Saturday, October 7, 2017

Full Circle with Nathan Walker

photo by Chris Gordon, from 2012 development camp

On July 14, 2012, I was back in DC (for the first time since moving back to Chicago in November 2011) on a weekend trip and asked the Capitals media relations department if I could have media credentials for development camp. They said yes, and so I returned to the media area of Kettler Capitals Iceplex on that Saturday morning, and after the players left the ice, I asked to interview an intriguing 18-year-old camp invite with a surprising country listed under his hometown: Australia.

Today, that player made history. Twice.

Nathan Walker became the first Australian to ever play in the NHL, and then the first Australian ever to score a goal in the NHL -- in his first game!

I never published an article based on the conversation I had with Nathan Walker that day in 2012. I think I felt kind of bad about it because one of my questions was basically "why didn't you get picked in the draft?" and I was afraid I hurt his feelings. Back story: Nathan Walker was first eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, even ranked as high as #21 among European skaters before the draft. Yet, he was not selected in that draft. He wasn't selected in the 2013 draft either. The Capitals did later select him in the 3rd round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the last draft for which he was eligible.

Walker came as an invited player to the Capitals' 2012 development camp, and caused a bit of a stir with his unusual story. Walker was born in Wales, raised in Australia, and moved to the Czech Republic at the age of 13 (by himself) to embark on his hockey career.

I remember when he walked up to me (since I'd requested to talk to him) that day in July, the first things I noticed were that a) he is surprisingly short (I'm 5'6" and he wasn't much taller) and b) despite his unusual back story, he seemed genuinely surprised that someone requested to speak to him.

When he speaks, his accent is not strictly Australian; there's a bit of Welsh in there. It's definitely not an accent you usually hear on your digital recorder while pucks fire off boards in the background. He got into hockey when he was six years old because his older brother was playing. "I was the little brother, I always wanted to do what he was doing. I guess I just followed in his footsteps," he told me.

I asked him why he opted to go to the Czech Republic to play when he was 13, and he said his coach in Australia told him that "if you want to go anywhere in hockey, you've gotta go now." He left his family in Australia and went to live in Europe, in a country whose language he did not know, without his parents, because his coaches saw that he had potential. It speaks volumes about his drive and his work ethic.

When I asked about what his expectations were coming to development camp, he said, "I want to show them that I really want to play hockey." I asked if he had thought about playing in the Australian league (AIHL), but he said, "I played there a few games, last season, before I got injured straight away. I don't think I want to do any of that."

I suggested, "So you're really wanting to go for a higher level," and he enthusiastically agreed, "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

Today, five years later, he played at the highest level like he always wanted. And he won.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Throwback: Anaheim Ducks Kick Off "Movember"

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Hockey Primetime, 11/1/2011
Re-posted in honor of Teemu Selanne's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame

The Anaheim Ducks kicked off the month of "Movember" in style Monday, holding a "Shave Off" event in downtown Washington, DC while they are in town to play the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. The famously-mustachioed George Parros headlined the event, joined by Saku Koivu, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Matt Beleskey, Sheldon Brookbank, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonas Hiller, Francois Beauchemin, Andrew Cogliano, Kurtis Foster, Dan Ellis, and Luca Sbisa.

The Ducks got a professional shave at The Art of Shaving's downtown DC store to get a clean start on their Movember facial hair. Movember, with which many NHL players are involved, is an annual event during the month of November during which men grow out their facial hair and raise awareness and money in support of men's health and cancers.

The cause is particularly close to Saku Koivu's heart. In 2001, Koivu was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and missed most of the 2001-2002 NHL season while undergoing chemotherapy. In remission since, Koivu said that Movember is an entertaining way to raise awareness and money for cancer research. "It's a fun way of getting awareness out and getting a couple laughs," Koivu said. "Obviously with the 'stache, boys look a little different.

"It's obviously a cause that's really important to me because it's in my history. It's so important to have the knowledge out there... Hopefully we can make a difference."

