Hockey Game

About once a year I go to an NHL game at the Verizon Center, often as part of an anniversary gift.  Usually on my own, because my wife Jane is happier to have the evening to relax at home.  Last night was the night, determined by the opponent of the home-town Capitals and the convenience of the date.

The Nashville Predators are in the Western Conference, and so are infrequent foes for the Eastern Conference Caps.  Their logo suggests a saber-toothed tiger.  The name is a little ambiguous, like the Toronto Raptors of the NBA or the even-more-vague NHL Minnesota Wild (a state and an adjective!).  The Wild logo’s vague predator features a more ursine animal profile.  I suppose both these team names are better than those of a prey species, like the Penguins or the Ducks.  Nashville, in any event, seemed a suitable adversary for a team named after a seat of government.  I’d have called the team the “Nashville Sound,” but what would that logo look like?

Even buying the ticket was a new deal to me.  I use Ticketmaster, having found that the discounts on other sites are not dramatic, and that this site provides reliability.  I was not prepared for the ticket format choices, however: an app or my credit card at the gate.  Chose the latter, leaving me more mystified than ever about the “Order Processing Fee” of $6.00.  Amazon can and has recently physically delivered everything from Haynes briefs to a stand-alone printer/scanner to my door in two days with no fees at all.  But somehow the ticket folks need $6.00 to allow some electronic information to flow through their circuits and to send me about three emails.  When I got to the gate they swiped my card and printed out a small slip with the seat location.  They probably made about $5.98 pure profit on that transaction.

Jane dropped me off at the Metro, which conveniently has a stop right at the arena.  Not quite as good as the old Boston Garden, where you could walk right from the North Station platform to the admission gate without ever going outside, but not bad.  I headed straight to Fuddrucker’s for a pre-game burger and fries, and then went in to find my seat.  I wanted to watch the pre-game skate, and I knew getting to the spot would take some time.  I bought a $65.25 (tax included) seat, one of the cheaper available.  It was on the third level (what they called the Second Balcony at the Garden, though we had other names for it), nearly at center ice, three rows from the top, on the aisle.  Actually, it provided a very good view of the whole ice, from a somewhat high and distant perspective.  The shocking thing to me is how expensive these seats are.  For this very ordinary game, the best places in the stands go for nearly $300 apiece (this excludes the suites and other elite locations).  You can’t get a seat anywhere for less than $55.  I remember buying a box seat in the old Garden a couple of times, especially once when I was astounded that some people who’d paid box seat money got there late and missed some action (Don McKenney had scored twice in the first ten minutes on Jacques Plante, if you can imagine that!).  That seat cost me $12, and while I know that was “real money” in those days, it was not the equivalent of $250, and maybe barely of $65.

After a series of escalator rides and a walk almost halfway around the concourse, I arrived about 30 minutes before game time.  The arena was nearly empty.  But I had come to watch the pre-game skate, which began a few minutes later.  Whirling circles of skaters looped around.  A few players stretched or did their private rituals.  Dmitri Orlov practiced his stick handling, but let’s just say that at his best he’s no Brad Marchand.  Braden Holtby, after practicing splits in full goalie gear (!), went between the pipes, and players started giving him shots, some hard and some easy.  Nikki Backstrom got about a dozen pucks at the top of the right circle, and fed them one by one to his linemate Alex Ovechkin, who waited in the middle of the left circle, instantly slamming each one into the now-empty net as it arrived.  Goal, goal, goal, . . . At the end, TJ Oshie ignored his teammates filing off the ice until he was all alone.  Then, feigning panic, he raced for the door, did a flying leap over the boards, and disappeared down the runway.   Then two Zambonis came out to preen the ice.  So did a full-scale inflatable car balloon, powered and controlled like a drone, with 4 little props, advertising some dealership.  Made me wish for one instant that I had a good air rifle for just long enough to take it down.

At the start of the game the arena goes dark.  It is just 7:00.  The seats are now maybe half-full.  The four officials skate around to the very loud music designed to stir up the crowd.  Spotlight beams dart about in the dark.  Two minutes later both teams emerge.  While the Capitals get a full spotlight and a “color guard” consisting of peewee players raising Caps banners on hockey-stick poles, the visiting Predators skulk out in darkness.  Then it’s lights up, honor a soldier, national anthem, and the puck drops at 7:08.  Afterwards I heard a fan describe it as a “sleepy” game.  The Caps, red-hot and leading the Conference by several points three weeks back, had their “bye week” (a dumb idea if I ever heard one) and came back flat.  Since then they had been 6-6-2, including a zip-for-four West Coast trip.  Last night they played tough against a defense-minded Predators club that looked like they’d have trouble scoring in the between-periods peewee game.  Late in the first period a Nashville defenseman, carrying the puck, lost his footing as he was turning to the left of his net to head up-ice.  He fell and the puck skidded behind the other defender.  The Caps suddenly had a 2-on-0 right in front of the net.  Highly touted rookie Jakub Vrana drew the goalie’s attention, passed to (ex-Bruin!) Brett Connolly on the open side, and the Caps had a goal.

