Monday, March 20, 2023

The Beauty of Flying

In the USA, flying is often described as an unpleasant experience from start to finish. Airports are crowded and noisy, security is a pain, food and drinks are incredibly overpriced and not that good, airlines add everything for a fee, seats are cramped with legroom practically non-existent, and many passengers are clueless about the basics of traveling by air. Most frustrating are those who bring too much luggage, slowing everybody else down getting on and off the plane. Still, I find that flying is more a state of mind and when you focus on what is being accomplished (i.e. going far away very quickly), you can overlook all the annoyances that come with it. It helps to travel light and bring your own water bottle and snacks, and if possible, find an empty gate to relax before boarding. Most important is getting a window seat, because the views are often incredible. Or wistful, as with this JAL plane returning to Tokyo, a place I have not seen in nearly four years.

These days, I have TSA PreCheck and I travel with only a knapsack that fits under the seat in front of me. This allows me to fly low-cost carriers or basic economy on the legacy airlines without any additional fees (other than when I choose to pay for my window seat). I have seen many who purchased a basic economy ticket try to board with a suitcase, either because they didn't read the fine print or they thought the gate agent might not notice. Interestingly, the easiest boarding process I have experienced was with Spirit, who charge for a carry-on. On a recent flight from Las Vegas to Oakland, there were only two passengers who had carry-on bags, once they boarded, everyone else just got on and away we went. Leaving Las Vegas at night is surreal as the city just disappears into darkness, almost like it is next to the ocean.

The only lights for miles are those on I-15, which joins Vegas and the Los Angeles suburbs.

Having a window seat allows you to see the world beneath you in ways that you can't imagine when on the ground. As well, even in airplane mode, your GPS should be operational so you can figure out where you are. Below is the Mission Lakes Country Club just outside Palm Springs.

Of course, living in New York, there are often incredible views of the city when flying out of or into LaGuardia.

The Unisphere and the Billie Jean King Tennis Center are a couple of the sights you can see if you are on the left side of the aircraft when it approaches Runway 31 and makes that turn around Citi Field.

Highways can also be impressive from the air; below is where I-310 meets I-10 just next to Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans. I drove over both ramps heading west and they were cool on the ground, but it was a totally different sensation seeing them from up high, where you can see them built on swampland.

Cities are also fun to spot from the air. Below is Jackson with the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium clearly visible on the left. I have never been to that venue, so adding it to the bucket list now. 

Waterways are also beautiful from up on high: below is one of many bends in the Mississippi.

So next time you fly, ignore all the negativity, grab a window seat and your camera, and see the world as you have never before.



Monday, March 6, 2023

Coachella Valley Firebirds 5 at San Jose Barracuda 4 (AHL) - March 4, 2023

After angrily leaving UC Davis, I drove back to San Jose. Despite an incredible amount of traffic, it moved quickly, and I arrived at the parking lot next to Tech CU Arena at 5:30. Fellow sports traveler Tike is a season ticket holder and was kind enough to give me one of his tickets and paid for the parking as well. If you are not so fortunate, you can pay for parking through an app after you drive in, or look for free street parking nearby.

Tech CU Arena is an addition to Sharks Ice San Jose, a community rink that is now the largest ice facility in the United States. It also has what might be the largest ICE mural as you can see above. There are six ice sheets here, with one of them hosting the San Jose Barracuda, who had played at the SAP Center from their beginnings in 2015 until last season. Now that they have their own venue, nicknamed The Reef, there has been a slight increase in attendance, from 1,789 last season to 2,070, which is still worst in the 32-team circuit. (Last year, Stockton was the only team with a lower average attendance and they moved to Calgary.) The complex is located right next to the San Jose Giants stadium so in April and May, two-sport doubleheaders are possible.

The rink is much smaller than the other two I visited on this trip, as those are multi-purpose venues that host concerts and other events. There is a lower bowl and a small upper bowl with just a couple of rows of seats around which a concourse runs. The upper deck also has several drink rails that are ticketed seats, but as many of them are unoccupied, you can sit there if you prefer some space. Though with capacity of 4,200, you won't have much trouble finding somewhere to watch the action.

