Yes, timing is everything. Departing Nashville Monday afternoon after 1 p.m., the Predators’ arrived at their Toronto hotel around 5:30 p.m. EST. That allowed for a quick check-in, unpacking, freshening up and departure for the Hall 30 minutes later.
But – not so fast: In the lobby of that hotel – which just so happened to be the headquarters for the event, were many of the inductees. Heading out to the limousines were some of the Class of 2014: Rob Blake, Bill McCreary, Mike Modano and Peter Forsberg.
Walking through the lobby, you could see Hall of Famers Pierre Pilote (brother of the Dixie Flyers’ Flo Pilote); Ted Lindsay and Lanny McDonald. The celebration may have begun too soon for some, like one lady who thought I might be Ken Dryden. “I’m sorry, but I am not tall enough and certainly and not intelligent enough,” was all I could muster after that shock.
In short order, it was time to jump on the shuttle bus for the trip to the Hall a few cold blocks up Yonge Street. Just walking down the aisle of the bus to an open seat took me by hockey royalty.
On one side sat former Bruins and Avs defenseman Ray Bourque, on the other was Islanders’ goaltender Billy Smith and the general manager of that Islanders’ dynasty, “Bowtie Bill” Torrey. There were two great Nordiques: Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet. Shortly after I took my seat…who came to sit behind me but Hall-of-Famer-to-be Marty Brodeur!
The bus trip was short, and emptied almost directly onto the Red Carpet leading into the Hall. There were television and radio crews lining the path. Almost instantly I had the chance to chat with SiriusXM NHL Network radio buddies Mike Ross and Michael Lippa. Everyone lining the carpet was studying the arrivals looking for their next guest.
Among the “interview recruits” was actor Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Rod Tidwell” in the film “Jerry Maguire”). I have seen him at many Los Angeles Kings’ games, and he put on quite a show at a Blackhawks preseason game this year.
Other guests on the various Red Carpet interviews included the NHL’s all-time leading scorer at left wing, Luc Robitaille and ex-Leafs defenseman and trailblazer for European players, Borje Salming.
Down the escalator from there were the Hall of Fame displays – and a cocktail party set up for those of us who did not have seats in the induction area itself. That was where some delightful conversations took place, many with previous Hall of Fame inductees.
Long-time NHL executive Cliff Fletcher, Igor Larionov, Jimmy Devellano and Brian Kilrea all fit into that category. So did this year’s media honorees: USA Today’s Kevin Allen (Elmer Ferguson award for journalism) and Blackhawks’ play-by-plan man Pat Foley (Foster Hewitt Award).
After the ceremony began, we walked through the displays, watching on the any number of monitors deployed throughout.
The conversations continued as we watched, catching up with Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC is a great follow on Twitter) of Hockey Night in Canada and former NHL Broadcasting Director John Shannon, now with Rogers Sportsnet, the controlling body for Hockey Night. (@JSportsnet).
The various hockey reunions were a pleasant, but minor part of the evening in “hockey heaven,” as my wife Claudia has termed this occasion. The focus properly was set on the inductees and the acceptance speeches.
Rob Blake was first, followed by the family (wife Line and son Jason) of ex-coach Pat Burns (who passed away in 2010). Then came the one I had been waiting for – that of the first player to have worn the Predators uniform to make it to the Hall: Peter Forsberg. (Watch his speech here)
The night continued with three more: Dominik Hasek, Bill McCreary and Mike Modano. I have worked in and around hockey since the mid-1970s, but the Class of 2014 was something special to me. I was lucky enough to have broadcast games involving each of them. Two of them (Hasek and Forsberg) were key parts of the teams for which I called the action.
That evening, Hasek also hosted a party for many of his former teammates. I saw ex-Sabres’ captain Michael Peca on the Red Carpet and had a great chat with Derek Plante (now assistant coach at his Alma Mater, Minnesota-Duluth), and his wife Kristi.
I doubt I will ever see a goaltender like Hasek, making so many spectacular saves, flailing away in the crease. Similarly, I don’t believe I will ever see a player combine the skill level with the robust physical style of Peter Forsberg. Both Hasek and Forsberg had compete levels that were incredibly high. Their greatness was defined this way: they won so much because they absolutely hated to lose – at anything – not just on the ice!
