Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lake Superior State Lakers 79 vs Alderson Broadus Battlers 63 (NCAA Basketball, Division II) - November 12, 2017


When I first planned this trip, I expected to see the Lions (4-4) and Browns (0-8) do battle in a mediocre NFL game on Sunday afternoon. But as I explored the local sports schedule, I found another, more intriguing option that would allow me to visit a new venue that had a surprising history. Wayne State University, a Division II school that lies about a mile north of downtown, was hosting a men's basketball tournament at the Matthaei Center. What makes this venue so interesting is that it was built for the 1968 Detroit Olympics! Of course, the Olympics were held in Mexico City that year, but Detroit finished second in the bidding. In those days, cities started building stadiums even before the voting was finished, and the Matthaei Center was to be an Olympic venue had Detroit been awarded the games. When I learned that, I ditched the NFL for the GLIAC-GMAC tournament and venue #763 on my count.



Rather than give up my cushy parking spot next to Little Caesars Arena, I took Detroit's newest transit system, the QLine. This single-car tram runs up and down Woodward Avenue from downtown all the way to Grand Street, covering 12 stops in all. A 3-hour pass is just $1.50 (double that for a day pass) and the train arrives about every 15 minutes, with live maps at each stop telling you how long you have to wait. It took about ten minutes to make the trek three stops to Warren Street, where I disembarked into a persistent drizzle. I then hustled about a half-mile west along Warren, reaching the Matthaei Center at 12:30.



Named for Frederick Matthaei, who led the Olympic bid, and opened in 1965, the venue is now the campus rec center, with far more than just a basketball court. As you enter the main entrance (above) and make your way along the hallway, note the photos highlighting championship squads. Swimming and diving are particularly successful sports here.



There is also a large Hall of Fame honouring past Tartar and Warriors greats (the school changed the name in 1999 because nobody knew what a Tartar was). I only recognized one name, that of Joique Bell, who played briefly for the Lions. The Hall is very well done, and shows that even small schools have great athletic programs and participants (there are 231 here) that deserve to be recognized.



Several Wayne State alum have also been inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and they are separately honoured as you can see above.



Inside the main gym, there are banners behind both baskets commemorating team achievements over the years. Tickets are $5 for general admission benches and $10 for seats with chairbacks, seen in the photo below. Other than a small concession stand in the far corner, that is about it for the actual gym itself.



The GLIAC/GMAC tournament is a two-day affair featuring two schools from each conference. After two games on Saturday, the first game on Sunday afternoon featured Lake Superior State Lakers (who, like Wayne State, are members of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) against Alderson Broadus Battlers from the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.



The game tipped right at 1:00 and man, it was quick. The refs called only 8 fouls in the first half, there were just three media timeouts (much shorter than those in televised games) and the teams played a fast-paced, back and forth game. The first half ended in just 30 minutes, while the game was over in less than 90, giving me plenty of time to get back to Little Caesars Arena for the Pistons 4:00 start. The Lakers won easily 79-63, taking both halves by 8 points.



What amazed me was the quality of the three-point shooting, even at this relatively low level. The Lakers shot 59% (10/17) while ABU wasn't awful at 11/29 (38%). Interestingly, both teams shot almost identically from inside the arc: 22/38 (58%) for LSSU and 10/27 (37%) for ABU.

Notes

Lake Superior State is based in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and has a Division I hockey team that one 3 national titles between 1988 and 1994. Alderson Broadus is based in Phillipi, West Virginia and I had never heard of them before. If you include Division II and III, you could spend your entire adult life traversing the country just watching college sports.

The Alderson Broadus players all have ABU on the back of their uniforms, where the player's name would usually be. At first, I thought that #10 was named Abu, then I noticed #3 was also Abu. Must be his brother, I surmised. Only when I saw the third player with ABU did it click. So yeah, I'm still an idiot.

ABU defeated Wayne State on Saturday, while Lake Superior State beat the other GMAC school Kentucky Wesleyan, and Wayne State beat Kentucky Wesleyan on Sunday, so the GLIAC won the tournament 3-1.

The Lions defeated the Browns 38-24. No regrets about missing that one.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Columbus Blue Jackets 2 at Detroit Red Wings 1 (SO) - November 11, 2017


The newest addition to Club 123 is Detroit's Little Caesars Arena and as it houses both the Red Wings and Pistons, a weekend where both clubs were in town would be the ideal time to visit to retain my membership. This past weekend was just such an occasion, and my buddy Andrew from Philadelphia joined as he is trying to get back in the Club after taking a year off. We stayed just across from the rink and after a stop at the Town Pump and their $10 pitchers of Molson, we made our way over to LCA.



