Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Philadelphia may be an Eagles town, but they love their Flyers

Traditionally since I started this blog last summer, I've mostly posted news items that have something to do with the National Hockey League and given my take on them, but here I want to write about a personal experience I will always reflect on as a memorable one.

Last week, I received a phone call from my long-time friend Derek and he asked me if I was interested in going to a Philadelphia Flyers game. I'm not talking about in one of three possible venues in the New York City metropolitan area. It was in Philadelphia. Unless you have a scheduling conflict, as a hardcore hockey fan, you can't turn such an opportunity down.

After receiving a text message last Friday that the extra ticket fell through, I was really bummed out. This is coming from a fan of my hometown team in the New York Rangers, mind you. It might not be as surprising had this come from my Minnesota Wild or Phoenix Coyotes fan perspective. But fortunately, Derek called again the next afternoon and said the offer was back on the table. I gladly accepted after my family didn't mind that I not go to my grandparents' place for Easter dinner. I can do that any year. Going to a Philadelphia Flyers home game on Easter Sunday I could not.

With the arrival of Easter Sunday, I hit the road around 1:15 PM under beautiful sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s across New York City's nearby northern suburbs. Surprisingly, there were not that many motorists on the local highways and driving across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey was an absolute breeze. You cannot say that very often.

If you have driven on the New Jersey Turnpike between New York City and Philadelphia, you know it's a fairly quick ride compared to most road trips. We are just talking about 85 miles apart here. Just pop in your favorite music compact disc and you'll definitely be in one of the two cities (depending on which direction you're going) by the time it's finished. You could even skip a song or two and you'll still only need just the one CD. My favorite one when I've made this specific trip is Dire Straits' 1991 album On Every Street. While the seventh track "Heavy Fuel" immediately has me think of the music played during the Minnesota North Stars' 1991-1992 home opener player introductions, I enjoy hearing it while driving in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

Just don't get too discouraged if you go 70 to 75 miles per hour on the New Jersey Turnpike and everybody else is completely whizzing by you as if you're driving on a local street somewhere. People on this highway are simply nuts on this road for going so fast.

Because Derek lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania, I didn't have to go through Philadelphia itself to reach my destination. He's exactly 115.2 miles from me, but the driving distance is longer since no one can do so in a straight point A to point B line. But my trip wasn't flawless as I had to deal with a 20-minute delay thanks to a nasty accident that occurred on Interstate 476 (known as the Blue Route to the locals) in Conshohocken just north of Interstate 76 (the Schuylkill Expressway).

While on the local roads down there, I had put on Sportsradio 610 WIP and what do I hear being talked about in late March? The Philadelphia Eagles. Can you believe that? The National Football League season has been over for nearly two months and people down there are talking about the Eagles. Hello? Does anybody realize the Flyers are in the fight of their lives in trying to nail down a trip to the postseason? What about the Philadelphia Phillies, a team looking to prove their 2007 National League East division title was no fluke? Nope, it was the Eagles. Just ridiculous. Derek even told me on Monday that this is a regular occurrence.

I finally arrived at his place at 3:40 PM. Now it was time to enjoy my stay in the Philadelphia area as much as possible, even if it was only for 30 hours. After meeting up with Derek's sister Alexandra and two of his other friends Stephanie and Nick a little while later, we then headed to the arena. We entered the city from the south end by driving north on Interstate 95 (the Delaware Expressway) past Philadelphia International Airport and over the Girard Point Bridge. I remember previously crossing over this bridge and seeing the downtown Philadelphia skyline from here back on September 14, 2005 when I went with Derek to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park.

Stephanie, Nick, myself and Derek outside the
Wachovia Center prior to the Flyers' home game
against the New York Islanders on March 23, 2008.

