Monday, March 2, 2015

March 2, 1995: My Big Fat Boston Mistake


Twenty years ago today, I made a big fat mistake. And it was because I am a sports nut.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I root for the New York Yankees. That means I root against the Boston Red Sox, and thus also tend to not like the other Boston teams.

I also root for the New Jersey Devils. Granted, that's a lot less history. But, at times, I take it a little more personally, since, unlike the Yankees, the Devils are actually my home-State team. More than that, they now play in Essex County, where I was born (although I haven't lived there since I was a toddler), and in Newark, where both of my parents grew up.

*

In 1995, the Boston Garden, home to the NHL's Boston Bruins since 1928 and the NBA's Boston Celtics since 1946, was closing after 67 years, prior to the opening of a new arena behind it, which is now named the TD Garden.

Due to various mistakes made in my life -- some small, some large -- I had already missed my chances to have enough money to visit some of the legendary stadiums and arenas of North America before they closed forever (and would miss more). Although I had visited Chicago in 1990, and seen both Wrigley Field and, in its last month of operation, Comiskey Park, I never got to see the original Soldier Field or, closing in 1994, Chicago Stadium.

Boston is considerably closer to my New Jersey home, so, having a job (however bad) in the winter of 1994-95 (as opposed to being out of work for most of the previous year), I had the money to see a game at the Boston Garden. Now, what I needed was the time.

I looked at the schedules for the building's home teams. On Friday, March 2, the Bruins were facing my home-State hockey team, the New Jersey Devils. On Saturday, March 10, 8 days later, the Celtics were facing my home-State basketball team, the New Jersey Nets.

Here were the parameters at the time:

* The Bruins were then the winners of 5 Stanley Cups. They hadn't won any since 1972 (they have since won another), but had been to the Finals in 1988 and 1990, and were usually good. In their 1st Playoff run, the Devils got knocked out by the Bruins in the 1988 Conference Finals. However, the Devils had knocked the Bruins out in 1994.

* Now, the Devils, coming off a near-miss in Game 7 of the Conference Finals, were struggling to make the Playoffs, while the Bruins were going to make it.

* Also, the Bruins would occasionally fail to sell out the Garden's 14,448-seat hockey capacity, making it easier to get tickets. This was the dawn of the Internet Era, and the idea of ordering tickets online hadn't even occurred to major league sports teams yet. And even if it had, I didn't have the computerized ability to do so.

* The Celtics were then the winners of 16 NBA Championships. Their last one was in 1986 (they have since won another), and had been a perennial Playoff team. However, by this point, they had gone downhill. Nevertheless, so had the Nets, who had made the Playoffs in 1993 and 1994, but had quickly fallen apart, and were now lousy.

* The Celtics hadn't played to an unsold seat since Larry Bird arrived in 1979: Despite the fact that Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were now gone, they had gotten 14,890 fans for every single home game since the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis, through the end of the Carter Administration, all through Reagan, all through Bush I, and now halfway through the 1st Clinton term.

* Therefore: Getting tickets wouldn't be easy for either game, but it would be easier for Devils-Bruins than for Nets-Celtics.

* And while the Bruins were more likely to put up tougher opposition than the Celtics (something that had not happened often since the 1st Celtic title in 1957), the Devils were more likely to put up a winning effort than the Nets.

So I decided to see Devils vs. Bruins on March 2, 1995.

This was a big fat mistake.

*

Boston is further north than New Jersey and New York City. The weather is a little different. It doesn't get appreciably colder, but the number of days that are colder is greater. So is the likelihood of snow.

Infamously, the blizzard that hit Boston on February 6, 1978, dumping 27 inches of snow on the city and stranding players, fans and arena employees inside the Garden during college hockey's Beanpot Tournament (good thing there was food and restrooms in the arena), did not hit the New York Tri-State Area nearly as hard (although schools were closed for a day).

This was the beginning of March. Winter weather was still very possible. Indeed, last night, we got a couple of inches of snow here, with a coating of ice. That was not fun to shovel.

Nevertheless, I knew that the Boston Garden had been built in 1928. The average human rear end was a lot narrower in the Roaring Twenties, and the seats were not designed to accommodate people of my generation, used to eating more.