There are suites in the upper level, so you cannot complete a circuit on that upper concourse. There is a somewhat secret bar in the far corner of the picture above that requires use of an elevator to access. Known as Calder's Bar and Refuge, it overlooks two of the community rinks. It is named after the AHL championship trophy (there is another bar on site known as Stanley's that overlooks the other rinks) and drinks here are cheaper than those in the arena itself, with a solid pint going for $8. Make sure to keep the aluminum cup as a souvenir for your freezer for when you might want a cold beer.

The Barracuda have one lonely banner from their Pacific Division title in 2017; they lost in the Conference Finals to eventual champions Grand Rapids.

The mascot is Frenzy, who tries his best to get the crowd into one, though again, it is tough with the place half-full.

Overall, Tech CU Arena is a simple AHL venue as you would expect when the parent club plays nearby. With so many other teams in the Bay Area, the Barracuda will always have trouble attracting fans, which is a shame because AHL hockey can be highly entertaining, as I found out on this night. 

The Game

The Coachella Valley Firebirds were the visitors, coming in with a league-best points percentage, while the Barracuda were far behind, lying 8th in the ten-team Pacific. Chris Driedger started for the visitors, while Strauss Mann was in net for San Jose, who were sporting their black Cuda uniforms.

Kole Lind (Vancouver's 2nd-round pick in 2017) started things off for the Firebirds completing a nifty passing play, but Cuda captain Andrew Agozzino (below after warmups) tied things up on the power play with a shot from in close. Agozzino has some NHL experience and his last NHL goal came three years ago to the day for Anaheim; my cousin's kid Brendan Guhle scored the next goal for Anaheim in that game. Anyway, Ozzy Wiesblatt gave San Jose the lead just 13 seconds later, but late in the period, Coachella Valley scored two in less than a minute, including a power play marker from Jeremy McKenna who I saw in Moncton in 2019. It was a hectic 20 minutes with San Jose winning the shot battle 16-13.

The second period saw the Barracuda blast Driedger with 19 shots, but only one found the back of the net as Jeffrey Viel tied the game at 3 on a beautiful shorthanded rush with just 31 seconds left.

Early in the third, Martin Kaut (Colorado's 1st-round pick in 2018 who was acquired by San Jose in January) gave the home team another lead, but again, the losing team fought back as Jimmy Schuldt beat Mann on a screen midway through. With less than three minutes remaining and overtime looming, the Firebirds rushed up the ice and trailer Tye Kartye got the puck in the slot and snapped a quick shot past Mann to make it 5-4, and that was the way it finished. 

San Jose outshot CV 41-38 in a fast-paced affair that saw four ties and four lead changes, one of the best games I've seen at this level. The AHL is not a true development league in the sense that the best players go straight to the NHL, but there is still a lot of talent at this level and some of the goals I saw were very impressive.


The only rink I have left to see in the AHL is Abbotsford Centre, home of the Canucks. I also have to see the Leafs at Rogers Arena and Climate Pledge Arena, so hoping that the schedule maker puts them close together next season with Abbotsford a day or two before or after. The Calgary Wranglers play in the Saddledome which I have seen for NHL (and WHL), so I don't need to see it for the AHL, as once you see a venue for a sport at one level, it counts for all levels below.

Next Up

With college basketball season ending and no new minor league ballparks opening this summer, I will be mostly hibernating over the next few months, with only a couple of trips to some independent league ballparks. Of course, other trips will arise in the meantime, so check back on occasion to see what I'm up to.



Sunday, March 5, 2023

Long Beach State Beach 92 at UC Davis Aggies 93 (2OT, NCAA Basketball, Big West) - March 4, 2023

The final AHL game on this whirlwind west coast trip was in San Jose, where the Barracuda had a 6 p.m. start. That left the afternoon open and a check of the surrounding area showed that UC Davis basketball had their final game of the regular season at 1. With the two venues about 100 minutes apart, I could drive to Davis, see the game, and return to San Jose with time to spare. Even better, UC Davis had a softball game at 10:45, so I could add another venue to the list. But as they say, "The best laid plans...".

