Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bruins v. Rangers: My experience at Madison Square Garden

This is all about my visit to Madison Square Garden for a hockey game. A Facebook friend of mine commented that all hockey fans should go to this venue at least once. I guess I can check that box from my list.

I was in New York for work, staying a couple blocks from Madison Square Garden. The New York Rangers happened to be on a homestand, so I thought I'd try and get a ticket. To use the cliched baseball reference: I struck out - at first.

I tried to get a seat after their first game, against Florida, had already started. The cheapest seat available in the nearly-sold-out arena was about $260. Too steep. So I went back with more time to spare for the Rivarly Night last Wednesday, an Original Six matchup with the Boston Bruins. $170. Still pricey but doable. I justified it with the rare opportunity this would be for me to attend a game at the Garden.

Taking it all in
Getting from the box office to my seat was an interesting journey. First I took about 27 escalators up about nine stories. A slight exaggeration on the escalator count. My seat was on something called "the bridge," and I wasn't really sure what that meant. Turns out, it's just like it sounds.

I took in the arena and all it had to offer. My best description (If you've been there before, just skip ahead.) is that it's an arena with the usual bowl seating, though some of it looks less uniform. I assume that's because the arena also houses basketball and the New York Knicks.

Then there's this bridge of a couple rows of seats - each with their own glass panes - that is up high near the ceiling that spans the ice length-wise. Then there were a bunch of seats in what I'll call the upper bowl, where it looked like they're behind you from the bridge perspective. Just weird to see when you're used to a standard arena like the Xcel Energy Center.

Not a bad seat. Not bad at all.
I walked around before the game, grabbed my nutritional hot dog supper (Side note: I was a little surprised that concession prices didn't seem much more expensive than at the X.) and then stopped to watch the teams warm up.

As it turned out, that expensive ticket got me quite a view. I know people hear "300 level" or "high up" about seats and think, "Oh, the nosebleed section. No good view there." I disagree. It's a different view than say, along the glass, but it's still a good view. My seat was actually in the handicapped area (a foam-padded folding chair) located right at center ice.

Right about at ceiling level, sure, but still at center ice.

It reminded me of the view from the press box at the X - high up with a good way to see the overall scope of the game with a chance to see the plays develop. I was also on the same side as the team benches.

These are a few of my favorite things
I loved some of the pregame setup, with the video board and lights/graphics displayed directly on the ice. I also learned they dub themselves "Rangerstown." I guess that's their State of Hockey.

One of my favorite things about the place, I noticed after the game started, was the scoreboard. Of course, it had the large video screen, game clock, score and shots-on-goal count. The cool part though was it listed the players on the ice at the moment, hits and faceoff percentage. I approve. It made things a little easier for me, too, since I'll admit I don't know those teams as well.

Mats Zuccarello (or Zoooooooc! to the crowd) was already the man of the night, what with his likeness in gnome form as the fan giveaway. He also tallied the game's first goal and later added an assist. It looked like the Bruins tied it at 1, but the Rangers executed a successful coach challenge determining the play was offside.

The Rangers went up 2-0 after the first period and 3-1 after two. Rangers had goals from Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, J.T. Miller and an empty netter from Rick Nash.

The final was 5-2, though shots on goal told a different story. Henrik Lundquist robbed the Bruins - who had 41 shots - of at least a couple goals. The talented goalie yet again had his A-game in his back pocket. I also loved that the fans chanted "Hen-RIK!" a few times, only after he made brilliant saves. Take note, Wild fans. It wasn't every time he touched the puck.

Songs, T-shirts and celebs
Here's the New York Rangers' goal song, a nice little ditty that gets the crowd pumping fists in rhythm and shouting, "Hey!" There were definitely some highlight reel goals, so it was fun to see the celebration a few times.

I'm happy to report there was no activity related to the dreaded wave at Madison Square Garden. It was a good game, so I hoped there wouldn't be. However, they make a huge deal about t-shirt tosses for the crowd. They send around people dressed in blue who throw shirts to over-excited fans wanting something free. Then at the second intermission, they come on the ice with your typical t-shirt cannons, plus a massive robot-like device dubbed the "T-Machine." It was all a little too intense.

They also do these things called "Celebrity Welcomes," because, well, it's New York. They showed a the famous clip from the "Taken" movies during the game. I was all confused for a second, until the avid Ranger fan near me, complete with his heavy New York accent, said, "That means he's here!" Sure enough, there was Liam Neeson in the seats.

Anyway, I had a fun time at the Garden. I was pretty neutral about cheering, enjoyed seeing another NHL arena and was glad I spent the money for such a cool experience. I only wish my family could have been there with me.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The baseball clubhouse is a workplace

I thought I'd take a shot at the Adam LaRoche situation that's developed this week. I don't think my opinions and stance on the issue varies from a lot of what I've heard from other sports fans and media, but I wanted to touch on it anyway.

The first I heard about this, Chicago White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche announced his retirement from baseball. It was a sudden announcement with no real explanation - at first. He's leaving $13 million on the table in his contract, by the way.

Then we find out he's leaving because the White Sox - and in particular, vice president Ken Williams - wouldn't allow LaRoche's 14-year-old son, Drake, to be in the clubhouse every day with his dad. It wasn't a ban, but the boy's clubhouse access needed to be limited going forward.
His side of the story
Friday afternoon, LaRoche released a statement about the situation. According to him, the agreement was for his son to be around the team in the clubhouse. At first, he was told to scale back his son's presence at the ballpark and then later told he couldn't be there at all. LaRoche says the decision was all thanks to a disagreement between him and Williams. That's it.