At first glance, the building looks nothing like a typical hockey rink, resembling a newfangled office complex instead. Little Caesars Arena is the centerpiece of The District, a new entertainment area that is still under development, but the arena's style mixes quite well with the surrounding residential areas. As mentioned in a previous post, there is free parking east of Woodward on the side streets, but you have to get there very early. These pictures were taken about four hours before game time, but when gates opened at 5:30, there was a good crowd on hand.



Single tickets can be found at the box office along with a few pairs (upper deck from $75-95, lower from $130-165), but Andrew and I chose to negotiate with some scalpers, acquiring a couple in the lower bowl just inside the blue line for a bit less than face. These were great seats and worth the splurge, particularly as they were also season tickets with a special design for Military Appreciation Night, as it was Veterans Day.



Andrew is not an arena tourist, so he went to another bar while I made my way in. There are four main entrances, one at each corner, and I found ingress was very quick as the crowd comes from all directions and gates are open a full 90 minutes before scheduled puck drop. It took just two years to build Little Caesars, an amazing achievement, and it still has that new arena smell. There is a lot to see here, so much so that it took me both visits to experience everything.



If you enter either the northeast or southeast gates, the first thing you will notice on the lower concourse is the large area set apart from the curvature of the rink known as the Via, after the Roman roads. This area is also open to the public on most days, though security must still be traversed.



The open concept on display here is unique among downtown venues, which are usually compressed due to space restrictions. Several eateries such as Mike's Pizza and Kid Rock's Taste of Detroit have entrances from the Via as well. It really helps speed the flow of foot traffic before the game.



However, at one end of the Via, as you return to the typical concourse, you will see a huge TV screen, known as the Fan Experience, that shows fans gawking at themselves, along with overlaying videos of players from the Wings. This can be a bit of a bottleneck, as fans stop and stare at themselves on TV for a few seconds. And yes, I did it too.



As you continue to walk around, you will see several historical displays. These combine both Red Wings and Pistons memorabilia, along with brief explanations of their significance. Given that the Pistons did not decide to move here until well into the building process, they did an excellent job in securing space for their items as well, as you can see above. I particularly enjoyed the Terry Sawchuk jacket and stick - look at the crest of US and Canadian flags.



Many of these displays are quite small and can be hard to spot when the concourse is full of roving fans. On the other hand, the giant mural of Gordie Howe is pretty obvious, as long as you are looking up.



Another interesting touch is the interactive displays that allow you to explore the history of the teams and other information.



As I was navigating through the Trophies and Awards section, I found that they had misspelled Lady Byng (perhaps confusing the trophy with Pistons great Dave Bing).



I tweeted to the Red Wings and to their credit, they responded immediately.
I'm not sure if it has been fixed yet, but some fellow sports travelers will be checking for me throughout the season. Another surprising find was a bit on Brian Kilrea, who spent 35 years as the coach of the Ottawa 67s and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame for that incredible achievement. But he played a single game with the Red Wings during the 1957-58 season and is therefore included here. Shout out to the Red Wings for such attention to detail.



The statues of famous Red Wings have been moved over from Joe Louis Arena and are scattered about the concourse.



You can even see Alex Delvecchio from the upper level.



Once you get to the second level, look up to see how the building is enclosed, quite an interesting set up with the roof, which lets in light during the daytime. As well, those are screens above the portals that change the ambience of the area depending on which background colour is being used. The concourse here is very spacious as well, and has more historical displays.



Note that the numbers 43 and 44 in the photo above are portals, not sections. At LCA, you should look at the portal on your ticket first, then section, then row, then seat. Portals 1-20 are downstairs, 21-72 are upstairs. I believe this helps people from entering into the wrong side of the section and climbing over 15 people to get to their seat on the other aisle.



Inside, the seating bowl is entirely red, as you would expect.



There is one level of suites, and then a mezzanine section before you reach the upper bowl, as you can see below.



There is also a gondola section at the very top, but I did not get up there. The shot below is from the top row of the upper deck. Note that the scoreboard is obstructed by the gondola, so you have TVs to keep you updated.



You can see the suites in the foreground below, and the mezzanine above it, with a few rows of the upper bowl at the very top of the frame.



Seats at this level are not that bad at all.



The Wings start their pregame show early and it is pretty impressive. I was caught upstairs when it began and watched quite a bit of it before heading downstairs to my seat.



This is the view from my seat in Section 124. A few seats over was the Club, one couple tried to climb over the railing during the intermission to make a quick exit and were quickly told to go back the way they came.



A view from the end zone in the lower bowl.