The night was indeed a trip to “Hockey Heaven.” It brought laughter, a torrent of great memories and emotions. The passion for the game was there for all to see. It was great to share the evening with Brent Peterson, who now can cross this off his bucket list. However, Brent, like me, will want to return every chance he gets!
This season has brought about the third best start in Predators history – at least over the course of the first 16 games:
This brings back memories of the two best seasons in team history: the 2005-06 and 2006-07 squads. Those teams came out of the lockout (on the heels of the Predators first playoff trip) and compiled 106 and 110-point seasons respectively.
Free-agent-signee Paul Kariya led the way in 2005-06 with 31 goals and 85 points, becoming the first – and to this point only - Predator to average more than a point-per-game over the course of a full season.
The other major contributors to the offense in 2005-06 were Steve Sullivan (31 goals, 68 points) and Yanic Perreault (22 goals, 57 points). Scott Hartnell had a breakout season with 25 goals and Marty Erat added 20. In all, there were five players with 20 goals or more. The defensemen chipped in as well: Kimmo Timonen had 11 goals and 50 points; Marek Zidlicky, 12 and 49, and Dan Hamhuis had a plus/minus rating of +11 to go along with 7 goals and 38 points.
That team was a franchise-best 10th in NHL scoring, seventh in defense and sixth overall in the League standings. Most importantly – they had the sixth-best record in the League, nine spots higher than they had ever been.
The 2005-06 Predators were dominant at home, going 32-8-1, outscoring the opponents by 48 goals (more than one per game). It was the first year of the shootout in the NHL, and the Predators went 6-3 in those games, as Kariya was 5-of-6 and had the deciding tally four times. Steve Sullivan converted on 3-of-7 shootouts as well.
Kariya and Sullivan were absolutely dynamic on the power play; zipping passes from one side of the goal crease to the other through the lower box for quick-strike goals.
At the other end of the ice, Tomas Vokoun was dominant, playing 61 games, going 36-18-7 with a 2.67 goals-against-average and stopping 91.9 percent of the shots he faced. Chris Mason backed him up for 23 games and went 12-5-1. There was also a 23-year-old youngster named Pekka Rinne, who filled in for two games and went 1-1.
The following year, the second-best start over 16 games brought about even more excitement. Excitement was the theme that season, especially with the player additions.
J.P. Dumont joined Nashville after the Buffalo Sabres walked away from an arbitration ruling that went in his favor. Jason Arnott signed on as an unrestricted free agent from Dallas. It was the first full season for Shea Weber on defense and the second for Ryan Suter. Another enigmatic talent who emerged that year was Alexander Radulov, who came up from Milwaukee to play 64 regular-season games and in the playoffs.
The last addition happened on Feb. 15, 2007, while the Predators were in St. Louis preparing for a game the following night. Word came that the Predators had acquired future Hall-of-Famer Peter Forsberg (no relation to Filip) from Philadelphia for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and two draft picks.
From the time he was part of the blockbuster trade from Philadelphia to Quebec (now Colorado) for Eric Lindros in 1992, Forsberg had been one of the best overall performers in the NHL. He even missed the entire 2001-02 regular season, and then played 20 playoff games for the Avs, scoring 9 goals and 27 points!
Forsberg scored a dramatic overtime goal on a “sick pass” (Forsberg’s words) from Paul Kariya against Detroit on Feb. 24. There were 23 games remaining on the Predators schedule when the trade was made, and Forsberg was able to play in just 17. The goal against Detroit was one of just two he scored before the playoffs, in which he added two more.
(No one could have predicted that Peter Forsberg would play just 11 more NHL games, all for Colorado, after his time with the Predators was up that spring.)
All of that helped produce a 51-win, 110-point season, which was the NHL’s third-best record, behind Buffalo and Detroit, each with 113 points.
They scored a franchise-record 272 goals, tying for fourth-best in the League (even though the power play was tied for 17th). The third-ranked penalty-killing unit marked another all-time franchise best.
However, the San Jose Sharks eliminated each of those teams in the first round of the playoffs. Great starts to the regular season merely indicate what can happen over the course of 82 games. You would think that the Predators have already made the bulk of their player acquisitions coming into this season. The Forsberg they have now is pretty good, don’t you think?
