorly but Gustavsson kept the puck out and eventually his offense tied it when Mikhail Grabovski (#84 below) scored on a beautiful feed from Clarke MacArthur. Just over two minutes later, Versteeg gave the Leafs the lead, scoring from the crease on a perfect pass from Armstrong behind the net. Ninety seconds later, Kessel received a perfect giveaway pass from St. Louis defenseman Vladimir Sobotka and skated in alone on Halak, beating him easily and sending him to the showers. All three goals were scored in the net just beneath us and it was pure elation, doubtless the best Leaf moment in years for us.

In the third, Kessel added another, coming off the bench to pick up a loose puck, skating in alone on replacement keeper Ty Conklin, and scoring short side. With the 5-2 lead, you might think we could relax, but after Canada blew a 3-goal lead the night before, we were not ready to celebrate yet.

Sure enough, Brad Winchester bounced one in off the post and Gustavsson's rear to make it 5-3. Winchester also pushed Gustavsson into the net but the puck had already crossed the line as we could see clearly from our location. The play went to review and the goal was upheld, and it seemed to deflate the Leafs, who promptly allowed another marker by Eric Brewer (#4 below picking up his stick) to make it a one-goal affair.

With less than seven minutes left, Matt D'Agostini was sent alone by Sobotka and deked Gustavsson, putting the puck high and tying the game. Yep, another 3-goal lead blown by a team wearing the maple leaf.

The Blues continued to put pressure on Toronto and came alarmingly close to scoring on several occasions but the puck stayed out and we went to overtime. Well, the Leafs had saved a point at least.

Not much happened in the extra period and a shootout was required. For me, it would be the 6th shootout in the 11 hockey games I had seen on this six-week journey. Toronto went first and Kessel missed. Steen followed with a deke that easily beat Gustavsson (below) and things looked grim.

But then Grabovski made the shootout goal of the year and completely changed the complexion of the game. An impossible to describe spin move, I've put four pictures to try to show it, but if you haven't seen it, here's a link.

There was a second of silence because it seemed like his was out of room, but he beat Conklin and the place exploded.

Brad Boyes followed for the Blues and scored. Versteeg was next for Toronto, needing to score to keep it going. He did, beating Conklin 5-hole and when D'Agostini was saved on his attempt, the shootout was now in overtime.

Tyler Bozak was poked by Ron Wilson and jumped over the bench. Could he be the hero? He skated in and beat Conklin with a laser off the post and suddenly the Leafs had a chance to win it. Patrick Berglund, who had not had a shootout attempt all season, was St. Louis' choice and he skated in, lost control, and the puck slid wide. Huh? OMG!!!! The Leafs won?!?!?! YES!

Sharpy and I jumped around for a while to celebrate what turned out to be an exciting, entertaining, and ecstatic game for Toronto and a great way to end our short 4-day journey.


Leafs win! The proof is above! Finally a great game that ends with a Leafs' victory. A fantastic experience, and thanks to the nice lady who gave me her commemorative ticket (below, with Ken Wregget pictured). Eight of the ten goals were scored in the net below us, which added to the enjoyment.

You have to feel for Ty Conklin who comes in down 4-2, plays well, and gets saddled with the shootout loss although Halak gave up 4 of the 5 goals.

Toronto teams won the last three games of the trip (including the NLL's Rock taking their season opener over Edmonton, which I saw a couple of days later). Such a rare occurrence requires me to rest from roadtripping, so I'll be taking a few months off to recharge here in Japan. I'll post more on my plans in a few days, but for now, I'm going to savor the win.



Thursday, January 6, 2011

Toronto Raptors 120 at Cleveland Cavaliers 105 - January 5, 2011

The original plan for this day was to return to Buffalo to watch the WJHC finals. I had expected the final to be between Canada and the US but when Canada lost to Sweden in the round robin, it changed everything. Fortunately, Sharpy and I witnessed Canada beating the Yanks in the semi-final, which was enough for us. So we decided to forgo the ridiculous ticket prices and stay in Cleveland to watch the Raptors take on the Cavaliers in a battle of two teams whose star player moved to Miami last summer. Needless to say, both teams are near the bottom of the league this season.

Quicken Loans Arena

Located at the corner of Huron and Ontario in downtown Cleveland, Quicken Loans Arena is known as the Q to locals. Progressive Field is next door and the two venues comprise the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex. Both were built from 1992-94, the first time in the country that two sports facilities were constructed simultaneously on the same site.

Originally known as Gund Arena after the owner at that time, Gordon Gund, who had bought the rights, the venue underwent a massive renovation in 2005 when new Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, who also owns Quicken Loans, took over. Gilbert also bought the naming rights and the Q was born. It was an incredible remodelling and the venue is still like new despite being over 15 years old.