The roof here is lighted and it seems like different patterns can be created. For Military Appreciation Night, the American flag was on the ceiling for the whole evening. Both Pistons and Red Wings banners are hanging from the roof as well, though not easily visible in the shot below.



The scoreboard is possibly the best in the league, with high-definition live action that sometimes distracts you from the action on the ice, particularly if you are sitting upstairs. If you are downstairs, you get more information underneath, such as who is on the ice at the moment.



Concessions are plentiful, though not particularly interesting. A Coney Dog (comes with chili, cheese and onions) is possibly the most tempting item, while Little Caesars pizza can be found everywhere, and at $4.25 for a big slice and $15 for a whole pie, it is not outrageous. They even have at least one Little Caesars stand that sells only square slices and pies (near Portal 71 if you care). The designated driver program requires that you download the app for the team and use the Fan Zone section to register. This is where one of the problems comes to the fore: lack of connectivity. An LTE signal is nearly impossible to find (at least with T-Mobile) when the arena is packed, and Wi-Fi, though present, is also slow.



Overall, LCA immediately becomes one of the best rinks in the NHL. It is a shame that an old barn like Joe Louis Arena is no longer in use, but it is hard to complain when you see this place. The club has created a dynamic venue that does a great job preserving history and celebrating championships while offering a wide variety of amenities that will appeal to almost every fan. I will revisit for a Leafs game in the future when The District is fully developed, by which time this could be one of the premier destinations in the Big 4.

The Game

The Columbus Blue Jackets were visiting the Red Wings to complete the colourful day for me (having seen the Golden Grizzlies and Redbirds earlier). Once again, the Red team had a Green player, this one being Mike Green. Columbus came in at 9-7-1 while Detroit was just a couple of points behind at 8-8-1. The Red Wings wore special warmup camo jerseys for Military Appreciation Night that were later auctioned off. That's starter Jimmy Howard below wearing one.



Sergei Bobrovsky manned the cage for Columbus and was given a quick lead when Artemi Panarin (#9 below) drifted in untouched and slapped home a pass from ? just 67 seconds in. But that was all the scoring in the first two periods, which moved quickly as there was only one penalty called.



Near  the end of the period, Green hooked Josh Anderson on a breakaway, leading to a penalty shot that was stopped by Howard to keep Detroit close.



Fast forward to the third period, and Detroit finally beat Bobrovsky early, as Andreas Athanasiou snapped home a loose puck from close in to tie the game. Both netminders stymied the offenses the rest of the way and we went to overtime with just over two hours having passed, a remarkably quick game helped by few whistles. In overtime, both teams had chances including Detroit with a 2-on-0 that Bobrovsky miraculously stopped by flicking his skate out while flopped on his belly. A silly penalty (only the second on the night) to Detroit's Dylan Larkin with 15 seconds left gave Columbus a short opportunity to avoid the shootout, but they were unable to do so. In the skills competition, Frans Nielsen scored for Detroit on their first attempt, while Panarin notched one for Columbus on their second. After that, the goalkeepers took over, stoning shooter after shooter until we entered the 9th round. Jack Johnson did the honours for Columbus and beat Howard low to win the game for the visitors. An outstanding goaltending battle had to end sometime, and both goalies were part of the Three Stars, as was Johnson for his winner. A very entertaining evening and one that took just 2:39. Given that the intermissions totalled 40 minutes, that means that the 65 minutes of action plus the shootout took less than 2 hours.



Notes

The record for the longest shootout is 20 rounds, between Florida and Washington in December, 2014. We did not even get halfway.

Best,

Sean

Monday, November 13, 2017

Illinois State Redbirds 43 at Oakland Golden Grizzlies 64 (NCAA Women's Basketball) - November 11, 2017


My Detroit weekend to re-enter Club 123 was planned a few months ago, with the Red Wings playing Saturday night and the Pistons (and Lions) Sunday. That meant I still had an opening on Saturday afternoon in which to attend a game. Central Michigan had a basketball game at 2:00 in Kalamazoo, but it is two hours from Detroit, just a bit too far to guarantee being back in time for the Red Wings puck drop at 7, particularly given the parking difficulties around the new downtown arena. Similarly, the Flint Firebirds of the OHL had a game at 3, but it is an hour away. If either of these games had been scheduled one hour earlier, it might have been worth trying, but I decided to look for events closer to town. Eventually I came across the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, whose women's hoops team had a 1:00 game at the Athletics Center O'Rena in Rochester, right next to Auburn Hills. Fellow sports traveler Andrew had joined me for this trip, so after meeting him at the airport and picking up the rental car, we drove about 45 minutes north to the campus of Oakland University.



