Los Angeles, I: #SabresInCali

It all begins on November 5th, with a game in San Jose.  The Sabres, the worst team in the NHL, versus perhaps the best in the Sharks.  At least at the time, this might have been true for both.  Buffalo stood 30th with a record of 2-13-1, while San Jose sat in 2nd with 10-1-3.  The Sabres had as many losses as the Sharks had games played.  Everything about this match-up screamed blow out.

IMG_5609I parked a mile away from the arena as I usually do, and strolled to the SAP Center along the San Jose sidewalks in my Myers jersey, entirely prepared to not-defend the Sabres’ complete suck-itude from trash talking fans.  Entering the arena I held the door for a Sharks fan.  She thanked me, but three seconds later turned back toward me and apologized for the coming beat-down on the ice.  I laughed it off, resigned to my future disappointment.  However, the last time I saw the Sabres lose in person was 2008, in a shootout loss to the Rangers.  I couldn’t remember ever seeing them lose in regulation.  In 2006-07, I was 7-0 in games attended, all home wins.  I saw them beat the Coyotes twice at Jobing.com Arena in 2010 and 2011, the Devils in Jersey in late 2008, and the Sharks in early 2012.  In road games, I seemed to be good luck for my Sabres.  This season had been a total disaster for the Sabres though, and my streak was in serious jeopardy.

IMG_5738The puck dropped, and it was sloppiness for almost ten minutes.  The Sabres are just terrible at possessing the puck.  They can pass fine, but once those connect, they just, as a whole, don’t seem to know what to do with it.  Turnovers abound, and scoring chances are rare.  Now, I watch the Sharks on television all the time, given that I live in their territory, and I am amazed at how dominant they often are.  Their zone play is crisp and quick, their scorers are fearsome, and they’ve got youngsters who are actually putting up decent numbers alongside their notable veterans.  That said, they looked awful in the first period.

Buffalo tends to get blown out in first periods alone, but they held nearly even with the Sharks in shots.  Of course, it was the Sharks who struck first, about nine minutes in.  Instead of deflating as usual, the Sabres didn’t quit.  They came out for the second period fighting, taking 2-1 lead with two goals within the first six minutes, the second goal coming off a face-off following a fight.  All I could do in the stands was sit grinning, shaking with excitement.  See, I came into that game with nothing to lose.  Sabres losing?  Sure that’s expected.  Sabres winning?  WHAT?  AWESOME!  My expectations were so low, I was enjoying this show with equal and opposite glee.

IMG_5751When the Sabres took a 3-1 lead on a 2-on-0 goal (!) in the 3rd, I was shocked.  How was this happening?  Power-plays?  Puck luck?  An opponent who took the game too lightly?  All of the above, methinks.  However, it wasn’t long before the inevitable collapse came.  Buffalo has had trouble putting together complete games all season, so when San Jose tied it with two quick goals minutes later, I fell from my ecstasy back to the reality that, yes, the Sabres are probably not the team to go toe-to-toe with the Sharks and come out on top.

Then Henrik Tallinder scored.  My favorite player!  Unsung hero of the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs!  I was so happy when he returned to the team in the off-season from exile in New Jersey.  Seeing him score a pretty goal from the slot in my end of the arena was fantastic.  Given the infrequency with which we puts pucks in the net, I feel lucky to have seen him do it live.  (Aside: I saw him score an empty net goal from 160 feet in a preseason game in 2006, but that’s preseason. Whatever)

As the clock ran down, the Sabres held a 4-3 lead over the mighty Sharks, having gained and subsequently squandered a two-goal lead.  I just sat back nervously and watched the final minutes unfold.  What more could I do at this point?  The Sharks tied it with under 4 minutes to go.  Bugger.  And that took the life out of the Sabres.  They held on in OT, barely.  The Sharks were all over them.  They even scored a goal.  I didn’t see it, being down at the other end of the rink, but the fans over there were excited about something for sure.  The replay didn’t show it, the refs didn’t review it, and the game carried on.

IMG_5769In the shootout, newcomer Matt Moulson didn’t disappoint.  In the fourth round, with Tomas Hertl missing his shot, I called Cody Hodgson to win the game.  I knew he would.  And he did, to my delight.  I stood up and cheered the most unlikely of victories while disappointed Sharks fans poured to the exits.  For a brief moment, I legitimately thought I might have been good luck.  In Sabres games at HP Pavilion/SAP Center, I’m 2-0.  Not bad.  Walking through the crowd back to my car, I was excitedly dreaming of the coming day where I’d bring my luck with me to Los Angeles.

