Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Berger Fix on All Things Leafs

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

IT WAS CERTAINLY A PLEASURE to be back in an authentic hockey atmosphere yesterday, as the Maple Leafs began their 2005 training camp with physicals and fitness testing. The Ricoh Coliseum, on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, is the main site of Leafs’ camp, and will serve as home ice for the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies this season, the club having re-located from its long-time base in St. John’s, Nfld. – one of the friendliest places on earth.

I only had two opportunities to visit St. John’s. I was scheduled to fly there on September 11th, 2001, as the Leafs were to hold their training camp at the new Mile One Stadium. But, everyone’s travel plans were obviously canceled on that horrific day, and I finally made it out the following weekend, once North American airspace had been re-opened to commercial traffic. The Leafs spent two days in the Maritime city – playing their Blue-White intrasquad game, then an exhibition match against Montreal in the handsome new arena. And the wonderful hockey fans of Newfoundland welcomed all of the tardy visitors from Toronto with open arms.

I’ll not soon forget walking into the Delta St. John’s hotel and seeing the hundreds of stranded air travelers camped out on the floor of the main lobby. Moments after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, airliners bound for Europe from both Canada and the U.S. were turned back over the Atlantic, and instructed to land in St. John’s – the home of legendary Hockey Night in Canada voice Bob Cole. Thousands of travelers had nowhere to go for four days, and the city did not have nearly enough hotel rooms to accommodate them all. So, the hotel proprietors gathered blankets, pillows and towels and invited the stranded people to carve out a spot in their lobbies and meeting rooms, while offering food and drink for free. A spirit of friendship and togetherness compensated for the horror everyone was feeling, and St. John’s – with its tranquil setting and picturesque harbor – was the perfect first place for any person to visit after the terrorist attacks.

It’s unfortunate that the Leafs had to depart the city, but it really did not make economic sense to remain there after the other Maritime-based teams in the AHL had moved elsewhere. The NHL club did leave behind a legacy, however, in Mile One Stadium – so named because it’s located on the very street where the eastern-most part of Canada begins. And the genuine people of St. John’s left an indelible mark on the Leaf organization for their many years of warmth and enthusiasm. It ensured that Toronto and St. John’s will always be connected, and I’m hoping the Leafs will see fit to return there and play exhibition games once every few years. It’s a sporting marriage that deserves not to be forgotten.



THOUGH HE SEEMED A TRIFLE uncomfortable, Eric Lindros walked straight into the hornet’s nest yesterday, knowing full well that an enormous scrum of reporters was going to ask him the customary first question about his concussion history. We’re all sure that the Big “E” is sick and tired of talking about the recurring ailment, but he’s intelligent enough to know that choosing to sign with the Leafs was going to bring about personal scrutiny the likes of which he did not encounter in New York.

What Eric has to do is relax and understand that the overwhelming majority of people following the Leafs are rooting for him to enjoy a season devoid of health issues. And that includes reporters who questioned the hockey club for signing him. I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it: If Lindros and Jason Allison can somehow escape the injury bugaboo this season, Maple Leaf fans will quickly forget Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. And that’s not meant as any disrespect for the former Leafs, who are both top-notch pros. But Lindros and Allison are multi-talented players, and both are young enough to perform at an optimum level… if their bodies will allow it.



WITH THE ADDITIONS OF Lindros, Allison, Jeff O’Neill, Mariusz Czerkawski and, perhaps, Steve Thomas, the Leafs are going to look dramatically different up front. As such, it will be intriguing to see the various line combinations that coach Pat Quinn deploys between now and the start of the regular season, Oct. 5th. Events are going to unfold in a hurry at Leaf camp. Daily scrimmages began this morning at Ricoh Coliseum. The club’s Blue-White intrasquad game is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and the Ottawa Senators visit the Air Canada Centre on Sunday night to begin an exhibition schedule that will see the Leafs play eight games in 14 nights in five different cities.

If Thomas can make the team, Quinn will have eight experienced, proven forwards at his disposal: Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Lindros, O’Neill, Allison, Czerkawski and Thomas. With a few breaks in the injury department – and good performances throughout – it would give the Leafs a pair of consistent scoring units, and allow them to line up pretty much the same as in previous years… top heavy, but with depth a potential issue for a coach that likes to roll four units. It would also limit the responsibilities of Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who have yet to prove they can be heavily relied upon. And, it would all but eliminate part-time players like Clarke Wilm and Chad Kilger, who loomed as regulars earlier in the summer. Once again, this is a best-case scenario, and not one that many Leaf observers are expecting.



FINALLY, AN ALERT E-MAILER wrote to remind me that the Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought is closing in on a significant overlap. If the club fails to win the mug again next spring, it will be 39 years since the last championship, in 1967. And 39 years prior to ‘67 was the year 1928 – only one season after Conn Smythe purchased the Toronto St. Pats and re-named them the Maple Leafs.

Then again, perhaps this friendly e-mailer simply has too much time on his hands.

E-mail this friendly chap (as all Internet chat-room folks will attest) at howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Berger Fix on Maple Leafs Training Camp

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

CONSIDERING THE MAPLE LEAFS were in a state of paralysis during the height of the free agent scramble this summer, general manager John Ferguson has done a decent job of playing catch-up.

The process evolved in stages for Ferguson, and it began with astonishing incapacity after the club failed to position itself, financially, for the cream of the free agent crop. Part of that failure involved choice, as the Leafs, like most other teams, decided not to add salary by executing buy-outs of current players that would not count against the cap. While competitors eagerly scooped up front-line talent such as Peter Forsberg, Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Gonchar, Adam Foote, Brian Leetch and others, Ferguson stood by – allegedly dreaming about next year – which has long been a pastime for fans of the Blue and White.

His first true order of business involved a decision to negotiate with and retain role players Wade Belak, Chad Kilger, Clarke Wilm, Karel Pilar, Aki Berg, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky – and it remains to be seen whether it was worth committing a nickel of cap space to any of the aforementioned. Then, it came time to recoup the losses of his veterans from the 2003-04 season – forwards Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alexander Mogilny, Owen Nolan, Robert Reichel, Tom Fitzgerald, Ron Francis, Mikael Renberg, and defenseman Leetch. Winger Jeff O’Neill was acquired from Carolina at the NHL draft in Ottawa for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2006. Tie Domi was retained as an unrestricted free agent moments before he would have defected to Pittsburgh. Jason Allison came aboard with an incentive-laden contract after missing a season-and-a-half with a severe neck injury. Steady defenseman Alexander Khavanov joined the club from St. Louis, where Ferguson had been second-in-command to GM Larry Pleau. And, the long-awaited arrival of Eric Lindros in Toronto capped off Ferguson’s initial foray into the second tier of free agency.

The final order of business involved the third-year GM looking at his roster, recognizing the number of unproductive and/or unproven players he was foisting on Coach Pat Quinn, and then negotiating with older, established pros. Winger Mariucz Czerkawski and defenseman Brad Brown were signed to contracts, while a pair of former Leafs – defenseman Bryan Marchment and winger Steve Thomas – accepted invitations as non-roster players. Both veterans will battle hard in camp to earn a spot on the club.