(photo by Alexandra King)

Thankfully there were no traffic issues, so just a few minutes later, we made it to the Wachovia Center around 5:15 PM and the weather was still perfect. Hardly a cloud in the sky, little if any wind and it wasn't really that cold. I was already thrilled to be there. The Flyers' current home that opened on August 31, 1996 still looks quite new to me and appears to be very well maintained from the outside. The arena is considerably bigger and taller than the Wachovia Spectrum, located just across the parking lot. As we walked to one of the entrances to enter the building, all I could see were so many people in Philadelphia Flyers jerseys. Well, duh! Look where I am! I'm in Philadelphia, of course. It was great to see the fans decked out and so many of them even on Easter Sunday.

Once inside, it was quite crowded and plenty of people patroning the shops and food concession areas. I even spotted Islanders television host and reporter Deb Placey and her camera operator walking past me in the concourse. Not that I'm just your typical male fan here judging some female broadcaster mainly by their appearance, but I must admit she really looks good for someone who is 42 years old. Deb definitely provides some good coverage of the Islanders on and off the ice for MSG+ during each game and it was especially noticeable when the team honored legendary former coach Al Arbour earlier this season.

A few times I'd hear Flyers fans cheering with excitement as you could tell they were ready for this game. But since their opponent wasn't exactly a team that was competing with the Flyers for a coveted playoff spot and weren't even a contender to play in the postseason, it wasn't buzzing or having that atmosphere you'd expect against teams such as the New York Rangers. After stopping by the AT&T Pavilion, a place you can eat, drink and chill out to watch sporting events on some big screen TVs, we finally made our way up to Suite 54 to simply relax, have a bite to eat, have a few drinks and take in the game.

An early evening view seen from outside of Suite 54 of the Wachovia Center shows the downtown Philadelphia skyline behind the Wachovia Spectrum during the Philadelphia Flyers' home game against the New York Islanders
on March 23, 2008.

Let me tell you, even if I watched the game from a regular seat inside the arena, I was in awe when I got to see the Flyers play in person in this venue. It is different seeing them as the visiting team as opposed to actually being in Philadelphia. From where I was located inside the Wachovia Center, it was a must that I just had to take it all in. The arena interior is very pleasing to the eye. I'm not just talking about all the modern state-of-the-art amenities the arena has (especially that huge scoreboard with the HDTV screens), but some of that feel taken from the Spectrum was visible here such as all the Flyers and 76ers banners that hang from the ceiling (or rafters as it is referred to). It does look like an intimidating place to play, that is especially if you're on the visiting team. I know it is minor in people really taking notice of this, but even the plexiglass holders are orange to match the team's primary color. Despite it only being pregame warmups, I enjoyed watching the Flyers players in their home black uniforms trimmed in orange and white frequently pepper both their goaltenders in Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki with some practice shots.

A general view of inside the Wachovia Center shows
a neutral zone faceoff during the first period of the
Philadelphia Flyers' 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders on March 23, 2008.

Normally the arena is completely full, it appeared 90 to 95% of the seats actually had fannies in them. A good number of the suites were unoccupied though. Maybe since it was the Islanders for whom the Flyers were playing and that it was Easter, those might be contributing factors for why there were any absentees. Either way, it was a fun atmosphere to be in regardless if you are cheering for the Flyers or not.

Unfortunately, I failed to take any pictures of this very brief part of the evening, but make sure that every time you attend a Flyers home game, you stick around to hear Lauren Hart sing the national anthem. Seriously, you would rather hear her sing than take off to the nearest concession stand or run off to the bathroom. She's got a fantasic voice and you can get very moved by it when she sings, too. Lauren is the daughter of the late Gene Hart, a former Hockey Hall of Fame television announcer for the Flyers.

During the second intermission of the Flyers' 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders on March 23, 2008, I stand inside Suite 54 in the Wachovia Center with the arena scoreboard behind me.

While I was watching the game with Derek, Alexandra, Stephanie and Nick, I enjoyed talking to some of the people that regularly go to Flyers games and watch them from this suite. They are true fans. They really love the game and that's what made my experience even more special. I even high-fived them each of the four times the Flyers scored. Okay, I will admit that it helps everyone who knows me understands how I feel about the Islanders and that came into play here. They knew I am from New York, yet I'm sure they were happy I was rooting for their team on this night.