Last year was the Ducks' first year of involvement with Movember, and this year, Koivu said it was very easy to convince the rest of the team to participate. "George (Parros) brought it up about a week, two weeks ago and said, 'The month of November is coming up, and do you guys want to be still in it?'" Koivu said. "And everybody (agreed). That wasn't a tough one."

Corey Perry got particularly involved, clipping off half of Parros' mustache before his professional shave began. Luca Sbisa thought Parros unrecognizable once his shave was finished, jokingly introducing himself to Parros after he unveiled his clean-shaven look.

Perry shaving Parros' mustache (photo by Erika Schnure)
Parros after his shave (photo by Erika Schnure)

Goaltender Jonas Hiller brought along his special "Movember" mask, featuring roster shots of all the current Ducks, with various facial hair styles imposed over their faces. Hiller will wear the mask throughout the month of November, and it will be auctioned off in December to support the Movember cause.

Hiller's Movember mask (all photos by Erika Schnure)

Koivu expressed displeasure over the facial hair chosen for his image on Hiller's mask. "I wasn't really happy about that," Koivu joked. "I don't think I look too good with the mustache, but that picture there is like, I don't know what he was thinking."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Loss and Sports Fandom

(I wrote this a week after the Capitals got knocked out of the playoffs, but left it in my drafts)

I reflected a bit on this on Facebook the night of the loss, but over a week after the Caps lost game 7, I feel like I have a little more clarity.

I found the Capitals on February 26, 2008, back when the Capitals still did Student Rush promotions. The first NHL game I ever saw (and I spent just $30 on a lower bowl seat) was against the Minnesota Wild, and the Capitals won handily. Brooks Laich scored two goals in a 4-1 victory. I was in the 7th or 8th row of a mostly empty arena.

At the time, I was a few months out of college, only a few weeks away from eventually getting laid off from my non-profit job, and I thought I'd be working there for a while. I was barely thinking of what I would want to do in the future.

All I knew was that this team inspired me. I started this blog in January 2010, writing about a Tomas Fleischmann appearance that was basically a recap post for the people that were not able to attend. Little did I know that starting this blog would change my life forever.

Soon thereafter, people started asking me to write for them. Some of them asked me to write for them for money. I got media credentials for practices. My articles started getting featured weekly on the front page of

I came back home to Chicago and applied to Northwestern University's Master's of Sports Administration program and got in. I now owe tens of thousands of dollars to student loan corporations getting this degree so that I could hopefully work for a sports team, ideally doing community relations.

I'm not pointing all this out to brag or anything. I'm just trying to emphasize that none of these monumental events would have happened if it were not for the Washington Capitals. I have a deeply personal connection with this team because they changed my entire life.

This team and their wonderful media relations department is how I got to have my very first interview be with Philipp Grubauer during his first development camp. My first in-season roster-player interview was with Matt Hendricks. I regularly got to hold my recorder in front of guys like Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Nick Backstrom.

I take it personally when they lose. I know how much these guys care. I've never personally been there for a clean-out day, but I've seen plenty of their interviews.

They're the reason for so much good in my life, so much direction. So yeah, they're a little bit important to me. And it's devastating to see them get knocked out of the playoffs, especially when they were the odds-on favorites, to see them continue to be mocked and made fun of.

This group of guys this year was really the best I have seen. It wasn't like years before when they added people like Jason Arnott or Martin Erat (I don't want to talk about it) expecting that they would make a big difference. In the past few years, the Caps have brought guys like Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Daniel Winnik and Kevin Shattenkirk into the mix. Guys that have improved the lineup during the regular season.

As a fan, obviously I want my team to win. But of course, at the same time, I don't want to see this team get blown up.

I wish I didn't care so much. And people might say I'm stupid for caring so much. But if this team had never come into my life, my life would be a very different thing.

Sports fandom is stupid but there is a reason.