There are two ways to consider the Leafs’ line-up, as camp begins. The first – and most popular, it seems – is to zero in on the club’s potential for an injury epidemic. O’Neill, Allison, Lindros, and incumbent goalie Ed Belfour all come in with significant health concerns, based on a plethora of recent ailments. Captain Mats Sundin incurred a dreadful hip-muscle injury in the 2004 playoffs, and he isn’t a spring chicken anymore at age 34. All five claim to be feeling absolutely well and there is no particular cause for anxiety at the moment. It seems, however, that most Leaf watchers will have a clock on these players as the season begins, fearing that it’s just a matter of time before they are sidelined once again.

The second way to view the situation is to believe that the injury-prone are due for a bit of luck, and may have benefited from the rest they enjoyed during the canceled NHL season. It seems plausible that if Belfour, Sundin, Lindros, Allison and O’Neill can stay healthy for the bulk of the schedule, the Leafs will have a strong-enough nucleus to again battle for a solid playoff position. That scenario brightens even further if Czerkawski can score at least 25 goals, if Antropov and Ponikarovsky finally become reliable, productive NHLers, and if Thomas can make the team, contribute on the powerplay, and pop 15 to 20 goals (he had 10 in half-a-season with Detroit two years ago). A more unexpected bonus would see highly touted rookie Alexander Steen stick with the club and chip in offensively.

What I’ve documented here are the Maple Leafs’ best and worse-case scenarios. Chances are the season will be neither a disaster, nor a rousing success. Like in most years, players who are counted on for production will fail to match expectations, while others looked upon less favorably will deliver strong performances. Those who subscribe to the theory that the Leafs cannot possibly avoid an injury plague may have a leg up on the more optimistic observers. Why? Because the 82-game NHL season is not conducive to even a reasonable level of body maintenance.

Teams play three and four games a week, and the schedule this season is condensed even further by the 18-day hiatus in February for the Winter Olympics. Young players with no history of injury require some fortune to last the entire season. Older players, more prone to being hurt, need the luck of a sweepstakes winner to survive. And, we all know which category of performer dominates the Leafs’ roster.

But, the long, fateful journey begins today with the start of training camp – a commencement that seems a bit more jovial after the lockout calamity.



IN THE CATEGORY OF “meaningless statistics”, few rank lower than the one the Maple Leafs have been trotting out for much of the past decade. There it was again today, in the Toronto Star… that the Leafs are tied with Detroit, having won seven playoff series in the past six seasons – a number that ranks in the top four in the NHL While it’s unquestionably an achievement to win any playoff round, this type of consolation figure typifies the long-standing attitude of the hockey club and much of its fan-base. It’s a rather unique formula: A couple of playoff rounds + optimism for the following season = satisfaction. Nowhere in the equation is the Stanley Cup a factor.

The Leafs “budget” for two playoff rounds each spring, which is sensible from a business standpoint, as the team rakes in an enormous profit at a time when salaries are no longer being paid. It has also long been established that a reasonable playoff run is more than enough to appease the club’s followers. But, it doesn’t justify any person mentioning the Leafs in the same breath as the Red Wings, who have appeared in four Stanley Cup Finals since 1995 and have won three championships.



ONE FINAL OBSERVATION on the Maple Leaf-related Internet chat rooms. And, sadly, it’s a telling one. After my critical look at the message boards on Thursday, I was swamped with e-mails – the vast majority of them from chat-room participants. A common thread; almost a plea, in fact, from these people was that they enjoy corresponding with their fellow Leaf fans in a sensible, intelligent manner, only to have that enjoyment sapped by a preponderance of buffoons. The difference between these elements is obvious upon viewing the boards, and the latter component substantially outweighs the former.

Several of these e-mailers implied that a higher standard of moderation could serve to weed out many of the undesirables, and I whole-heartedly agreed. Each of the sites appears to have specific contributors who oversee the content – clearly, a difficult and thankless task, given what they’re up against. But, an essential job, nonetheless. It was my automatic assumption that these moderators were people who stood “above the crowd”, so to speak; were the leaders of the site, and set an example for others to follow. Then, I was directed by another e-mailer to an astounding submission on the board known as Fanhome, or Scout.com. And, my slim hopes were dashed.

Under a heading entitled “Nick Kypreos… how bright is this guy?” (One can only imagine the intellect of the chap posing the question) came a reply, on Saturday, at 3:50 in the afternoon, from someone who calls himself “Number 17”. Incredibly, the word “Moderator” appeared under the person’s alias. And the message – from one of the supposed overseers of the site – read: “Every time I happen to see him (Kypreos) on Sportsnet, I can’t help but to feel bad for guys like Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin who had to share the dressing room with this idiot.”

Unfortunately, that tells you much of what you need to know about these Internet boards. Though it’s unfair to paint everyone with the same brush, when the captains of the ship are hopeless, how can you expect anything from the deckhands? Oh yeah, Kypreos’s crime? He often criticizes his former team (the Maple Leafs) as an analyst for one of Canada’s all-sports-TV networks. No “bright” person would ever engage in that sort of iniquity.

E-mail address is howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Another Berger Fix on Internet Message Boards

UPON FURTHER REVIEW…

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

Alright, you Maple Leaf message-board junkies: You’ve brought me to my knees. I thought I’d never receive anywhere close to the number of e-mails I got after the columns I wrote back in August on the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore saga. But, you folks have annihilated that figure. On Thursday and Friday, I had more than 750 messages on my personal e-mail. Combine that with the various chat-site threads on the subject, and there must have been 3,000 bits of discussion. Obviously, this is more of a cottage industry than I imagined, and it prompted me to take a closer look at the phenomenon.

But, I continue to have some questions, so bear with me. While my column was undoubtedly critical of the message-board concept (for reasons that have been documented and debated in the past 48 hours), why is it that those of you on the chat-sites, in particular, chose to completely overlook whatever balance I tried to interject? Though you were wildly protective of the concept, there was virtually no mention of me writing:

“WHILE THERE IS A LEVEL OF SOPHISTICATION TO SOME OF THE COMMENTARY AND DEBATE, it is practically obliterated by people who have nothing remotely intelligent to offer…” The first half of that sentence was all but completely ignored; the second half, targeted.

The reason I ask is this: So many of the e-mails I received (and even some of the Internet debates) were from people who freely admit that they spend countless hours corresponding on the message boards and trying to submit sensible, well-reasoned arguments. Some even informed me of their aliases. But, they went on to emphasize how ashamed THEY are of being associated with the obvious lunatic fringe. It detracts from their enjoyment of participating, and they claim there is nothing they can do to prevent it.

I’ll say one thing; they’re bang on about the first part, and that’s where the argument I made about “lowest common denominator” comes in. Take a look at any of the sites and you’ll see it, even when a person submits a valid point of contention. In most cases, the subject is initially responded to in a reasonable fashion, but then disagreement occurs, which should be an integral part of the overall process. Ultimately, however, so many of the issues dissolve into a petty exchange of insults and (in many cases) profanity.

Perhaps I’m taking the whole thing too seriously, or according it too much credit. But, I’ll admit it does have possibilities – as does any forum for debate. Can you imagine, though, what would happen if a group of subjects on Larry King’s nightly CNN show began calling one another school-yard names? Then, holding up photographs of each other with horns painted atop their heads? I laughed myself silly when I noticed that one of the message boards took my Fan-590 image and de-faced it. Particularly by affixing me with a Montreal Canadiens hat. That was cool. But, is it the image that most of you who contribute to these sites want to project? Certainly not based on the e-mails I’ve received. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I quickly sensed an undercurrent of pride among those who regularly participate. In fact, the “TMLFans” site appeared to have a thread that dealt with some form of contest among the various message boards.

