I have a confession to make.
I’ve been writing about hockey history, hockey coaches, and hockey general managers for years but I’ve never had the nerve to admit until, now, that I’ve never attended a single, solitary NHL game in my entire lifetime until last night when I watched my Philadelphia Flyers take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
I have watched innumerable games on the TV but never took the plunge to see a live game in the flesh.
It was a spur of the moment decision. I had just gotten paid last Friday and felt flush with money. I had the day off on March 27 and some earlier plans I had made for that early evening had fallen through so, at a loss, I decided to buy a ticket for the Flyers game. At a cost of $141 I had a seat in Section 103, Row 8, and Seat 11.
I went to the game wondering what the experience would be like. What I encountered was rather unique for me. The attendance was substantial but not a sell-out. I saw that members of Leaf’s Nation were numerous and clustered around the visitor’s tunnel. The sights and sounds of the Wells Fargo Center were quite overwhelming. I wondered if the old Original Six arenas: the Forum, the Boston Gardens, the Olympia featured the same cacophonies of sound as the Wells Fargo Center did?
As I sat in my seat contemplating the maelstrom of sound I remembered an interview I did with Dick Irvin Jr. where he discussed the old arenas. He told me that he didn’t care for the new arenas of today because (unlike the old ones) they all have the same dimensions; the same ads on the walls; the same Jumbotrons; the same background music. He told me that when he spoke to players of today they always say every arena looks and feels the same except for their home arenas because at least there they cheer you.
When the players warmed I noticed that several of the Flyers players liked to warm up without their helmets while the Leafs players all wore theirs.
I was struck by the coziness and intimacy of being close to the ice. I was only 15-20 feet away from the boards (I can’t imagine what it feels like to be seated right there in front of the boards). I could see the players quite clearly and I wondered to myself what it must of have felt like seeing Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Wayne Gretzky so up close and personal in the old days?
When the game began I was struck by the transition from a riot of sound to a low murmur. I wasn’t expecting this. I thought the crowd noise would increase but actually when play begins the crowd noise goes down to low murmur and only rises when a shot on goal is made or a goal is scored or a big hit is delivered. You try to catch the action but from my seat there were dead spots where I had to rely on the Jumbotron to follow the action—a lesson to be learned for future reference.
The Leafs roared out to two early goals although the Flyers had more scoring chances in the first period. As the first period continued Toronto was able to blunt the Flyers offensive rushes in the neutral zone. There were precious few penalties in the game (Leafs coach Mike Babcock continues to emphasize on-ice discipline with his teams therefore I wasn’t surprised).
In the second period the Flyers retaliated with three goals.
During the two intermissions I found myself enjoying the camaraderie and communion of being with other hockey fans on both sides of the fence. I remember talking with a Leafs fans about whether Mike Babcock will remain at the helm of the Leafs (the Leafs fan though Babcock was going to get fired). I remember talking to two Flyers fans about whether the Flyers were going to hire a new coach and drastically revamp the roster. But mostly we all shared in the great experience of watching NHL hockey.
I was digging it all the while.
When the third period began the Leafs tied the game at three with Auston Matthews doing what he does best: score and create points. The Flyers regained the lead but with 9:27 left in the game Auston Matthews set up William Nylander for the game-tying goal.
It was here that Flyers rookie goal-tender Carter Hart proved his worth his stride guarding the nets. I found myself watching himself intently. As the seconds passed Hart gained more and more strength. Like Gerry Cheevers he might allow the Leafs to score but he wasn’t going to let them score the goal that really mattered—the game winning goal.
All through all five minutes of overtime and the shoot-out Carter Hart stopped Toronto cold while Sean Couturier sent everyone to bed with the game-winning goal.
As I exited the Wells Fargo Center in the early spring chill of the night and made the long march to my car parked several blocks away I felt a delicious warmth inside of me despite the external coldness.
I had spent a lot of money to see my Flyers and it was money well-spent. Even though the Flyers won a meaningless game it was still great to see them. I felt like I had been a lucky charm for the team (I wonder if the other fans (19205 of them) who attended felt the same?
As I got into my car and turned the heat on I knew deep down inside that I would be seeing more hockey games in the years to come.
History will be made.