Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tale of Two NHL Games

Originally Posted on February 13, 2009

For an occasionally frustrating game to follow, why do I end up loving it so much?

Last season, I walked away from a few professional hockey games scratching my head. Granted, this game was embedded in my psyche as early as 1972, as the Los Angeles Kings began their seventh season inside the Fabulous Forum. The game wasn’t completely sold on my family, my mother in particular, but I stuck with it until I was able to attend a game at the Kings’ former home down in Inglewood, California a few years after I left high school.

Since my relocation to Minnesota in 2004, my hockey attendance picked up significantly. Even with all of the games I attended, I never made it to the end of the third period. At my only visit to the Washington Capitals in 2000, I had to leave after the first period due to my own ignorance with my diabetes medication. Aside from my previous visits in Los Angeles and Washington, I attended National Hockey League games in Detroit, Chicago and St. Paul along with an American Hockey League tilt in Des Moines.

Other than health reasons, my early exits were due to a larger issue: A lack of competence in understanding the game of hockey.

This season was different. So far I took in two NHL games in two different cities and stayed through each entire game. This is an accomplishment, nonetheless, but significant as I have been trying to wrap my head around the game beloved in my state of residence.

My first game was during my trip to Washington, I was at Verizon Center seeing my former team, the Capitals, beat the Ottawa Senators 7-4. This was followed by a return trip to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul with the Minnesota Wild pulling one off in the final moments against the Colorado Avalanche, 3-2. At the latter game, I had an accomplice: My roommate Melodie.

It was amazing that I was able to go to these games as they are amongst the hot tickets in the NHL. Granted I was also lucky with my visits to Detroit and Chicago, but with the resurgence of the Caps and the outstanding loyalty and following the Wild has, it is no wonder why these are tough tickets to get this season.

There is indeed a difference between the two games aside from the style of play. The atmosphere inside the arena is what brings fans inside for a two-and-a-half-to-three affair on ice. To begin with, these are two different buildings: The compact Verizon Center and the slightly more massive Xcel Energy Center. Partly, the buildings help make the scene with the Caps home being shared by the NBA Wizards and WNBA Mystics. The X, as St. Paul’s hockey home is known, is Wild-specific with details that are designed specifically for the fan base and the team’s image.

The latter is important as to create a scene where fans can be a part of the action on the ice. The Wild’s built-in advantage of being the “Team of 18,000” is felt throughout the building from its details of the concourses into the arena bowl. At each corner of the arena bowl is a high pillar with a wide base housing some unique feature. In one corner is a stage for intermission events used by the Wild’s media patrol. Special guests and contest winners are broadcasted onto the video screens on the scoreboard. Across the arena is a lighthouse-style light that rotates when a Wild goal is scored.

A walkabout inside The X will reveal several details that pertain to life in Minnesota. The souvenir stores are known as Hockey Lodges with a cabin-style feel to each one. There is plenty of nicely finished wood trim to make the arena cozy for fans whether they are taking in drinks at one of the bars around the arena or walking around the concourse looking for something to eat.

The Verizon Center can be easily converted into an environment that lets Caps fans “Rock the Red.” There are plenty of portable reminders of the Caps new motif which modernizes the original red-white-and-blue image from the days of the Capital Centre out in Landover, Maryland. Granted the concourses are narrow in the upper deck, but there’s plenty of concessionaires available for food, drinks and souvenirs. The combined tenants of the arena also run a store near the main entrance.

When I lived in the DC Area, the Caps achieved their first Stanley Cup Final berth in an interesting motif of medium blue, gold and black. It seems that the fans in and around the Nation’s Capitol were ready for a change – and not just in the White House. “Rock the Red” brought out a new level of enthusiasm I haven’t seen among hockey fans. Normally, hockey fans love to get up and cheer at goals, talk some smack about the opposing team’s goons and look for their enforcer to stir things up for a fight. Caps fans proudly wear red, especially with Alex Ovechkin’s name and number on the back.

The soundtrack is purely modern rock. It’s loud and hard. Fans in DC truly love their hockey loud and hard and everyone, including the players, respond accordingly. The young Russian superstar certainly stir the fans. I’ve never seen anyone so enthusiastic about scoring a goal as much as Ovechkin as he jumps up against the boards and glass to celebrate. If that’s rocking the Red, then I’m all for it!

The Caps’ fans enthusiasm is easily traded in for the deep knowledge of the game Wild fans bring inside The X. This knowledge runs from fans wearing gear from their former NHL franchise: The team currently known as the Dallas Stars. When the Wild made the change to Reebok’s Edge uniforms after the lockout, they had to part with their original green uniforms. It is mainly because the fans responded to the newer red jerseys with the badge in the middle. Fans will wear all colors and iterations of Wild jerseys to the game.

The good news is that your ears will be spared inside The X. There is a soundtrack, but harkening to a traditional anthem leaning towards a mix of modern rock and contemporary hits. This season brought out a mascot for the first time in club history. This mascot did not appear at The X (Besides, I like the Caps’ Slapshot better). Instead, you have fans that will talk to you about the game, joke around, share your contempt with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman…as I said, Wild fans know this game inside and out!

Yet, in the two games I attended, I felt more competent as I followed the action. It wasn’t because of the fans as it was an epiphany with the game. After all these years, I can watch a hockey game and understand the strategy behind it, along with the puck control calls. After all, I finally found a comfort zone to enjoy this wonderful game. The next hockey game, no matter where it is at, I’m staying to the end! Unless, it utterly stinks, of course…

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