Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On the Road: Shamu and 'the Minnow'

On the road with WRT in Chicago for our seventh annual trip to the United Center, as giant whale and small defenseman combine as Wild beat Hawks

As Minnesota Wild road trips go, it was probably the easiest one around. Our seventh annual road trip to Chicago's United Center, as both the Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks played the last game prior to the NHL All-Star break.

We start at MSP Airport's Terminal 2 (nee-Humphrey Terminal) where we were about to board our Southwest Airlines flight to Chicago Midway Airport. The flight was no where near full (a rarity for Southwest), where even their 'DING' application never features the Twin Cities, when they call for last-minute fare specials.

As we begin to line up (by number; remember, Southwest boards by group and boarding number, not by row and seat) I look over and see our 737-700 aircraft, and it is none other than the Sea World-sponsored 'Shamu' aircraft, one of a phalanx of special planes in Southwest's over-600 aircraft fleet, painted for a specific attraction or state. Inside, 1/3rd of the overhead luggage bins feature a very large and famous whale, on the outside of the bin.

Our flight takes off nearly 20 minutes late (late arrival from Chicago) but some deft traffic control gets us into the gate (B-1, next to all the goodies) only 5 minutes late at 2:10 PM. Walking thru the airport en route to the Orange Line 'L' train to the Chicago Loop, we (wife and I) are feeling good about everything...but the game itself. We are hoping for the game not to get blown out by the high-flying (at least until this season) Hawks, who are also in the fight for the last four playoff spots in the Western Conference.

My wife has an idea to get some real, honest-to-God Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, and then meet us at our North Michigan Avenue hotel. So, I agree to go on to the hotel, with not only my bag, but hers as well, hers being lighter than mine due to no netbook, no C-PAP machine (I use it in order to sleep), and very little clothing (I think I had more than she did).

I check in, go up to our 20th-floor room, and barely get in the door when I'm asked by my wife to come down and get the pizza, while she goes a couple doors over to get beverages at a local Walgreens store (and before you ask; yes, CVS Pharmacy is right across the street).

We stay at this hotel (which she stayed at earlier in the fall when she took relatives to Chicago) because she wants to, the price was right ($81/night) and the fact that I need to do something to change my Chicago luck. (We've seen two losses in the last three games at the United Center).

And, across the street, is none other than the Blackhawks team store! (A definite plus.) A quick trip across the street yields two T-shirts, one long sleeve, with all four Blackhawk logos in team history; and the other one short sleeve, named 'the Failed Nine', with the logos of the nine NHL franchises which have folded in the modern era (that's post-World-War-II, for you young whipper-snappers out there in the blogosphere).

Anyhow, after my foray across the street, we get to game time, and the CTA #19 United Center Express bus. Now, despite the bus sign saying 'Go Bulls', we board and eventually we pick up a fairly good load (and one drunk asshole, who we let off at Wacker Drive). The bus seems to take forever, as the streets are, of course, full as it is the tail end of the afternoon rush hour. We get off in front of the cavernous arena and enter at 6:45 PM, 45 minutes before first puck drop.

We find our club-level seats, next to the TV camera pavilion, and see that no less than 6 cameras are working this nationally-cablecast game (Versus, TSN2) while the Hawks' fans are in full party mode as they settle in for the evening. At least, until the national anthem is sung. Then, the Hawks' fans go absolutely crazy, as Jim Corneilson belts out a wonderful rendition, nearly drowned out by the cheers of 21,247 UC patrons as his mother, an 88-year-old WAC member from WWII, stood next to her son. She had never heard her son sing the song, which he has become famous in the hockey world for, before last night.

After that, how could the young and still speedy Hawks not come out like gangbusters? But, after Martin Havlat's laser-shot goal opened the scoring, the Wild managed to survive the rest of a first period where Corey Crawford, Hawks' goaltender, looked like he had the night off, and was watching a game played on a half-rink. Two goals scored in the first (by Patrick Sharp and Troy Brower) by the Hawks and the Wild fans in the arena were wondering what was coming next.

What was coming next was 'the Minnow'... and no, we're not talking about the ship featured in the 60's TV series, 'Gilligan's Island', either. We are talking about the Wild's diminutive blue line find, Jared Spurgeon, he of the continuing to impress Wild brass, into a full-time NHL job. Currently playing for the injured Marco Scandella, it will be a very tough decision to send this kid back to AHL Houston, when the somewhat banged-up Wild returns to full health later next month. Spurgeon played against the speedy Hawks like an old vet, not taking chances with the puck, skating it out of the defensive zone when necessary, clogging lanes, you name it, he did it.

With the defensive side holding its' own (and Niklas Backstrom turning in another stand-on-his-head performance: the save on Brower in the first, after Backstrom was forced to slide across the crease on his belly in order to reach the puck, is a 'must-see') it was time for the offense to assert itself, much to the dismay of the big UC crowd, as Chuck Kobasew first found twine out of a Spurgeon shot (Spurgeon's first NHL point, BTW) and then with 3:47 left in the stanza, Antti Miettinen deflected Andrew Brunette's wrister from the boards, to make it 3-2 for 'the good guys', as White Sox announcer Ken 'Hawk' Harrelson would say.

The third period was a lot like the second, as the Wild took the game to the Hawks, especially after Pierre-Marc Bouchard's wrap-around goal made the score 4-2, up to the end, save for one spot when a Jonathan Towes shot was blown dead when referee Stephane Auger, with whom the Wild have had a few run-ins with previously, lost sight of the puck. Since the referee lost sight of the puck, it is NOT, by definition, a reviewable decision by the Toronto 'war room', the decision stood, despite a vehemous protest by Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, and the game played out, to the Wild's good fortune.

Post-game, we make our way thru the sullen crowd to a line of four CTA 'big bend' buses, ready to take passengers back into the Loop. One big difference than normal, though; normally, there is a steady line of people waiting to get on the buses in order to get onto trains going home. Not last night. A lot of them bailed out on the Hawks after Bouchard's goal, leaving the rest of the crowd to see the finish, of what was a very competitive hockey game. We board, find seats, and watch as the usual crush-load of Hawks fans get aboard. This is a very quiet bus (for once) as we make our way past Oprah's Harpo Studios, down Washington and towards the railroad stations, Ogilvie and Union, and the Loop.

We get dropped off directly across the street from our hotel, and we end the night, happy and feeling that it was definitely well worth the effort, to go to the Windy City for a night of really good puck. All in all, it was an effort well worth doing, even though the trip home was uneventful (despite an absolutely full flight). I wish all trips were like this.

Maybe the next one (Feb. 5, at Phoenix) will be as successful. Who knows...?

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