The Predators best playoff seasons came in 2011 (beat Anaheim, then lost to Vancouver, which dropped the Cup Final to Boston) and 2012 (beat Detroit, then lost to Phoenix, which was eliminated by Los Angeles en route to their first Stanley Cup).
The Predators of today are five and three points better than those two teams.
Two things are for certain: this team is getting outstanding scoring from its top line and the team is getting tremendous goaltending. They are playing a high ratio of one-goal games, like much of the NHL is today. That’s how thin the margin of error is – and projections can change daily.
For additional statistics on each Preds team by season, click here.
The question was put to me: “What do the Predators broadcasters do to pass the time on a marathon road trip like this?”
I would love to tell you that we visit museums and art galleries, attend symphony performances, study foreign languages and take correspondence courses. I would love to tell you that, but it would be, for the most part, untrue.
In actuality, there is no simple answer to the question. One day in Winnipeg, the conversation turned this way (I will not identify the individual speakers here in order to protect the potentially-guilty parties):
“What coaches or managers would you (not) want to see naked?” (This seems to be the sort of question Captain Oveur asked of Joey in the movie “Airplane,” doesn’t it?).
The responses were varied.
Names from the world of hockey, basketball and baseball were brought up, all bringing about different levels of squeamishness.
Not all conversations went that way, but it’s safe to say that we weren’t spending a lot of time on the elections that were upcoming as the trip began, and then passed as it continued. (OK, maybe the talk of wine soon being available in Tennessee grocery stores was covered).
As you might have guessed, there were a lot of hockey discussions, among our group, and also involving some with the coaches and personnel from the Predators and the other teams over the course of the trip. Game strategy, officials’ calls and supplementary discipline were all covered.
With a day between each game of the trip, that left time for us to follow the NHL and the other sports. The World Series finished before we left Nashville. That still left the football season – and the search in Vancouver for a place to follow the Tennessee-South Carolina game. In the days before satellite television, that might have been a lost cause, but Willy Daunic found a place and the remarkable comeback and overtime win by the Volunteers was seen.
I won’t try to speak for anyone else, but in addition to the work we do to prepare for “the next game,” (and isn’t there always one of those), I tried to catch up on my reading.
While on this trip, I started and finished reading two hockey books (Bruce Dowbiggin’s Ice Storm – the Rise and Fall of the best Vancouver Canucks Team Ever, and Bob McKenzie’s Hockey Confidential). I recommend both of them, by the way. I spoke with Dowbiggin in Calgary about his book, which is in many ways a “Moneyball comes to hockey” story, but that is too simplistic. McKenzie’s title is a little misleading, but it is a collection of human-interest hockey stories I thought were fascinating.
Since it is a 12-day trip, I have also begun reading another by an old friend from Buffalo: ex-goaltender Clint Malarchuk just released A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond.
One thing about this season’s Country Music Association awards trip is certain, when we get home early Sunday morning – there will be a lot of laundry to do.
Then it will be time to get ready for the next game – Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena against the first team faced on the trip – Edmonton!
Every summer, and it seems even more so in the last 10 years or so, the dawn of free agency comes and goes. Almost instantaneously, we then hear the question: “Was all of that money well spent?”
That question is asked by every club, perhaps a sort of “buyer’s remorse.” In the case of the Predators, they have managed to receive an overall positive ROI (Return On Investment). Allow me to give you my take on the better ones:
Before I do that, let’s agree that judgment cannot fairly be given to current free agents on the roster. The book is still open on Carter Hutton, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, Victor Bartley and Anton Volchenkov.
Fiddler joined the team first, as a free agent out of Roanoke in the ECHL in 2002. Jerred Smithson signed two years later, but didn’t play immediately, thanks to the lockout which cost the 2004-05 season. I’m sure you will recall his goal in the Anaheim series, helping the Predators to their first-ever playoff series win.
Another in that category would be Marcel Goc, a centerman who joined the team as a 26-year-old in the summer of 2009. Goc was strong defensively and could be counted upon to make the smart play.
On a short-term basis, the Predators did well with Winger Andreas Johansson, signed at the age of 29 in 2002 from the New York Rangers. He played 103 games in two seasons with the Predators, scoring 32 goals, including 20 in just 56 games in 2002-03, his second (and final) 20-goal season in the NHL. He contributed to the Predators’ first playoff team in 2004, which was his last NHL season.
