From Pixburgh to C-Bus
A hockey odyssey
Pittsburgh to Columbus, western Pennsylvania to central Ohio. That's the shortest distance you can drive from the NHL's Eastern Conference to the West, just 298 kilometres from the top of the standings to the bottom.
It was quite a contrast.
In Pittsburgh, getting seats was difficult, even with several weeks notice, as a Thursday game in late March against the already eliminated Islanders was apparently a big draw. (It ended up drawing a near-record audience on television.)
And I was willing to pay a lot, close to $250 U.S. for two decent seats in the lower bowl, but that wasn't doable. After having a ticket buy on StubHub fall through (and having it on good authority that scalpers would be selling for twice face value at the arena) the other two options were "obstructed view" or standing room tickets.
For $40, here's what our seats looked like from the very back of Section D at Mellon Arena:
Other than Mr. Pole in front of the one goal, not bad at all, and especially not for that price.
Mellon itself has a certain antiquated charm, especially when packed to the rafters with rabid fans. It seemed like every third back had either Lemieux or Crosby on it, with a few of Roberts, Talbot and Laraque thrown into the mix.
It's hard to believe that this is a city that the NHL even contemplated leaving, but as one fan said, Pittsburgh is home to a certain contingent of "bandwagon fans." And with a roster that any other franchise would trade for in a heartbeat, it's pretty full at the moment.
Four years ago, you could sit wherever you pleased.
I didn't get a great sense of Pittsburgh the city, given I was only there for less than 18 hours, but there was a lot of (a) rain and (b) offers to take us to Primati Bros. (even for breakfast). It strikes me as a pretty blue-collar place, a great destination for a sports-themed road trip.
Especially with the team on top of the world.
Three hours of roadkill-filled highway to the west, and suddenly, getting good tickets wasn't a problem.
Our seats in Columbus:
For under $80, you too can see the back of Barry Trotz's head for two hours.
That's the view from Row 2, right behind the opposition bench, and the result of a search on Ticketmaster for the 'best available' seats less than a week before we left.
In the shot above, Jan Hlavac has just scored, but it's J.P. Dumont getting a glove to the head at the right there. It was 1-0, four minutes into the second period, and you could hear crickets chirping in Nationwide Arena.
If Pittsburgh's at the top of the NHL food chain at the moment, the Blue Jackets are scraping by in the ecosystem basement.
There were 15,495 announced as in the building for this one, a number bolstered by all of the TFC minions in town, but it was a relatively indifferent crowd. There was a swath of people behind us who barely watched the action, commenting only on their Blue Jackets to offer insults, and those that qualified as super fans mostly sat on their hands in the front row.
Here's a good example of the mood in Columbus: Toward the end of the game, two hecklers started trying to give it to one end of the Preds bench where Jerred Smithson and Vernon Fiddler were sitting.
The conversation seemed relatively innocuous, and Fiddler was having a good time giving little behind the back fist pumps while he mouthed one word to the crowd: Playoffs.
Eventually, it turned a little ugly, as Smithson sprayed a water bottle through the crack in the glass at the fellow in the glasses there, who proceeded to dump half a beer over the glass.
That might have been the most excited a Blue Jackets fan got on Friday night.
To be fair, there hasn't been a ton for the fans in Columbus to get excited about so far, not with the team set to miss the postseason for a seventh consecutive season. Nationwide is a beautiful facility — built at the site of Ohio State Penitentiary, which was demolished in 1998 — and the city's Arena District is a hub of activity, with terrific restaurants and bars lining a strip in the area.
The only thing missing is a winning team.
Columbus is definitely NCAA territory, home to Ohio State University and the Buckeyes, and you see more paraphernalia for those teams than the NHL club. Even still, the support is there, in local spots like the R Bar, which is filled with hockey-related memorabilia and shows Center Ice and the NHL Network at all times.
I had the chance to chat with a few locals, including one hockey man, who said support for the Jackets had really been eroded over Doug MacLean's tenure. There's really not a lot of optimism in Columbus, even when I talked about some of the up-and-coming studs in the system, and I think we'll be seeing a "show-me" attitude from the fans there for the near future.
They want the playoffs.
In the end, the most cheering we saw in Columbus came from 3,000 rabid soccer fans from Toronto:
Trip highlights: Nationwide's prison-inspired tower, Mellon Arena nachos, $3 Jason Chimera hat, Laraque on a breakaway, Ted's Montana bison steaks, Clay Wilson, using BlackBerry to find Denny's in Mansfield, Ohio
Trip lowlights: roadkill, getting soaked in Pittsburgh, no food at Jerome Bettis's pub, ECHL hockey at R Bar, Miroslav Satan fighting, soccer, shampoo in ketchup packets