Since the NHL lockout finally and mercifully came to an end in the summer of 2005, my son has become a bit of a hockey junkie. He’s been skating and playing since he was in pre-school, and he has always enjoyed collecting hockey cards and playing NHL (insert year here) video games. But it’s only been since the lockout ended that Mack warmed up to watching entire NHL games on TV.
During the 2005-06 season, he would check the Center Ice menu daily and would watch whichever games piqued his interest, giving the remote a healthy workout if his initial game of choice didn’t meet his expectations. Whenever I was home and the Caps were on, we’d watch together. He began the normal fan processes of having favorite players and teams around the league, and having others he despised. Towards the end of the 2005-06 regular season, I told him about the playoffs.
“Just wait until the playoffs start,” I said. “You think this hockey is good, you won’t believe playoff hockey. It’s the best.”
Then I had to explain to him that the Caps wouldn’t be participating in the playoffs, and that it might be a while before he would actually be able to see a live playoff game locally. He said he wanted to go to a playoff game, even if the Caps weren’t playing. His birthday is in May (he was born right between the Ottawa and Buffalo series the year the Caps went to the finals), so I pitched him an offer.
“You can have a party at the house with eight or 10 of your friends, or I’ll get tickets and you and I will go to a Stanley Cup playoff game somewhere.”
He didn’t flinch. Playoffs, baby.
So I bought a couple tickets (had to pay the usurious Ticketmaster juice on the ducats, too) and we drove up to the Jersey swamps last May for a second-round matinee contest between the Devils and the Hurricanes at Continental Airlines Arena.
He loved it. For better or worse, he has become quite the Devils sympathizer (apologies to Jagger-Richards) over the years. Loves Marty Brodeur and Scott Gomez. We happened to go to the only game the Devils won in that series. Brodeur came reasonably close to a shutout, Gomez scored twice and the Devils won going away. Throw in a Brodeur t-shirt and it was a big hit.
Big enough that he wanted to do it again this year for his ninth birthday. With the Caps again out of the postseason picture, I’ve been anxiously watching the playoffs play themselves out, wondering where we might be able to go for a game. I also had to work around my work-related hockey obligations, like covering the Hershey Bears’ postseason exploits and jetting over to Moscow for a portion of the IIHF World Championships.
This year, we also decided to expand the trip a bit. One of the kids from Mack’s youth hockey team, Steven, is also a hockey nut from a family of hockey nuts. They’re all Islanders fans, but that’s okay with us since Mack’s mom is also an Islanders fan. So we decided to look for five tickets: Mack, me, Stevie, his older brother Sean and their dad, Tom.
We wanted to go to an Isles’ first-round game, but it didn’t work out with our schedules. Rangers tickets proved to hard to come by, especially since we needed five. Once the Bears eliminated the Albany River Rats in Game 5 of their East Division semifinals series in Glens Falls on Wednesday, three boys back in Baltimore began celebrating. My weekend was suddenly free, and they’d be going to Game 2 of the Devils/Sens series at Continental Airlines Arena on Saturday.
We again paid the Ticketmaster juice for five on the aisle, way up in the upper bowl. Time to issue a word of thanks to Devils CEO/president/general manager/interim head coach/chef/head bottle washer/Zamboni driver Lou Lamoriello here. Initially, the possibility of a weekend game in the Jersey swamps looked bleak. The NBA Nets were slated for playoff tilts on Friday and Sunday, and some figure skating competition was scheduled for Saturday afternoon at 3. It looked like the Devs would be playing the first two games of the series at home on back-to-back nights, namely Wednesday and Thursday. But as you may have heard, Lou has some pull in those parts.
Lamoriello got the figure skating stuff moved up to noon, freeing up the Devils to play an 8 pm game on Saturday rather than the customary 7 pm contest. So thanks, Lou.