Officially, Yanic Perreault was given a professional tryout at training camp with the Predators coming out of the lockout in the fall of 2005. The last Predator to use an all-wood stick, he was dominant on faceoffs and managed 22 goals and 57 points that season.
One of the better signings had to be that of winger Vladimir (“The Slovakian Tank”) Orszagh. He was a key component on the “Vowel Line” with winger Marty Erat and center Denis Arkhipov for three seasons. He joined the team as a 24-year-old, set free by the New York Islanders in 2001. Unfortunately, his career effectively ended with a knee injury and surgery following the World Championships with Slovakia after the Predators’ first playoff appearance.
Maybe the best role player of the bunch is still playing in the NHL. Joel Ward was 28, and had played 11 NHL games, when he signed on with Nashville in 2008. Undrafted after four years of junior hockey, he then played collegiately at the University of Prince Edward island for four seasons.
His three regular seasons in Nashville produced 40 goals and 98 points. He led the Predators with seven goals and 13 points in the playoffs of 2011 against Anaheim and Vancouver. That represented great timing on his part. His contract in Nashville was up, and it earned him a huge free-agent deal with the Washington Capitals, where he now is playing his fourth season.
Stay-at-home, shot-blocking defensemen have also been part of the free agent haul for Nashville.
While he played three seasons with Milwaukee after leaving the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Greg Zanon then put in three seasons with the Predators. Some of that time he spent as Ryan Suter’s partner (Dan Hamhuis was paired with Shea Weber in 2006-07) on the 110-point team that season. Zanon was a plus-20 in four seasons before he signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2009.
Defenseman Francis Bouillon had two stints with Nashville: 4 games in 2002-03 on a waiver claim from Montreal, where he returned later that season.
“The Cube” returned as a 34-year old free agent in 2009 and played another three seasons here. A physically tough defender, he was the stay-at-home partner for Kevin Klein. Bouillon’s absence was notable when he was concussed in Chicago and missed 38 games in 2011.
Each of those were all solid, if not at times integral role players picked up in free agency. Now, let’s move up to the impact players:
Among the early impact free agents was one of the first, and the first team captain, Tom Fitzgerald. He had put in time with the Islanders and Florida Panthers before he signed with the Predators in that summer of 1998. His importance truly cannot be measured in his stats: four seasons, 42 goals and 88 points. He was the leader the expansion Predators needed. Fitzgerald taught the youngsters how to act as professionals and led the team to the cusp of a playoff berth. That was quite an accomplishment for a team stocked with players that the other 26 teams didn’t want!
The team picked up three key offensive performers to help fill out the rosters of the two best teams to this point in club history: the 106-point team of 2005-06 and the 110-point club the following year.
The first of them was available because of a new rule, which allowed teams to “walk away” from an arbitration ruling: J.P. Dumont. He was 28 in the summer of 2006, and had played a season with Chicago and another five with Buffalo, where he had tallied 20 or more goals four times.
Dumont had two more 20-goal seasons with the Predators, and played on a line with Steve Sullivan. In his second season with Nashville, he posted his career-best season (29 goals and 72 points). Dumont’s effectiveness was reduced after absorbing a brutal hit to the chin from Vancouver’s Alexander Burrows on December 8, 2009. He still ended with 93 goals and 267 points in his five seasons here.
Also in 2006, Jason Arnott, 32 years old and a veteran with time in Edmonton, New Jersey and Dallas, arrived in Nashville. He had scored the overtime Stanley Cup winning goal for New Jersey in 2000 against Dallas. He came to the Preds after three full seasons with the Stars, totaling 76 goals.
Arnott, who would become the second free agent to serve as captain of the team (along with Tom Fitzgerald), stayed closeto those Dallas numbers: 107 goals and 229 points. He established the club record with a 33-goal season in 2008-09.
The top of the list, though, belongs to someone who played just two seasons here: Paul Kariya. His was a special case. After 10 NHL seasons, nine of them spent with Anaheim, where he had a 50-goal season, two 40-goal seasons, plus three 30-goal seasons, he sought out Nashville after the lockout ended in 2005.
Paul Kariya gave the Predators immediate credibility, becoming the first to average over a point per game (85 his first year). He added another 76 points the following season, which proved to be his last in Middle Tennessee. With the sale of the team after 2007, David Poile was unable to offer him another contract, so off to St. Louis he went, for his final three NHL seasons.
