Thursday, March 29, 2018

Washington Capitals 6 at Montreal Canadiens 4 - March 24, 2018

After watching the Laval Rocket lose to Charlotte, Sharpy and I made the quick walk over to Montmorency station and grabbed the Orange Line to downtown Montreal to complete the hockey doubleheader. Having bought our Metro tickets in advance allowed us to bypass the lines at the ticket machines, saving at least 10 minutes, which was crucial as we had only 1:15 between games. There are two stations that serve the Bell Centre, Bonaventure and Lucien L'Allier; the latter is named for the engineer who supervised the construction of the Metro system. We disembarked at Bonaventure, making the short underground walk to the Bell Centre. One problem with this route is that we did not get to see the exterior of the building, nor the statues that honour many of the Canadiens greats. Below is a shot of Maurice Richard's statue taken from inside.

Fortunately, there is plenty of history along the lower concourse, which does get crowded as game time approaches.

Near section 109 is a collection of photos of past stars along a back wall. Note the open space beneath; this is a mezzanine where several concession stands can be found, usually with no waiting since most fans don't bother taking the stairs down.

For each photo along the wall, there is a matching plaque and bilingual information board next to the railing along the concourse. It is quite narrow here but do take the time to read through a few of those who have made history at the Club de Hockey Canadien.

Another reason to visit the mezzanine is Youppiville, a small collection of memorabilia for Canada's favourite mascot. When the Expos moved to Washington, Youppi! was without a home, so the Habs adopted him and he is now found at every home game, plus the occasional mascot promotion, such as at Laval that afternoon.

A large Lego sculpture is the highlight of this tiny exhibition, which seems a bit dreary with empty display cases along the way. Some refurbishment would be welcome here.

In terms of food, you can again find cheap eats both at the mezzanine and along the concourse, with smoked meat sandwiches going for about $10, still a bargain for the amount of meat you get. I bought a box of Timbits (Tim Hortons signature donut holes) for $4.50 and that lasted Sharpy and I the whole game.

Inside the rink, you will note the many, many retired numbers and Stanley Cup banners. As much as it pains this Maple Leafs fan to admit it, the Canadiens have had a long and successful history and it is well displayed here.

This was my third visit to the Bell Centre, and in the past, I had sat in the upper level, which is far, far away. With a capacity of 21,288, this is the largest arena in the league and the 300 and 400 level seats have to be the farthest away from the ice, except perhaps for the Staples Center. With time limited, I did not make my way upstairs on this visit, preferring to take the picture above from behind one of the nets. Given the limited downtown footprint and large capacity, the steep seating incline was a necessity. The lower bowl is termed "Reds" while the upper level seats are White, Grey, and Blue. Note that there are 10 rows in the White 300 sections, with the first 6 rows going from AA-FF, while the 7th row is A.

Tickets here are ridiculously overpriced for the quality that the Habs showed this season, with lower level seats going for around $200 a pop and those in the upper level usually over $100. The Canadiens have an official secondary market known as "The Vault" but even here, season ticket holders rarely lowered the price below face value. StubHub had some deals up high but as mentioned, I wanted to sit in the lower level. I ended up using Kijiji, a Canadian online bulletin board, where I found someone who was offering two lower level seats for half price. The possibility of a scam was on my mind, but after a couple of email exchanges, it seemed like the seller was legitimate and I bought the tickets for $87.50 each. These were electronic tickets, so I had to download the Canadiens app and create an account to receive them. Man, I miss hard tickets. Anyway, the view from my seat in the last row of the lower bowl is above, taken as the teams prepared to start the game. The large Go Habs Go banner was a nice touch.

Each entryway is painted blue, which makes for a really cool impression with the red seats. The best I could do is the shot above. The shot below demonstrates how large the lower bowl is, and includes the larger club section above, which is even pricier but comes with unlimited food and non-alcoholic drinks.