Apparently, the White Sox players, or at least some of them, are supporting LaRoche. They want their teammate to stay but understand why he is leaving. They even threatened to boycott a spring training game this week. 

I don't get it. There's been a lot of talk, especially when the news first broke, that there must be more to this story. Is a Major League Baseball player really walking away from the game and $13 million because he can't make every day "Take Your Son to Work Day"? I mean, that can't be true, can it? I'm also not trying to make this all about money. Choosing between millions and your family is not what I'm going for here.

He's a kid, not a mascot
Friday, White Sox pitcher Chris Sale publicly showed his support of Adam and Drake, even saying "... he was our team mascot." Sorry Chris, but you've already got a mascot. Southpaw.

Drake, who is homeschooled, spent so much time at the ballpark that he had his own locker and uniform, plus paricipated in drills with the team. Funny, I didn't realize he had his own big-league contract at 14 years old. 

I'm not trying to bash the kid here, if that's how it sounds. He probably just wants to spend time with his dad. While a Major League ballpark and clubhouse may be more fun and glamourous than a lot of other workplaces out there, it's still a workplace. 

Can you imagine a co-worker at the office bringing their child to work every single day? Sure, you may like them and enjoy their company. There's just a time and a place.

Was this worth quitting your job?
I understand family being a value for LaRoche. Family is important and ultimately, a job is just a job. It's just hard to understand why the situation had to go to such an extreme. You don't get what you want (having your son at the ballpark), so that means you just quit?

He acknowledges that having his son around with both the White Sox and Washington Nationals has been a privilege he values and didn't take for granted. That's good, and I'm glad to see he recognizes that as such.

I don't know much about Williams, though I've heard he's not the best character around. Maybe this really was a disagreement between them. Maybe there were other underlying issues between LaRoche and Williams and this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

The whole thing is just weird. I'm not faulting LaRoche for his family values. It's just that he had a priviledge. When that was taken away, he decided that's the end of his baseball career. We can't always get everything we want. That's just how it works.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The woes of Zucker

Jason Zucker appears to be in Torch’s doghouse lately, scratched the past two games. He’s got just one goal and two assists in the past 21 games. The Wild’s interim coach has sent the message that Zucker’s game just isn’t good enough right now.

First off, I’m glad the Wild community is at least at a point where we’re talking about Zucker’s issues. Remember: He was out for six games with a concussion after a nasty-looking hit in the outdoor game in February. At the time, it was one of those scenarios that looked bad. Like, Pierre Marc Bouchard bad.

Fortunately, he only missed a few games and was back in the lineup. With all the precautions these days when it comes to the noggin, I really don’t think he’d be back if he wasn’t 100 percent. So I guess that rules out a reason as to why his performance hasn’t been up to snuff lately.

A young one
His name is out there when people talk generally about the Wild’s group of youngsters and the lack of progression they’ve had. I think it’s a shame.

The 24-year-old winger dazzled me with his speed and offensive mindset when he came up with the Wild. But he kept getting bounced back down to the minors whenever there needed to be a lineup shakeup for injuries or whatever. It was frustrating as a fan because I didn’t think he got a fair shake. Mike Yeo seemed to be harder on him than other guys, just from where I sat.

Last season, he was with the Wild for 51 games, scoring 21 goals and adding five assists. This season, he’s already at 61 games but with only 12 goals and 10 assists. His offensive numbers have definitely taken a step back from his breakout year.

What have you done for me lately?
He’s 12th on the team in points though he’s sixth in goals scored and one of 10 players in double digits. Still, it’s not quite good enough for a guy that was once on the top line this season and has consistently been a top-six forward.

When Yeo finally made a statement with healthy scratches this season, he sat Zucker. I wasn’t too surprised but also disappointed. I mean, especially at that time I didn’t understand why Zucker was singled out when pretty much no one on the team, except probably Charlie Coyle, was getting it done. It didn’t seem right. Scratch Thomas Vanek or Mikael Granlund.

He’s got 36 points, but I just don’t like Granlund’s game. He lacks anything that remotely resembles physical play and has not produced as the offensive superstar that some claimed him to be. Vanek is just so up and down I can’t keep up.

But I digress. Anyway, I can understand the need for poking holes in Zucker’s game. He hasn’t put up the numbers and lately has struggled playing two-way hockey (insert the “D3: Mighty Ducks” scene where Charlie Conway tells that coach he wants to play two-way hockey). From what I hear, (I didn’t see the game) Zucker didn’t have a great game at all against Edmonton.

Use that speed
He’s got speed, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just that speed can’t be everything for him. It’s given him a few breakaways, but not enough of those chances have been buried. Of course, burying chances isn’t just a Zucker problem. That’s team-wide when it comes to any concerns about their offensive production.

I don’t think Zucker is a lost cause. I think he can work on his game and improve some things to get back to a competitive level on the stats sheet again.

Unfortunately, he’s clearly in the coach’s doghouse right now. Maybe that will trickle to the front office and he could become trade bait at some point, too. Who knows?

Maybe it’s the fact that I enjoyed watching his game early on, or that I just can’t put my finger on what exactly this obvious blunder is when it comes to Zucker. I still think this team has bigger problems than Zucker right now.

To me, there’s a problem with leadership in that locker room. The team needs to figure out a permanent head coach going forward, and possibly a new general manager depending on how the rest of the season plays out.

So really, Zucker is the least of their worries.

This was originally posted at WildXtra.com.