After a quick stop at Buddy's Pizza to enjoy a couple of square slices, we headed over to the O'Rena. Parking is free on campus and the women are not that popular, even for their home opener (announced attendance was 801), so there was no traffic or difficulty finding a spot in lot P26. We walked in a few minutes before tip, paying $5 for general admission tickets. The doors at the main entrance are quite impressive, with a growling grizzly asking you to Wear the Bear (surprisingly not Fear the Bear - I guess rhyming and team support are more important than frightening opponents).



The O'Rena opened in 1998 to coincide with the athletics department transitioning to Division I. The team used to be known as the Pioneers before adopting their current nickname in 1997 as part of the process. They were initially in the Mid-Continent Conference (better than the Incontinent Conference), which was thankfully renamed the Summit League, before they moved to the Horizon League for the 2013 season. There are a couple of small blurbs describing this history in the Hall of Honor that is just outside the main entrance to the gym. Next to the entrance is a table where you can pick up a roster list and schedules.



A few famous athletes played here, including Keith Benson, who was drafted by Atlanta in the second round in 2011 and suited up for Golden State (coincidentally based in a different Oakland) for 3 games, playing a total of 9 minutes. He is now playing overseas in Greece. Benson, along with his fellow pros, are honoured both in a hallway montage and with banners above the entrance.



The O'Rena is famous for its blacktop playing surface that debuted in 2015, and it certainly looks odd at first glance. Given that the team in the Golden Grizzlies, I am not sure why the floor is black (well, a dark brown really), but it is unique.



A large walkway is above the seating bowl and you can make your way around.  Sit behind the benches if you want to get on TV. If you are hungry, a small concession stand sits at one corner offering very basic fare such as hot dogs for $3. Buddy's is the better bet.



The band is in one corner just inside the entrance, and the cheerleaders right in front of them. This might be the student section, but there are not many fans of the women's team so it was rather empty. And given the game we saw, that is quite understandable.



The visitors were the Illinois State Redbirds in keeping with the colourful theme (and even more fitting, one of their top players is Hannah Green). Turnovers were the name of the game with the teams combining for 43 giveaways on the afternoon, more than one per minute. Illinois State had 27 of those, and although they were only down 8 after three quarters, that sort of ball management isn't going to win you many games. Oakland dominated the final frame 22-9 and won 64-43 in a game that had more turnovers than baskets (35). Simone Goods of Illinois State led all scorers with 22, more than half her team's points. It wasn't pretty, but it counts as a venue for me, and we stayed until the bitter end.



Afterward, we drove downtown and found a free parking spot just two blocks from Little Caesars Arena, where the car remained for the entire weekend. Having seen the traffic later that night for the Red Wings, it was a good thing we opted to remain local for our afternoon game. More on the Red Wings new digs in the next post.

Notes

The women's team has two NCAA appearances in 2006 and 2011, losing in the first round both times. The men's team is coached by Greg Kampe, who is the 3rd-longest tenured coach in NCAA hoops, now in his 33rd season at Oakland, behind only Jim Boeheim (41) and Coach K (37).

Oakland has a player named Cierra Bond, who was referred to as Bond, Cierra Bond when initially introduced and after every basket she made.



On the flight in, I had a great view of downtown and could see 5 different sports venues: The 3 in the lower left quadrant are pretty obvious, while Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Arena (site of the Nancy Kerrigan attack in 1994) are in the middle of the shot next to the river, on either side of the convention center. Click on the picture for a better view.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Charlotte Checkers 2 at Belleville Senators 1 (AHL) - November 4, 2017


At the end of the 2015 season, the Belleville Bulls of the OHL pulled up stakes and moved to Hamilton to replace the AHL's Bulldogs, who then moved to St. John's to become the IceCaps. That left Belleville without quality hockey for the first time since the Bulls began back in 1981. But the hockey franchise merry-go-round that seems to turn every year soon brought another club back to the Friendly City, and this time it would be a pro team. In September 2016, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk bought the AHL's Binghamton Senators with the intention of moving them to Belleville, which is just a couple of hours south of Ottawa. The move would take place in time for the 2017-18 season, predicated on significant improvements to the main venue, known as Yardmen Arena. Once the team agreed to an eight-year lease, the city approved $20 million in upgrades.



As my parents live in the Belleville area, I was excited about this development and made plans to visit them as soon as the schedule was announced. The Senators spent the first month of the season on the road to allow more time for the renovations to be completed, and finally returned to Belleville to open the home portion of their campaign on November 1st. Two days later, the Charlotte Checkers came to town for a back-to-back series, and I dutifully made my way north to check out one of the games (and visit my parents, of course).