I knew that there wouldn't be enough space under the seat for both a heavy winter jacket and the backpack I always traveled with at the time -- and it didn't occur to me at the time that I could check my backpack at North Station (which is, after all, a train station), on top of which the Garden was built. (In those pre-9/11 days, security was a lot more lax: They would ask to look inside the bag, but they wouldn't simply deny entry to a person with a backpack.)

So, instead, I left the house late at night on Thursday, March 1, wearing a light jacket, which I thought would, along with the backpack, fit under that 1928-built seat.

This did not seem to be a big mistake on the 1st. Nor did it seem to be a big mistake on the 2nd. It proved to be a very big mistake on the 3rd.

When the Greyhound bus pulled out of Port Authority Bus Terminal at around 2:00 AM on Friday, March 2, it was chilly in New York, but there was no snow on the ground.

When I woke up just outside Boston on the Massachusetts Turnpike as daylight was breaking, I saw that there was snow on the ground.

Okay, no big deal. Anyway, in spite of the cold, I had a nice day. I made sure to go to the Garden hours beforehand, and bought my ticket. I checked the seating chart, and I was going to be in Section 60. Near center ice on the lower level. Hey, this is a great seat!

Yeah, Mike, hold that thought...

*

So, after doing some other things in the city -- including going to Faneuil Hall and taking a picture of Red Auerbach's statue with my Yankee cap placed on his bald head (hey, he was from New York, albeit Brooklyn and probably a Dodger fan growing up) -- I got back to the Garden at around 6:30, checked the place out, and found my seat.
This photo is not from that game.

Great seat? Uh, no, it wasn't. My horizontal view was obstructed by a big-ass support post. And my vertical view was obstructed by the upper-deck overhang. I could only see about 60 percent of the rink, and I couldn't see the center scoreboard, only an auxiliary one. In fact, if it wasn't for a small TV set hanging overhead, installed into the overhang, I would have had to stand up or stretch to know what the score was, how much time was left in the period or in a penalty, or who was penalized.

Well, hey, bad seats were a big part of the Boston Garden experience. As well as a big reason why the thing was being replaced. It literally came with the territory. I accepted my bad view as a badge o honor. At least I was there, right? At least I was seeing a game there, right?

More like, "At most, I was seeing a game there."

Cam Neely had just come back to the Bruins' active roster, after missing nearly 2 years with an awful knee injury. And the Devils' resident pest, Claude Lemieux -- my favorite player, because he scored goals, he was tough, and always seemed to play better against the hated New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers -- decided to check him into the boards.

The Bruin fans didn't like that, and booed vociferously. I understood.

Neely decided to deck Claudie. I understood.

But Claudie dropped to his knees and covered his head. In hockey, this move is known as "turtling." Claude turtled, as Neely pounded away.

The referee threw Neely out of the game, and gave Claudie no penalty.

The Bruin fans went from angry to frothing-at-the-mouth rage. The language that came from them was George Carlinesque. I understood.

But I made a big fat mistake.

I stood up.

Now, at this point, I wasn't making enough money to buy my own personalized Devils jersey. But I had a Devils cap on. And I was wearing a shirt with alternating black and red stripes, Devils colors.

I stood up so that I could get a better look at this spectacle. What I achieved instead was give the Bruin fans a convenient target. They couldn't reach Claudie with anything they could throw, but they could sure reach me.

I became the target of a barrage that included popcorn, hot dog buns, the cartons containing the preceding, wadded-up pieces of paper, plastic cups, and other things I have since forgotten. Good thing for me that, by this point, glass bottles were no longer being sold at North American sporting events, or I could have gotten seriously hurt.

I could still have gotten seriously hurt. One of those Bruin fans could have come over and taken his frustrations out on me. This is why soccer games, all over the world, segregate the fans: The visiting team's fans are all put together, in adjoining sections, so they don't get attacked by the home fans. This is also done in American college and high school sports.

Not so at the major league level: A visiting fan sits anywhere he likes, but he does so at his own risk.