And frankly, this team changed my entire life. I went back to school for a master's in sports administration. My dream job became one with a sports team. If I had never cared about the Capitals, my life would have been so much different.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Throwback: Five American players to watch at the 2012 World Junior Championships

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Red Light District, 12/7/2011

On Monday, USA Hockey announced their preliminary roster for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships in Alberta. 29 players are on the preliminary roster, and by December 22, they will be trimmed to a final 22. There are eight players returning from 2011's team, but it's some of the newer players that could be the biggest surprises. Here are five new guys on Team USA to watch in this year's tournament.

1. John Gibson, Goaltender
Last year, Jack Campbell and Andy Iles shared goaltending duties on the roster, but Campbell was the main man in net, as Iles spent just over nine minutes on the ice in total. Campbell's high draft selection (11th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010) could be attributed to his impressive first appearance on the international stage, playing for USA in 2010's tournament. He followed it up with another amazing performance in 2011, hence Iles' limited ice time.

But if there's anyone that could challenge Campbell for the primary spot in the net for the tournament, it's John Gibson. A second round (39th overall) selection by the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, Gibson cut his teeth with the U.S. National Development Team starting in 2009. This fall, he headed to Kitchener, Ontario to become the starting goaltender for the Kitchener Rangers. Through 19 games played with the Rangers, he has 12 wins, a 2.58 goals against average, and .931 save percentage -- better statistics than Campbell.

The Pittsburgh native also has international experience. He was the starting goaltender for Team USA in the 2010 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, and recorded the best GAA and save percentage of any goaltender in the tournament. Though Gibson admits he didn't even know the World Juniors tournament existed until last year, any opportunity to represent the USA is something he takes seriously. "It's important to me," Gibson told The Record (Kitchener). "Any time I can represent my country, I want to do that."

Kitchener coach Steve Spott agrees that Gibson could very well end up the starter come tournament time. "I believe he’ll push Jack Campbell for the starting position," Spott said. "I believe he's going to give USA Hockey's coaching staff a lot to think about. He's just a money goaltender and will be a tremendous asset for them in that tournament."

2. Seth Jones, Defenseman
The youngest player on the preliminary roster (born Oct. 3, 1994), Jones comes from pro athlete stock. His father is "Popeye" Jones, who played in the NBA for 12 years and now serves as the assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets. Seth was born in Texas during Jones' three-season stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Seth definitely takes after his father in terms of size -- at 17 years old, he is 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds.

Jones, a two-way defenseman who spent last season playing with the U.S. National Development Team, caught the eye of Team USA general manager Jim Johannson in the team's summer evaluation camp. At the time, Jones was just 16 years old, and was already drawing comparisons to NHL All-Stars. "He reminds of me of Erik Johnson to a degree," Johannson said. "He is just an all-around solid player. He's the real deal. Good instincts in all areas and he plays the game in all zones."

Jones isn't even eligible for the NHL Draft until 2013, but he could earn himself a spot on the final roster for Team USA. NHL general managers are already champing at the bit to get Jones drafted to their team, and if he survives the cuts, his play in the tournament could catapult him to the top of the rankings for the 2013 draft.

3. Jarred Tinordi, Defenseman
Though two years older, Tinordi is much like Jones in several personal aspects. He is another product of the U.S. National Development Team, and his father too was a professional athlete. But hockey insiders are much more familiar with Tinordi's father -- former NHL tough guy Mark Tinordi. Like his father, Tinordi is a gritty, physical -- and huge (6-foot-7) -- defenseman.

Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2010 draft, Tinordi had originally committed to play at Notre Dame, but opted to go the junior route and signed with the London Knights. Last season with the Knights, he had 14 points and 140 penalty minutes.

Tinordi was part of Team USA in the 2010 Under-18 World Juniors, and won a gold medal in the tournament with the team. In addition to his skill, his leadership qualities are highly-touted. He captained the USA U-18 team, and currently serves as captain of the Knights. His size and work ethic could make him a valuable presence on the blue line.