I was staying at fellow sports traveler Tike's place and he kindly lent me one of his cars. I zoomed up the freeway and arrived at Davis, a small city just west of Sacramento in Yolo County (famous for its YOLO meme) at 10:30. It was clear and cold, but rain was imminent and the softball game had been postponed for a few hours. No worries, I went over to the nearby In-N-Out and enjoyed a Double Double Animal Style, simply the best fast-food burger out there. Don't Whataburger or Five Guys me, I've had them all. Suitably sated, I returned the University Credit Union Center (referred to as UCU because UCUC is too funny I guess), home of the Aggies. The name was changed in 2021 from The Pavilion, but the old moniker is still commonly used. Parking is free on weekends in the huge lot behind the venue; it is next to the Activity and Recreation Center so many students are using the facilities as well and the lot can be quite busy. On other days, you will have to download the ParkMobile app to check the parking charge.

Tickets were $15 for general admission, so I bought one and walked in and down to the floor, picking up a scorecard along the way. There is a sign asking you to be cautious as the court is slightly raised off the floor and inattentive fans could fall. You might laugh but in the litigious United States, you have to CYA at all times.

This is a relatively large venue that opened in 1977 and seats 6,003 for basketball, with two levels of seating. However, the second level was folded up on this day, yielding a wide concourse that encircled the entire seating bowl and allowed for a lot of standing room. The lower level of seats is split, with the top part consisting of six rows all around the court, while the lower level is a horseshoe shape, with one end open for a pizza concession and some group seating that includes a sofa for some reason. Note the banners for the other Big West schools, nine of which are in Southern California. UC Davis is the only one in Northern California, while the other school is Hawaii.

The sideline seats also go well beyond the court at one end as you can see below. It seems like the court is not placed in the middle of the floor as it should be, perhaps to give those in the group area a closer view than the students and band.

The men won the Division II championship in 1998 and moved to Division I in 2007, where they have won three Big West regular season titles. They won the conference tournament in 2017, going on to defeat North Carolina A&T in the First Four before losing to Kansas. 

There is a single scoreboard hanging above the student section, and a small concession stand in one corner of the concourse and that is about it.

Overall, the Pavilion is a typical college gym that probably doesn't see as many sports travelers as it should. Sadly for me, I might have to return. Read on to find out why.

The Game

It was Senior Day and the two seniors on the team were honoured before the game. Christian Angiwe was finishing his third year at Davis after two at San Jose State, while Patrick Lambey seemed to be a bench player with only 11 minutes in his only season in college hoops. The good thing is that the ceremony ended before tip time as I wanted the game to be over in two hours or less so I could relax on the way back to San Jose.

As the Big West is a mid-major conference, I did not expect that TV would be a problem. I was wrong. As the referee got ready to toss the ball to get things started, the TV guy at the scorers' table stood up and stopped the proceedings. They were still on commercial. Thus began the clown show.

The first half dragged on, helped by those insane media timeouts that exceed three minutes along with the clock operators screwing up on a couple of occasions. When it finished, Davis had a 39-29 lead over the visiting Long Beach State Beach. Yes, the team is named Beach, which is rather amusing when they are awarded possession after an out of bounds play and the announcer says "Beach ball".  

Halftime should be 15 minutes, but the jokers at the scorers' table forgot to start the clock, adding another couple of minutes. By the time the second half started, it was already 2:07. Still, as long as the Aggies maintained their advantage, I still had plenty of time. Of course, that did not happen, as Long Beach went on a 26-7 run over 12 minutes to take a 61-51 lead with just 3:50 to go. Well, a 10-point lead was the same either way. After Aboubacar Traore made a layup, the Beach had an 11-point bulge with 1:04 to go while the clock struck three. I relaxed, a bit too early as it turned out.