Alongside the nonsense, I also took notice of a number of issues that were original, compelling, and worthy of a cosmopolitan-style debate. I even saw that many of you are rather enterprising – surfing sports news-sites all over the world to unearth hockey stories we may not be aware of in Toronto. That’s pretty good stuff. Why, then, don’t you take it among yourselves to try and weed out the nincompoops who smear the boards’ image and credibility? I realize it isn’t possible to eliminate these people; after all, just about everyone has access to the Internet. But, surely, there must be a way to dissuade the large number of contributors who couldn’t form an intelligent thought if their life was on the line – perhaps by refusing to acknowledge their drivel in any way, or deleting the threads altogether. Don’t these sites have moderators who rotate around the clock? That’s the way it’s been explained to me. Is it not an option to work with these people to try and maintain a better overall standard? I think it would make the message boards a great deal more attractive to those on the outside, who don’t actually participate.

Then there’s this doozy: A couple of wing-nuts suggested to me in e-mails that I secretly post items on these boards under my own alias. Now, THAT makes a lot of sense. Here, on this website, viewed by half-a-million people every day, I have an open forum in which I can state the strongest of my opinions – unedited – with my real name and affiliation… and I’m going to spend my time going underground on a message board? That’s not meant as a put-down of these chat sites; I think I’ve made it clear in the previous two paragraphs what I feel about the possibilities. But, it’s certainly not a forum that I require in order to get my message across. What shocks me is the fact that some of you claim there are legitimate members of the media who DO sign up under aliases and take pot-shots, with immunity, at their colleagues. That’s kind of sad. If the opportunity is there for you to reveal your true public identity before posting these critiques, why hide behind a moniker?

Others wonder why I wouldn’t openly debate my views with participants on the message boards. Well, you’ll find the answer two paragraphs above this one. First of all, you know who I am, and I have no idea who you are. So, again, there’s an accountability issue. I think I’ve made it clear that I have no real desire to argue with an alias. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of messages to my private e-mail site are light-years ahead in terms of sensibility and thoughtfulness. Even the most biting criticism is accompanied with a measure of reason and balance. And I find it far more enjoyable and productive to conduct business in that manner, rather than responding to: “Berger’s a tool, who has no right to hold his job. He can suck my ****. No wonder the players won’t talk to him. I never listen to the guy, or read anything he says.” Like many of you suggest, that level of commentary is out there, anyway. Why grace it with a response?

And, it has nothing to do with dodging bullets. No such thing is even remotely possible in a hockey-mad city like Toronto. When you’re in the public spotlight here, it is second-nature to place your neck in a guillotine. Hardly a day goes by when I’m not encouraged by my employers to vehemently state my opinions, and it has never taken much of a push on their part. Speaking out on the Maple Leafs, however, is a hazardous exercise that tends to impair one’s popularity. And that’s putting it mildly. We are constantly saying and writing things that others can store for future reference, and we do so with our familiar names and images. A thick layer of skin is a wonderful possession. I wish I had more of an opportunity in my radio role to spar and interact with Leaf fans, but hockey reporting is a ‘round the clock kind of job in T.O. That’s why we’ve got night-owls like my pal, Stormin’ Norman Rumack. But, you can bet I’ll probably drag my keester into the studio any number of times in the coming NHL season. And I’ll gladly take on any of you “horn painters”.

A couple of other things: Some of you post messages saying, “Don’t pay attention to Berger and these other media types, they’re just trying to draw a reaction.” Well… duh! I think next time I go to sleep at night, I’ll dream about how I can bore all of you to tears the following day with a flat, emotionless column on a topic you have absolutely no interest in.

Also, why is it that so many people take a prediction or opinion about the Maple Leafs, and condemn whoever is making it to a lifetime of “negativity” and “pessimism”? In my case, I have clearly stated that I think the Leafs will scramble for a playoff berth this season. I still feel that way, but not to the extent I did in early August. On the day Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk became Florida Panthers – thus joining Alex Mogilny, Owen Nolan and Brian Leetch among Leaf defectors – my cell phone rang at the airport in Las Vegas with a request to go on the air and react to the double-signing. It was obviously well before any of Eric Lindros, Jeff O’Neill, Jason Allison or Mariusz Czerkawski joined the Leafs, and I happened to suggest that the Toronto roster of that day wouldn’t “win 25 games in the coming season.” Looking back, I probably gave the club five wins too many. Even a “Leaf hater” like me can see the team is better today than it was back then. But, be honest… how many of you have e-mailed me in recent days, continuing to challenge my 25-win prediction? Brilliant!

I would also like to address those who claim that I “…pick the Leafs to miss the playoffs every year.” To refresh your alleged “memories”, I chose the club to do exceptionally well prior to both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, when Leaf teams were replete with scoring balance on the wings, and enough depth to carve out a solid place in the standings (though not to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup). And I made those points repeatedly. That’s why I was flabbergasted when the Leafs stumbled out of the gate with Ed Belfour in the first month of ’02-03. You might recall they went into a Friday/Saturday set in Dallas and St. Louis the second week of November with a 4-7-2 record… and with Leaf Nation in total panic-mode. When the club was completely unresponsive in dropping both ends of that weekend trip, I strongly vouched for Pat Quinn to dynamite the roster. Just blow it to smithereens. What I didn’t realize at the time (along with most everyone else) was that Belfour had habitually been a slow starter. None of us had seen much of him in the Western Conference during the previous years. And, Curtis Joseph had usually been a strong starter for the Leafs. When Eddie finally got his act together, the team fell in line and performed as many of us predicted it would.

Anyway, I hope I’ve addressed some of your concerns here. Allow me to apologize for using a couple of terms in my last two columns that were unprofessional. Things got a bit out of hand. Despite appearances, it is neither my prime objective in life to insult Maple Leaf fans, nor to turn you against me. The Leafs, in recent years, have given you more of a return for your unconditional loyalty… but, in my opinion, still, not enough. That’s where the word “delusional” sometimes creeps in. I believe hockey fans in our city are far too easy to appease. And, it works to the detriment of the team. But, it’s always perilous to offer a dissenting viewpoint. Trust me on that. As always, though, I invite any of you to personally e-mail me (howard.berger@rci.rogers.com) with your thoughts.

Training camp starts on Monday!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Arenas, Continued

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

In Part 3 of my look at NHL arenas, past and present, I offer my personal ratings of the 15 current facilities in the Eastern Conference. Ratings of Western Conference arenas will be done in late November, as I will make my first visit to Glendale Arena in Phoenix for a Nov. 20th game between the Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets. Glendale is the only NHL building I have not yet seen, and I hear it’s quite spectacular. These ratings are based on several elements – many of which relate to my personal experience as a reporter. Also taken into account are factors that you, as fans, might entertain… ambiance, aesthetics, parking, and the quality of the immediate neighborhoods in which the arenas reside. Keep in mind, as always, that these are subjective opinions which may not coincide with your own viewpoints. Feel free to offer any rebuttal – or concurrence – to howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.



1. MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: Though it’s the second-oldest arena in the NHL – opening in February, 1968 – there is still nothing quite like a visit to the historic home of the New York Rangers. While the Garden has been extensively renovated since 1990, to accommodate several clusters of private luxury suites, it still lacks the amenities of the newer arenas, and it has just about the worst sightlines of any building in North America. But, it’s still Madison Square Garden – site of so many legendary sporting events, including the first two boxing classics between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (March, 1971 and January, 1974). The main press box for hockey is in the most unique location of any arena. It sits directly above the corner Zamboni entrance, where the visiting team skates onto the ice. Comprised of four rows of tables, only the first two rows had been shielded by the corner glass, until the advent of protective netting three years ago. As such, it was rather hazardous for reporters sitting in the upper rows to take their eyes off the play for any length of time. Situated virtually at ice level, the sightlines from the box aren’t nearly as conventional as in the other press locations, but it is, by far, the best place to experience the sounds of the game and the speed of the action. The Garden is located a bit off the main path in Manhattan – several blocks directly west of the Empire State Building – but a 10-minute walk, north, takes you into the splendor of Times Square, with its flashing signs and lights, glitzy restaurants and high-rise hotels. New York is most definitely a city that never sleeps.

2. BELL CENTRE: I choose the Canadiens’ home rink as my second favorite, simply because there are few greater spectacles in hockey than a Saturday night visit to Montreal by the Toronto Maple Leafs. It seems not to matter where the teams are in the standings, or the time of season in which the game is played. Be it a “feeling-out” contest in mid-October, or a match with grave playoff implications in March, a Toronto-Montreal encounter is an event – the centerpiece of action that envelops an entire city core. Unlike downtown Toronto, where the main hotels are spread over a several-mile radius, the big hotels in Montreal are all within one block of each other, and within two blocks of the Bell Centre. Whether you’re staying at the Queen Elizabeth, the Marriott Chateau Champlain or Le Centre Sheraton, it’s virtually impossible to escape the hockey atmosphere on a Saturday. The hotel lobbies often overflow with Toronto rooters decked out in blue and white – many who make the trip with no hope of acquiring tickets to the game. They come merely to experience the festivity and excitement of hockey’s oldest rivalry. A Don Cherry sighting is enough to scramble the entire downtown area. And, good person that he is, “Grapes” (if cornered) will spend hours frolicking with hockey fans; signing autographs and posing for photos – usually with his familiar sidekick, Ron MacLean. The Bell Centre, itself, is a much-larger version of the old Montreal Forum – with more than 20,000 red, blue and white seats aligned in a very steep viewing angle to the ice. The press box is outstanding, as it extends almost directly over the players’ benches, with numerous portable televisions suspended in front of reporters covering the game. And the noise for a Saturday night Habs-Leafs match… well, it defies description, particularly if the visitors are prevailing. The emotional, partisan Montreal fans try to overwhelm the unusually boisterous Toronto rooters, who are much livelier and demonstrative than the stoic audiences at the Air Canada Centre. It truly is a hockey phenomenon worth experiencing for fans from both cities.

3. AIR CANADA CENTRE: My home stomping ground has quickly become a shrine for the countless die-hards who worship the Toronto Maple Leafs. When I was younger, I could never imagine the hockey club playing its games anywhere but in venerable Maple Leaf Gardens, even as the proliferation of new arenas made vacating the Gardens a virtual certainty. But, the Air Canada Centre has grown on me since it opened in February, 1999, and it’s become a virtual hang-out for hockey fans, whether or not the Leafs are in town. The team’s ownership has done a terrific job of creating hockey ambience in the immediate area of the building – suitably located, as it is, within the framework of Toronto’s Union Station… the hub of rail activity in southern Ontario. The arena provides top-notch sightlines and audio; the only complaint being that the sound system is cranked up beyond comfortable levels on most nights. Though the Leafs are careening through the second-longest Stanley Cup drought ever, there is ample evidence that the team did, in fact, win championships once upon a time. Eleven Stanley Cup banners, fashioned for the new building, hang from the rafters, along with streamers depicting many of the legendary performers in franchise history: Charlie Conacher, King Clancy, Johnny Bower, Tim Horton and Darryl Sittler among them. There’s even a large banner commemorating the 68-year history of Maple Leaf Gardens, with its “Memories and Dreams” motto emblazoned across the front. A personal drawback in the ACC is the press box. Though it’s location to the ice is splendid, the structure, itself, was an afterthought, as the building was originally blueprinted as a basketball-only facility. In the late-‘90s, the Leafs and the NBA Toronto Raptors were owned by rival entities, and were threatening to erect private arenas within stone’s-throwing distance of one another. When sanity eventually prevailed, construction of the ACC was well underway, and the new combined ownership chose to make it the Leafs’ future home as well. Since basketball-only arenas do not require large, overhead press locations, this one had to be hastily arranged, and it is far-less spacious than most others in the NHL. In fact, it’s extremely difficult for reporters to walk behind the chairs of those who are seated. A rotund individual has virtually no chance of migrating while the game is on. Otherwise, the ACC is a great building. Like the Gardens, however, the devoted fan-base is quiet and studious, depriving the arena of any robust-like atmosphere on most nights.

4. COREL CENTRE: It is all but impossible not to notice the home of the Ottawa Senators, simply because this arena stands virtually alone in the middle of the wilderness. Located in the city of Kanata – about 25 kilometers west of downtown Ottawa – the Corel Centre is a terrific building for hockey… if you can get there. It is accessible by only one major artery (Highway 417, The Queensway) and traffic extends for miles in each direction before and after Senators’ home games. Parking is in abundance, however, and once inside, the hockey atmosphere is intoxicating. Especially when the hated Maple Leafs are in town. Though the Leafs have rarely dominated any team in the past four decades, they have somehow run roughshod over the Senators, prevailing in all four playoff match-ups since 2000. Adding insult to the locals is the fact that the Ottawa teams have almost exclusively been superior, talent-wise, to the prevailing Toronto clubs. You’re likely not to hear venom spewed with such utter contempt anywhere on earth than on Ottawa’s all-sports radio station, The Team-1200, when callers are castigating the Blue and White. The Corel Centre is handsomely appointed, with excellent viewing positions from all angles. It is such a distance from Ottawa, however, that I find it worthwhile to stay in any of the fine, newer hotels in the Kanata area. A Holiday Inn Select property, about three kilometers east of the arena, is a particularly fine choice, located next to the Kanata Centrum – an enormous cluster of shopping boutiques, restaurants and movie theaters that is normally bustling with activity on game days.

5. MELLON ARENA: Okay, I’m sure you’re wondering if I might have been accidentally dumped on my head as a youth. Pittsburgh’s ancient “Igloo” is the oldest facility in the NHL (opened in 1961), and Penguins’ ownership – led by playing legend Mario Lemieux – is doing everything within its grasp to convince city fathers that a new, modern arena is desperately required for the hockey club. But, I kind of like the old one. The newer rinks clearly offer more amenities and revenue streams, but few of them have any hockey history. Mellon Arena – known until recently as the Pittsburgh Civic Arena – is the home of the 1991 and ’92 Stanley Cup champions, and was home to the Penguins when they first appeared – in the fall of 1967 – with powder-blue uniforms and the word “PITTSBURGH” sewn diagonally on the jersey. Players like Andy Bathgate, Les Binkley, Ab McDonald, Al MacNeil, Ken Schinkel and Leo Boivin skated in the arena on the original Penguins’ team. The building is referred to as the “Igloo” because that’s how it’s shaped – a silvery-white dome-like structure that sits on an incline two blocks east of the main downtown core. It is easily accessible from a number of the city’s premier hotels, including the City Center Marriott, which is across the street. Once inside, the contour of the arena is evident, and it’s very much like sitting in a giant dome with sections of rust-colored seats hanging off the walls. As in all the older arenas, viewing angles are exceptional. Like everywhere else, rock music accompanies each stoppage in the action, but – unlike Toronto – it’s played at decibels most humans can comfortably withstand. And the arena’s organ, with an old-time sound dating to the ‘70s, is frequently played to rouse the audience – more so than in other NHL buildings. Fans of the Maple Leafs have fond memories of Mellon Arena, recalling Garry Valk’s overtime goal in 1999 that eliminated the Penguins from a second-round playoff series.

