Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Detroit Red Wings – Phoenix Coyotes (14-12-2009)

As my Brazilian friend and colleague A. is about to go back to Rio, we planned a farewell trip to Hockeytown USA: Detroit, Michigan. To my surprise I had been able to buy tickets online, through the dreaded Ticketmaster: $38 + $6.50 “service charge” (ca. €30.50). We left South Bend around 14.00, making sure that we would be in time for both the game and the Coney Island test. Fortunately, it wasn’t snowing, so we made the 210 miles (ca. 340 km) within 4 hours, including a snack stop.

We parked under the Civic Center and followed some (drunken) fans to the Joe Louis Arena. “The Joe” is a hockey arena and has been home to the Detroit Red Wings since 1979. It holds 20,066 people for Red Wings games. As soon as you walk in, you taste the tradition.

Detroit was among the six original founders of the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1917. However, at that time the team was called the Cougars (1926-30), later changed to the Falcons (1930-32), and finally the Red Wings (since 1932). During their more than 80 year existence the team won numerous titles, most recently their eleventh Stanley Cup in 2008.

After checking out the merchandise, which was out of control, we made our way to our places. We were totally at the top of the first rank, in between some die hard Red Wings fans. To my surprise the stadium was at best 75% full, which might be due to a combination of a bad start of the season and the economic crisis (which, yet again, hits Michigan hard). The view from our seats was fine though.

After the obligatory national anthem, which was interrupted by a shout (something I have never experienced before in the US), we got ready for the game with, how could it be anything else, “Detroit Rock City” of KISS! Magic!

The first period started a bit slow, but within minutes the Red Wings started to combine well and create some chances. A good combination leads to 1-0, and finally some noise in the Joe. While the Coyotes had power play, the Red Wings got out with a counter and score with a lucky shot: 2-0. Not much later the Coyotes score while a Red Wings player is on the ground, which leads to massive booing and a 2-1 score after the first period.

Shortly into the second period the Red Wings shoot softly at goal and the Coyotes goalie totally misses it: 3-1. The hosts dominate the rest of the period, but the play gets poorer and poorer. While the fans around us are clearly hardcore, they don’t make much noise. Moreover, the only chant seems to be “Let’s go Red Wings”. Just before the end of the second period, the Coyotes score through a hard shot: 3-2.

The third period starts out fairly well, with the Coyotes pressing for the tie. The Red Wings hardly feature in the game. The people around us get worried, but in the end the Red Wings hold on to the tight one-goal lead.

There is no doubt that hockey is alive in Detroit. The city lives for its Red Wings, even if The Joe isn’t always sold out. That said, the atmosphere was less impressive than I had expected. Moreover, the team’s performance was light years away from that of the Red Wings that dominated the NHL only a couple of years ago. They do miss Steve Yzerman.
Indianapolis Colts – Denver Broncos (13-12-2009)

As soon as we moved to Plainfield, just outside of Indianapolis, we noticed that Indy is crazy about its Colts. Everywhere you go you see men, women and kids wearing blue-white gear. As I got more and more into the NFL, while remaining loyal to college football too, I couldn’t resist the Colts temptation and became a fan. While the fantastic season did help – before the Broncos game the Colts were 12-0 – it was the heroic comeback against the hated New England Patriots on 15 November 2009 that sealed the deal. However, being a Colts fan in the Indianapolis area can be quite frustrating, as all games are sold out virtually before the season starts. And tickets through scalpers are expensive. In the end, M. treated me to our first Colts game for Christmas, buying two tickets for $200 each (!) on eBay.

We parked the car in the center of town and walked to the stadium, surrounded by the blue-white army. The massive Lukas Oil Stadium stands just outside of the lively part of the city center and is one of its key landmarks. Excited we entered the stadium and could hardly believe our eyes.

From the inside the Lukas Oil Stadium is unlike anything I have ever seen. With the roof closed it is a gigantic indoor arena but with the atmosphere of an outdoor stadium. Absolutely amazing! Opened only in August 2008, it can hold 63.000 – while not impressive compared to many college football stadiums, the setting is much more comfortable and the acoustics are phenomenal. Moreover, the $200 were well spent, as our seats were absolutely fantastic. This is a picture without zoom!

Obviously, nothing could be started without the obligatory national anthem. And, as Indiana is definitely among the more patriotic states, this was combined with rolling out an absurdly large American flag, spanning the whole field.

In the pre-game tv show, most pundits favored the Colts, but expected a tight game against the Broncos, who are still playing for their division championship or a wild cart for the play-offs. The Colts have already clinched the AFC South division, but would get play-off home game advantage if they would win this game. And they started like possessed. Within a couple of minutes they were 1st and goal. After two attempts, Payton Manning throws and…. touchdown Colts!

With 7-0 up, the defense was putting the pressure on the Broncos offense and within seconds the Colts were back in possession. Again the offense showed its strength and within minutes it was 14-0, still in the first period. In fact, shortly into the second period the Colts were up 21-0 and the Broncos had hardly had a first down. What power! Unfortunately, that was also the extent of the Colts offense. Fortunately, the Broncos offense wasn’t that much better and, more importantly, the Colts defense played fantastic.

In the second period the Broncos finally score a touchdown, making it 21-7, while the Colts increasingly fail to get a first down. The third period is even worse, with Manning throwing his second and third interception of the game (!), and the Colts scoring virtually no first downs. It is only the defense that keeps them in the game.

Like the other Colts fans around me, I am not so much worried about losing the game, but rather increasingly frustrated by the extremely poor performance of the offense in general, and Manning in particular. In the fourth period the Broncos score a field goal and a touchdown, coming back to 21-16.

