Here we go again. I’m in a bind and have to make a decision. Quickly.
Remember a few weeks ago in this space when I whined that the National Football League put me in a pickle by scheduling my beloved New York Jets to come out here and play the Raiders the same November weekend that my beloved son was getting married in Mexico to my new, beloved daughter-in-law to be and I had to make a difficult, beloved decision on which to attend?
Well, I’m in a similar quandary right now with very little time to figure out what to do.
I’m old but not old enough to have had a seat at the table in Montreal in 1875 when the founding fathers penned the rules for the new sport of ice hockey. I do know the game was configured to be contested on the frozen ponds of Canada and the northern frigid outposts of the United States. Twenty-five years later, 1900, the amateur sport went professional and the National Hockey League was born. When Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General of Canada, donated a trophy, cup shaped, signifying ice hockey excellence I’m pretty sure he never envisioned that award being presented in the shadows of the Everglades or in the Mohave desert.
But here we are. The Stanley Cup Finals. The Florida Panthers and the Vegas Golden Knights. A cold night in hell for the games’ pioneers. That’s my adopted Vegas Golden Knights, playing for all the riches in a sport that I fell in love with over 60 years ago.
The Knights in the Cup finals is a very good until you factor our scheduled departure tomorrow to visit Israel, one of those things much like taking up pickleball, about which nobody says a disparaging word.
However, let’s skate backwards for a minute. Hockey and me are no strangers. I saw my first hockey game in the fall of 1962, I was ten, when Dad took me to the old Long Island Arena in Commack, New York, a wooden barn-like, cold-as-all get-out, structure that sat 3,000, to see the home team called the Long Island Ducks against the despicable New Haven Blades. They played hockey for about four, five minutes and brawled the rest of the night. Those days, in the lower minor leagues, there was no such thing as plexiglass. Too expensive on a minimal budget. Instead, chicken wire separated the fans sitting behind the goals from getting bloodied by flying pucks. If you sat on the sides of the rink there was no glass nor chicken wire partitions. For $4.00 you took your chances getting hit with a players stick or most likely an errant punch. It was the Eastern Hockey League, the prototype for Slapshot. All the teams in the EHL played like the mythical Charlestown Chiefs and the Hanson brothers. I was smitten.
That same year I became a New York Rangers fan in the NHL and loved traveling into NYC to the old, smokey Madison Square Garden watching games from the upper balcony where the angle was so steep you couldn’t see a third of the ice. I remained a Rangers fan for the next 55 years. The way the Rangers played most seasons it was a bonus not being able to see the entire rink.
When I went to college in Miami in 1970, there was no such thing as hockey in the South. In fact in the spring of my freshman year, 1971, Montreal played Chicago for the Stanley Cup. CBS broadcast the Cup Finals but the local Miami affiliate determined there was so little interest in hockey in South Florida they preempted the deciding seventh game with a movie—The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean or some such nonsense. I was 19 and incensed. I rallied up some of the boys in the dorm and on the morning of Game Seven we went down to the station and staged a boycott. About five or six of us walked around with such innovative signs as “Puck You, Channel 4” and “Don’t Ice Hockey.” Not too long after our picketing started, and before the local newspapers could get wind of it, the station manager came out and offered us a private showing that night if we agreed to get off the street. Montreal beat Chicago 3-2 and we were the only ones in Dade County to see it. A year or so later, 1972, the expansion World Hockey Association thought there might be a hockey future in South Florida after all and awarded the area a franchise in a league that wanted to challenge the NHL. The Miami Screaming Eagles were hatched. The upstart league tossed around big bucks to stars of the NHL. Miami signed goalie Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers and Derek Sanderson of the Boston Bruins. The Miami owner, Herb Martin, took a liking to me based on a story I wrote about the ‘Eagles for the Miami campus newspaper, The Hurricane. I would be their publicity director when the season started. The new arena, Executive Square Garden, erected two walls before the county declared they were in violation of zoning laws and permits that couldn’t be mended. The franchise soon ran out of money. The team folded before it even started. The league moved the Screaming Eagles to Philadelphia where they became the Blazers. I stayed in school. Two decades later the National Hockey League gave birth to the Florida Panthers. Thirty years later, this week, they are in their second Cup Finals. This time all the games will be televised in South Florida. No picketing necessary.
