Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Road Trip Recap, Part III - Seeing Red, The Madhouse on Madison

Previous Recaps: Part I | Part II

Being part of the Original Six brotherhood has some advantages: Logos that have stood the test of time, unparalleled history (both good and bad), a veritable who's who of hockey greats and iconic sweaters.  Sometimes, I take this for granted.  A midweek matchup against Columbus or Nashville just cannot ever come close to the juice one gets when the Bruins take on one of their Original Six brethren.

With the Rangers, Canadiens and Maple Leafs all in the same conference, we get to see those teams two (NYR) or three (MTL, TOR) times a year at home, guaranteed.  But when it comes to the Western Conference siblings, Detroit and Chicago, we might get to see them every other year at best due to NHL scheduling.

As I said earlier in Part i of my recap, Heather and I had first deigned on going to a Bruins/Blackhawks game a couple of seasons ago, but the logistics just didn't work out.  In the 2010 season, the Bruins hosted the Blackhawks at home.  So our next chance for a Windy City showdown was this year.

Fast forward, then, to October 15th as the defending Stanley Cup champions found themselves taking on the Blackhawks as we made our way to our first road trip of the season.  Our first time at the United Center, we were beyond excited for some Saturday night hockey, midwest style.  Let's see how it played out.

You Can't Get There From Here

Oh, but you can.

After we finished up our tour of the Willis (Sears) tower, we didn't have enough time to head back to the hotel, so we decided to go straight to the stadium instead.  We headed over towards the El, but the locals, seeing that we were all decked out in our Black and Gold regalia, suggested that the bus might be better (and quicker) option.  Thanks to the fine folks at the Chicago Transit Authority, we were able to hop on the #20 bus at the corner of Wells and Madison and shoot right over to the United Center.  Unlike my beloved Boston, Chicago is laid out as a grid and the public transportation system is far more reliable, so moving around the city is incredibly easy.

We somehow got off one stop earlier than we should have (we would have been dropped off right outside the Stadium), but it was only a two minute walk and we were able to get some quality camera shots along the way.

A Shared Kinship of Sorts

We arrived before the stadium gates opened which allowed us to mingle a bit with a bunch of the fans who were lined up outside.  There were a bunch of fellow Bruins fans so we exchanged hi-fives and general pleasantries with them as we milled about.

Now, having been to away games in Montreal, Toronto and both eastern New York venues, I've steeled myself a bit when it comes to dealing with opposing fans.  For the most part, the vast majority of people are decent and respectful, but there's always a few bad apples in the bunch.  I've borne the brunt of taunts in the last row of the blue seats at Madison Square Garden as the B's were eviscerated 7-0 by the Rangers on St. Paddy's day.  I've enjoyed been sworn at in French from upset Habs fans as the Bruins took two points in Montreal on St. Paddy's Day. I've suffered the indignity of being taunted by a bunch of 12 year old girls outside the Air Canada Center after Phil Kessel potted the game winner for the Leafs in shootout on my birthday.  And, by far the worst experience was in Long Island as the boys in the spoked B sweaters were handed a beating by the Islanders and the "fans" spewed the most vile and profane comments at us that I'd ever heard at a sporting event.

It goes without saying that I take an overly cautious approach when I engage fans of the other team.  I try to be respectful, reading and reacting rather than being open up front.  If I sense that some people are up for some good natured jousting, I'll go ahead and give it to them, fully expecting something thrown back at me.  But I've also learned not to let my guard down completely.

The old school satin jacket lends major
street cred to one's hockey knowledge
As we waited outside the United Center, random Chicagoans would come us and converse with us.  Perhaps it was our mutual admiration of guys named Esposito, our perceived insights on Theo Espstein or just their instictive good natured midwestern friendliness, but these folks we downright nice to us for the most part. It was weird as much as it was fun.  Us hardened New Englanders are just not used to it.  Everything a stereotypical New Yorker is to us, these guys were the diametric opposite.

We had people come up to us to talk about the old time game from the 60's, sharing cup victory experiences and our respective crops of youngsters on our teams.  It was beyond refreshing to be able to carry out a conversation about hockey with knowledgable fans.  They knew their history as well as a large part of ours and vice versa.