Other than that, the game was drowsy.  Some antics with the Caps’ cartoony eagle mascot and a pewee hockey “game” enlivened intermissions.  One team had a girl goalie, and she was interviewed.  A few contests, shooting t-shirts into the crowd, the usual stuff.  As if the sport isn’t enough by itself.  There were few good scoring chances in the actual game.  Both teams had a shots-on-goal number in the mid-twenties.  But the Predators won a whopping 70% of the faceoffs, which kept the Caps from applying constant pressure.  Neither team was good at puck possession, neither goalie was severely tested.  On the one setup Ovechkin got in his left circle “sweet spot,” he completely mis-hit the puck, despite his pregame practice, and it weakly drifted to the boards in the corner.  There were an annoying number of “commercial TV” timeouts, a practice entirely unknown in the old days.  In the third period Tom Wilson of the Caps took a Predator hard but clean into the boards by the team benches.  Another Predator decided to take Wilson on.  Big mistake.  Wilson is unlikely to instigate fights, but he likes to fight, and he’s good at it.  The last seven or eight punches, all hard rights, were thrown by him, and the refs mercifully called it a TKO.  Wilson went to the sin bin, the Predator to the dressing room, not to return.

Unfortunately, the two best shots on goal the Predators took both went in cleanly.  The second was in overtime, when they executed a beautiful set play, luring the Caps up-ice out of their defensive zone and then sending both forwards rocketing in on a 2-on-1.  The left wing had an open shot and did not miss.  I was outa there fast to beat the crowd onto the Metro, which does not put on extra trains for hockey games.  I got a seat on the Orange Line, but a couple of people stood all the way to Dunn Loring.  When I told Jane the game had gone into overtime but ended very quickly, she said “actually it was at 3:12.”  Coulda knocked me over with a feather.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017.

Connections

For one week of every fifty-two, we like to go somewhere warm, sit by the pool or on the beach at a nice resort, and relax.  We’ve been to a variety of such destinations in the Western Hemisphere, and this year it was Baja California.  Making our travel plans months ago, we found routes to Cabo San Lucas from Dulles Airport through Denver, Chicago, and Houston.  Our travel window, late February through mid-March, made the choice simple: Houston would be the most reliable transfer point.  How could we have predicted that by March 1 Chicago would have recorded no snow on the ground all winter, a 136-year-old record?

Only thing about Houston was that the outbound connection was tight, at 55 minutes from arrival to takeoff.  Understand that it’s really only 45 minutes, since aircraft doors are scheduled to shut 10 minutes prior to takeoff time.  And that 45 minutes is really only 25 minutes if we want to arrive at the gate in time to board the plane with our preferred passenger boarding privilege, which allows us to get to our seats in time to be sure our carry-on luggage can be stowed overhead.  (Lots of folks use only carry-on for warm-climate vacations, since you only need beach gear and enough clothing to pass muster at the resort restaurants.)  In that 25 minutes the plane has to taxi to the gate (“arrival” means when the aircraft wheels touch the tarmac) and get attached to the jetway, we have to debark (leaving no personal items behind, of course), to determine what gate our connecting flight departs from, and walk/run to that gate, toting our carry-on luggage, in time to line up and board with our group.

The wild card is that we have no idea where in the airport the departure gate is relative to the arrival gate.  It could be five minutes away.  It could be fifteen minutes away.  Usually you can count on 5 to 8 minutes from touchdown to gate, 2 or 3 more minutes until deplaning commences, and 3 or 4 more minutes until the seats in front of you have cleared (if you’re located about halfway back in the Economy section).  So that’s 10 to 12 minutes from touchdown to being inside the terminal building, leaving 13 to 15 minutes for the walking/running part.  That’s sufficient time, IF nothing goes wrong.

Our flight, it seemed, would get to Houston on time.  It was slow leaving the gate after the doors were shut 5 minutes before the 8:15 a.m. takeoff time, and actually left the ground 15 minutes after that scheduled time.  But airlines build some slack into their schedules so that they can claim a higher “on time” statistic.  And so it was that our airplane touched down just about exactly on schedule.  The pilot bounced the landing slightly, though, which proved to be ominous.   Because he got to the gate, turned off the seatbelt sign, and allowed us to grab our stuff and line up in the aisle.  THEN he announced that he parked the plane incorrectly, so that the jetway couldn’t attach to the plane.  Seriously?  I thought those folks on the ground gesturing with sticks assured that the plane would be right on the painted markings that indicate correct alignment.  Geez, if I had half that much help parallel-parking my car I would nail it every time!

We had to sit down, buckle up again, wait for the pilot to re-park, and only then disembark.  Luckily the rest is anti-climactic, as we discovered our gate was “just around the corner.”  In airline terminals that means only a five-minute (quarter-mile) walk.

So we got to Cabo San Lucas and spent a week in San Jose del Cabo at the Royal Solaris, a very nice place.  We left at the perfect time, sort of wishing we had one more day, but also looking forward to getting home.  This would be the easy trip, because we had one hour and 50 minutes for the connection, double what it was on the way down.  Yes, we had to go through immigration and customs, and yes, we had to go through security again, but so what?  The layover was almost two hours, and doing the math we still had an hour and 25 minutes for all the in-terminal processing.  Piece of cake.