A closeup view of the scoreboard shows Philadelphia Flyers players celebrating their 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders on March 23, 2008 at the Wachovia Center.

By the time it was over, the Flyers picked up two big points in the Eastern Conference standings with an impressive 4-1 victory. Philadelphia has had goaltending issues for years, right? This season has been no exception and the Flyers have still been trying to find out who is the true starting goaltender for them. Just two years ago, the team thought Niittymaki was their man after a solid 2005-2006 season and his outstanding play in the 2006 Winter Olympics where he won a silver medal. But he's remained too inconsistent to nail down the #1 job.

A Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia cameraman follows Philadelphia Flyers players (left to right) Daniel Briere,
Martin Biron and Scott Hartnell as they leave the ice
at Wachovia Center after defeating the New York Islanders
4-1 on March 23, 2008.

The Flyers acquired Biron in a trade deadline deal last season from the Buffalo Sabres and have given him ample time to win that job. He hasn't succeeded until perhaps pretty recently and this victory may have helped him. Something you haven't heard very often in Philadelphia happened on Easter Sunday. Flyers fans chanted Biron's name in the final minutes of the game thanks to his 32-save effort. One save in particular really got the crowd on its feet. It was when Biron robbed Josef Vasicek with a stretching skate save against the right post. Really impressive, I must say. But Miroslav Satan spoiled Biron's shutout bid with a power play goal with 4:27 left in the game.

Thankfully, I had asked Derek in advance to set the timer on his DVD recorder and record the game coverage from Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia. The Flyers television personalities are very recognizable with Jim Jackson as the play-by-play announcer and Steve Coates as the lead color analyst. While not doing work for Versus, former Flyers forward Keith Jones will be in Coates' role as he did for this game. Coates was down at rinkside reporting from between the team benches. Another Flyers game I have in my library is quite valuable to me. It is from the very first regular season home game in Minnesota Wild history on October 11, 2000. I appreciate Derek helping me capture this on VHS tape back then as well with Jackson and Coates working the game.

I took this snapshot to show one thing I don't like about the arena. While watching Philadelphia Flyers games broadcast from the Wachovia Center, there are two camera platforms and they provide OFF CENTER views of the ice. WHY?!

There is one problem I do have with Comcast and how Flyers games are shown on television. While people might think I'm quite picky with this, but I never understood why two platforms were built to house the primary game angle and player isolation cameras. Both are noticeably off center from the red line. One of them is closer to the right blue line and it looks terrible when watching a game. This camera was used when I was looking at my DVD copy of the game. When this arena was built 12 years ago, why couldn't Comcast have just built a single platform with the cameras aligned with the red line? Hopefully sometime down the road, this is corrected.

Oh, and straying just a bit off topic for a moment, if you are told you were only allowed to choose just one local newscast to see while you're in Philadelphia, Derek's pick is Action News on WPVI-TV. Each time I'm down there, I get at least one of their newscasts on tape (or in this case, on recordable DVD). Sometimes, I'll also record one of the other local stations.

After staying out until about 3:00 AM and then watching Super Troopers (too funny!) with Derek, I finally called it a night. I'm such a night owl.

No visit to Philadelphia is complete unless you have an authentic cheesesteak. That's right, you heard me. A cheesesteak! I know, Flyers broadcasters will talk about Tastycakes. If you're not in the city itself where one usually ventures to the popular spots such as Geno's Steaks, Pat's King of Steaks or Steve's Prince of Steaks, I highly recommend one place in Philadelphia's nearby western suburbs. It is the Pepper Mill, located on the corner of Route 352 and Paoli Pike in East Goshen (has a West Chester postal zip code). Someone even wrote a blog review which backs up what I think of this place. Right along with the way our national economy has gone into the crapper with skyrocketing prices on diary and other essential food staples, if you want a regular cheesesteak, it'll cost you. From $6.15 back in September 2005 to now $7.80, it is still worth every penny. I suggest you try one with onions and ketchup first. Every time I go here, I buy one for the moment and another to bring back home. And yes, the Pepper Mill's cheesesteaks remain remarkably fresh for an entire drive back to New York and beyond that, so if you're unable to pack it into a cooler, absolutely no problem.