It's a good thing I didn't reach into that backpack and take out the Yankee cap I brought. This was before the start of the Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling era of the Red Sox, but Sox fans still hated Yankee Fans more than any other fans of a North American sports team hated another other team and its fans.

They had no idea if I was a Yankee Fan or a Met fan -- or even if I liked baseball at all. (After all, this was not a baseball game.) But I'll guarantee you that 99 percent of the 14,000 or so Bruin fans in the building (there had to be a few other Devils fans visiting) were also Red Sox fans.

The fan to my left, thankfully, was a lot calmer, and suggested that I stay seated and quiet for the rest of the game. The fan to my right, thankfully, said nothing at all.

With every Bruin goal, the home fans razzed me some more. Doing the wisest thing I would do in a 36-hour stretch (maybe in the 25-year stretch that my life then was), I kept my mouth shut, and didn't provoke them.

I have since been to Yankees-Red Sox games at Fenway Park; Devils-Rangers games at the Meadowlands, the Prudential Center, and Madison Square Garden; Devils-Flyers games at the Meadowlands, the Prudential Center, and whatever the new Philly arena is called this year; and exhibition games at Red Bull Arena featuring legendary teams of European soccer. This was, easily, the most endangered I have ever felt at a sporting event. And the Devils and Bruins aren't even secondary rivals to each other, much less each other's primary rivals. (That would be the Rangers for both teams, or possibly the Montreal Canadiens for the Bruins.)

In the end, it might have been much worse for me if the Devils had won the game. But that wasn't going to happen.

Brian Smolinski scored a hat trick: 3 goals. And he wasn't even named the 1st star of the game: Adam Oates scored a goal and had 5 assists. Martin Brodeur got shelled, and, with the score 5-1 Bruins after 2 periods, head coach Jacques Lemaire pulled him in favor of Chris Terreri, the former star of Providence College who dreamed of playing at the Bahstin Gahden, but for the Bruins. He was no better. And the Bruin fans went from hideous anger to fiendish glee.

Final score: Bruins 7, Devils 2. The Devils, already known for a good defense that included future Hall-of-Famers Brodeur, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, allowed 7 goals: 3 by Smolinski, and 1 each by Oates, Mats Nasulnd, Jozef Stumpel, and Mariusz Czerkawski, the 1st player born and trained to play hockey in Poland to make the NHL (who later had his best years for the New York Islanders). Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, later to end his career with the Colorado Avalanche by wrecking our 2001 Stanley Cup Finals dream, had 3 assists, and pretty much controlled the game. The Devils goals were scored by Stephane Richer and Tom Chorske.

Seven goals. Or, as they would say if this were an English soccer game: "What time is it? Seven past Brodeur!"

Attendance: 14,448. A sellout. I don't recall how many of those seats ended up sold but unfilled. It sure seemed like every seat had some ass in it.

Since Bruin fans were in a good mood at the end, they left me alone. I waited a few minutes for the section to thin out, just in case, and then convinced an usher to take my picture in front of the Garden ice. It didn't come out, though: Either the flash didn't go off, or, between it and the arena lighting, there still wasn't enough light. You can see a figure raising his arms in a "What can you do?" pose, but you can't see his face, and you can't tell that it's me.

*

Now, here's where I made things much worse than they had to be. Although the day wasn't terribly cold, the night was. I left the Garden at around 10:00. My bus back to New York wasn't scheduled to leave until 12:30. Even if I went straight from the Garden to South Station (the combined train/bus terminal at the edge of downtown), that would still leave me with about 2 hours with nothing to do, but wait.

So I decided to walk back from North Station to South Station. I removed my Devils cap, put it in the backpack, put on my light jacket, thus hiding my status as a Devils (and Yankee) fan, and walked the mile or so between the transit hubs. It took me about half an hour, leaving me with still an hour and a half to sit around and do nothing. (I read my copies of that day's Boston Globe and Boston Herald again.)

But it was much, much colder. And I had only a light jacket. The shirt in question was rather thin. I didn't bring gloves. And I wasn't wearing either of my hats. By the time I got back onto the bus, I was thinking that I'd gotten out of New England with my head in one piece. I had no idea just what shape my head, or my chest, was going to be in.