Once the doors opened, Heather and I headed in and took our time walking around the place.  Aside from a few innocuous jeers (to be expected), there was a genuine sense of welcome in the building.  It was fun.  I had a number of Blackhawks fans who can up to me and thanked me (as if I was an ambassador for the B's) for dispatching the Canucks in the Stanley Cup final. I actually had one guy shake my hand when he thanked me.  Apparently, they really hate the Canucks (though I'm winning to bet they hate the Red Wings even more). In turn, I thanked them back for knocking off the Flyers in their moment of ultimate success. In doing so, we sorta kinda bonded.  It was weird, but it also made me realize something: I don't hate these people.  Sure, they are rooting for the other team, but they aren't obnoxious and acting like idiots.  I only hope I can reciprocate the kindness the Chicago fans extended to me.

The Madhouse on Madison

When you can bring the noise
you get to be a bit boastfu
Much like Philadelphia, the arena is on the south side of town; not quite the outskirts, but away from the downtown core of the city.  It is surrounded by parking lots and low rise buildings, a far cry from the neighborhood settings of the Garden or the Bell Center.

And let's face it - this place is downright huge.  It completely dwarfs what we have.  Besides having a capacity of over 22,000 (almost 5,000 more than back home), the United Center has wide concourses, an additional level of premium seats and standing room loactions that ring the building behind the upper balcony seating area.  By the time you are in the back of the 300 level sections, you are pretty far from the ice surface.  But there are no obstructed views and there's plenty of space to move around.  And you're going to need to get up at some point: the seats are crowded as hell. Even someone as short as I am had issues with keeping my knees from banging the seats in front of me.

But the place has a huge drawback: the sound system.  By far the absolute worst one I've experienced at any modern arena I've been to.  We're talking "Charlie Brown teacher" territory.  Barely audible when the crowd was quiet.  And the music was a huge letdown as well.  The organ was pumped through the speakers, rendering it pretty much useless.  And the musical selection was lacking in quality.  Add in the three piece rock band that would play standard hard rock classics from Van Halen and AC/DC during stoppages in play was really pedestrian.  In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor gripe and it honestly didn't detract from my overall experience.

Hey, only 11 more to go
As an added bonus, there is a display case with all six of the Bulls' Larry O'Brien trophies from the NBA championships.  Which is nice, if you're a Bulls fan.  Which I'm not.

I discussed the myriad of food options available  at the United Center in Part I of my recap.  I should also mention that there are a number of standalone bars and lounges scattered all over the building, some of which feature standing areas with views of the ice do you can watch the game while inbibing your favorite tasty libation.  And these are available to all season ticket holders, not just the high rollers in the premium seats.

Shoe shine, sir?
Did I mention they have a shoe shine station as well?

A tremendously tremendous idea
And in one final touch of greatness, all the ushers are supplied with miniature stop signs with a picture of local fan favorite, former player and current national broadcast analyst Ed Olczyk on them for the purpose of stopping people from entering the seating areas while the puck is in play.  And for the most part, the fans stay seated during the game, waiting for the whistle before getting up.  Yet another NHL arena that gets it while the TD Garden continues to show disregard and disrespect for their patrons.

Oh, and they have a bunch of banners hanging from the rafters, as benefitting an arena that is home to two storied franchises.  There are banners for the Hawks four Stanley Cups and the Bulls' six championships as well as banners for retired players for each team.  They also have banners for Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause, the architects behind the Bulls' dynasty.  As a nice touch, the Bulls banners actually have the names of the players on each championship team around the border of their respective banner.  There are also banners for each of the Hawks' various division and conference championships which seems a bit excessive.  And as a whole, the banner designs are rather plain, even boring.  Where the Bruins and Celtics banners are somewhat understated, they do have a simple elegance to them that the United Center ones lack.

Oh Say Can Your Hear

One of the great traditions in all of sports is the signing of the national anthem at Blackhawks games.  I had only seen it on TV and never in person until my trip there.  TV does it no justice at all.  Anthem singer Jim Cornelison is one of the best I've ever heard with a fantastic voice.  But it is the Chicago crowd that makes this one of the best things I've ever witnessed live.  Rather than sing along, the crowd cheers the entire time. And by cheer, I mean make noise, and lots of it.  But it is not disrespectful in any way.  Rather, its just what they do.  And it is amazing. And loud.