The idea that Nashville could host an NHL All-Star Game actually began to take shape when the Music City was home to the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. On the morning of that draft, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to a crowd of 400 at a breakfast sponsored by the Nashville Sports Council.
Commissioner Bettman went on later that morning to extoll the virtues of Nashville as a hockey city.
When the 2003 Entry Draft was over, it was clear that the city had made a huge impression on the Commissioner. Listen to what he had to say at a Town Hall meeting of Predators Season Ticket Holders at the Convention Center on March 27, 2004:
After all of that, it came down to a matter of infrastructure. Over the past few years, the downtown has blossomed. The Music City Center will be a great place to stage many of the activities that now surround the All-Star Game. So many hotel rooms have been added since the draft was here, and that helps make Nashville “The It City” even more.
While it will have been 13 years since the draft was here until the All-Star Game has come to town – you have other things to consider as well. First, consider the availability of the games themselves. The league does not schedule them for years when the NHL participates in the Winter Olympics.
That eliminated 2006, 2010 and 2014. Unfortunately, we also had lockouts, which eliminated 2005 and 2013 from possibilities. In addition, All-Star Games booked for those latter two years were subsequently rescheduled, which further delayed getting a game in Nashville. For example, this season’s game will be in Columbus, which was supposed to have hosted it in 2013.
Now the concept has moved closer to reality. My most fervent wish would be that everyone who was with the Predators from the start, even those we have unfortunately lost over time, could be back to enjoy it.
In addition to attending many of the games in recent years, I was lucky enough to have been part of staging the All-Star Games of 1978 (at the Aud in Buffalo)
and 1981 (at the Forum in Los Angeles).
The NHL All-Star Game has grown to be one of the great celebrations of the game itself.
Nashville has earned it!
You have heard it so many times already, I realize: “Peter Laviolette is just the second coach in Predators history!”
Some perspective here: since the Predators began play in October of 1998, the New York Islanders have had 11 coaches and New Jersey has had 10.
Ken Hitchcock, now with St. Louis, has coached four different teams against Nashville (Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus and the Blues). Mike Keenan (working in the KHL as this is written) has run the bench for Vancouver, Florida, Boston and Calgary. Darryl Sutter has won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, but he has also had the reins in San Jose and Calgary since Nashville joined the NHL.
Bottom line - the average length of time for a head coach’s tenure is short, so the change here is a major one for the organization, as it has never happened before.
Now, to the team’s outlook for 2014-15: And it all starts with goaltending. Thankfully, Pekka Rinne recovered late last season after missing 51 games and was able to get into some late-season NHL action. Perhaps most importantly, he was healthy for the World Championships in Minsk and played well enough for his native Finland to be the tournament’s MVP. That helped him get over whatever physical and psychological hurdles he may have otherwise had to deal with in training camp here. When you can start with one of the best between the pipes, you have a great foundation.
Let’s continue with the defense. Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Seth Jones are all highly regarded throughout the NHL. Ryan Ellis had a solid breakthrough season last year and can build on that, as did Mattias Ekholm. Add free agent signee Anton Volchenkov - who may block as many shots as his goaltender on a given night - to Victor Bartley and the defense is solid.
It is up front that most of the changes have been made in the offseason. General Manager David Poile has been extremely busy. First, he traded perennial 20-goal scorer Patric Hornqvist, along with forward Nick Spaling, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The return on that deal: winger James Neal, who has had six 20-goal seasons (split between Dallas and Pittsburgh), including 40 in 2012 with the Pens. That gives Nashville just the second player in team history who has ever scored 40 in a single season. Paul Kariya had one 50-goal campaign and two more with 40-plus while with Anaheim.
The Neal trade was just the start of the club’s offensive makeover. On July 2nd, forward Olli Jokinen was signed as a free agent. Jokinen had four 30-goal seasons with the Florida Panthers and has over 300 goals in his NHL career.
Early in July, the team was hit with the news of Mike Fisher’s Achilles injury, so they realized they needed more help down the middle.
On July 15th, Derek Roy, who has registered four 20-goal seasons (including one with 32) with Buffalo, and Mike Ribeiro, who has averaged 20 goals and 45 assists per NHL season, were both signed to free agent deals.