The shiny new International Terminal at Cabo San Lucas relaxed us; we waltzed into the aircraft on time; we settled in, buckled up, and taxied what seemed like 15 minutes to the end of the runway (I hate it when the window-seat passengers keep the shades down to “preserve coolness” and “avoid glare,” because I want to see exactly what the plane is doing and where it is on the tarmac).

Then came the announcement: the plane was overweight, unsafe to take off.  It was an unusual situation, we were told, but we’d have to go back to the gate.  What?  WHAT!?!  This was a Boeing 737, the domestic workhorse of the medium-range fleet.  It’s practically the jet equivalent of the DC-3: been around forever; solid, functional, durable basic design.  After all the years they’ve used this plane, United still doesn’t have a way to figure out ahead of time how to prevent this aircraft from getting overloaded?

United wanted four volunteers to stay an extra day in Los Cabos.  It got them in a hurry.  (Having done this ourselves once in the past, we were not anxious to volunteer.  The airlines make it so hard to collect and use the financial reward you’re given that it’s just not worth the hassle.)  A quick, rough math calculation suggests the issue here: let’s say each passenger plus luggage = 250 lbs.  If so, they needed to lose 1000 pounds.  There were about 230 people on the plane, most of them having just spent a week at an all-inclusive resort.  That means that each passenger was responsible for about 4 pounds of the overweight.  If only everyone had eaten more healthily!

By the time the volunteers and their luggage were deplaned, the aircraft re-prepared for departure, re-taxied to the end of the runway, and ready to roll, an hour and ten minutes had elapsed.  We were down to 40 minutes for our connection in Houston, including deplaning, immigration, customs, re-screening at security, getting to the gate, and doors closing before takeoff.  I knew from experience that one jerk at any point, like the idiot Customs Agent we ran into at Dulles one night, could burn up 15 or 20 minutes of that time all by him- or herself.  Spending the night in the Lone Star State seemed inevitable.

By the time we got to Houston, a couple of new factors emerged: our pilot had made up 10 minutes or so on the trip, and the connecting flight itself had arrived late in Houston, giving us another 15 minutes.  The flight attendant with whom we had discussed our dilemma told us that United was monitoring several flights feeding into the one back to Dulles, and suggested the departure time could be set back further.  He also said that the departure gate had been changed, but that news was not good.  The original gate was one gate from being the farthest from Immigration in the entire airport.  The new gate WAS that one farther gate!  But we deplaned figuring we’d just give it our best shot, and hope.

Immigrating into Houston is better than the Dulles experience.  They have the same new automated machines that read your passport and require you to take a selfie.  But when you go to the agent at the desk with the printout, they don’t go over all the information with you again the way they do at IAD.  They simply provide a human verification of the automated process, which is exactly what they should do.  Likewise, customs has sufficient agents to handle the crowds, another contrast to our home airport.

On our way through customs, the same flight attendant was right behind us.  He said “you are going to make it.”  That seemed less sure to us, but we embraced the assurance with a passion.  Then we hit security.  There was not TSA Pre-check, and the line was fairly long.  Suddenly we realized we’d need to be in the mode of toiletry bags out, belts and shoes off—all the intricate rituals of regular security.  The line was moving, though, until we got near to the screening point, and some ill-trained TSA person strode out to lecture us about his intention to deliberately slow the line down to “teach us” that he really meant it when he said we could have nothing in our pockets.  Nothing like being talked down to in such an urgent moment as if we were children by a guy who seemed to barely have made it through high school himself.  At such times it is a real effort to hold my tongue.

However, sanity prevailed.  I didn’t even have to go through the full body scan because I am over 75; only had to reassure the agent that I did not have a pacemaker or any metal in my body.  But coming out of TSA screening we realized that the route to our gate was the longest way, looping backwards, and that time was running out.  You won’t remember the old OJ Simpson commercials for Hertz that involve running through airports if you are (1) too young or (2) settling into senile dementia, but they come to mind in these moments of crisis.  Unfortunately, we are not in the kind of shape OJ was in his prime, nor do we have his innate athletic ability.  But we were doing our best OJ imitation.  There were several defibrillators in the corridors along the way, well-marked for emergency access.  I asked Jane to note their locations because I might well need one.  Finally, about six gates away, I told her to run ahead and try to get them to hold the plane, because I could not keep up the pace any longer.

A while later I looked up and saw the last gates in the far distance.  Jane was just disappearing into the crowd, the crowd of people waiting to board the flight at Gate C-31.  Our gate!  I chugged up, a sweaty, panting mess; got into what I thought was the end of the Group 2 line; was advised it was longer; relocated.  It didn’t matter.  We all were going to be on that flight, in our seats, with our baggage securely stowed and our seat belts fastened snugly across our laps, remembering that in case of emergency we would put on our own face masks before helping others.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017