It was a tough task to replace the venerable Forum but they did a decent job with the limitations they had. Any hockey fan has to visit Bell Centre just for the history on display, but keep in mind that it will be an expensive education.

The Game

The Capitals were in town, and Carey Price (below) got the start, his second after coming back from a concussion that saw him miss just over a month of action. Price was excellent in the first few minutes, making a couple of spectacular saves that made it look like the Habs could challenge the Metropolitan leaders.

Montreal opened the scoring when Alex Galchenyuk picked up a loose puck along the boards and skated in alone on Philipp Grubauer, roofing a backhand shot. Just over a minute later, Brendan Gallagher scored after a Capital turnover, but the play was challenged by Caps coach Barry Trotz and it turned out to be offside. No goal! Two minutes later, Evgeni Kuznetsov wristed a shot from the right circle that beat Price, a power play marker that tied the game. That overturned goal was really the turning point of the game as after that, the Capitals had their way with Montreal. Tom Wilson added two more before the end of the period, and when Jay Beagle scored early in the second, it was 4-1 Caps.

Charles Hudon potted one for the Habs with just 2 seconds left in the middle period to make it close, but Kuznetsov and Jakub Jerabek each scored for Washington in the first 5 minutes of the final frame to clinch the game. Hudon and Gallagher tallied later to make it respectable as the Capitals won 6-4 in a sloppy affair. The scoreboard was turned off immediately upon the final siren sounding, so no shot of that.


I did manage to find a hard ticket, which is colourful, with Karl Alzner shown. The translation is "Create the Spark". I can't believe people just drop these on the ground. Some teams now offer their season ticket holders the option to include a hard ticket instead of mobile for a nominal fee ($35 for the Arizona Coyotes) and I hope other teams follow suit because hard tickets are the best souvenirs out there.

Next Up

Baseball is here and I hope to add two or three road parks for the Blue Jays, starting with Minnesota's Target Field in early May. Check back then to see if I made it.



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Charlotte Checkers 5 at Laval Rocket 3 (AHL) - March 24, 2018

I wanted to get one more AHL venue in before the end of the season and Place Bell, home of the Laval Rocket, is the closest to New York. The Rocket are in their first year after moving from St. John's, where I saw them play as the Ice Caps two seasons ago. Laval is a suburb of Montreal, so I wanted to find a day that the Rocket had an afternoon game while their parent club had an evening affair. And last Saturday was just such a day.

I flew in from NYC in the morning and my buddy Sharpy drove down from Ottawa to pick me up at the airport. We made the short drive to Laval and parked the car in the Metro lot. Place Bell is next to Montmorency station, a terminus on the Metro Orange Line, which also runs past the Bell Centre. Rather than drive downtown after the game here, we planned to take the Metro. There are many free spots here, but even on a Saturday afternoon, they were all taken, so we ended up paying $7.75 to park in the underground lot. Before heading over to the arena, we picked up our Metro tickets for later that day, a smart move as the lineups after the game were quite long. Something to keep in mind if you ever plan the same excursion.

Place Bell has a bar known as Taverne 1909 Moderne, which seems to be an oxymoron. The 1909 refers to the year that the Canadiens were founded and the main branch of this eatery is in the Bell Centre. Reviews are not that great, but we found the food to be quite good with excellent craft beer options too, not to mention a huge TV above the bar. With little else around here within walking distance, this is the best spot to visit before the game, or after as they have $10 meals after 10 pm. While we were eating there, we saw Youppi!, the former Expos mascot and now the main cheerleader for the Expos, wandering around. We had no idea why he was out supporting the prospects, but found out later on.

Before entering the arena proper, check out the small Temple de la Renommee (Hall of Fame), which lists several local athletes and other notable sports figures. Mike Bossy, a Montreal native who played junior for Laval in the early 1970s, is one inductee.

Note the small window in the picture of the hall of fame above - it looks onto a short track speed skating rink, which was in use at the time.

