A Saturday night in The Big Apple on their very first trip to New York to play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden? I’m here to tell you, Edmonton Oilers rookies Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi have hit the jackpot right out of the blocks.
I have no idea what kind of game Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi will have in a matinee against the Rangers at MSG Sunday, but as long as they get to the rink before the opening face-off — something the unofficial mayor of Brighton Beach, Boris Mironov, had difficulty with — it’s all good.
Whether you’re a wide-eyed NHL rookie or a seasoned reporter, any road trip involving a stop in New York City — we used to stay there even when we weren’t playing the Rangers because, hell, a game against the Devils in New Jersey, or the New York Islanders on Long Island was close enough — was a good trip. Dibs on that, baby.
As sensory overload goes, New York slaps you in the mouth like no other city. The skyline. The sheer size of Manhattan. There are more taxis on any given block in NYC than Edmonton has cars, and any one of them will mow you down if you step off the curb at the wrong time.
The grime. The bustle. The sea of humanity. The street people. The bright lights in Times Square. The bars in Greenwich Village. Great restaurants on every corner, down every alley. Street vendors selling knock-off Gucci bags and fake Rolex watches. They could always spot this sucker from a block away.
I was the rube from out-of-town with a goofy look of awe on my face, a wallet at the ready and a blazing neon sign on my back that said: take this guy for every bit of per diem he’s carrying. I was not alone.
And it damn sure didn’t even have to be Saturday night.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
What are Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi and the rest of the Oilers doing in the Big Apple Saturday night? Anything they want to, that’s what. At least, that’s pretty much how I approached it the half-dozen or so times I travelled there with the team.
I’d have my clothes thrown in my room and every advance story and sidebar I needed to write done and filed in a New York minute after we’d landed so I could get out and start seeing everything there was to see. Likewise for Jim Matheson or Kevin Karius or Kevin Quinn and every other media-type on the trip. Ready to go? Absolutely. The second you left the hotel lobby, things became a blur. The one certainty was that I’d be up half the night — out for dinner, having a beer or 15, walking the streets looking for electronics, tossing change into the guitar cases of street musicians, avoiding the maniacs in those NY cabs and buying "Rolex" watches.
I seldom if ever gave a thought to why I was there in the first place and more often than not found myself saying, "Holy shit, what time is it?" That, in itself, makes me laugh, given I’d have four or five of those bogus timepieces on me at any one time.
I can’t imagine the kids will be much different — better restaurants, a better crowd and better watches, probably — their first time in the Big Apple, a city that exudes attitude. I’ve still got the black T-shirt I bought there on my last visit. None of this "I love NY" stuff. The shirt, in big white letters on the front, simply reads: "New York Fucking City."
Got a problem with that?
THE WATCH THING
— Craig MacTavish once told me even players bought knock-off watches in New York. From $20 for the lousy ones to $50 or more for higher quality knock-offs, you could get a sharp looking "Rolex." It might only last six weeks, but who cares? It was $20. I took that to heart.
My first trip to New York I bought six watches. Two stopped working within 24 hours. Two more were toast by the time we got back to Edmonton. Two others lasted 18 months. A bargain.
— I coughed up $75 on one trip for a "deluxe" knock-off Rolex for my wife. You have to sort through the street guys to find the ones with the best knock-offs. They’ve staked their turf on every corner, moving only when the cops come along and tell them to keep moving.
The guy I settled on had, like, 40 of them pinned to the lining of his jacket. The watch looked good. Nice pearl face on it. Heavy. Good guts, he told me. I even got a box to go with it. Damn thing stopped working the next day. My wife still has it.
— On another trip, former equipment man Sparky Kulchisky wanted a watch and knew I could get him one. I found my guy outside a fast food joint near the hotel. I gave him two $20s and he gave me two watches.
I walked across the street and handed them to Sparky. "How much?" Sparky asked. "Forty," I said. He gave me the dough. I handed him the watches. When I did, one of the winding mechanisms fell out of one of them, bounced at his feet and fell through a grate. That’s a record, even for a bogus Rolex. Sorry, Sparky.
ACTUAL HOCKEY STUFF
— MSG has a real aura about it, mostly because of all the big-time events that are held there. In terms of facilities, it’s dated, somewhat worn and, in the bowels of the place, claustrophobic with narrow halls and low very ceilings, especially in the dressing room areas.
— A ramp winds from the arena level down to the street level and it’s so damn steep you could have a luge team train on the damn thing. More than one player and reporter hustling to get to the bus has ended up on his ass navigating it. I tore the ass out of a perfectly good pair of (knock-off) pants I’d bought the day before when I took a skid.
— Igor Ulanov is still legend at MSG. Two nights after taking a slapshot in the throat in Columbus with the Oilers to open a road trip in November of 2000, Ulanov took a puck in the mouth at MSG.
Ulanov was spurting blood like he’d been shot in the face, but he wanted to finish the period before getting fixed up. He had to be dragged kicking, screaming and bleeding to the medical room. He needed something like 22 stitches to close the wound. Pain threshold of a cadaver.
— Mironov was one of those players who liked to have a good time on the road and he never had a better time than in NYC. Bobo went AWOL back at the start of the 1998-99 season and ended up getting suspended by Glen Sather. A couple years later, he missed a practice at MSG. I’m guessing he lost track of time looking for watches out in Brighton Beach.
— The press box at MSG isn’t a press box at all, it’s a section in the corner of the rink that sits just about at the top of the end glass. Until the NHL started putting netting in the end zones, more reporters took rubber in the press area at MSG than at any other rink.
TAKE A BITE
— There used to be a restaurant-bar in Greenwich Village called The Garage where you could catch some wicked jazz and have a million beers. Loving jazz as we did, we went there often.
Not far away was one of many clubs that featured open stages where musicians could step up and play. One night in there, a street guy toting a beat-up saxophone blew the doors right off the place. This guy was better on that thing than anybody, and I mean anybody, I’ve ever heard play. He was a dead-ringer for Gizmo Williams.
— Down off East 62nd Street, there used to be an Italian restaurant named Il Vagabondo. Having suffered a surprise KO at the hands of Morley Scott in a food eating contest at a joint called Maggiano’s in Chicago weeks earlier, we held the rematch for the gluttony title at this place.
So devastating was my domination of Scott, including a trip across the street to a bakery where I found a couple of huge pastries to augment the restaurant’s dessert menu, patrons stood and applauded when Scott waved his spaghetti sauce stained bib, signalling, "No mas. No mas." My proudest moment on the way to 300 pounds.
— I regret not posing for a picture with the Naked Cowboy in Times Square when I had the chance. He’s not actually naked, but a muscled-up dude wearing a Speedo and a cowboy hat who makes a living posing for pictures with tourists. Sort of a Fabio-type. If Hall, Eberle or Paajarvi get a chance to pose with this guy, they should.
Puck drop is 12:30 Big Apple time, boys. Have a good one.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.