This finally wakes up Manning and the offense, who with some difficulties score their first first down in ages. This awakens the crowd too, who are again starting to cheer and shout for their offense. As so often this season, the Colts (and Manning) come through when it is really needed, and they run out the time as well as score a last touchdown: 28-16 and game over.

While I am no fan of commercial use of religion in American sports, I must admit that I did like what I saw after the game. Various players of both teams came together in the middle and prayed together in a circle. It seemed sincere.

While I am far from objective, the Colts are a must see for any (American) football fan! Even when they play bad (at least offensively), as today, they are a powerhouse with stars like Manning, Wayne, Addai, Clark, and Freeney. Moreover, Lukas Oil Stadium is worth a visit by itself. What an amazing sports arena. I cannot wait to go again! Perhaps for the play-offs?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Toronto Maple Leafs – Atlanta Thrashers (07-12-2009)

I had to be for business in Toronto and decided to go and see a game of the Maple Leafs, the pride of the city and an established member of the National Hockey League (NHL). To my surprise I was able to buy a ticket through Ticketmaster, three weeks before the game, for $62.50 (this includes a $7.50 “convenience charge”) – incidentally, we are talking Canadian dollars here, which are a bit cheaper than American dollars (equivalent is ca. €40). Fortunately I was able to get a ‘real’ ticket from the guy next to me, as the Ticketmaster tickets are so boring.

I picked up my ticket at the Will Call ticket office of the Air Canada Centre (ACC), in downtown Toronto, roughly an hour before the game. I was surprised to see already long lines in front of the stadium. After changing clothes in my hotel, I walked back to the stadium, just in time for the national anthems.

Turns out that $62.50 buys you a seat at the top row of the stadium. Damn, that is far up. Oddly enough, you see the game quite well. Still, you are somewhat watching other people watching the game, as you are so far up.

The Air Canada Centre holds 18,800 people for hockey games, and although this game was by and large sold out, there were many empty seats. Probably many people couldn’t be bothered to come and were unable to sell their (season) ticket – the Leafs are not having a good start of the season. The first period was dismal: slow, uninspiring, few real goal attempts, and the Leafs not even scoring with two men more on the ice: 0-0.

The second period was the exact opposite of the first. Although the hockey wasn’t that much better, the Leafs seemed to score every short on goal. Within one period, and without really dominating or excelling, the Leafs went from 0-0 to 5-0! Finally they had woken up, and so had the crowd.

I used the break between the second and third period to wonder around the stadium, get some quite decent buffalo chicken with fries, and a souvenir for my brother (who always has had a weakness for the Leafs). The audience was quite diverse, though whiter and more male than the very multicultural city.

The five goals in the second period seemed to have been all that the Leafs were willing to do. The third period was like the first, as far as the hosts were concerned, but this time the visitors were doing the scoring. Without necessarily improving their game extensively, the Thrashers scored twice, while the Leafs had signed off for the day: 5-2 the final score.

This was the fourth NHL game I visited, and yet again I was left disappointed. The pace of the game is so slow, the skating and stick handling technique is remarkably average, and the atmosphere is far from spectacular… and that in Toronto, at the Maple Leafs, one of the institutions of North American hockey. Let’s hope my next game, in Detroit, will redeem the NHL.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tennis Borussia Berlin – VFL Wolfsburgh II (24-10-2009)

After the rather disappointing visit to Hertha BSC on Thursday, I was looking forward to the game of Tennis Borussia Berlin on Saturday. When I was young, and Germany was still divided, TeBe played a couple of seasons in the 2. Bundesliga (Second League). Nowadays they hang around in the lower ends of the Regionalliga Nord (Fourth Division North). More than enough reason to take the S-Bahn up to Mommsen Stadion.

My friend C. and I arrive well in time for kick-off, at 14.00, at the small homey Mommsen stadium. Built in 1930, it has undergone precious little upgrades since. Today it is home to both TeBe and SC Charlottenburg, which plays in the Verbandsliga Berlin (highest non-professional league in Berlin). We bought standing tickets for €8.00 and made our way to the sausages and drinks.

It was a nice sunny winter day in Berlin and officially 516 people had made the way to the Mommsen Stadion; the stadium holds 11,500. The home fans were roughly evenly spread over the one stand and the opposite side, where the good-tempered hardcore home fans stand. The crows is fairly diverse, though mostly alternative types who know each other and talk as much about football as about other things.

Despite the fact that TeBe is down 0-1 after 2 minutes, the fans around us remain good spirited, joking around and enjoying their beer and company. As is always the case with second teams of a club, very few supporters travel with the team. In this case, even with the first team of VFL Wolfsburg playing Hertha in Berlin the next day, I could count only six away fans.

We continued to enjoy the company as well as the play, which was pretty low quality, but entertaining. The guests were clearly superior, but didn’t really push. The home team did its best, but simply lacked the quality. Something the home fans seemed to accept without much disappointment.

The second half started fairly similar, with the visitors scoring the 0-2 in the 53rd minute. After that, the pace went slower and slower, while Wolfsburg seemed content with the now clear victory. TeBe kept struggling, more with itself than the opponent.

C. and I were amazed how good natured the fans remained. True, they increasingly talked about other things than football, but they seemed real fans. Maybe they just had learned to adapt to the level of the club they support. In any case, 0-2 was an acceptable final result for the hosts, who profited from increasing laziness of the visitors.

If you are in Berlin, you have many choices for groundhops: Hertha BSC, Union Berlin, BFC Dynamo, Türkiyemspor, etc. However, do not forget about TeBe in Charlottenburg. It is like a trip to football memory lane, but with modern Alternativos as fans.