Saturday, 12 March 2011

Best Seat In The House

When you're sitting on the glass, shelling out $400 per seat per game, you're thinking you have the best seats in the house and wondering why anyone one would willingly sit in the seats just an arms length from the retired number and championship banners hanging from the rafters. But then you're near the roof, looking Bill Barilko right in the eye, you know there is no better place to watch a hockey game and you never really want to sit anywhere else ever again. There is a good reason all the press, scouts and coaches sit up there

I've been to two games in the press box so far, a 6-5 shootout win for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 26 and a 3-2 Philadelphia Flyers win on March 10. Watching from hundreds of feet above the ice, almost looking straight down at the play, i can see everything perfectly from the breakout and fore-check strategy to the guy wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs Wayne Gretzky jersey in row eight.

Sitting down low and watching from up high, you are really at two different games. Watching down low, you get a tremendous appreciation for the speed and power of the game. You can get speedsters Marian Gaborik, Phil Kessel and Michael Grabner skating by so fast you can get whiplash trying to watch them. It's almost impossible to understand how they think, let alone make plays at such high speeds. The power and aggression is also very evident down low. You can see the action on TV, but watching just how pissed off Chris Pronger is as he battles his opponent in front of the net is something else.

As good as those seats are for entertainment purposes, you do not beat sitting in the press box for hockey purposes. Up high, the game becomes a slow-motion ballet where each pass is made with the precision of a surgeon and each breakout blooms like a flower on Planet Earth. It is so fun watching a play develop and seeing how much room the players actually have out there, where down low, you don't get that. Another major difference is i don't have to switch from watching live-action to watching the video board whenever the play is not directly in front of me, missing valuable milli-seconds of action. In the press box, I barely have to turn my head to take in the entire rink.

The subtleties of the game are so clear from this vantage point from rookie Keith Aulie's hesitance in the offensive zone to Blair Betts' mastery on defense. That room I mentioned was evident watching Claude Giroux's patience while the Flyers keep the puck away from the Leafs on a delayed penalty. The gaps can close quite quickly though and it is incredible they can see the game as it is up high while playing it at the speed down low.

I am able to easily follow the Dion Phaneuf blast that deflected off Mikhail Grabovski's face and into the top corner of the net and I have a great angle on Mike Brown's amazing rush (that's probably never been typed before) that led to a Joffrey Lupul goal to pull the Leafs within one goal. The fore-check is an aspect I really enjoy watching as the strategy is hard to see from down low. I can clearly see the Flyers switch to a 1-2-2 late in the game as they try to hold on to their slim lead. In short, this view allows me to see everything except why Jody Shelley is in the NHL.

There are other perks to having a media pass other than the great view. Being able to go behind the scenes in the ACC and get into the locker rooms in pretty cool too. The game against the Flyers got off to a good start before the game even began. I drove to the rink with Ken Campbell straight from the office and on our way to the media room, we ran into the injured Pronger. He and Ken got into it a little bit, throwing some jabs at each other with Pronger mocking his size. All in good fun of course and it was really funny, say what you want about Pronger on the ice, off it he really is a great personality and the NHL could certainly use more guys like him.

Sitting in the press box is just a great experience, not just because of the view, but because of all the amenities as well. I'll start with the free food. It's nothing special at the ACC compared to others arenas (so I've been told), but there is still popcorn, pretzels, soda, water, ice cream and a few other snacks. Saturday games are great as everyone gathers for Coach's Corner with Don Cherry and I gotta tell you, it's not just Americans who aren't used to him who think he's out of his mind, everyone there did as well. During the Flyers game, I sat right in front of the Leafs play-by-play man and got to listen to his commentary the entire game. Those people do an absolutely incredible job. Even with the game slowing down, their ability to call all the action so clearly is stunning. There is a line of TVs so I get to see a replay almost instantly, bringing the best part of watching sports at home to the rink. I also get to share space with some well-known people in the hockey community including Brad May, Nikolay Zherdev and the great Chris Therien.*

Then there's going into the locker room after the game. The first game against the Penguins was just about getting my feet wet and getting used to the experience of being in a media scrum. I joined in on interviews of Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Alexei Kovalev and coach Dan Bylsma. The game against the Flyers, I had to get quotes from a few players  about summer hobbies for THN's Fully Loaded, a hockey lifestyle magazine that comes out a few times a year. I was able to talk to Brian Boucher, Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell while I tried heard not to let my admiration for these guys show.

It is a strange feeling to go from shouting my lungs out as an anonymous voice in a crowd of 18,000 to saying "Hey Brian, can I talk to you for just a minute?" Asking the same of Hartnell and having him respond "You have a minute, 30 seconds" because he was in a rush, but still answering my off-topic questions was another eye-opening experience. Talking to these guys I grew up cheering for and getting to know them, even in the slightest and just for story, on a first-name basis is just a small part of why this is the greatest internship and will be the greatest job imaginable.

*Please note there is some serious sarcasm at the end of this sentence. 

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