Once inside the arena, we took a quick walk around. The concourse was somewhat narrow, but this was only a problem after the game when the crowd moved slowly toward the exit. Note that there are 5 types of garbage bin available, a sign of the progressive nature of Canadian recycling.

The highlight at Place Bell is the food, which is extremely inexpensive and quite good. A hot dog is only $3.50 (that's less than $3 US right now) but pass on that and spend $7.50 on the smoked meat sandwich. I wish every stadium had this option; it is simple but very tasty and filling.

Tickets range from $27-$47 on game day, but you might be able to find cheaper options on StubHub, keeping in mind the exchange rate. I picked up a pair in row P in one zone for $15 US, about half the going rate at the box office. Although there are two bowls of seating, the upper deck is not open for Rocket games, or at least the one I attended. As there are only five rows here, it is not a big deal and it makes sense that they don't want to clean this entire area just to please a few fans who prefer having space to themselves.

Overall, Place Bell was a great experience except for one thing. When the Rocket scored, the goal horn and song following was deafening! I hate goal horns to begin with (there is a special place in hell for the person who first came up with the idea) but this was ridiculous. Fortunately, the team only scored 3 times, with 2 coming in the last five minutes after the game was decided, so I escaped with my hearing mostly intact. Charlotte (Carolina's affiliate) potted 5 to win the game and complete a sweep of the two-game weekend series. Aleksi Saarela (Rangers 3rd-round pick in 2015) was the star with 2 goals and an assist for Charlotte, while former Leaf prospect Greg McKegg (3rd, 2010) chipped in a goal and a helper.


This was venue #775 lifetime.

I still have 5 AHL rinks to see: Charlotte (who moved from Spectrum Center to Bojangles Coliseum), Iowa, Winnipeg, Tucson, and Colorado, who will jump to the league next season from the ECHL.

So why was Youppi! visiting? Turns out that it was mascot mania on this day, with several other Montreal area mascots participating in the festivities. They played a dodge ball game during an intermission, and later were gathered in a suite just behind me. That's Cosmo, the Rocket mascot, waving on the left of the photo below, while Youppi! is fifth from the left. Most of the others seemed to be advertising logos such as the St. Hubert Chicken.



Monday, March 19, 2018

Greensboro Swarm 96 at Long Island Nets 123 (NBA G League) - March 18, 2018

The NBA Development League has been around since 2001 and for most of that time was known as the D-League. But this past summer, Gatorade and the NBA began a partnership, and one result of that is the circuit is now known as the NBA G League. Once you get past the name, the league is actually quite interesting and entertaining and well worth following for hoophead and sports travelers. There are now 26 teams, each either owned by or affiliated with a single NBA franchise. Most clubs play in nearby suburbs or towns (the Oklahoma City Blue are the only one that plays in the same city as the parent) and provide quality basketball at affordable prices. The Long Island Nets are just such a club, and after a season at the Barclays Center, they moved out to the renovated Nassau Coliseum, where they are finishing up a successful campaign.

I decided to visit for their last home game of the regular season, a Sunday afternoon affair against the Greensboro Swarm, affiliate of the Charlotte Hornets. I checked TicketMaster and found a special offer: free tickets! Somehow, you could select a single seat without paying a dime - no fees either. I am not sure if that was a bug, but whatever the case, I "bought" a ticket and headed over. The only problem with Nassau Coliseum is that it is far from the city - on a good transit day, at least 90 minutes from where I live. Long Island Rail Road is the fastest option but even then, the stadium is 2.5 miles from the closest station, Hempstead Transit Center. Trains were running only hourly and although buses are available, they are unreliable, so I grabbed a Lyft for $10, arriving just a couple of minutes before game time.

There was a surprisingly long line at the ticket window, making me thankful that I had bought in advance as I walked in with no waiting. Unlike the NBA, where tip-off is usually 10 minutes after the scheduled start time, this one got underway right at 3:00.