Fortified with those moves, and looking forward to the continued development of Craig Smith and hopeful that Colin Wilson can follow in Smith’s lead, the team should be better offensively heading into the season. Mike Fisher should be back with the team in the first half, perhaps pushing some of his teammates even further.
Every team in the Central Division appears to be better as the season begins. Indeed, the Central Division of the NHL may not only be the toughest division in hockey, it may be the most competitive in professional sports.
Now it’s time to do what we have all been anxiously awaiting; drop the puck!
As you probably know, I love all sports and have maintained contact with many of my broadcast partners over the years. The first weekend of this September, thanks to some sort of harmonic convergence, allowed me to enjoy all of that on a dream weekend for my wife Claudia and me.
It all began to come together after we obtained tickets (with Memphis Grizzlies announcer Pete Pranica—a fellow Notre Dame alumnus—and his wife, Johanna) to the Notre Dame-Michigan game for Saturday night, September 6th. Then, a closer examination of the schedule showed us we could also see the Pittsburgh Pirates (one of my former broadcast partners in Buffalo, Greg Brown, is now voice of the Bucs) and the Chicago Cubs the afternoon before.
What about Sunday? The team I covered for so long, the Buffalo Bills, would be at Soldier Field for their NFL opener against the Bears, and I would be able to get back together with another former broadcasting buddy, Bills play-by-play man John Murphy and ex-Bills’ safety Mark Kelso.
Those three events made up a perfectly marvelous weekend. But as we were finalizing all of these plans, we got a call, from a broadcast partner from years ago, Los Angeles Kings voice Bob Miller. On Tuesday he was going to have his time with the Stanley Cup – would we be able to make it out for the party? We didn’t take long to answer that question!
It all began with a Friday morning flight to Chicago, followed by a quick check-in at our hotel and a walk to the L Station to catch our Red Line train to Wrigley Field. It was a beautiful day as we exited the Addison station.
We get to our seats, where Pete Pranica met us (his wife’s flight in from Memphis was cancelled, so she didn’t join us until Saturday morning). The game moved toward the third, then some extremely dark clouds suddenly moved in. Shortly thereafter, the wind picked up and the rain followed. That front blew over quickly, and they restarted the game, but it wasn’t long before another cell moved in and it was time to cover the surface again.
I have done enough baseball to understand it was doubtful they could make the field playable that night following two heavy rainfalls. As the second cloudburst began, we went back to the L.
Around 6 o’clock, the Cubs announced the game (tied after 6 innings) was suspended and would be resumed on Saturday. That allowed us to continue our plans for dinner at Mike Ditka’s restaurant with Greg Brown that evening.
Greg seemed tired when he joined us and he explained why. He was a “solo act” that day. It seems the night before, broadcast partner Bob Walk had scratched his throat with the sugar-glass covering of his favorite desert—Crème Brule—and was ordered off the air. So Greg had done six innings and two rain delays by himself!
Saturday morning, Johanna Pranica arrived, allowing time for breakfast and the 90-minute drive down Lake Shore Drive, I-94 and the Indiana Toll Road to South Bend. We arrived on the edge of the campus, parked the car and walked the campus.
One early stop was the Knights of Columbus Hall on the South Quad for their steak sandwiches, then it was off to Bond Hall for a pre-game concert by the Notre Dame Marching Band, featuring two members from Nashville – Junior member of the Irish Guard, Eric Donahue, and his sophomore brother Luke, on tuba.
We were able to follow the band on its march to the stadium and shortly thereafter, were inside for my first night game there. Shortly after getting to our location, the row in front of us filled up with Toronto Maple Leafs’ announcer Joe Bowen and his sons and friends. Joe is a long-time “subway alumnus,” and like me, tries to make one pilgrimage per season, before we get into our hockey schedules.
Bottom line, it was a great night for us, the Irish prevailed, 31-0 over the Wolverines. It was about 11:00 p.m. (CST) when we got to our car. We made one stop on the Toll Road (at the Knute Rockne Plaza, of course), and I turned the driving over to Pete Pranica.
By 1:30, we were back at our hotel in Chicago and ready for a quick night’s sleep with a noontime kickoff at Soldier Field. The Pranicas would depart Chicago later on Sunday.