It came sooner than I imagined it would.  I spent Wednesday getting everything straight, cleaning, and packing for my adventure.  On Thursday morning, November 7th, I quadruple-checked that I had all of my tickets, took my belongings down to the car and went on my way.  Set with 16 hours of fresh music, bottles and bottles of Gatorade, and snacks, I drove across Altamont Pass to my old stomping ground of Tracy, California, where I had lunch at my favorite pizza place in town.  It was just as good as I remember, having been a long, eventful seven months since I was there last.  Interstate 5 isn’t very noteworthy.  I cranked through albums by the likes of Alice In Chains, Arcade Fire, Beth Orton, Divine Fits, Joshua Radin and Lostprophets whilst ignoring the flat farmland disappearing into smog to my left and the dry, grassy hills to my right.  The music was good enough to keep me occupied, which is fortunate because there was nothing to see.

Only a few more thoughts about the drive: the smog in the San Joaquin Valley is disgusting.  I could see it floating there behind me as I drove up across Tejon Pass.  While inside it, it just seemed like haze in the distance, but seeing the distinct border between the dirty cloud and fresh air from the hills made me cringe.  Get help, Central Valley.  Crossing the Grapevine is a neat little drive, though not one I’d like to make often.  It’s typical California scenery, with scattered lakes and mountains covered in shrubs.  I hit traffic in San Fernando and the stop-and-go continued all the way into Hollywood on the 101.  I gave myself over two hours of buffer time just in case.  I needed an hour of it.

IMG_5809For my first time in Los Angeles, I felt like I knew where everything was and where I needed to go just from looking at my surroundings.  Overexposure to the city in the media created more familiar sights than not, but much more on that later.  I mistakenly took a “short-cut” through downtown to bypass some traffic.  I found a neat spot to see downtown at dusk from and stopped a minute to take some photographs.  I finally landed in my prepaid Staples Center parking spot after over six hours in the car.  LA was much warmer than the Bay Area had been, and I was overdressed wearing a hoodie along with a hockey jersey.

IMG_5824The area surrounding Staples Center is crazy. There are blocks full of restaurants, entertainment venues, clubs and more.  Once again on the streets in my Sabres’ jersey, I found a suitable place to grab a bite before the game.  I took a seat at a nice Polynesian themed restaurant bar next to a Sabres fan wearing a classic Perreault jersey.  We took to chatting after I’d had half of a scotch and he told me he had just driven up from San Diego for the game.  I too came a long way for this.  He was a nice guy, and would have gotten me a ticket down in the lower stands behind the bench if everyone in his party didn’t show.  In fact, there seemed to be far more Buffalo fans in LA than there had been in San Jose.  After dinner, I buzzed up to the arena, basking in the glow of the Nokia Theatre, LA Live, and the Staples Center.  LA Live was lit up with bright blue spotlights, its plaza adorned in shifting LEDS of purple, red, green and blue.  It just felt so alive out there.  I giddily sauntered into Staples Center, stumbled up the escalator to my section above the Kings’ zone and sat down in my comfortable black seat.  I looked around and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

IMG_5860Staples Center is unlike any arena I’ve ever seen.  It’s really tall, and the inside is decked out in black and is just dark in general.  While most modern NHL facilities (at least the ones I’ve been to) have a lower deck, a suite-level, and an upper bowl, Staples Center has not one, but three levels of suites between the lower and upper bowls. The suites are built on top of each other in three congruent rings; from the edge of the upper bowl is nearly a straight three or four story drop down.  Take a look.  At one end the lower suites are opened up into semi-circular booths with tables like the kind one would find at a trendy nightclub, all surrounded by glowing LED panels.  I understand there’s a lot of money and fame in Los Angeles, but I wasn’t prepared for this level of extravagance.