I had visited here just a month prior for the New York Open, and obviously things hadn't changed much. The court is in the middle of the floor with five sections on either side that provide excellent views. With capacity of 13,500, the arena is too big for the league (only Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines and Cox Convention Center in OKC are larger) and so the upper bowl is blocked off. Even then, the place appears empty despite a good crowd of 2,644 for Fan Appreciation Day.

You can pretty much sit anywhere and I moved down low for the first quarter, which is all I really needed to see. The Nets scored the first 8 points, pushed the lead to 29-12, and Greensboro, last in the league at 15-31, never got closer than 13 after that. To make matters worse, 54 fouls were called over the length of the contest, which made it go much longer than it needed to.

The final was 126-93 with Isaiah Whitehead, a Brooklyn native who spent all of last season in the NBA, the star with 26 points in just 24 minutes on the floor. As the game took over two hours to complete, I wasn't able to catch the 5:13 train out of Hempstead. With an hour until the next one, I decided to walk back to Hempstead, which took about 40 minutes and is an option to consider if the sun is shining and it is not too cold.


The top six teams in each conference make the playoffs and with a 26-21 record and three road games remaining, Long Island is tied for 5th with Grand Rapids. Defending league champions Raptors 905 are currently 4th in the playoff picture, but only a 1/2 game behind Westchester for top spot in the Atlantic (the three division winners are seeded 1-3), so they might end up hosting the Nets in a single elimination game in a couple of weeks. Update: Long Island lost their final game to Grand Rapids and missed the playoffs, but that is overshadowed by the tragic death of Grand Rapids player Zeke Upshaw who collapsed near the end of that game. He was taken off the court on a stretcher and died two days later.

Hempstead is the terminus of the Hempstead Line on the LIRR, with the other end being Atlantic Avenue, where the Barclays Center is located. This certainly presents some opportunities for doubleheaders should the schedules align. A shuttle bus from the station would help even more.

The four NBA teams without a G League affiliate are Washington, Denver, New Orleans, and Portland. Starting with the 2018-19 season, the Capital City Go-Go will begin operations as the Wizards affiliate, while the other three teams are expected to eventually field squads, thus making the circuit a true minor league. Hmm, G League road trip anyone?

Next Up

A day trip to Montreal on Saturday, where I plan to see an AHL/NHL doubleheader featuring the Laval Rocket and the Canadiens. Recaps will be posted next week.



Monday, March 12, 2018

Another Year of Madness

It's March Madness time again! Last year I wrote about how mid-major schools are overlooked by the selection committee, and that trend continued this year, with a team ranked in the top 25 (St. Mary's) being ignored in favour of several crap power conference teams. This ESPN article explains why the new quadrant system makes a mid-major pick even less likely and is worth reading to get an understanding of how the selection committee thinks. And again, that is the true madness on display.

Simply put, the at-large bids should be for the best 36 teams right now. Arizona State, Oklahoma, and Syracuse are not among those, but have garnered spots at the expense of schools that finished higher in both the regular season and conference tournaments, such as USC and Louisville. All three were 8-10 in conference play, which should immediately eliminate them from consideration. But because they won some big games back in November and December, the committee thinks they deserve to dance. At least Syracuse and Arizona State have to play in the First Four, so one will be out immediately. But is that a game anyone really wants to see other than their fans?

USC finished second in the Pac-12 and went to the tournament final, but will be playing in the NIT as will Louisville (against players' wishes), St. Mary's, and Notre Dame, all better teams than those three listed above. Evidently, neither the regular season nor the postseason matters for an at-large bid. What matters is your early non-conference schedule, played when teams are still finding their way. No term more annoyingly represents this paradigm than "body of work". It used to be called "win-loss record". Now however, those wins and losses are measured differently - 18 games in your conference means far less than 2 non-conference meetings. It's idiotic.

If you are a serious college basketball fan (i.e. you watch mid-major hoops), you know that the smaller teams provide the best entertainment in the first weekend of the tournament. It is upsets and near-upsets that fans want to see. It's too bad the selection committee thinks otherwise and fans will suffer for their ignorance.