Our fully equipped chariot left stately Vogel mansion in Baltimore shortly after 3 pm Saturday afternoon. We were in the CAA parking garage shortly after 6. The kids watched “Miracle” in the back while Tom and I drank coffee and talked hockey up front. The doors opened at 7, and in we went. We bought some reasonably priced rink cuisine and settled into our seats for warm-ups.
The game turned out to be New Jersey’s first sellout (19,040) of the year. That may be because that game had the potential of being the last hockey game ever in that building. Had the Devils lost Saturday’s game and gone on to get swept in the series, it would have been the last NHL game at CAA. The Devils are moving into a new building in Newark for next season.
I’m old school, and CAA is an old school rink with an old school atmosphere. The sight lines are great, and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. They play mostly organ music, and there is no constant bombardment of ads and other assorted goofy video board shenanigans. None of us missed it; the kids weren’t begging for a mascot or anything else to fill time between face-offs or during TV timeouts. One of the lengthy video board features was a 10-4 New Jersey drubbing of the Capitals in the 1988 Patrick Division finals, a series the Devils won in seven games.
The Devils got on the board quickly when Brian Gionta scored with New Jersey’s first shot of the night. The fans were great; loud, passionate and very much into the game. During one TV timeout, a guy in front of us called his Rangers-fan buddy, and had our section loudly serenade him with a rousing chorus of “Rangers Suck!” The kids got a kick out of that, and Tom and I liked how fans would spontaneously signal for the same chant with a series of whistles. Very well-choreographed. It’s not unlike the “Potvin Sucks!” chant at Madison Square Garden.
New Jersey dominated the first period, and we got another jolt of excitement late in the first when Sergei Brylin scored on a 5-on-3 power play with less than a second remaining on the clock. The kids were happy, their team was up by a pair after the first 20 minutes.
Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson halved the deficit with a power play goal early in the second, and a goaltending duel developed. It was mostly Brodeur with the netminding gymnastics. Ottawa dominated the play in the second and third, but Brodeur turned in a vintage performance. All five of us were continually issuing “ooohs” and “aaahs,” as were the thousands of others in attendance. No goals were scored for more than 30 minutes of the game, but the hockey was far from boring. There was end-to-end action, lots of skating and flow, and great scoring chances met with great defensive plays and/or goaltending.
Dany Heatley evened up the score with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee we bought at the end of the second seemed like an even better investment at that point, given the drive that awaited us whenever the game ended. During intermissions, we sat and talked animatedly amongst ourselves about what we’d witnessed, and what might lie ahead. With every great save, we exchanged wondrous looks and amazed glances. We knew the game had to end, but we weren’t really looking forward to it. It was just too good.
Of course, it finally did end. Travis Zajac made a nice play to get the puck to Jamie Langenbrunner in the neutral zone, and he took off on a breakaway. “Oh, look at this!” I heard myself say, and soon we were mobbing each other and the strangers around us. We had witnessed a great one, one we’ll not forget no matter how many more are to come.
It’s after midnight when we pull out of the garage with three hours worth of road stretched ahead of us. Tom and I talked and drank coffee again while the kids alternated between listening to their i-Pods and watching “Talledega Nights.” Every once in a while, one of them would say something like, “I can’t believe that game!” or “That was the best game I’ve ever seen!”
My daughter has always been a night owl (like her dad), but Mack rarely can keep his eyes open past 10:30. Not tonight. Sporting a brand new white Devils jersey, he’s grinning like the devil and looking at the clock. It’s after 2 a.m. “Hey Steven,” he says. “Can you believe how late we’re up?”
Me, I’m thrilled to have been able to watch a memorable game with my son. And to sit in a “real” seat (instead of the press box) with jeans on (instead of a suit) and to have a beer while watching the whole thing unfold. I’m half-expecting to find a bill from Ticketmaster when I get home. They’re probably gonna want some more juice for that extra 21:55 of playoff hockey, right?
Next year, we hope to do it again. Here in Washington.