4. Brandon Saad, Left Wing
Chicago Blackhawks fans are already very familiar with Saad's name -- the 2011 second-round (43rd overall) pick was a pleasant surprise in this fall's training camp, earning him the opportunity to play in two regular season games with the Blackhawks in October. After his two game appearances, he was sent back to his junior team (Saginaw Spirit), but he had already made a big impression on USA general manager Jim Johannson.

Because of the draft and commitments with the Blackhawks, Saad was not able to attend the summer's World Juniors evaluation camp, but Johannson had no issue with including him on the preliminary roster. "The bottom line with him is being able to show us that he wanted to be a part of the program and that his level of play was going to be what we were looking for," Johannson said. "He got off to a great start with Chicago and played a couple games with the 'Hawks. But more importantly for us, when he went (back) to Saginaw, he performed well, he's competing in all aspects of the game that we saw in him as a younger player and what he needed to improve on. He's shown that."

Since returning to Saginaw, Saad has 19 points in 11 games. Though he and Tinordi are rivals in the Ontario Hockey League, they were teammates on the American U-18 team that won gold in 2010.

5. Austin Watson, Center
Watson is one of the rarer players on the preliminary roster that have never been involved in the U.S. National Development Team, but don't count him out based on that. He made a name for himself in his first season in the Ontario Hockey League as a member of the 2009 Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires. Watson began his sophomore season with the Spitfires, and could have won a second Memorial Cup, but he was traded to the Peterborough Petes to close out the 2009-2010 OHL season.

Watson was drafted in the first round (18th overall) of the 2010 draft by the Nashville Predators. He's praised by scouts for his offensive ability while being able to play a grinder-style role, blocking shots and sacrificing his body to make plays. So far this season with the Petes, Watson has 28 points in 28 games.

In this deep pool of possible players, Watson could be a long shot to make the final roster, but his positive, team-first attitude may be his X factor.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Throwback: Caps power play resurges

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Red Light District, 10/25/2011

In the second half of the 2010-2011 NHL season, the Washington Capitals' power play went from one of the best in the league to practically non-existent. From February 2011 through the end of the regular season, the Capitals' power play went 16-for-88, just 18.1%. In the playoffs, it got even worse, ending in a 14.2% over nine games.

Coach Bruce Boudreau said that once the power play started to tank, it just got worse from there. "Last half of last year was a lot of 'panic-ville.' I think guys were holding their sticks too tight, trying to make the pretty plays all the time," Boudreau said. "When you're an offensive player, and you don't have the numbers that you're accustomed to, and every day people are asking you, 'How come your scoring's down?' Your confidence is down and you're not comfortable, and then you're trying harder. It may not look like you're trying harder, but you're trying to put square pegs into round holes, and you're doing things that you shouldn't be doing."

The poor power play of last season was a true departure from previous years. The Capitals finished second in the NHL in 2008-2009, and first in the league 2009-2010, with both seasons at 25.2% success on the power play. After the substandard success rate of the latter half of the 2010-2011 season, the Capitals finished the year in 16th place with 17.5%.

Now, seven games into the current season, the Capitals' power play is singing another tune. They're current first in the NHL on the power play, going 8-for-27, good for a 29.6% success rate while allowing zero shorthanded goals. That includes a 30.0% success rate at home.

What's so different about this year that is leading to an effective power play? Boudreau says that the players have stopped trying too hard and have returned to simple plays that work. "We're just getting back to what we're doing," Boudreau said. "I think with them seeing some success at doing what they're doing, they're going, 'Wow, let's just continue what we're doing.' Hopefully, it stays the same."