More than a sports arena, Staples Center is a pure entertainment venue.  Lakers jerseys and championship banners adorned the nearest end wall, while Kings championship banners hung from the rafters above the farther side of the ice.  As I sat waiting for the players to emerge for warm-ups, I was thoroughly enjoying a medley from the arena organist.  He played things like the Throne Room theme from A New Hope, combined with songs from Depeche Mode and Daft Punk; I remember being completely amazed at the arrangements.  The Staples Center organist is wonderful.  After warm-ups, the jumbo-tron featured an awesome Kings montage, while green lasers shot up from the corners of the lower stands and pink and white lights circled the ice.  For a minute, I forgot I was at a hockey game.

IMG_5982And then the hockey started.  This one went by much faster than the Sharks game did.  I don’t even really remember the details.  The Sabres started off pretty well, probably motivated from their win in San Jose.  The Kings were, however, not nearly as lifeless as the Sharks had been.  Shots were minimal, but the Kings struck first right at the end of the period on a power-play goal.  I was already deflated, and the Sabres never regained their energy.  However, a lot of Sabres fans in attendance kept their spirits up.  From two sections over, I heard a loud and clear “Let’s Go Buffalo” chant for a good minute.  I tweeted my approval, and I was both re-tweeted and quoted by the official Buffalo Sabres Twitter account.  That made me happy.

There wasn’t much to else to cheer for.  After the Kings scored their second power-play goal of the game in the second, that was it for scoring.  It was my first time being shutout, I think.  This might sound weird, but I sort of like when the home team scores, even if I’m an away fan.  There’s just so much energy and elation around.  I like experiencing in person what I’ve seen so often on television: the celebrations, the goal horns, LA’s “you just got scored on” red spotlights.  It’s all so much better live.  (Is that ever true. It’s actually a running theme on this trip.)

IMG_6024After the game ended, I took my time getting out to the street.  I followed a group of fellow Sabres fans out the door, all the while chanting “Let’s Go Buffalo” and discussing expectations for their next match-up in Anaheim.  Out front, the Fox Sport West crew was interviewing fresh-off-the-ice defenseman Jake Muzzin on a stage.  I debated crashing the crowd in the back, but instead snapped photos from the front.  There were still a surprising amount of Sabres fans out in the plaza.  Transplants, no doubt.

As I crossed the street on my way back to my car, I spotted a familiar face out of the corner of my eye.  It wasn’t sure though, so I tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself.  It turns out I was absolutely right: I had just bumped into an old high school acquaintance on a street corner in Los Angeles.  What?  How?  We were both rather shocked and amused at this happening.  Now, this guy and I weren’t that close of friends, but were shared at least one class every year during our time there and interacted pretty often.  We chatted for awhile and grabbed a late dinner nearby.  I’ll spare the details, but we basically covered everything between 2007 and 2013 that brought us both from Western New York to Southern California that night.  Small world.  I guess if there was one time I’d see someone I knew in a strange city, it would be at a Sabres game!

Like running into an old high school classmate at a random New Year’s Eve event last year in Buffalo, this encounter left me feeling not only happy to see someone from my past life in New York, but old.  How was graduation already over six years ago?  I was a freshman in 2003?  What?  I don’t understand.  One thing I mentioned to him in all of the catching up is how I feel that between high school and college there’s a wall.  They’re simply two different very separate worlds.  As a young professional I associate far more with my college self than I do with high school, obviously.  I don’t keep in touch with anyone from high school, really, so having these random chance events happen is like breaking down walls into my past life.  It’s a little bit unsettling to see how much time has passed; how so much has happened, how so many things have changed, and how much hasn’t.  On the flip-side, it’s comforting to still find friends from so long ago.  Life.

IMG_6077So that night, already very late, I drove through the entire sprawl of Los Angeles all the way down to northern San Diego county.  My destination: a nice ocean-side rest stop for the night over an hour away near Camp Pendleton.  I was kind of looking forward to sleeping in my car again, now that I had my techniques perfected over a few periods of trial-and-error.  It went well!  I woke rested and spent the day, November 8th, at the beach in San Clemente.  I had no real plans, and the location was perfect.  It was sunny, absolutely still, and a commuter rail line ran right along the water.  Sun, warmth, ocean, and trains.  It’s pretty hard to beat that, in my opinion.  I alternated between listening to podcasts in my car and relaxing on the beach all day long.  It was such a beautiful day, and I was on vacation, so why not?  As night came, I ran up on the bluff behind the beach to shoot the sunset.  I actually captured the elusive green flash twice with my camera when the sun disappeared behind low oceanic clouds, and then again when it set for good.  How lucky!  Then the humidity struck.  My car was immediately covered in droplets of water, yet there was no fog in the air just yet.  It was odd.