I had not been in Soldier Field since the Bears beat the Bills, 20-13 in 1994. (That was part of my best previous sports weekend, when Notre Dame had knocked off Bill Walsh’s Stanford team the day previously.) So the 2003 renovation of the facility was all new to me.
We made it to the press box to visit with members of the Western New York media there, and then went down to the basement and around the field to set up in the Bills’ broadcast booth with John Murphy and Mark Kelso. John and I had worked together at WBEN Radio from 1983-88, mostly on Buffalo Bisons’ baseball broadcasts.
When the Bears got off to such an easy start on their first possession, there was not a person in the stadium who could have foreseen the finish, a 23-20 Bills’ victory in OT, the Bills’ first-ever victory in Chicago.
Then it was time to visit with another broadcasting acquaintance – long-time Buffalo Bills’ Head Coach and Chicago native Marv Levy – whose morning and evening radio shows I hosted on WGR Radio. Marv turned 89 the day after he presented Andre Reed for induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. He entertained us with many stories, including how angry he was with Bills’ running back Fred Jackson (whom he had signed for Buffalo when Marv was the GM). It seems Fred broke some of Marv’s records at Coe College in Iowa.
Monday morning, it was time to check out of the Chicago hotel and get to Midway Airport for our flight to Los Angeles and the next part of our pre-training-camp marathon.
We were set up in our San Fernando Valley hotel by late afternoon, and then drove to Bob and Judy Miller’s home a few miles away. We had a great dinner and told stories (Bob and I had worked together on the Kings broadcasts from 1978-81), about the old days at the Fabulous Forum and the 75,000 miles of commercial flights we averaged per season in those days.
The party with Lord Stanley was set for Tuesday night in the clubhouse of a public golf course in Encino. The Millers had invited around 250 people. I do believe they all turned out and it was a great reunion. When the Cup is around, everyone is all smiles!
Wednesday was the return trip to Nashville. Thursday a day of rest before the official Grand Opening of the Ford Ice Center—and that’s how I spent the end of my summer vacation! The people, the timing, the weather (for the most part), and the places could not have worked out any better!
The Kings have won their second Stanley Cup, and have taken them in the span of just three seasons. It took 45 years, from the NHL expansion from “the Original Six” when the league doubled in size, to start this run.
Which of the two is more incredible? That’s hard to determine.
The 2012 win was remarkable – just making it into the playoffs the last weekend as the 8th seed, then beating the top three teams in the Western Conference.
They got through Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix in just 14 games, and then took the first three games from New Jersey in the Final. Ultimately, they needed a total of 20 games to win their first Cup.
Fresher in our minds is this triumph, and the way things started, it appeared all hope had been extinguished early. They trailed San Jose, 3-0, and then became the fourth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to come back and take the series.
Then it was the battle for Southern California against Anaheim. The Kings surprised the Ducks with two wins at the Honda Center, only to drop the next three (imagine that, a pair of three-game playoff losing streaks!) before coming back to win.
Next was the defending Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. It started out well, the Kings with a 3-1 series lead, before the Blackhawks forced Game Seven. The Kings took that in OT to move onto the Final – the first team to have played 21 games to get there!
That set up the Final – a cross-country affair (as it was against New Jersey in 2012). Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stretched the series out with some tremendous performances, but the Kings were able to overcome those and take the Cup, with defenseman Alec Martinez ending the Cup Final as he did the Western Conference Final – with an overtime goal.
Use whatever words you wish to describe these champions; “resilient” and “relentless” are among the suggestions. The fact is this: after 82 regular-season games, another 26 in the playoffs (and for some, more in the Olympic tournament), the Los Angeles Kings have taken another Stanley Cup.
The hockey was fantastic, the favorites did not meet in the Final, but that’s why they play these games. I wouldn’t want it any other way!
So we will have a fifth game in this Stanley Cup Final. The scene now shifts to Staples Center in Los Angeles on “Friday the 13th.” I don’t know if Jason Vorhees will be there, but this series was definitely extended by the work of another masked man, “King Henrik” Lundqvist, in the Rangers’ net.
Lundqvist spoke about the Rangers’ situation (down 3-1 in this best-of-seven) in his NBCSN post-
game chat with Pierre McGuire: “We know it’s not impossible, because they (the Kings vs. San Jose in round one) have done it.”