What the sound system lacks, the crowd more than makes up for.  I mean, these people can make some serious noise.  They are into the game from the first drop of the puck and don't lose focus at all.  Sure, there are the typical in-game distractions from promotions on the jumbotron, but the hockey is first and foremost. This was a serious hockey crowd.  Now, I'm not sure if they brought their 'A' game because it was a Saturday night and they were playing a fellow Original 6 team who also happened to be the defending Stanley Cup champs, but for that night at least it was a great atmosphere.

And lest I forget, I need to mention the goal horn.  Or goal horns.  Four bugles are mounted underneath the center ice scoreboard and they emit the most wonderful, rich sound when they are played.  The foghorn at the Garden is nice, but this puts it to shame.

Seeing Red

When you have a classic, timeless look like the Blackhawks have, why wouldn't you want to wear one of their sweaters? And ever since the NHL went to the 'white on the road' rule in the 03-04 season, we have been denied the opportunity to see Chicago wear their brilliant red sweaters at the Garden.  Not so when we went on the road.  Simply beautiful.  Even their third/alternate sweaters are pretty good.

I'd say that 90% of the crowd was wearing a hockey sweater of some sort, include those of us in Bruins gear.  And just about all of the remaining 10% was wearing some other sort of team branded clothing. The Chicago fans clearly showed favor for the red sweaters, easily choosing them over the white and black varieties by a 3 to 1 margin.

And with the storied history that they have, there are a bevy of good, if not great players that the fans can choose to pay tribute to with their sweater customization.  Sure, there were plenty of Toews, Kane and Sharp sweaters to be seen in the crowd, but for every two members of the 2010 championship team that I saw on someone's back, there was one of the Hawks' greats to be found:

1991 Jeremy Roenick Campbell Conf.
All Star replica
70's Tony Esposito
away replica
Early 90's Steve Larmer away replica
(w/ current Jonathan Toews throwback)
2003 Theoren Fleury home replica
(token waste of money sweater)
Mid 90's Ed Belfour home replica
Current Marian Hossa home replica
Mid 60's Glen Hall
sweater reproduction
Mid 90's Tony Amonte
home replica
Early 90s Jeremy Roenick
& Bob Probert home replicas
Stan Mikita
home replica
1991-2 Jeremy Roenick
NHL 75th Anniversary Throwback

The Game

Ah, yes, there was actually a game played as well.

The Bruins came out like they were sleepwalking and the Blackhawks took advantage late in the first period with Brian Bickell scoring to take a 1-0 lead off a horrible turnover by Andrew Ference in the defensive zone.  The Bruins tied it up just over a minute into the second period on a Chris Kelly shorthanded tally, but the Hawks countered just a minute later on a narrow angle wrister from the elusive Patrick Kane that managed to sneak by Thomas' far side.

Chicago continued to pressure the Black and Gold with Tim Thomas stellar play the only reason the B's weren't getting blown out.  Late into the third period, the Bruins began to wake up and the ice started to shift in their favor.  Nathan Horton netted the tying goal about 8 minutes in. The Bruins continued to take the puck to the Chicago net, but Corey Crawford was solid.

In overtime, Rich Peverley had a chance to win it for the B's on a clean breakway off a Chicago turnover, but his backhand shot missed wide and the game went to a shootout.

In the past, this usually signaled a death knell.  The Bruins simply suck in shootouts.  And our (as in Heather and me) track record on road games was equally as poor.  And the Blackhawks three shooters were Kane, Toews and Sharp.  We were screwed.

But somehow, Tim Thomas stopped all three shots while Tyler Seguin beat Crawford through the five hole and the goal stood as the deciding tally as the Bruins actually garnered 2 points for their second win of the season.

In Conclusion

This was by far my favorite road trip, ever. The combination of touring a great city such as Chicago with sampling some of my favorite food and taking in a great hockey environment was unparalleled.  Add in some gorgeous weather, some good friends and a bunch of friendly midwesterners and it was the perfect weekend getaway.  I only wish I had more time there.

Needless to say, I want to go back again.  And soon.

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