If you ask winger Mike Knuble, he attributes the success to the structure of the power play units. With Mike Green and Dennis Wideman healthy (both struggled with long injuries last season), the two offensive defensemen set up on the point, while fellow first unit components Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Troy Brouwer to cycle down low. Troy Brouwer was camped in front of the net while Mike Green scored two power play goals in Saturday's win against the Detroit Red Wings, and Knuble says crashing the net as Brouwer did is the key.

"There's times when we've gotten away from the net and you wonder why the power play is struggling. Then you look at the film, it's because you're not around the net enough," Knuble said. "So it's good to see that we have a net presence, it's the way to do things. It's the way that a power play should be executed. The skilled guys on the outside then you have somebody around the net that can finish and get in the way. It's a part of our success."

Boudreau and Knuble agree that last year's poor power play could have also been attributed to the separate lengthy losses of Mike Green and Dennis Wideman. "I think (Green's injury) had something to do with it," Boudreau said.

Knuble heaped praise on his teammates, saying, "It's great to have healthy Mike (Green), he's very sharp with the puck, and makes a lot of things happen. And Wideman I think, when he arrived last year (at the trade deadline) after Mike went down (hurt), he was tremendous, really was quarterbacking everything. When he went out of our lineup (injured) that was a big hole, too."

While it could be that Green and Wideman are healthy, the renewed power play success is more likely attributed to the fact that that the team isn't trying too hard, staying away from the pretty passes that go nowhere. Aside from a return to simplicity, Knuble also points to a more intangible, psychological reason for the power play progress.

"Guys are hungry right now on the power play," Knuble said. "Everyone who's moving the puck around is hungry and not just killing time and trying to look for the pretty play. Work hard and if you get an open shot, take it."

Throwback: Jose Theodore starts strong in Florida

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Hockey Primetime, 10/21/2011

photo by Getty images
The Florida Panthers made arguably the greatest amount of moves during the 2011 off-season, most notably in goal. After Tomas Vokoun walked to take $1.5 million in Washington, the Panthers brought in former Capital Jose Theodore, who spent the last year backing up Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota.

With a rebuild in full swing, it was difficult to tell how the new hodgepodge team would work together, but five games into the Panthers' season, the team is 3-2-0, largely thanks to the heroics of Jose Theodore. Theodore is standing tall with a .920 save percentage, 2.47 goals against average, and one shutout in four games played.

It hasn't been an easy road for Theodore. During two seasons in Washington, beginning in 2008, he was pushed aside in the playoffs in favor of Semyon Varlamov. Theodore called the  situation "a stinger," as he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He was officially relegated to backup status in 2010-2011 with the Wild, playing 32 games with a record of 15-11-3.

Theodore is turning over a new leaf in Florida, signing a two-year deal with the Panthers over the summer. "You look at where the team's going, especially I'm not 20 anymore, I want some changes now," Theodore told the Miami Herald in July. "I think this was the best fit."

He's been designated as the starter after goaltender Scott Clemmensen underwent minor knee surgery near the end of training camp. He's ready to rise up to that starting role. "Last year was a little step back, but I've got to show my teammates that I still play well at 35," Theodore told the Sun-Sentinel.

He made that impact early, flying out of the gate to begin the season and making 27 saves on the New York Islanders for a 2-0 shutout in the Panthers' season opener. It was the 31st shutout of Theodore's career. "(Theodore is) a competitor,'' C Stephen Weiss told the Sun-Sentinel after the game. "We knew he was going to be there for us."

Even though he's the starting goaltender now, Theodore isn't resting on his laurels - he knows that once Clemmensen returns, the fight for the starting goaltender position continues. After a lackluster training camp and preseason, during which he allowed 12 goals in two exhibition games, Theodore is working hard to show that he should remain the go-to guy in net.

"Let's not forget, Jose Theodore is a good player," Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen told reporters after last week's shootout win over Tampa Bay. "He's proven that over the length of a career. We felt that he was a No. 1 goalie, but for me he really had to earn it. He had a pretty stinky training camp, but since then he’s been pretty solid."