On the morning of Saturday, March 3, I woke up on the bus in The Bronx, and didn't feel so good. By the time I got back home, and hit the sack for a couple of extra hours of sleep (or so I thought), I knew I had a cold.

That cold lasted 6 weeks. No matter what I took, no matter how much rest I got, I couldn't shake it. For 2 weeks, my head felt like it weighed a ton. My sinuses were like marble. Only marble doesn't produce gooey liquids. And I couldn't stop coughing.

It's a wonder I didn't lose my job. I won't say where I was working, because of things that happened after the cold finally ran its course, things that make me hate that company to this day, 20 years later. Let's just say it was a restaurant which, like Boston's arena, had "Garden" in its name. I learned a few things at that job, including how to cough on my elbows, not my hands. A bit more healthful for others that way.

Oh, by the way: On March 10, 1995, the pathetic Nets (24-36 going in, just 8-23 on the road) defied the odds that made me pick the previous week's game, and beat the Celtics (24-35, 14-17 at home), 111-81. Attendance: Sure enough, 14,890. Not including me.

On May 14, 1995, in what turned out to be the final game that counted for anything at the Boston Garden, the Devils beat the Bruins, 3-2, and eliminated them from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On June 24, 1995, the Devils beat the Detroit Red Wings 5-2, to sweep the Stanley Cup Finals, and win their 1st Cup.

*

On December 9, 2006, I made my next visit to a Devils-Bruins game. By a weird turn of events, this was also the last season at their old arena for the Devils: The Prudential Center opened the following October. But this one was also on the road. This was at the new Garden -- it was still called the FleetCenter then, after a bank since swallowed up by TD Bank.
The experience was different in every way. I wore the same Devils cap, and the same red-and-black striped shirt. But, this time, I had enough money to get a Devils jersey, with my last name and the Number 44 on the back.

I also had enough money to get a hotel room for the night, just a 5-minute walk from the arena's gate, so I could leave my backpack there, and not arouse security's suspicions. The new arena had spacious concourses, aisles and seats. I could put the big winter jacket I properly wore under the seat, and could probably have fit the backpack under there, too. There were no obstructions: There were no support posts, and the upper deck was high enough for even the people in the back row of the lower level to see the entire rink and the main scoreboard.
Yet again, the picture is not from the game that I saw.

The Devils were considerably better than the Bruins at this point, and it showed: They won, 5-1. The outcome was never really in any doubt. The Devils' goals were scored by Jay Pandolfo, Jamie Langenbrunner, Erik Rasmussen, Patrik Elias and Sergi Brylin. Brodeur stopped 19 out of 20 shots. This time, it was the Bruins' goalie, Tim Thomas, who was pulled for his backup -- after just 1 period. (Although, given that the score was only 2-0 Devils at that point, it may have been due to an injury.)

Being 11 years older, and hopefully wiser, and remembering my 1995 experience at the old Garden, I made my celebration of each goal, and the final horn, brief, and nothing out of the ordinary. The Bruin fans, not seeing a Devils player abuse one of their heroes, and seeing their team get embarrassed in the game, and not in a fight, mostly behaved themselves. Nobody gave me a hard time.

Perhaps it was the nature of the building: The old Garden was a temple of sports passion going back to the Coolidge Administration, home to 21 World Championships and dozens of Hall-of-Famers; while the new Garden had hardly any history, its history being in the minds of its regular fans and not on the floor/ice/hardwood.

Or perhaps it was due to one more big, big difference: The attendance was only 13,476 -- 77 percent of capacity. This was more than a year after the restart of NHL play after the 2004-05 lockout, and fans weren't fully back yet; but the Bruins came into the game with 14-12 record, so they were hardly hopeless. (The Devils were 16-11.)

*

Today, the Devils have co-head coaches, both of whom played in that March 2, 1995 game: Former Devils Captain Scott Stevens and Bruins Hall-of-Famer... Adam Oates. I wonder if they ever talk about that game.

I sure do. This morning, I told my 7-year-old nieces about it. They enjoyed the story. I told them, "It's funny now. It sure wasn't funny then!"

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