On the Aggies next possession, Robby Beasley was fouled on a three-point shot, made his first two freebies, missed the third but an offensive rebound followed by two quick passes allowed Beasley another shot from downtown and he made it. That's 5 points in 6 seconds and that began the insanity. Davis pressed and although Traore found his brother Lassina at the other end of the court for an easy layup, it only took two seconds off the clock. After Angiwe missed a three, Aboubacar turned the ball over on the press and then fouled Ty Johnson, who made both. 69-63 with 38 seconds left. Davis pressed again, Aboubacar panicked and turned it over to Elijah Pepper (#40 above), who quickly sank a layup to make it 69-65 with 34 seconds left. I should mention that this last minute of play was taking forever, with timeouts and reviews (the officials will take three minutes to decide if there is 9.8 or 9.9 seconds left) and I was getting very annoyed. Anyway, another Beach turnover was followed by a couple of missed Pepper threes before Beasley grabbed an offensive board and put it home, being fouled by Lassina in the process. Beasley completed the three-point play and it was 69-68 with 19 seconds left. The rest of regulation was fouls and freebies that just kept things going and going. Up 73-71, Tone Hunter missed his second shot for Beach and Pepper grabbed the board, drove the floor and was fouled by A.J. George (driving below) with two seconds left. Pepper made both and it was overtime. Normally this would be exciting, except the last minute of play took 20 minutes of real time. For a neutral, it was excruciating, but since Davis had tied it, home fans did not mind. 

The first overtime decided nothing as the Beach again blew a lead through stupid fouling and just a complete lack of basketball intelligence and we went to the second extra period. Davis took an 86-82 lead and then the shot clock died. Yes, it just stopped working and I just threw up my hands in disgust. By now, it was 3:40 and I could not wait around to see how long it took to fix the issue. So I left. 

Davis held on to win 93-92 but as they don't track game times, I have no idea how long it took. Regardless, it was the worst game I've seen in terms of game administration on my college hoops quest. Both the officials on the floor and at the table seemed barely competent, and when you add in the TV producers who seem to think that games at this level require more commercial time than game time, well, you get an unwatchable product. It should not take 20 minutes to play the final minute of a game, especially when a team has a double-digit lead. There has been talk of the Elam Ending where teams play to a target score in the final quarter, and after this debacle, I think it may be closer than we think. 


I finished the season with 137 of the 393 Division I college hoops venues I am chasing, so there are 256 left to go. A couple of more games like this, however, and I will probably abandon the quest.

This was also the first time I left one of those games early, so if I do end up completing the quest and this ends up being the only one I left early, I will return. It is always a risk scheduling two games on the same day and I will be doing so a few more times, so unless college hoops figures out a way to fix these interminable endings, I will probably be leaving early again.



Friday, March 3, 2023

Abbotsford Canucks 2 at Henderson Silver Knights 5 (AHL) - March 2, 2023

The second stop on my AHL west coast swing was Las Vegas suburb Henderson, where the Silver Knights had moved at the end of last season after playing in Orleans Arena since October 2020. Although only a four-hour drive from Palm Springs, it was much cheaper to fly, which I did. Southwest managed to get me there on time and after a quick stop at my hotel near the Strip, I grabbed a rideshare to The Dollar Loan Center.

It can be confusing when you first put Dollar Loan Center in Google Maps because there are Dollar Loan Centers all over the place. The one you want (unless you are looking for a short-term loan) is located just south of I-215 along Paseo Verde Parkway. Traffic moves quickly from Las Vegas and takes about 15 minutes depending on where you start, with the cost about $20-25 if you choose to ride. For those who drive, parking is $12 in advance or $15 upon arrival, but you might be able to park for free at The District open-air mall nearby, have dinner or drinks, and walk over. To the left in the photo above is the Craggy Range Sports Bar and Grille, a full-service establishment that was quite busy when I arrived. The box office is to the right in the photo above and does provide hard tickets, but the cheapest was $33. There are more affordable options online, including a $12 standing room ticket ($18.50 after fees) on the AXS ticket platform that for some reason is not available at the window. When you enter, the ticket taker rips a paper copy of your ticket, not quite a stub, but good enough.

Inside, the seating bowl is typical for this level, though there are a few rows in an upper deck that seemed reserved for those affiliated with the team.