Thus far in the regular season, the team has been working well together, particularly with Theodore providing the support in net. In Theodore's eyes, the future looks bright for the Panthers. "I think we're working well together right now," Theodore told reporters Saturday. "We've been working hard in practices and we're starting to figure out what we got to do to win some games."

After a stellar preseason, Jets C Mark Scheifele scored his first NHL regular season goal Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Winnipeg Jets have four more games to decide whether or not to keep Scheifele in Winnipeg or return him to his junior team. ... Jets C Alexander Burmistrov, in his second year in the NHL, has shown a vast improvement from his rookie year. The 19-year-old is turning the heads of his linemates, including C Nik Antropov. "Definitely he's improved from last year," Antropov told the Winnipeg Free Press. "I can see that in reading the game and the patience he has shown on the ice, especially in the last couple of games." ... Florida Panthers G Jacob Markstrom made his first NHL start in a 3-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. Despite the score, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen blamed the defense for the loss. "(Markstrom) had a good solid game for us and gave us a chance to win,'' Dineen told reporters. "He can play in this league and it showed early on when he had that pressure on him. I'm proud of him under tough circumstances." Markstrom made 29 saves. ... The Washington Capitals are 5-0, their strongest start in franchise history. However, coach Bruce Boudreau knows that's no reason to get too excited. "When it comes to April and May I'm not going to be able to sit here and say: 'Hey, we were 5-0 and we got that record. Isn't that great?'" Boudreau told reporters. "It's not really going to hold a lot of weight. It's just the process of getting to where we want to get." ... The Carolina Hurricanes sent D Justin Faulk to AHL Charlotte on Wednesday. Faulk saw action in three regular season games after an impressive preseason. ... Six games into the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a 1-3-2 record. General manager Steve Yzerman says the team has to be better. But he's not panicking quite yet. "The urgency in the guys' play is there," Yzerman said to media. "I like the effort of our team in every game. All teams go through stretches in a season where they struggle. Ours is just right off the bat."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Epic Windsor Hockey Road Trip 2: Electric Boogaloo

Last December, I took advantage of a long weekend to drive up to the illustrious Windsor, Ontario to see my Windsor Spitfires play at home for the first time. I only attended one game, but it was such a great weekend that I decided to make it an annual event.

I planned the most strategic weekend: two days off work, and a weekend schedule that included a bit of a doubleheader. On Thursday night, it was Plymouth at Windsor. On Saturday night, it was Windsor at Plymouth (just a quick 30 minute drive across the border in Michigan).

Crossing the Ambassador Bridge
So on November 7, I got in the car and began the less-than-five-hour drive to Windsor, Spitfires jersey tucked away in my suitcase. It was an uneventful drive, but once again, for the second time, I caught heat at the Canadian border after crossing the Ambassador Bridge. The border patrol agents, as they confusedly searched my car, told me "we're just trying to understand how you're from Chicago and a Spits fan." My thoughts: "I just am, let me in!"

But let's rewind and go back to why I'm a Spitfires fan, just as I explained to the Canadian customs agent that day at the border crossing. As we know, I became an NHL fan in February 2008, which was the time of the first NHL game I ever attended. I soaked up a lot of knowledge in that first year of fandom, and by May 2009, I was discovering and watching junior hockey for the first time in my life on the NHL Network: the Memorial Cup. It was then that I saw the Windsor Spitfires for the very first time.

Of course, that year, they were the dominant team in the tournament and eventually won it all, but I was attracted to them immediately. Their jersey colors were the same as the Capitals, and in fact, they reminded me a little bit of the Capitals' playing style. Consider Taylor Hall the Spitfires' Alex Ovechkin; Adam Henrique was Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Ellis was Mike Green, Zack Kassian was Matt Bradley -- if Matt Bradley scored a whole lot more goals than he did as a Capital.