Lundqvist continued: “It was a battle, the whole game. When they turn it up, you need to rely on
your teammates and puck luck. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
As usual, Mike Emrick said it best as the camera focused on Lundqvist in the third period: “He’s been marvelous, but he’s had to be.” Lundqvist stopped the last 26 Los Angeles shots.
The Kings got a break to pull within one at 8:47 of the second period, off a save by Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick. The puck was sliding back to Rangers’ defenseman Dan Girardi, but his stick gave way, creating a breakaway for captain Dustin Brown. That bad break did not seem to break the Rangers’ spirit.
Los Angeles had two other close calls, one late in the first and another late in the third. Neither crossed the goal line. “We had a lot of good opportunities, but couldn’t finish,” said Kings’ Coach Darryl Sutter.
Now the Kings are heading back home, strangely enough, feeling better about their performance in Game Four than in their previous outings in the Cup Final. If they put as much pressure on Lundqvist as they did Wednesday night, can Lundqvist and the Rangers hold on to force another coast-to-coast trip? Or will they cash in and will Lord Stanley emerge from his case? That’s what we are all waiting to find out!
Now it has become clear. The Los Angeles Kings are like a vampire. To kill them, you need to drive a wooden stake through their hearts.
Clearly, the Rangers could have the two-nothing series lead heading back to Madison Square Garden for Game Three Monday.
It appeared as if goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was in the process of stealing the opener. The Rangers had a 2-0 lead late in the first, but the Kings tied it by 6:36 of the second. Then Lundqvist dug in, but the Rangers were smothered, outshot, 20-3 in the third period as the Kings tied it, then won, 3-2 in OT.
Saturday may have been more injurious to the Rangers’ psyche. The Kings rallied from three two-goal deficits, finally closing the deal at 10:26 of the second overtime on Captain Dustin Brown’s deflection of Willie Mitchell’s shot. So, the only lead the Kings held in either game came when they scored in overtime!
Clearly, the Kings got some breaks, most pointedly in the third period where Dwight King, looming over the top of Lundqvist and jostling with Rangers’ defenseman Ryan McDonagh, tipped in a shot to pull the Kings within 4-3. There was no protracted video review after that score, the puck was dropped and they played on. Marian Gaborik then tied the game 5:38 after that.
Still, the Kings took advantage. They seem to be the team that defines resiliency. They are the first in Stanley Cup history to win three straight games, in which they faced two-goal deficits. Each of those games they won in overtime.
Consider this: they lost the first three games of their series against the San Jose Sharks, then became just the fourth team in NHL history to come back to win the series.
Then: their first playoff series with the Anaheim Ducks. They surprised the Ducks by winning the first two games in Anaheim. The Ducks countered by taking the first two in Los Angeles, then broke through at home for a three-two series lead. Facing elimination, the Kings took the next two to win the series.
At that point, the Kings had won six consecutive games in which they could have been eliminated from the playoffs.
Then they seemingly had things under control in the Western Conference Final with Chicago, taking a three-one series advantage. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks won two games in which they could have been eliminated, forcing Game Seven. The Kings took that one in overtime, 5-4, to advance to the Final. That gave Los Angeles seven consecutive victories in elimination games – and three straight Game Seven wins.
This Kings club is different from the 2012 Cup winners. Yes, that team was the 8th seed in the Western Conference and knocked off the President’s Trophy Champion Vancouver Canucks, the 2nd-seed St. Louis Blues and the 3rd-seed Phoenix Coyotes. They played just 14 games to get to the Cup Final against New Jersey. Their success was based on strong defensive play.
This season’s edition has more scoring power. The top four playoff scorers are all Kings: Anze Kopitar with 25 points (his 15 assists leads the NHL); Marian Gaborik leads the playoffs with 13 goals (two shy of Wayne Gretzky’s playoff club record of 15 (in 1993). “Mr. Seventh Game” Justin Williams also has the best plus-minus rating with a +13.
What all of this means is that goaltender Jonathan Quick does not need to turn in a near-perfect game for the Kings to win. So he has the lead in the most important statistic for a playoff goaltender: wins, with 14.
The Rangers have yet to lose a game on home ice in this series, so they have the chance to turn things around for themselves. How will they respond to this predicament? Stay tuned!