There is expensive parking near the arena ($25 at one lot) but I am sure you can find free street parking around. We stayed downtown so we walked to the arena, so don't have any parking tips.

Scalpers are plentiful and for a game such as this, desperate to sell. We had worn our Canadian hockey jerseys and wanted to sit behind the Raptors' bench to cheer them on, but nobody had those seats. Instead, we ended up with $101 club seats near center court for just $25 and we probably could have got them for cheaper had we negotiated with some other salesmen.

When you enter the venue, you go through metal detectors, sadly not an uncommon experience in the States. Game programs are free and available just inside the gates. I initially tried to go up an escalator to the second level to grab some pictures, but was refused as I had a club ticket. I tried to explain that I just wanted to take a look but the lady didn't quite understand me and so I gave up before the line behind me grew too large.

As you can see above, the lower bowl is separated into two distinct sections. The lower, flatter section is normal seating and can be accessed via the concourse. The upper, steeper area contains the club seats and these are accessed via elevators or directly from the parking garages connected to the arena.

I found it annoying to get from the club to the upper level as there is no obvious link between the two. I eventually found a door that led to a staircase that takes you to the other levels. This door is unguarded, so you can also enter the club without a ticket if you are looking to explore.

Frankly though, the club area isn't that special. The concourse is narrow and there are few concessions because most people get food delivered to their seat or eat at Bridges, the fine dining establishment for club patrons. The other concourses are more typical, much wider with plenty of food options. There is a Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant on the lower level that provides seating if you want something a bit more substantial.

The 4-sided scoreboard is excellent and provides extra info such as the point differential in the game as well as the FG% for both teams. The video quality is superb too.

The Cavaliers don't have a storied history, and having lost LeBron, it's doubtful any new banners will be raised anytime soon to join those below. There are a few retired numbers including Larry Nance and Mark Price which are hanging from the rafters as well.

As I walked around, I noticed one cute touch in that the signs for the bathrooms are holding little basketballs.

Otherwise there is nothing particularly special about the Q. I think they went a little heavy on the club seats but now that the primary attraction has left, it feels a bit forced. The limited access to the club is also mildly frustrating when you are sitting there and want to move around.

Still, it's a good place to watch a game, with tickets easily affordable, excellent sightlines, and passionate fans. The arena is easily accessible, with lots of bars and eateries (I liked Flannery's Irish Pub at Prospect at 4th) nearby. I certainly think Cleveland is a great sports town and if you haven't been there, check it out.

The Game

Both teams are terrible, but Cleveland is slightly worse, coming in at 8-23 and in the midst of a 1-17 run. In fact, when I saw them in Minnesota back on December 4th, they lost the 3rd game of this stretch, which means one win in over a month. Things are not pretty here.

Toronto was 11-20 and on a 1-6 streak of their own. Clearly, something had to give. Their "star" is Andrea Bargnani (below), the first overall pick back in 2005.

It was Antawn Jamison (below) bobblehead night which brought a good crowd out (announced as a sellout at 20,562 but there were lots of no-shows) and the Cavaliers responded early, dominating the first quarter, shooting nearly 80% in taking a 38-26 lead.

But Bargnani (below on offense) scored nine points to start the second and the Raptors went on a 24-10 run to take a two-point advantage. The teams exchanged the lead the rest of the half, which ended with Toronto on top 66-63.

It was quite a reversal and amazingly it was enough. Cleveland got within one point early in the third but the Raps put together a 12-3 run over 2:41 to take an 87-77 lead and the Cavaliers were done, never getting closer than 6 points the rest of the way. Toronto cruised to the 120-105 victory and Sharpy and I went home happy.

Ramon Sessions with a nice shot for 2 of his 16 points

Bargnani led the winners with 25 while Jamison paced the Cavs with 32. However, it was Jose Calderon who was the big star, dishing out 17 assists to go along with his 20 points.

DeMar DeRozan looks to shoot

It can be tough in basketball to determine what really led to victory; turnovers or defense or foul shooting or rebounding or something else. Looking at the boxscore, Toronto had 21 more FG attempts and 16 more FG, a consequence of good offensive rebounding and lots of second chance opportunities. The Raptors' defense was also that much better over the last three quarters and Cleveland had trouble finding any rhythm. These two factors combined to give Toronto the win and keep the road winning streak alive on this trip, now at 5-0.

The final score, note "The Diff" in the middle which shows the difference between the two teams. Can Cleveland fans not subtract?