Ultimately, my career took me around the country but I never lost my lust for hockey. Somehow I became the color commentator for cable broadcasts of our home team, the Dubuque Fighting Saints, when I lived in Iowa. When Andi and I landed in Wichita, Kansas in 1991, the city got a minor league team that same year called the Wichita Thunder. They were part of the new Central Hockey League, almost as rag-tag as the old EHL. I’m convinced nobody in Wichita knew more about hockey than me. I befriended the team’s general manager on the golf course. The Thunder began that first season, 1991-92, playing in front of crowds in excess of 8,000 who didn’t know icing from an icicle or why there wasn’t a five yard penalty for offside. They didn’t care. What they loved was the rock-‘em, sock-‘em style of play the league encouraged to sell tickets and in Wichita, they sold plenty of them.
The team decided to try and ingratiate itself with the local media by having different radio personalities become the public address announcers for each home game. These cats may have known how to spin an Aerosmith record but had no idea the difference between a cross check, body check, bounced check or the Czech Republic. It drove me, the self-admitted most educated hockey fan in Wichita, batty. After constant bitching to the GM, he finally said “If you think you can do better, just say so.”
I did. My first game as Thunder PA announcer was January 26, 1992, a few hours before Washington beat Buffalo 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI. My last behind the mike was seven years later on March 31, 1999. I had a blast. I got paid $25 a game, never a dime more; I would have paid that much, even a dime more, to have done it. We educated mid-Kansas hockey fans into a breed that could speak with knowledge and credibility about the sport. We also, I’m convinced, were the first at any level to bellow the p-o-w-e-r -p-l-a-y chant which has now become common throughout all arenas. In a fighting laden league, sometimes recapping the penalty minutes for the crowd was longer than a 60 Minutes segment. Anything and everything happened in those seven-plus years at the mike but by far the strangest was a brawl that broke out during an overtime shoot-out. Never saw that one before nor again.
A hockey-barren 20 years in Birmingham, Alabama had me looking forward to our move to Las Vegas in 2018, where an NHL expansion franchise moved in for the 2017-18 season. I was the only Golden Knights season ticket holder in the state of Alabama. In fact, we bought our house about 18 months before we moved to Vegas and one of the Knights rented it from us. Vegas flipped the tag of lowly expansion team upside down and played for the Stanley Cup that very first year. Even though they lost in five games to Washington, hockey grew up quickly in the desert and the game caught on faster than a good run at the dice table.
Six years later the Knights are back again, this time seeking to win their first Cup against those Florida Panthers. Through our five years here, I’ve maintained and actually grown my hockey affinity and go to 20-25 games a season of the 41 Vegas homes dates.
Now comes the rub. As a New York Rangers fan for half a century, runs to the Stanley Cup Finals for your favorite team don’t happen every season. In fact, in my lifetime the Rangers have only won the Cup once. Now, a converted Knights fan, it’s on my doorstep and I’m scheduled to leave the country. I did get to go to Game One last night, a convincing 5 -2 Vegas win made even sweeter for anyone that had over 5.5 goals scored in the game. The not-so- good-news is we’ll be gone for the next five games only to return if there is a Game Seven on the Strip.
Funny, but when we booked this trip to Israel eight or nine months ago, I looked at the NHL schedule and knew it would be the same time as the Finals. I figured who cares if Boston is playing Colorado? Didn’t matter to me. And despite the Golden Knights being good, really good, I never believed they would advance this far primarily because they entered the playoffs with their third string goaltender. He got hurt a couple of weeks ago, so with the fourth stringer in the net, I knew they’d be eliminated and a conflict wasn’t going to happen. That’s what makes me such a top notch sports prognosticator.
So, as 80 of us from Jewish Nevada, our state’s Jewish Federation, wing our way to Tel Aviv on Monday we leave the Stanley Cup games behind. And if I hear another word about unrest and violence in Israel, I maintain it’s a lot safer than a supermarket in Buffalo, New York; a shopping mall in Allen, Texas or last weekend in Chicago when 41 people were shot with 11 dead.
In the meantime, I’m told by trip organizers they have located an American sports bar, Mike’s, that agreed to stay open and show the Cups games for a travel contingent heavy with devout Knights fans. That’s the good news. The not so good news is the puck drops in Israel at 3 am. That’s early for even me.
With 24 hours before our departing flight, it’s crunch time. While I haven’t yet made a decision about the November wedding in Mexico, Andi is pushing for us to go to Israel.
Do I stay in Vegas for the Stanley Cup games or go to Jerusalem to sip out of the kiddish cup on Shabbat?
I’m still not sure what I’ll do but I do know, either way, my cups have runneth over.