Green flash!In staying at the beach for sunset, I inadvertently aligned my schedule with Orange County rush hour.  Oops.  I was in no danger of missing the game, but I was dismayed about potentially missing warm-ups.  I had been taking most of my photos during warm-ups so I could focus on the game action; this time I would have to distract myself.  I was far more upset about it than I should have been, in retrospect.  Los Angeles traffic is just frustrating.

I got into the Honda Center fifteen minutes before puck drop.  Having spent the previous night at Staples Center, Honda Center was a massive disappointment.  Sure, it’s sort of near Disneyland but there’s nothing else nearby at all.  The concourses are nice, shiny and clean.  The arena structure itself reminded me a lot of First Niagara Center:  it’s roughly oval shaped, and the seating arrangements are pretty similar.  However, the seats at Honda Center are orange, and the roof is painted an odd slightly-blue green.  There are also some old-fashioned chandelier-type things hanging above the jumbo-tron.  The upper deck is really very open, and with light attendance at the start seemed eerily vacant.  It’s hard to explain, but the place just felt old.  It’s the same age as SAP Center, so it’s even more weird that it felt like that.  Perhaps it was the ancient jumbo-tron that threw me off.

On the bright side, the Ducks were donning their lovely third jerseys.  I really dislike their regular home and away set and firmly believe they should elevate their third to full-time status.  The team deserves a full crest and some color, even if it kind of makes them look like Philadelphia West. (Aside: that’s funny, given that the LA Kings roster actually makes them Philly West).

IMG_6389Having just been shut-out the night before, I expected a bounce back from the Sabres against the Ducks.  What I got was a first period hat-trick by Ryan Getzlaf.  The first of his career!  It was 2-0 Ducks not ten minutes into the game before that, but I knew the game was already out of hand.  Mikhail Grigorenko scored a nice, rough and dirty goal right in front of my seats to cut the lead in the first.  Getzlaf answered with two more goals before the end of the period.  With hats on the ice and the score 4-1 after one, this game was so far out of reach, I was honestly hoping for a Ducks blow-out.  After all, given the disparity between these teams, it was expected and I had been denied days earlier.

IMG_6484I sort of got my wish.  The scoring cooled off after the first, and the teams settled into more of an even situation.  The Ducks added two more in the second, while Grigorenko added a second of his own!  Oh, how I was hoping for another hat trick.  None came, and the game ended in disappointment.  With a 6-2 final, my Sabres California adventure ended with a 1-3 record and a 6-12 goal differential.  My overwhelmingly victorious attended-games-record has been forever tainted by this awful, sloppy, inexperienced Sabres team.  On the bright side, this was the last road trip for Ron Rolston as Sabres coach, as well as for the long-tenured General Manager Darcy Regier, who were both fired on November 13th.  The Sabres returned home on the 12th to (somehow) beat the Kings at home.  I’m the kind of person who likes to take something away from everything I experience: I would like to say that I witnessed the final straw for the old regime, these massive failures in California, in person.

IMG_6634By the way, how awesome is Teemu Selanne?  He didn’t register on the scoresheet, but he was an absolute factor in this game.  For 43, the dude can fly.  I never really saw him play when he was younger, given the time differences between Anaheim/San Jose/Colorado and Buffalo and all, so I can only imagine what he was like in his prime.  I’m really glad he’s got a Stanley Cup and I’ll be sad when he retires.  Here’s hoping he goes out on his own terms, and maybe even a victor, should the cards fall that way.

#SabresInCali concluded, I left Honda Center to be greeted by thick fog and massive droplets of condensation on everything.  The lights of the Disneyland area, Angels Stadium and nearby hotels made the sky glow bright.  I don’t know exactly what it is about it, but I love Pacific fog.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even at my home in Pleasanton.  I chased the fog down I-5 before it broke near Dana Point to a starry autumn sky.  The air was brisk and clear as I went to sleep in my car at the same rest stop as the night before.  I was about to begin the next phase of my Los Angeles trek.  Without question, the days that came make up the best weekend I’ve had in a long time.

– II –


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