With the Cavaliers scoring 100, another free chalupa was awarded, which meant two in two days. Unfortunately we had to get out of Cleveland early the next day and didn't have time to enjoy our bounty, but we certainly enjoyed our time in Cleveland. Go Raptors!

WJHC Final

After the game, we went to a nearby bar to watch the end of the hockey game in Buffalo. It was 3-3 when we arrived and we didn't know that Canada had blown a 3-0 lead. So we were excited to see the last 10 minutes, but when Russia added two more goals to win gold, our excitement dissipated somewhat. I'm glad we chose Cleveland and saw a Raptors' road victory though.

Returning to Canada the next day, I was shocked at how disconsolate the country was. Does the failure of a bunch of teenagers to win a single game mean that much here? They had a terrible period, but that happens in sports. It doesn't mean the "future of Canadian hockey is in danger" or anything else. Canada needs to get over itself regarding hockey, they have become far worse than Americans on baseball or basketball.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Rochester Americans 4 at Lake Erie Monsters 3 (AHL) - January 4, 2011

When I originally planned this trip, I needed to find an event close to Buffalo for Tuesday, the day between the WJHC semi-finals and finals. Turned out that the AHL has a team in Cleveland, the Lake Erie Monsters, and they had a game that evening. Cleveland is just 3 hours from Buffalo, so I decided to add another rink to my roadtrip resume.

Quicken Loans Arena

Located in downtown Cleveland next to Progressive Field, the Q is the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA as well. For the AHL, the upper deck is closed off, so I won't bother discussing it in detail here, as I saw the Cavs the following day.

For hockey, there are a number of seating options but it's best to buy the cheapest tickets at $10 and sit where you want. The arena has an interesting set up (as you can see above) in that the lower 10 rows are very flat and completely separate from the club section, which are much steeper and comprise the upper 20 rows in the sections down the sideline. I've never seen so many club seats in a venue, but these offer the best view for hockey.

This Tuesday also saw Ohio State playing in the Sugar Bowl, so there were maybe 500 fans in the rink (despite an announced attendance of 3,034) but the Monsters still put on a great show, including having the players skate out from a large monster head at one end of the arena.

Cleveland actually has a storied hockey history as the Old Barons of the AHL had a semi-dynasty, taking 9 championships over 25 years. Leaf legend Johnny Bower also spent several seasons here. Nice to see these commemorated in the rafters.

The Monsters also have a unique team cleaning the ice during official timeouts: The Mullet Brothers, an imitation of the Hanson Brothers from the movie Slapshot.

The view below is from the $10 seats, it's the last row of section 117 which is actually great for hockey.

I love going to big venues for small teams, it gives me a chance to see things that you might not otherwise get to see. For example, there is a VIP room at one end of the building, this is not accessible during Cavs' games but you can walk through when the hockey is on. However, I wasn't allowed to view the memorabilia, being instructed to walk right through. Nonetheless, here is a picture below.

The Game

Lake Erie's parent club is Colorado, goalie John Grahame, who spent 8 NHL seasons mostly as a backup, is perhaps their most famous player. Rochester is Florida's affiliate and boasts Kenndal McCardle (#22 below), whose lone NHL goal came nearly a year before against Toronto in a game I attended.

The teams traded unassisted goals in the first, but Grahame had trouble in the second, letting in 3 quick goals, starting with a power play marker from Michal Repik (below) at 10:01. Just 23 seconds later, Scott Timmins tipped a Repik pass home, and Jordan Knackstedt added another at 15:14. Despite just six shots on goal during the period, the Americans (Rochester that is, not Team USA!) had staked themselves to a solid 3-goal lead.

Rochester began the third shorthanded, and when Mike Kostka took a slashing penalty just 32 seconds in, the Monsters had a 2-man advantage. With 15 seconds left in the 5-on-3, Travis Gawryletz scored and seven seconds later Ryan Stoa added another. Suddenly we had a game! The 500 fans went wild! But Rochester netminder Jacob Markstrom (making a save below), who won a silver medal with Sweden in the 2009 WJHC in Ottawa, was able to keep the Monsters from tying the game and the visitors escaped with a 4-3 victory.

The power-play goals in the third period meant that everyone got a free chalupa at Taco Bell.

Afterwards Sharpy and I went to a bar to watch a bit of the Sugar Bowl. It was completely dead as most fans decided to stay warm and stay home to watch their Buckeyes. The bar closed before the game even ended (not that surprising when you consider how bloody long college football games can be) and as we made our way home through the deserted downtown streets, we hoped that the visitors winning streak (4-for-4 so far) on this trip would continue tomorrow when we returned to the Q for the Raptors and Cavaliers. Check back tomorrow for a post on that game.