Friday, November 22, 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.