Thoughts about Buffalo, April and a few other things

Over the past several nights, I’ve been going back in time in my mind. It was the fall of 1994 and the winter of 1995. I was barely out of college, didn’t really know what I was doing as a journalist and I was living in an upstairs apartment in an old house in Buffalo, New York.

Blame it on hockey.

Since the NHL playoffs began, I have found myself interested in this series between the Buffalo Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers. I’ve caught some of it on the NHL Network (because Versus and NBC seem to have far more interest in other series) and thought kind of longingly of my six months or so in Buffalo.

I was working a temporary gig for the Associated Press. I helped cover the Bills at times, on several occasions I drove down to Olean to cover St. Bonaventure basketball (including once when the opponent was a John Calipari-led UMass team) and I covered a bunch of Sabres games.

While I have a very soft spot in my heart for some of the other places I’ve lived including Phoenix, Cincinnati and Raleigh, I rarely even think about my time in Buffalo. That’s kind of too bad. It was a good experience. Because of a NHL labor issue, I covered some interesting things. I once waited outside of the NHL offices in Toronto with a bunch of media from Canada. I covered a 4-on-4 hockey thing with NHL stars in Hamilton. I went to a OHL game in Niagara Falls to write a story about the younger brother of Eric Lindros.

The AP offices were located in the Buffalo News, so I got to know a number of people on their staff. I became friends with Jerry Sullivan and Mike Harrington. I learned a bunch about hockey from Jim Kelley and it was a sad day this winter when he died because he couldn’t have been nicer. I remember seeing Christian Laettner’s father, who worked at the News, I think in the press room or something.

But after seeing playoff hockey back in Buffalo, I think about the Aud. It was such a wonderful old building for hockey. It was loud, the fans cared, it was pretty cool. I remember how there was no elevator from the press box to the arena floor. I remember how tiny the locker rooms. I remember the first time I covered a postgame in which the coach (in this case Marc Crawford of the then-Quebec Nordiques) answered questions in French and then talked to the rest of us in English afterwards. I think it is cool that because of Buffalo’s proximity to the border — and that a good chunk of its fan base is on the other side of the border — that they play both the Star Spangled Banner and O Canada before every game, regardless of opponent.

I actually covered the groundbreaking of the building the Sabres currently play in, the HSBC Arena. It was initially called Marine Midland Arena. It is just down the street from the Aud and basically across the street from the News.

There are other memories as well. There was the convenience store down the street where I would buy papers. There was the Elmwood Taco and Sub that seemed like the greatest place for late night food ever. There was the time the Vikings were in town and we went for dinner and a certain columnist told the waitress at the infamous Anchor Bar to bring us “a hundred wings.” I remember day trips to Toronto if for no other reason than because I could.

I’ve only been back to Buffalo once since I left in March 1995. When I covered North Carolina, the Tar Heels played at game at the U at Buffalo because Ed Cota had ties to the Bulls staff. It was a quick in-and-out trip, but the day of the game, I went up to Niagara Falls and crossed the border with my guy from the Durham paper in part because he had never been to Canada.

I would love to go back to visit. It would probably be preferable if it happened in the summer since I’ve pretty much only been there when there has been snow on the ground. Because of that, I’ve been following this Sabres-Flyers series pretty closely. The past two games, I’ve listened to a little of it on the XM feed of WGR in Buffalo. I’ve gone to the Buffalo News site and read stories. And I find myself pulling for the team from the Western New York city that has had more downs than ups in recent years.

On the topic of Buffalo, here is a cool video that the Hockey Night in Canada crew did on the Aud a few years ago before it was torn down.

Other items on my mind:

Is April the best sports month? I know people love March, but I’m now of the belief that April is better. In most years, you get the NCAA basketball title game, you get the Masters, you get baseball’s opening day and you get the beginning of the NBA and NHL playoffs. And how good have the playoffs been? There have been great games in both sports on nearly a nightly basis. And I don’t even want to hear people say how the NCAA tournament is better than the NBA playoffs.

How about those Twins? I have been accused of being negative and being a cynic, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad. I had more concerns about the bullpen than most (which has shown to be at least somewhat of a legit concern). I told people that Pavano needed to again be good and eat innings for this team to be good (he has been average). But I didn’t think the bats would be this cold. While the season is long, the Twins are 10 percent into the season. At some point in the next few weeks things will go from this being a slow start to being a legit concern.

If you miss my golf posts: I’ve been trying to spare you from my golf-obsessed ramblings. Want them? Click over to onlygolfmatters.com and read away.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

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What does it look like when the Xcel ice is redone?

As some of you may know, I covered some college hockey this past weekend. Because of a family situation, AnnArbor.com (the former Ann Arbor News) needed a last minute emergency starter to cover the Frozen Four.

I took the gig late Wednesday afternoon and covered Michigan both on Thursday night and Saturday night. It was a good gig and I had a good time time.

But when I got back up to the press box on Saturday, I was captivated by what was going on down on the ice. Because of the schedule at Xcel Energy Center, the crew there had a lot of work to accomplish in not a lot of time. The Frozen Four ended Saturday night and the Wild played an early Sunday evening game.

I don’t know a ton about changing over buildings, but this one seemed like it would be more difficult than most. For the record, my descriptions below are kind of a guess of what’s going on based on my observations. Some of it could be right, some of it might be wrong.

But this wasn’t just changing the signage on the boards — which isn’t all that tough because those ads are basically just big stickers that come off pretty easily. This change over also required changing the ice.

For the Frozen Four, a logo for the event was on center ice and the spots in the neutral zone where there are usually ads had logos either for the NCAA or the University of Minnesota, the host institution.