One other thing I have to remind myself to do before driving 2½ to 3 hours back home is to make sure I pick up a copy that day's Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer. I'm likely to just go across the small parking lot from the Pepper Mill over to Wawa (southeastern Pennsylvania's equivalent to 7-Eleven). I was surprised that convenience stores sell the three major New York City newspapers here, but Derek reminded me of their high out-of-town readership base as national newspapers as opposed to just local ones. So I was able to get articles from the Flyers game just so I have something of nostalgic reading material from the night before.

Remember when I mentioned earlier about WIP sports show hosts and callers talking constantly about the Eagles during their offseason instead of the Flyers? Yup, that's what we heard on the way to and from the Pepper Mill before eating our lunch at his place. I couldn't believe it, but he could. Sure, he lives in the Philadelphia area, so I understand. He can get Sports Radio 66 WFAN in New York City from here and at times would rather hear their programs instead.

But why the Eagles? Is it really more important to talk about whether or not Donovan McNabb is going to be injury-free next season as their starting quarterback and lead them back to the playoffs than about what's currently going on with the Flyers? C'mon even the Phillies' new season should be getting more headlines after what they accomplished last year. Allen Iverson's long-awaited return to Philadelphia with the Denver Nuggets is the only thing that will garner any mention of the Philadelphia 76ers these days. And they appear to be heading for the NBA playoffs. Go figure.

Plain and simple, the Eagles are the marquee team in Philadelphia even though they haven't won a championship since 1960. That was before the Super Bowl even existed. Sure, maybe long-time Eagles fans view this drought in a similar way that the New York Rangers had for 54 years from 1940 to 1994 and the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1967 to now. But you don't hear about that in the national media, do we? Nope.

The Flyers have an opportunity to write a nice feel-good story for themselves with or without a Stanley Cup championship, a title they haven't had since 1975. But they'll have to make due without the services of Simon Gagne, a valuable forward who developed into one of Philadelphia's top scorers. He's had concussion issues for the last two years and there's concern the Flyers are suffering deja vu all over again in the aftermath of Keith Primeau's retirement three years ago because his symptoms never ceased.

Despite bottoming out at the worst period in franchise history in which they were the worst team in the league a year ago, the fans stuck with the team. Sure, just a few more empty seats at Wachovia Center, but note the word few. With the building nearly full on a regular basis, it shows how dedicated Flyers fans are.

When I went to this game, I saw more than just a Flyers hockey game. I enjoyed an experience. While I can say that about my own teams I love and what makes them, their city and their fans special, the Philadelphia sports scene while at times can be over the line in terms of acceptance, they're passionate and they love their Flyers. Going to a Phillies game is a lot of fun, but if you haven't seen the Flyers in Philadelphia, it's a ticket worth the price of admission. Even if your opportunity comes on Easter Sunday, do not pass it up. I repeat, do not turn down the invitation!

And I am so glad I didn't.


FrankD said...

Wow, quite the book ya wrote there buddy ;-)

As a Pittsburgh fan I find Philly to be a tough city to visit for a hockey game. The fans are passionate and never shy from telling you where to go. Yet sometimes their passion combines with alcohol and turns into stupidity, as I've witnessed at many a Philadelphia games. That's not to say it's any different in any other part of the sports spectator world, but that's unfortunately some of the most detailed memories I have from Wachovia.

Good to see you enjoyed though. I prefer the WC over The Prudential Center any day.

Nick in New York said...

nice work! I too have been to a game there, and generally enjoyed myself. I did see some surly Flyers fans (maybe aided by the fact that they were playing the Rangers), but that's not such a big deal around there.