Yardmen Arena was opened in 1978 and is named for a small group of railroaders who raised over $3 million towards its construction. It is now part of the Quinte Health and Wellness Centre complex that has three community rinks, a running track, swimming pool, and other fitness facilities. As the Senators are just one of several reasons to visit the complex, parking is free, but the lots are very crowded as many locals are there to actually get in shape. We arrived an hour before the game and had to park in an overflow lot atop a small hill, while others were parking along roadways and on the lawn. The team does offer a park and ride from nearby Quinte Mall ($2.50 return) which might be useful if you are driving from the west as the mall is right next to Highway 401.



There are main entrances on the east and west sides that lead to the box office. If you order will call from TicketMaster, you can get your tickets printed out there, but if you already have your tickets in hand, you can enter via smaller gates at the northeast and northwest corners of the building.



If you enter from the box office (note the sign commemorating the twin city of Gumpo, South Korea), you will eventually enter a door and find yourself behind one of the nets (above).



Inside the rink proper, the east and west sides are as before, with small balconies atop. These are great seats, especially from the first row, with an obstructed view almost directly above the ice (below). This also means that the last few rows in the lower bowl are covered by the overhang.



The renovations are in the north and south ends - the north is now a large seating section that stretches back and has a small concession stand above. Capacity is now 4,400, an increase of about 1,200 from the OHL days. Other renovations including a new scoreboard above center ice and a smaller rink that matches NHL standards rather than the larger European rinks.



The view from the north end is below.



More interesting is the south side, which includes a special section called the Mezzanine just a few feet from the ice (the longer section in the photo below). At $160 for a table of four, this is a pretty good deal, though only available as a season ticket. Above this is the Fan Zone, which is $120 for a table of four. Given that regular tickets range from $22.50 to $26.25, this is also worth looking into, though again only available for season tickets right now. To get to the upper deck, you will walk up a set of stairs. At one landing, a corner extends toward the ice, and this is used as a standing area by many fans - you can see it on the right in the below photo.



Behind these sections are the main concession stands, which offer limited variety right now. Food is rather expensive even with the exchange rate, with hot dogs going for $5 and popcorn $6 as examples. Nachos are also available. A new carvery is advertised and that will add to the variety. Beer, wine, and liquor stands are scattered around the venue.



The most important attraction here is the Belleville Sports Hall of Fame on the upper level above the East Entrance to the Wellness Centre.



Better to pay a visit here after the game and let the parking lot clear out. There are several dozen inductees, each honoured with a picture along the wall and a brief description of their accomplishments.



Most notable are Bobby and Dennis Hull, who were born in nearby Point Anne (now a ghost town) and played minor hockey in Belleville. I always enjoy these local displays and this is one of the better ones around.



Overall, Yardmen Arena is an excellent addition to the rinks of the AHL. The parking problem is minor, while concessions should improve. I'd like to see some of those special sections behind the net made available on game day if they don't sell out as season tickets. Given that I attended only the third home game for the Senators, I think the team has done a good job in getting the venue ready and I look forward to a return visit next year to see how the final product shapes up.

The Game



Andrew (The Hamburglar) Hammond (above during a break) started in net for Belleville while Charlotte (Carolina's affiliate) had Jeremy Smith between the pipes.



The Checkers had won the previous night's game 6-1 but Belleville notched the only goal of the first period when Ethan Werek (#29 below) was able to chip home a pass from the slot. After a scoreless second period, Charlotte tied things up on a power play when Phil Di Giuseppe completed a pretty passing play, taking the puck at the blue line, zooming down the left wing, and beating Hammond high over the shoulder.



Overtime was looming, but with less than five minutes left, Charlotte's Valentin Zykov broke in and slid a backhand shot past Hammond, who ended up in the net as well. Belleville could not find the tying goal and Charlotte won 2-1 to complete the sweep.



Notes

Binghamton still has AHL hockey as the Albany Devils moved there (so no need to revisit), while poor St. John's lost their IceCaps, who are now the Laval Rocket. They are one of the four AHL teams I still need to visit, with the other three being Iowa, Manitoba, and Tucson.

Hammond played well stopping 33 of 35 and I guess some Colorado scouts were on hand as he was traded to the Avalanche the next day. Interestingly, he will remain with Belleville on loan for now.

Next Up

I'm completing the Club 123 requirements this weekend with a quick trip to Detroit to see the Red Wings on Saturday and the Pistons on Sunday. In addition, Oakland University has a women's hoops contest Saturday afternoon, and Wayne State University is hosting a Division II tournament on Sunday afternoon (in a gym built for the 1968 Detroit Olympics), so I'll be adding four new venues to the total. Check back next week for recaps.

Best,

Sean