Hammond: How I Spent My NHL Premiere
The LA Kings were sent on a world tour of hockey games through the last few weeks, beat writer Rich Hammond tells the story
The flight from Las Vegas to Hamburg, for the Kings’ season-opening trip, lasted approximately 10 hours.
The attempt to fit in, to seem somewhat worldly and sophisticated, abruptly ended about two hours later.
After the long flight, two members of the traveling press crew set out to find dinner. A long, fruitless walk, filled with hopeful glances at German-language storefront signs -- is that a deli, or a shoe store? -- led the pair to loop back toward the hotel and settle on an Italian restaurant that seemed full of life.
A glance at the menu brought a furrowed brow. The German descriptions of the dishes presented limited options for the English-only speakers.
Spaghetti bolognese? Yes, that looked familiar. That would suffice.
The waitress approached the table and greeted the pair in German. In return, she got a embarrassed grin and a sheepish "English?" She then smiled, and silently and politely reached down and turned over the laminated card to reveal the full menu, in perfect, grammatically correct English. Oops.
For many members of the Kings organization, the trip to Hamburg, Stockholm and Berlin meant business. Players and coaches wanted to start out the season right, with two wins. Staff members worked tirelessly to ensure that the games, in entirely unfamiliar surroundings, went smoothly on and off the ice.
Some of the traveling party -- this author included -- had never set foot on European soil. There would be some culture shock, to be certain, but perhaps not as many differences as first anticipated.
The first order of business? Packing. The Kings’ intense preseason schedule meant a trip to Kansas City and Denver on Tuesday and Wednesday, a game in Anaheim on Friday night and a 10 a.m. flight on Saturday morning to Las Vegas, followed by a postgame, all-night flight to Germany.
That left precious little time for laundry for a massive trip, one that would start on Oct. 1 and, including a post-Europe swing through the Northeast, would mean a return to Los Angeles on Oct. 16.
Eventually, it all got done. Passport? Check. Jacket? Check.
Toiletries? Check. DVD player, music player and e-book reader, in order to pass the time on the transcontinental flight? Check, check, check.
After the game in Las Vegas, a brutal night for the Kings on the ice, the group boarded a massive chartered Delta plane, one that seated 250, more than sufficient for the traveling party of 75.
Players, naturally, got the first-class seating, which included individual video screens and "pod"-style seats that reclined and made it easier for them to sleep. Pillows and blankets were handed out.
Near the back of the plane, the scene resembled the first day of school. Staff members, media and team guests milled about, selecting their seats. Because of all the open space, each person essentially took a row, meaning everyone would have a row of three or four seats to himself to stretch across and sleep.
Before long, it looked like a massive slumber party. A walk through the cabin brought sounds of light -- and not-so-light -- snoring, and visions of people stretched out asleep in various forms of comfort, including one staffer who found the cabin floor to be more suitable than his seat for rest.
Ten hours passed quickly, so quickly that the DVD player and iPod never left the bag. Before long, the German countryside came into view from the plane’s windows, and wheels touched down in Hamburg.
Squint, and ignore the language on the signs, and on the drive from the airport, Hamburg looked relatively like any mid-sized American city. Suburban row housing. Parks. High-rise office buildings. Graffiti.
A successful trip to the hotel brought a second challenge: electricity. For the uninitiated, wall sockets look quite different in continental Europe. They’re round, and intended to fit two circular prongs. Converters are necessary for all American electrical items, including computers and cell phones.
With most everyone struggling to adjust to the nine-hour time change, sleep didn’t come easily on the first night, but by Monday morning most people were up and around, trying to figure out their Starbucks orders in German and preparing for that afternoon’s practice at the 02 Arena in Hamburg.
In fact, a good percentage of the staff spent most of the day at the rink. It started with a press conference involving Terry Murray and Luc Robitaille, continued with a German pro league (DEL) game between the Hamburg Freezers and the Iserlohn Roosters, and concluded with the Kings’ open practice.
The Freezers, owned by Kings owner Philip Anschutz, couldn’t have been more pleased to host an NHL team in their building. Team employees of every job description were on hand to greet and assist Kings staffers and make sure they were properly treated in a luxury suite during the DEL game.
A Freezers home game features the feel of a mini-soccer game. Fans at one end of the arena stand, clap and cheer for almost the entire game, regardless of the score. After the public-address announcer intones a player’s first name, the crowd yells the player’s last name in unison. A drum beat provides a soundtrack.
The Freezers would lose this game in a shootout, but a good percentage of the 10,000 or so in attendance would stay, free of charge, to watch the Kings practice for more than an hour.
Tuesday meant (exhibition) game day, back at the O2 Arena, and while the Freezers fans didn’t let up on the cheering and chanting, they also provided respectful cheering for the Kings, with applause and plenty of sounds of awe every time a Kings player scored, or even made a nifty move around the net.
The game stayed closer than expected for a while, but the Kings held on for a 5-4 victory.