6. PHILIPS ARENA: The home of the Atlanta Thrashers encompasses one of the most unique designs of any arena in North America. One side of the arena bowl is conventional, with lower seats, and a pair of balconies. The opposite side, however, looks like an apartment building. After 30 or so rows of seats rising from the ice, six tiers of private luxury boxes extend from goal line to goal line, one on top of the other. At the very top, is the press box for hockey – an extremely spacious area with comfortable rolling chairs. Until the Thrashers host either a Stanley Cup Final or an NHL All-Star Game (as they would have done in the canceled 2004-05 season), they will never fill the enormous press location. As such, reporters usually have ample room to spread out. Philips Arena is built on the site of Atlanta’s first NHL facility – The Omni – which was home to the Atlanta Flames from 1972-80. The franchise then re-located to Calgary. The Omni was used for volleyball during the 1996 summer Olympics, and was then demolished to pave way for the current structure, which is attached to the CNN Center – world headquarters for the cable giant. Many of my media colleagues dislike Atlanta, but I very much enjoy visiting the city, and staying at an Embassy Suites hotel in beautiful Centennial Olympic Park, adjacent to the CNN Center. The park had been a run-down cluster of dilapidated factories until it was re-furbished for the ’96 Olympics, though it gained notoriety during the Games as site of a bombing that killed two people and injured many others. Still, it’s a nice place to stroll during the day, surrounded by all the huge office and hotel towers of the downtown area. My fondest memories of Atlanta include covering my first-ever Olympics, and being on hand for the radio station at Fulton County Stadium (since demolished) when the Toronto Blue Jays won their first of consecutive World Series titles, in 1992.

7. NASSAU COLISEUM: They ought to call this place the “Stan Fischler Arena”, in honor of my good pal – the Hockey Maven – who often revels in telling tales about the New York Islanders’ Stanley Cup dynasty of the early-1980s. I can’t help but think of Stan whenever I check into a room at the Long Island Marriott, pull back the curtains, and look out at the Coliseum across the parking lot. That’s all there really is in Uniondale, N.Y. – a white, oval-shaped arena, and a large hotel. I’m sure there are some nice homes and parks in the area, as well, but the arena and hotel seem isolated from the rest of the world. I don’t mind it, however. The Marriott has probably the best food of any hotel on the NHL circuit. Conversely, the press room at the Coliseum has just about the worst. So, it’s no problem at all to eat a leisurely dinner at the hotel, and then walk over to the rink a half-hour before game time. Once inside the Coliseum, the Islanders’ rich heritage comes to life. The smallish building is unremarkable, with 16,000 dark-blue seats in tight confines and relatively few private boxes (it opened when the Islanders joined the NHL as an expansion team for the 1972-73 season). But, the rafters are teeming with reminders of the club’s four consecutive championships (1980-81-82-83) and the great people who made it happen. There are the Stanley Cup banners, of course, and individual banners for players whose jersey numbers have been retired by the team (Denis Potvin #5, Billy Smith #31, Mike Bossy #22, Bryan Trottier #19, Clarke Gillies #9, and Bob Nystrom #23). Also, a banner with a large black bow-tie to commemorate the Islanders’ architect – GM Bill Torrey – and his familiar attire. And a streamer recognizing the 739 career victories of legendary Islanders’ coach Al Arbour. Throughout the late-‘90s, when the team struggled, there were sparse crowds in the Coliseum. I can remember covering Leafs/Islanders games with not more than 4,000 people on hand. But, the club and its rooters came alive under new ownership in the 2001-02 season, and the wildest fans I’ve ever seen filled the building during the seven-game Toronto/Islanders playoff series that spring. Many of the fans at ice level were obnoxious and foul-mouthed – hurling profanities at the Leaf players during the rough-and-tumble set, but the atmosphere in the arena was electric, and the home team swept all three of its games. Unfortunately for the Isles, they couldn’t win on the road, losing four matches – and the series – at the Air Canada Centre.

8. WACHOVIA CENTER: At least, I think that’s what it’s still called. The home of the Philadelphia Flyers seems to have a different name every time I visit the city. It started as the CoreStates Center in 1996, and then became the First Union Center, before adopting its current title. Whatever the name, it is constantly filled to capacity with some of the NHL’s most vocal and enthusiastic fans – as was its predecessor across the parking lot, the Philadelphia Spectrum. The Flyers and Maple Leafs have met in three playoff series since 1999, providing yours truly with some terrific games to cover. Wachovia Center is part of the new sports complex in south Philly, which includes Lincoln Financial Field (home of the NFL Eagles) and Citizen’s Bank Park (home of the baseball Phillies). The Spectrum – miniscule by comparison – still stands across the street from the site of old Veterans Stadium, which was demolished in January, 2004, after serving as the Eagles’ and Phillies’ home field since 1971. With three sports facilities, the complex is replete with acres of parking, and is easily accessible, particularly from Philadelphia International Airport – just a short, 10-minute hop along Interstate-95. That’s why I usually stay at an airport hotel when the Leafs play there. Flyers’ fans are loud and boisterous. The Wachovia Center is big and brightly lit, with two levels of dark-red seats, and the press box is in a conventional location, up high, behind the penalty benches. I’ll long remember the Leafs’ first appearance at the CoreStates Center: Nov. 10th, 1996, a Sunday night. Earlier in the day, I’d bought a ticket to see the Eagles and Buffalo Bills play at Veterans Stadium. I then ventured across to the new arena and the Leafs/Flyers game ended with goalies Felix Potvin of Toronto and Ron Hextall of Philadelphia engaged in a wild donnybrook.

9. OFFICE DEPOT CENTER: The home of the Florida Panthers is the most beautiful arena in the NHL. Located in the city of Sunrise, about 20 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, this building can be seen for miles, because it practically borders the Florida Everglades. The alligator-infested swamp begins mere yards from the arena’s west façade, and across from the Everglades Parkway. On the opposite side of the arena stands one of America’s largest shopping centers, the Sawgrass Mills outlet mall. So, there’s plenty to do with a wad of cash on a night the Panthers are in town. The arena is surrounded by acres of parking, and numerous palm trees line the perimeter of the handsome building. Inside, one of the NHL’s largest arenas has four levels of seats that are mainly pine-green and mustard in color. The press box is roomy and efficient, but is quite a distance from the ice, given the building’s size. The crowds I’ve seen in the arena have been moderate, except for Leafs/Panthers games around Christmas or Spring Break, when thousands of travelers from the Toronto area inundate the building with their blue and white jerseys. I enjoyed attending the 2003 NHL All-Star Game at Office Depot Center – originally called the National Car Rental Center. There aren’t many hotels in the immediate area, and I usually stay in the city of Plantation, about 10 miles east of the arena.