I did manage to get across the Canadian border after they deemed that I was really only bringing clothes with me into Canada and I found my dumpy motel on the west side of town. There are several restaurants and bars in the area that offer free shuttles to the Spitfires' games, so after settling in at the hotel, I made my way to one of them that I had not tried on my previous journey: Johnny Shotz, in Tecumseh.

I had dinner and a few beers there, and when my waitress asked me if I wanted gravy with the fries that came with my sandwich, I said, "um, YES." O, Canada indeed.

Sitting directly behind the penalty box was fun
I took the shuttle to the game, and took my seat in the row directly behind the visitors' penalty box (which was very well-attended that night).

The first period was... not pretty. The defense was still asleep, and goaltender Dalen Kuchmey was the casualty. At the end of the first period, the Plymouth Whalers were leading the Spitfires 4-1. It wasn't looking so promising.

Then, in the second period, the Spits apparently woke up. I'm not sure what Coach Bob Boughner said to them in the locker room, but it worked. By the end of the second period, the Whalers were only leading by one, with a 4-3 score.

In the third period, Plymouth scored fairly early on to take a 5-3 lead, but things really got kicked off nearly halfway through when Slater Koekkek scored a gorgeous shorthanded goal to make it 5-4. Then, with less than five minutes left, Cristiano DiGiacinto scored to tie it up. It was starting to get interesting.

It was a tense final five minutes. Particularly when Kerby Rychel scored to take a 6-5 lead with barely a minute left. The last goal, by the way, netted Rychel a hat trick. A few hats floated onto the ice, but moods were too tense to really overcelebrate. The Spitfires managed to hold onto the lead and notched a 6-5 win over the Whalers.

On the shuttle back to Johnny Shotz is when my entire weekend changed. Throughout the game and on my drive, I'd been tweeting about the Spitfires and the official Spitfires Twitter account had been retweeting my comments about driving from Chicago for some games. On the way back, I was talking with a few patrons on the Johnny Shotz shuttle, mentioning that I drove from Chicago for the weekend. One of the men I was talking to turned to the couple in front of him and told them "this girl drove all the way from Chicago to see the Spitfires!"

The couple turned around and said, "Wait, I saw you on Twitter!" Turns out that the couple had seen what the Spitfires had retweeted and were shocked that I was an actual person who actually was from Chicago for the games, and I was sitting there on the shuttle with them.

Then, the plot thickens. I introduced myself, and they did the same. They also told me that they were the billet family of one of the Spitfires players. That player was recent acquisition Eric Diodati.

And then my brain exploded. They invited me to dinner before the game in Plymouth on Saturday with them, the player's mother, and his grandfather. I accepted.

Friday was spent touring several southern Ontario wineries (seriously, there are like 15 vineyards along the coast of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario, who knew? -- I went to about five) and had a nice dinner at a hip restaurant in downtown Windsor. On Saturday morning, I went for a lovely run in the park near my motel.

I then got ready to head to Plymouth very early. Though it was an evening, 7:05 game, I was totally unsure of how busy/strict customs would be, and I was to meet Diodati's billets, mother and grandfather for dinner at 4:30, so I left Windsor around 3:00. The customs line was long at border patrol, but I blew through customs once I finally reached them, and so I arrived very early at the Plymouth arena.

I met up with my group at the restaurant in the Plymouth arena, and despite being among strangers, I had a great dinner. Diodati's billet parents are great, and I absolutely adored his mother and grandfather. I was so grateful for the dinner we had together, not only because I met new friends, but also because (as a giant prospect nerd) I got fantastic insight into the life of a junior hockey player. As Diodati was traded to Windsor only in October, there was a fair amount of talk about his fitting in with the new team, including direct comments from coaches and how he behaves at home. For reference, all very good.

According to Diodati's mother, Coach Boughner thinks Diodati has clicked immediately with defensive pair Trevor Murphy (which, watching the games, is completely true) and I also heard about scouts checking out Diodati at Spitfires games, so I got a little inside information there. Being as Diodati is an overager who wasn't drafted, seems a few teams are interested in picking him up as a free agent. I heard a little bit about the inside process of scouting, and I found the conversation very interesting.