When I got up from the locker room, there were three Zambonis on the ice at the same time. It kind of looked like the Zambonis were strictly scraping the ice rather than scraping and putting down water. I’m not an expert, however. I just thought it looked cool

What became pretty clear pretty quickly was that the Xcel crew put down additional ice on top of the ice usually used by the Wild. So it wasn’t like a new sheet of ice had to be put down. The crew just had to get rid of what was on top of the Wild logo.

In this photo, you can see that the word “Center” had vanished from center ice and that the two tournament logos at the top of the photo were gone.

I didn’t really know how these logos are put into the ice, but in this case, there were actual printed logos that were put into the ice. They looked to be printed on a fairly durable material. In the photo below, you can see the guy in the white pulling up on the logo to get it out of the ice. From high above the ice, it looked like the tub on the cart was filled with hot water. That water was sprayed on the ice to melt it and allow workers to pull up the logo.

Below, you can see that they have gotten about half of the primary logo up

Here is what center ice looked like a little later.

Below is the final picture I took (sorry for the not so great iPhone photos) on the night. You can tell that in the span of 90 minutes to two hours, a lot of work got done. It isn’t complete, but it certainly going in the right direction.

While the logo removal was going on, there was a crew working on board signage — what  you see below is different than what was up during the weekend — and another group with what looked like an edger working on the ice. It looked like they were trying to make sure that there wasn’t a lip around the rink and that the ice was flat.

Hockey fans like to drink

Maybe this is fairly obvious. But beer is big business.

Interesting New York Times story about MillerCoors dropping $400 million for a NHL sponsorship.

The deal is reportedly more than double what Anheuser-Busch in the U.S. and Labatts in Canada are spending this season.

The best quote:

“Hockey and beer go together,” said Andy England, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for MillerCoors. “Hockey fans are big beer drinkers. In fact, we have data that shows hockey fans are the biggest beer drinkers of any major sports league.”

So there you go, a random item on a Tuesday morning.

Lionel Hollins is my new favorite NBA coach

OK, that might be a bit of an overstatement. But I do love his honesty.

Before Hollins’ Memphis Grizzlies played the Timberwolves on Wednesday night, Hollins was asked if he was going to be able to sneak a look at a TV and watch his son, Austin, play for the Gophers.

At that point, Hollins basically called college basketball — especially the Big Ten variety — boring.

Pat Reusse wrote his entire column for Thursday\’s paper on this topic.

I was working at the Wolves-Grizz game last night and heard about the pregame quotes. And while I covered college hoops for a long time, many of Hollins’ feelings mirror how I feel about the game.

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My new favorite bad team

I am something of a contrarian when it comes to sports teams. I don’t like the overdog or the heavily exposed. I hate that national networks seem to show one of about six or seven teams in every broadcast.

I don’t get too excited about watching the Yankees, the Red Sox or the Phillies. A NBA game with the Celtics or Heat or Spurs has me at least considering an immediate channel change.

If it wasn’t clear previously, I have the NBA League Pass for the third consecutive year. I’ve grown into a NBA fan/junkie, something that wasn’t the case or an option when I was covering college hoops. I have a far greater appreciation for the NBA than I ever have. The players are huge and can do crazy athletic things. Everybody can make open shots. And there no bad teams. I’ll take a bad NBA game over a college game between a good team and some hyphenated or directional school.

Maybe it was because I covered the Big Ten for so long — you know, a league where too many games are 62-58 — but I love offense. I want to see points scored. I like watching teams get up and down the floor. I also tend to watch more NBA games from the Central, Mountain or Pacific time zones, it’s just the way it has worked out. It has started to change a little bit as I enjoy watching the Knicks, but that is probably another post for another day.

So who do I watch? I started watching more Phoenix than anybody else, but the Suns aren’t what they were before D’Antoni left. I like watching Oklahoma City, though I enjoyed watching the Thunder last year a little bit more as they weren’t quite as popular. I’ve been known to watch Portland, but the Blazers play awfully slow.

So where does that leave me? For much of the past two years, I have been a sucker for the Golden State Warriors. Let’s be honest, the Warriors aren’t very good. They don’t really defend and didn’t have much in the middle before signing David Lee. But I love watching Monte Ellis play. He is so fast, he’s fearless, he plays so hard. And he’s good. Steph Curry is very fun to watch because he’s such an interesting complement to Ellis. While Ellis plays pedal-to-the-metal, Curry is much more calculated. He changes speeds, he understands how to get open, he can get his shot off in a hurry.

And I love the Warriors new uniforms. I’m convinced they are among the very best in the NBA.

But of late, I have a new favorite team to watch. I am now part of Clipper Nation, and this move happened long before the Clipps toyed with the Wolves on Wednesday night.

I didn’t really know what to think of Blake Griffin heading into this season. He was obviously good, but I wasn’t sure where he would play. Could he play center if he had to? Was he big enough? I had some of the same questions about him that I had with Kevin Love.

I thought he would be solid, but not like this. Dude has been just incredible. He plays super hard, he’s athletic, he overpowers defenders. He has become one of the NBA’s must-watch players. And I’ve been watching. I love how he doesn’t back down and mixed it up a little bit with the Lakers earlier this week.

He’s also really helped the Clippers get better. With the amount of attention he draws inside, he’s given Eric Gordon more room to operate on the perimeter. He’s also helped to somehow keep Baron Davis interested in this season. I realize they are the Clippers and things always go south with the Clippers, but they’ve been winning games like crazy. Wednesday’s win was the 11th in 15 game games for the Clipps.

I’m kind of worried that I’m too late to this party. And instead of being ahead of trend, I’ve become a bandwagon jumper. I’m going to try not to think about that for now and just watch the craziness.

The guys on the Wolves broadcast tonight said that Griffin has become the most-searched athlete on YouTube. Don’t know the parameters of that (there has to be some), but I’ll leave you with some Blake Griffin internet goodness.