10. R.B.C. CENTER: I’m hoping the Carolina Hurricanes rebound from the lost NHL season better than most are predicting they will, because I always enjoy my visits to the Raleigh-Durham area. North Carolina has a much different feel to it than any other location in the NHL. It’s more country than city, and the people I’ve met there are unfailingly polite and friendly. The arena is quite a distance from downtown Raleigh, located about a mile off the main highway: Interstate-40. It sits next to Carter-Finley Stadium, where the North Carolina State University football team plays its home games. One of the most unique sights in all of my years covering the NHL was the tail-gating that took place during the Hurricanes’ charge to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final. The R.B.C. Center (short for Royal Bank of Canada, the arena sponsor) is surrounded by acres of parking lots, and the weather was absolutely perfect in May and June of that year. The Maple Leafs played Carolina in the Eastern Conference Final, and I also covered the championship round between the Hurricanes and Detroit. Two hours before game time, thousands of hockey fans – decked out in their red Hurricanes’ jerseys – sat around cars and mini-tents, with barbecue grills going full blast. It was the same atmosphere as in stadium parking lots prior to NFL games. The R.B.C. Center seats are all scarlet-red – color of both the ‘Canes and the N.C. State Wolfpack, which plays its college basketball games there. As such, when hockey crowds are small, the empty seats stand out quite vividly. Though Raleigh is a mere one-hour and 20-minute flight from Toronto, the sports atmosphere is altogether different. NASCAR is monstrous in North Carolina, and it’s impossible for a visitor not to get caught up in the basketball rivalry between the three major universities in the area: N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke. Mostly, though, a visit to Raleigh is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable in the NHL.

11. ST. PETE TIMES FORUM: Site of the most recent Stanley Cup presentation, the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning is striking from the outside, with huge panes of glass covering the façade of the building. The arena is part of a waterfront redevelopment program at the south end of downtown Tampa that includes the Convention Center and a giant Marriott hotel. There is little else to do in the immediate area of the rink and, as such, the celebration following the Lightning’s 2004 Cup victory over Calgary was rather limited in scope. Most of Tampa’s nightlife occurs in the Ybor City district, east of downtown. The Westshore business district, close to Tampa International Airport, is also a hub of activity. The St. Pete Times Forum is sponsored by and named after the St. Petersburg Times newspaper – one of the two major broadsheets in the area, along with the Tampa Tribune. The arena had previously been called the Ice Palace. Inside, it is brightly illuminated, and the seating plan is almost identical to the HSBC Arena in Buffalo. All of the 19,758 chairs are blue, and all were filled with rabid hockey fans for the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run. It was a far cry from previous years, when the arena would be half-empty on most nights. Like in Sunrise, Fla., the crowds for Tampa/Toronto games swelled during holiday periods; in fact, the Leafs have played in Tampa around Spring Break practically every year. The press box is up behind the last row of balcony seats, allowing fans in the area to stand up, turn around, and watch TV replays. Wrestler Hulk Hogan is a staple at Lightning games, and his daughter, Brooke, sang the national anthems during the Tampa/Calgary Final. Staying at the adjacent Marriott during that series was enjoyable, as I had a balcony on the 22nd floor overlooking the arena and downtown buildings.

12. CONTINENTAL AIRLINES ARENA: The location of the main press box in this older NHL facility keeps it from ranking lower in my personal ratings. Other than the Air Canada Centre, this is the arena in which I’ve covered the most games during the past decade, as the New Jersey Devils have twice met the Leafs in the playoffs, and have won three Stanley Cup Finals, all of which I’ve attended. I also covered the Devils’ seven-game triumph over Ottawa in the 2003 Eastern Conference Final. The press box is carved out of the main seating area, directly at center ice, and roughly 20 rows behind the team benches. It’s an absolutely perfect spot, reminiscent of the old Philadelphia Spectrum. Also similar was the press location at America West Arena in Phoenix, where the Coyotes played until midway through the 2003-04 season. But, in that rink, fans were seated directly in front of the box, and would often stand and block our view of the action. Continental Airlines Arena is part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which includes Giants Stadium (home of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets) and a harness-racing track. It is located, famously, in the middle of an enormous swamp, and street planners for the neighboring cities of Rutherford and Secaucus must have been on LSD. Few places on Earth have a network of highways and side-streets that are so utterly confusing, and difficult to navigate. For instance, I stay at a Hilton Garden Inn in Secaucus, roughly three miles southeast of the Meadowlands. When you exit the hotel parking lot, it is not possible to go northwest towards the arena. You must, instead, travel east on Route 3 for about a mile-and-a-half, then pull a U-turn three stoplights down the road to get back in the proper direction. The arena is operated like a virtual boot-camp by Devils’ president Lou Lamoriello, an otherwise decent and friendly man. Security personnel are paranoid beyond belief, and there are strict rules that all media members must follow. No standing, for instance, anywhere close to the players’ exit between the benches during practices or morning skates. And while traveling hockey reporters gain access to all other facilities in the morning by showing their NHL-issued pass, at this arena, they must first walk to the opposite side of the building and obtain their actual game credentials before entering. It’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience, but it’s curious, nonetheless. Always a tempting site as you enter or exit the arena is the skyline of Manhattan (the Empire State Building, etc.) jutting out of the horizon about three miles to the east.

13. HSBC ARENA: The home of the Buffalo Sabres is a fan-friendly, attractive building with relatively easy access from all directions, but – for me – it pales in comparison to its long-vacant neighbor, the Memorial Auditorium. Perhaps it’s the memories I have of the Sabres’ early glory years in the mid-to-late-‘70s, when former Toronto GM/coach George (Punch) Imlach built the club into a Stanley Cup finalist in only its fifth NHL season. Led by players like Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, Rene Robert, Jerry Korab, Don Luce, Craig Ramsay and Danny Gare, the infant Sabres were an exciting, entertaining team, and they had a terrific geographic rivalry with the decent Toronto clubs of that era, featuring Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming. There was always a special atmosphere during games at The Aud, with its steep seating incline and fabulous organist. HSBC Arena – originally known as Marine Midland Arena – is a fine building, reminiscent of most of the newer NHL facilities. As mentioned, there is virtually no difference on the inside between it and the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The seating plan, color of the seats (blue) and the lighting pattern are almost identical. When the Leafs play in Buffalo, it is practically indiscernible as to which club the audience is rooting for. Thousands of Toronto-area fans pour over the Peace Bridge to wail for the Leafs, who usually disappoint them. Coach Pat Quinn still has night sweats upon recalling the “New Year’s Massacre” of January 1, 2000, when his team crossed the border and got obliterated, 8-1, by the Sabres. I’ll always remember sitting in the auxiliary press location for Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final – high in the corner balcony seats – and watching Brett Hull score his infamous toe-in-the-crease goal to win the championship for the Dallas Stars about 100 feet directly below me.

14. T.D. BANKNORTH GARDEN: The Boston Bruins’ home rink, re-named once again, also gets a lower rating here because it’s impossible not to compare it to the old Boston Garden, which stood mere inches from its east façade. In fact, the Garden had to be carefully imploded in order not to bring down the new arena as well. Formerly known as the Shawmut Center and the FleetCenter, this building’s most striking feature is the 17,565 seats, which are predominantly yellow. Like the bright red seats in Carolina, these also stand out quite brilliantly on TV when they are empty. Otherwise, the building is rather tight and cozy in comparison to many of the newer rinks. The press box is overly spacious, and located properly in back of the last row of balcony seats. Like everything else in Boston, you can see the arena from practically all directions, but getting there is another matter. With its maddening network of roundabouts and re-directed streets, navigating Beantown is always a chore. Unlike other NHL cities, I would never rent a car in Boston, for fear of dying of old age before arriving at my destination. It’s much easier and more convenient to stay at one of Logan Airport’s classy hotels, than anywhere in the downtown area. A quick taxi ride through the tunnel beneath Boston Bay takes you to the substratum known as the “Big Dig” and, eventually, up to the exit closest to the arena. My preference is the Logan Airport Hilton, with rooms that have fabulous views of either the airport runways, or the Boston skyline across the Bay.