Adam Bateman and other scratches
We then watched warmups and posited ourselves over the Spitfires tunnel. Diodati came out as we were standing there, and I nudged his mother and she shouted out to him, and he looked up and smiled (probably wondering who this woman in a Spitfires jersey was with his mother, grandfather and billet parents).

The game in Plymouth was no less exciting than the one in Windsor. Teams traded goals, and at the end of two periods, Plymouth led 3-2. In the third period, with barely five minutes left, Josh Ho-Sang scored basically the most disgustingly beautiful dangle goal I have ever seen and tied it up at 3 (I wish I could find it online).

Kuchmey in the tunnel before the game Saturday
That put them into overtime, which produced no goals, and so they progressed to a shootout. Plymouth's first shooter didn't score. Windsor's first shooter, rookie Nick Foss, scored. Kuchmey staved off two more Plymouth shots, and the Spitfires won the shootout with Foss' goal standing alone.

During the game, I'd gone from my third row seat to hang out with the Windsor section, which was essentially all players' parents (Ty Bilcke, by the way, looks just like his dad). I met the Spitfires' arena PA announcer, and he invited me to attend the Sunday matinee game. I was further persuaded by Diodati's billet parents, who had an extra ticket to the 2:00 game on Sunday in Windsor. Against London. I hopelessly relented. How could I resist?

During the Sunday game against London
So I delayed my departure from Windsor. I'd been planning to leave Windsor in the morning and arrive back home in Chicago in the early afternoon. But with the PA announcer, billet parents, and actual parents pressuring me, plus the prospect of seeing Dale Hunter and an elite team like London, I gave in, essentially said, "screw it, why not" and accepted the ticket. I planned to leave immediately after the game, putting me home in Chicago around 9pm.

I met Diodati's billet parents, his mother and grandfather at Johnny Shotz on Sunday morning to have breakfast before the game. We took the shuttle over and I found my (free) seat, five rows behind the net, after helping Diodati's mother purchase Spitfires player t-shirts with her son's (and her) name on the back (did I mention I absolutely love her?)

I'll be honest, for this game against London, I did not have high hopes. After all it is London, with Dale Hunter furiously chewing gum behind the bench, and I knew the game would be a battle. However, I highly respected how well the Spitfires played against them. The Knights won, yes, but Kuchmey saved the defense's butts a lot, and once the defense warmed up a bit, it was a big battle.

After a very tense game and the first two periods being scoreless, London unfortunately ended up victorious with a 3-1 win (though I must mention that one of those goals was an empty netter, but Kuchmey came out with 33 saves -- quite respectable for basically a rookie).

I was two for three on the weekend, but being in the Windsor area, my personal attendance record is three for four. I met some fantastic new people, including some billet parents who are fantastic, and I got some real insight on junior hockey players, directly from the player's mother and grandfather.

I got home around, as predicted, 9pm on Sunday night, but it was worth every second. Even though the game against London was lost, it was a very good and exciting game that I'm glad I stayed for.

All in all, this was basically the best weekend ever. Yes, it ended on a bit of a low note with the loss to the Knights and an unfortunate discovery of bedbugs in my motel, but I am so grateful to have met Eric Diodati's billet family, mother, and grandfather and gotten their insight on the whole "CHL experience," not to mention I liked all of them so much I basically spent the entire weekend with them.

I went into Windsor expecting to see two games and remain largely on my own. I ended up attending three games and spending basically an entire weekend with a player's billet and blood families.

I'm so grateful for my experiences over the weekend and all the crazy happenstance that led up to all of it. I absolutely cannot wait until next year's trip to Windsor, especially since I have friends there now that will ease border patrol questions! I feel that WFCU Centre is now my home, and I'm so glad that I have friends who populate it.