There is a small club that comprises two sections at center ice that is zealously guarded at the door. However, the aisle on both sides is marked with velvet ropes between the handrails, and you can walk down the wrong side without anyone noticing, which puts you in the club anyway. Not that there is much to see here, and from what I could tell, food was not included.

At one end, the seats are quite steep, an unusual setup that I think is configurable when the venue is used for concerts. Note the French and Mexican flags above; I have no idea why they were there.

From the other side, you clearly see the triangular projections known as the King's and Queen's Lookouts, a design element that resembles T-Mobile Arena, home of the team's NHL parent club. I did not see if fans could get up there and did not notice any doing so during the game.

At the other end is The Castle, a couple of towers between which much of the pregame entertainment takes place. This is based on the same set up in Vegas, although on a slightly smaller scale. If you have seen a Golden Knights game, you know that they put on a show worthy of Las Vegas, and the Silver Knights follow in their footsteps. Or hoofsteps I guess. 

There is Harold, the town crier, who starts things off by engaging with a female knight in The Castle as they urge fans to defend the fortress against the invaders (from Abbotsford in this case). Harold also announces the goals as "scored by Sir" first name "of the House of" surname, followed by a loud Huzzah, a word that should reenter the vernacular posthaste. It might sound a bit corny but it works well, at least on initial viewing; I suppose after the tenth game it might get tiring. 

The mascot is Lucky, a glittery horse who personifies the gambling that Nevada is known for and the medieval knight theme that the franchise uses. 

The team wears what appear to be mirrored helmets that resemble what a knight would have worn to protect himself while jousting. It was really disconcerting at first glance as it gives the players a rather alien look.

Even the toilets are known as the Throne Rooms, while the team store is the Saddlery. Many of the staff are also clothed in faux-medieval fashion as the club really takes the theme to the limit. More power to them as fans really seem to enjoy it.

Along one corridor are the banners for all 32 teams in the AHL in alphabetical order, possibly the best presentation of the other teams in the entire league.  

However, the most impressive part of the building is the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame, which takes up one end of the concourse.

Inductees include those born in the area as well as those that played here at some point. The late Armon Gilliam spent three seasons at UNLV before becoming the second overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft, behind David Robinson. What was so impressive about this display it that it was mostly electronic; with small photos of each inductee lighting up when the details of their career were on the screen. Of course, this means that you might have to wait a bit to see a player who you want to know more about, as well, there is a lot of detail on each member and not enough time to read it as they switch every 10-15 seconds. 

Overall, Dollar Loan Center is an excellent venue to watch the AHL, and shows what a creative group can do when given an idea. Vegas has one of the best AAA ballparks in the land and now it has one of the best in minor league hockey too. Huzzah! 

The Game

Those Canucks from Abbotsford brought their fantastic logo down to Henderson and that allowed me to hear another rendition of O! Canada. Unfortunately that was the highlight for the visitors, who stood third in the Pacific, four spots higher than Henderson. Spencer Foo scored for the Silver Knights just 1:37 in; 10 minutes later Daniil Chayka (second-round pick in 2021) doubled the lead with his first professional goal (in North America at least, he scored once in the KHL too).

In the second, Nils Hoglander got one back for Abbotsford on the power play, but Sheldon Rempal replied on the man advantage with a wicked shot that surprised Arturs Silovs. When Daniil Miromanov scored on a backhand early in the third to make it 4-1, the rest of the game was academic, with both teams adding a goal to make the final 5-2 Henderson as they defended their fortress against the ruthless invaders from the north.

Miromanov, who played 14 games with Vegas this season, was the first star with a goal and two helpers, while Isaiah Saville (5th round, 2019) stopped 34 of 36 shots for his first AHL win of the season after being called up from Savannah of the ECHL. 


The venue also hosts the Knight Hawks of the Indoor Football League and the G-League Ignite, meaning it holds three of the four minor league sports. 

Fellow New Yorker and budding sports traveler Dante was in Vegas for the Devils game and we met up afterwards. Always good to see fellow fans on the road, even if it does mean a selfie.