15. MCI CENTER: The Washington Capitals play their home games in this arena, located adjacent to Chinatown in the D.C. sprawl. It’s a clean, well-appointed building with a large restaurant in the seating area behind one of the goals. Otherwise, it is tediously similar to many of the other modern arenas, with no overwhelming character. It also serves as a bit of an intrusion, as there’s so much else to do in Washington besides attending a hockey game. The Detroit Red Wings won the 1998 Stanley Cup in the MCI Center, and I’ll always remember being on hand when the victorious players wheeled former teammate Vladimir Konstantinov onto the ice after the Cup presentation. Konstantinov had suffered a severe head injury in a car accident a year earlier, but he was able to smile and enjoy the celebration, as captain Steve Yzerman rested the Cup in his lap. There are many fine hotels to stay at in the Washington area, and D.C. has one of the most efficient subway systems in the world. So, getting to the arena from anywhere in the nation’s capital is no problem.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Arenas, Continued

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

I want to begin by thanking the many readers who have e-mailed their memories, in response to my first in a series of columns on National Hockey League arenas, past and present. As promised, I will incorporate many of your recollections in a future column, so keep them coming to howard.berger@rci.rogers.com. The first submission on this topic dealt with my top ten former arenas. Today, I look back at numbers 11 through 20 of defunct NHL buildings:

11. LE COLISEE: The home of the Quebec Nordiques from 1972 to 1995 was among the liveliest arenas in both the WHA (’72-’79) and the NHL. Like so many of the older buildings, this one had superb sightlines, as the seats rose on a very steep incline. The seating bowl had the same color scheme as in the Montreal Forum, with red seats closest to the ice, blue chairs further up, and white ones near the top. Now known as the Pepsi Colisee, it is still very much a functional building – home ice for the QMJHL Quebec Ramparts. I saw only two NHL games in the building – both in 1981 – as the Nordiques hosted St. Louis and Montreal. And it’s doubtful there has ever been an NHL rivalry comparable to that of the Nordiques and Canadiens. Fans in both cities were among the most emotional in hockey, and the Colisee rocked with tension and excitement the night I saw Montreal play there. My most recent visit was this past April, for an exhibition game between Canada and the United States that preceded the 2005 IIHF World Hockey Championships in Austria. The rink was less than half-full (about 7,500 of the 16,000 seats) but the noise still reached ear-splitting levels when Canada scored its goals. Unfortunately, the night will long be remembered, rather perversely, for the French-Canadian anthem singer who suffered stage-fright. After twice forgetting the words to “O Canada” – and twice apologizing to the audience – she left her spot on the ice between the team benches and hurried out again with the written words. But, when she stepped back on a carpet covering the ice, it slid out from beneath her and she toppled on to her backside. I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching and initially thought it was some kind of pre-rehearsed comedy routine. But, there was nothing phony about it, and the poor singer ran back up the alley, sobbing, and leaving the game anthem-less. If you’re an avid hockey fan anywhere in North America, chances are you’ve seen a videotape of the incident on a bloopers show. But, the Colisee was (and still is) known for hockey. While in Innsbruck covering the World tournament, two weeks after the singer’s pratfall, I ran into Peter Stastny, the great former Nordiques player, who was pacing outside the arena after the team he managed (Czech Republic) had lost a sudden-death playoff to Canada. Stastny is one of the true gentlemen in the game, and he seemed to brighten up considerably when I mentioned I had recently been to his former NHL home. He shook his head wistfully and told me that there has never been as dedicated and noisy a group of hockey supporters as those who filled the Colisee every night the Nordiques played.

12. METROPOLITAN SPORTS CENTER: Or, as it was better known, the Met Center in suburban Bloomington MN – home of the Minnesota North Stars from 1967 to 1993, when the franchise upped and re-located in Dallas. Built for the North Stars’ arrival in the first big expansion, this arena probably had the shortest lifespan of any professional sporting venue, as it was demolished in 1995, just 28 years after it opened. The Met Center’s most noticeable feature was the checkered color scheme of the seats, which were upholstered in the North Stars’ colors of green, gold and white. People used to call it the “Chicklets” arena, because the empty seating area looked like the front of the multi-colored chewing-gum box. Unlike the old, cavernous NHL buildings in Toronto, Chicago and St. Louis, the Met Center had a low, flat ceiling, and there was nowhere for noise to escape. I saw only one game there – a Minnesota-Toronto match in October, 1983, when the North Stars had powerful teams led by Bobby Smith, Steve Payne, Al MacAdam, Craig Hartsburg and Brad Maxwell. The building was sold out, and when the North Stars scored (as they did often that night), it was the loudest of any arena I’ve been in. The fans weren’t necessarily as wild as in Chicago or Boston, but the low ceiling trapped the noise and sent it reverberating through the arena. Adjacent to the Met Center was old Metropolitan Stadium – former home of the baseball Twins and football Vikings. It stood vacant and neglected for almost four years after the two teams moved into the Metrodome in Minneapolis (in 1982). On that lone trip to Bloomington in ’83, I walked over to Met Stadium and will always remember how decrepit it looked. Almost all the glass sockets in the huge light towers were broken, and the grass – which hadn’t been cut in more than two years – was more than six feet high. It was like peering through a jungle from field level behind the old scoreboard. I stood there and visualized all the NFL playoff games I’d watched on TV from the stadium in the 1970s, when the Vikings were a powerhouse and would play a home post-season game in sub-zero temperatures practically every year. Both the arena and stadium were demolished in 1985 to make room for the giant Mall of America, which currently occupies the site.

13. MIAMI ARENA: Located in the ominous section of downtown Miami known as Overtown, this nondescript arena served as home to the Florida Panthers from 1993 to 1998, before the club moved to its current digs in the city of Sunrise, west of Fort Lauderdale. It was small, tight building – devoid of frills – but I liked it. The press box was in the center-ice seating area of the balcony, up behind the penalty benches, and the sightlines were terrific. The media work-tables, however, were almost at chin level, because our butts would sink into the soft, upholstered seats. It was like sitting in a high chair. The arena’s hockey affiliation will always center on the plastic mice that were thrown onto the ice during the Panthers’ astounding charge to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Colorado won the ’96 Cup at Miami Arena on a triple-overtime goal by defenseman Uwe Krupp that finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers. Cab drivers routinely stood clear of Overtown, so getting back to the hotel after a game was never a certainty. To this day, I owe part of my life to NHL referee Dave Jackson, who rescued me and several of my media pals after a Leafs-Panthers tilt in 1997. He had a rental car and he drove us back to the Biscayne Bay Marriott.

14. WINNIPEG ARENA: Another of the pre-expansion facilities that had a balcony extending from goal line to goal line, this arena was a terrific place to watch the Winnipeg Jets play in both the WHA and NHL. Built in 1955 with a capacity of 10,100, it was renovated to hold 15,500 in time for the merger of 1979, when the Jets joined the NHL along with fellow WHA teams Hartford, Edmonton and Quebec. What I remember most about Winnipeg Arena is the press box that hung low to the ice, and extended directly over the boards. In fact, to see a player in the penalty bench down below, one had to stand up and lean over the front of the box. It was a perfect location for the Jets’ long-time general manager John Ferguson Sr. to vent his wrath. I can still see Fergy (a couple of booths to my right) leaning out of his private box and wildly bellowing at the referee. If the arena was quiet at the time, thousands of fans seated below us would instinctively turn around and look upwards at the agitated GM. Yes, it was a small, tight building. The best hockey memories I have from Winnipeg Arena are covering games in the 1985 playoffs, when the Jets faced the great Edmonton team of Gretzky, Coffey, Messier, Fuhr, etc. Winnipeg had its best NHL club at the time, led by players such as Dale Hawerchuk, Paul MacLean, Thomas Steen, Dave Ellett and Laurie Boschman. The Jets put up a valiant struggle against the Oilers, but weren’t powerful enough to knock off the defending champions – Edmonton going on to win its second Stanley Cup that spring. Winnipeg Arena was demolished in late-2004 upon the opening of the city’s brand new facility, the MTS Centre. Many people believe the NHL will return to Winnipeg somewhere down the line.

15. HARTFORD CIVIC CENTER: Home of the Whalers during most of their NHL tenure, before the franchise re-located in North Carolina for the 1997-98 season. The most unique feature of this arena was its location… inside a shopping mall. That’s right; fans had to walk into a retail shopping area, then through another set of doors into the Civic Center. The arena itself was absolutely terrific for sightlines, with sections of seats hanging off the corner walls of the building. And, the team had a very catchy fight song that was played when the players skated onto the ice. It was a newer version of the original Civic Center, which collapsed under the weight of a snowstorm in early-1978, seven months before the Whalers joined the NHL in the merger of WHA teams. The club played its first season at an AHL rink in Springfield, Mass. My favorite Hartford memories include one of the few times I filled in for Bill Watters to do color commentary on a Maple Leafs radio broadcast. I worked with Joe Bowen during a Toronto-Hartford game at the Civic Center in February, 1990, and I’ll always remember turning on the TV after getting back to the hotel and seeing that Mike Tyson had lost his World Heavyweight Boxing championship in to some guy named Buster Douglas. The arena was also the site of a real “scoop” in my role as a reporter. During the first night of the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford, a friendly agent I knew passed along details of the colossal Mats Sundin-for-Wendel Clark trade between Quebec and the Leafs. I was live on the air back home, and able to break the story.

16. GREENSBORO COLISEUM: The first home of the Carolina Hurricanes gets a ratings nod here for the simple fact the arena was so ridiculously large, and the hockey crowds were so incredibly small. This old, basketball-first facility was in the city of Greensboro NC – an hour’s drive west of the Raleigh-Durham area. The seats were all a foam-green color and in the balconies, five or six entire sections would be completely empty. The club took to cordoning off the upper reaches with black curtains during the ‘Canes’ second season there. Also, the place was freezing cold. The make-shift press box was in the empty balcony seats, but there appeared to be no heat in the building during the winter months. I’ll never forget Mike Ulmer – currently a Toronto Sun sports columnist – covering a Leafs-‘Canes game in Greensboro, and tapping away on his lap-top while wearing gloves with finger-holes. At the time, Mike followed the Leafs for the National Post. Nobody on the hockey beat was disappointed when the Hurricanes finally moved into their new home in Raleigh for the 1999-2000 season.

17. PACIFIC COLISEUM: The venerable home of the Vancouver Canucks from their 1970 inception to the end of the 1994-95 campaign, the Coliseum was functional and bright, with very good sightlines, and was almost identical in design to the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton. Located on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition, it stood adjacent to the city’s old football field – Empire Stadium – home of the CFL’s B.C. Lions, which has been long-since demolished. Pat Quinn’s Canucks knocked off the Maple Leafs in the 1994 Stanley Cup semifinals, as Greg Adams scored an overtime goal in Game 5 of the series, touching off one of the wilder celebrations I’ve witnessed in my years of traveling with the Leafs. Getting to the press box could be a dicey situation for any reporter with a fear of heights. You had to walk along a rickety wooden platform that extended above the seats. A look down was not recommended. I remember my pal Ken Daniels – currently the TV voice of the Detroit Red Wings – with his neck strained, looking up at the ceiling of the arena, as he gingerly traversed the catwalk. Ken was still backup radio voice of the Leafs in 1994.

18. CALGARY STAMPEDE CORRAL: What an old relic this place was! The home of the Calgary Flames for three years after their re-location from Atlanta in 1980, the Corral was a horse-barn with ice. I lived and worked briefly in Calgary in the winter of 1982 and covered the Wranglers of the Western Hockey League for the Calgary Sun newspaper. It was such an outstanding hockey city that the Wranglers would attract crowds almost as large as the Flames. Mike Vernon played goal for the junior team before his years in the NHL. The arena capacity was only about 7,500, but the spectators knew how to make noise, and the place was much louder on most nights than the Saddledome is nowadays (2004 Stanley Cup run notwithstanding). The rink-boards in the Corral were much higher than in any other arena. Players used to joke that they needed a parachute in order to change on the fly. The old building is still very much in evidence across a narrow street from the Saddledome. The Leafs actually practiced there one day a few years ago, and it brought back a lot of memories from my brief stay in the city.

19. REUNION ARENA: The unremarkable and very basic home of the Dallas Stars from 1993 to 2001 sits just southeast of the main downtown core, across from the glass-covered Hyatt Regency hotel. Reunion Arena was built in 1979 for the arrival of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, and it came into being just before the proliferation of private arena suites. So, neither the Stars nor Mavericks could make any ancillary revenue when they played there. The lower bowl and upper-balcony chairs were all dark-green, and there was nothing wrong with the place, unless you were seeking frills. I remember sitting in the first rows of the balcony – in the auxiliary press location – and watching Jason Arnott win the 2000 Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils. Arnott scored an overtime goal on Ed Belfour to knock off the defending-champion Stars. Reunion Arena is located about four blocks from Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22nd, 1963. Walking over to that notorious section of downtown Dallas has filled a number of idle hours during hockey trips to the city.

20. CAPITAL CENTER: This saddle-shaped arena in suburban Landover, Maryland – later named the USAir Arena – served as home to the Washington Capitals from their inception in 1974 to the end of the 1996-97 season. To suggest it was out in the middle of nowhere would be an understatement. Located off the Capital Beltway, about a half-hour’s drive from downtown Washington, there was absolutely nothing of any significance in the immediate area. While covering Leaf games in Landover, we would stay at the closest hotel – the Greenbelt Marriott – and we had to make sure we ate lunch before 2 p.m. Otherwise, the hotel restaurant would close ‘til dinner-time and, with no other culinary options nearby, we would starve. The Capital Center was a large building (more than 18,000 seats for hockey) and it was very dark. All the light was focused on the arena floor, and you almost needed a flashlight to walk around the seating areas. The press box was an abomination – located way up in the corner, a half-mile from the ice. No hockey reporter would have cried when the building was demolished a few years ago. FedEx Field – home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins – is adjacent to where the arena once stood. The Capitals, of course, now play out of the MCI Center in downtown Washington.

Temporarily, Berger Fixes can now be seen at www.bergerfix.blogspot.com as well as a preview on my blog..