Behind Enemy Lines: A Red Wings Game at Staples Center

Red Wings
(Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

Late last week, I made a trip to the West Cost to visit a friend I had known since middle school. He moved out to California in July for an animation job, and I had never been to California — the stars had aligned.

What aligned even more was the Detroit Red Wings were going to be on the West Coast in February. I knew by the time February rolled around, I would be sick of the Michigan winter weather. So, I booked a flight to San Diego and was excited for the opportunity to not only see the Red Wings behind enemy lines, but to see them as a fan rather than a writer.

After my friend and I walk around the Santa Monica pier Tuesday afternoon, we decide to head over to Staples Center, knowing Los Angeles traffic would make the trip exceptionally long. It was — it takes us an hour to drive about 12 miles. Certainly, not what I’m used to growing up in the Grand Rapids area, where a 12-mile trip usually takes about 10-12 minutes.

Pre-Game Meal

We arrive on South Figueroa Street around 5:30 p.m., so we have a couple of hours to kill before the 7:30 p.m. game start time. We decide to hit up a local Mexican restaurant called El Compadre Restaurant. We saw seating on the roof and wanted to get a great view of downtown L.A. However, the hostess informs us that was a different restaurant altogether.

We decide to stay anyway, since it was so close to the arena, there was no way we wouldn’t make it time for the game. Our waiter came to our table dressed in a Kings shirt, while my friend and are dressed in Red Wings paraphernalia — he had a generic Red Wings sweater, and I chose my Pavel Datsyuk 2014 Winter Classic jersey.

In fact, most of the restaurant was decked out in Kings clothing. We definitely are behind enemy lines. I was expecting the local fans to yell “Detroit sucks” at us at least once or twice while in the restaurant but was surprised to see no one even really acknowledged our presence in the first place.

The restaurant had a couple of hockey games on above the bar, so we watch the New York Islanders clobber the Arizona Coyotes, “Oh look, Mike Smith is still bad. Remember when everyone thought he was good?” my friend quips after Smith lets in a soft goal. We also saw Calgary’s Karri Ramo rob New York Rangers’ JT Miller on what has to be the save of the year. “Wow, was that Karri?” I ask. “That was incredible.”

Exploring Staples Center

After we pay for our meals, we venture back into the street to make the short walk to Staples Center. We pass quite a lot of Red Wings fans on the way and high-five a few. We are in enemy territory, but we are not alone.

As we entere Staples Center, I am taken aback by the beauty of the building. Purple lights flood the entrance arena, while an escalator helps fans get to the upper levels. The only other NHL arena I have been to is Joe Louis Arena, and Staples Center blows it out of the water. Granted, most NHL arenas blow the Joe out of the water. What the Joe lacks in beauty and technological advances it makes up for in history and old-time hockey feeling. I think to myself, “If Staples Center looks like this, I’m excited to see what the new Detroit arena will look like.”

Eventually, we make our way to our seats to watch warmups. Seated behind Jonathan Quick on the third level, we have a great view of the play. Staples Center doesn’t seat as many as Joe Louis Arena, but at the same time, it also seems bigger and less intimate than the Joe.

I see the Kings’ Stanley Cup championship banners hanging on the other side of the rink, as well as the retired numbers of Rob Blake, Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Luc Robitaille, Rogie Vachon and Wayne Gretzky. The Los Angeles Lakers’ banners hang on the wall on our side of the arena. The Lakers have a long history of winning, and the Kings slowly are starting to add to that history.

Tuesday night was Legends Night, and the Kings honored Tony Granato, who happens to be an assistant coach with the Red Wings. Granato had 305 points in 380 games with the Kings from 1990-96. After a brief montage of Granato’s career in L.A., the former winger is introduced to the crowd, and he makes his way to center ice to a thunderous applause.

He comments how he is torn on this game, due to the fact he had some great years in L.A., but now he is coaching the Red Wings. However, he adds the Kings always will hold a special place in his heart.

Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille presents Granato with a nice-looking watch, as he is surround by his sons, daughters and wife.

Game Time

The presentation is over, and it’s finally time to drop the puck. Before the Granato presentation, the arena got dark for player introductions, and the Red Wings make their way onto the ice to a loud chant of “Boooo!” Over the boos, a lot of cheering is heard from the plethora of Red Wings fans who came to Staples Center. “I think there are more Red Wings fans than Kings fans here,” I say to my friend. It certainly appears that way. Red Wings fans tend to travel well due to the success of the team during the past two decades, and L.A. was no exception. Sections along the glass appeared to be covered mostly in red, dominating the black of the Kings.

However, when the Kings take the ice, no boos could be heard from the Red Wings fans. The arena erupts with cheers, as the home team comes out in their retro-style gold jerseys of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The gold jerseys are one of the few retro-style jerseys that still look good today. It makes me wish the Red Wings would wear different jerseys occasionally, even if it’s only Winter Classic jerseys from years past.

Right before the puck is dropped, my friend says “Look at this, this place is empty,” as he points to sections of seats that are unoccupied. “It’s L.A.,” I reply, “they’ll probably show up late.” Sure enough, by the midway point of the first period, the arena is near capacity.

The referee drops the first puck, and we are under way. The Red Wings are on the back end of back-to-back games, having just played Anaheim the night before, so I was thinking a slow start was a possibility. The Red Wings went to a shootout with Anaheim on Monday, and it showed early on in the game against the Kings, who had won their past seven games before facing Detroit.

Early in the first, Drew Miller took a holding the stick penalty that gave Los Angeles a power play — and it quickly took advantage. Jake Muzzin takes a slap shot from the point that is deflected by Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams to give the Kings a 1-0 lead just 2:24 into the game. The arena erupts in cheers, as the home team takes the lead. “This could be a long game,” I thought to myself.

Later on, a “Let’s go Red Wings,” chant breaks out among the faithful fans. My friend and I join, but the chant quickly dies. Red Wings fans didn’t have a whole lot to cheer about Tuesday night.

The rest of the first period didn’t go much better for the Red Wings. The Kings dominated the first stanza, taking advantage of Detroit playing just 24 hours ago. They were physical, and anytime a Red Wings player had the puck, they quickly swarmed the puck carrier leaving no room to operate for Detroit.

The Red Wings also have problems keeping the puck on their sticks. The ice conditions seem less than ideal, as the puck takes weird bounces and never seems to settle down. The Los Angeles Clippers played a game Monday night, so maybe it had an effect on the ice. Regardless, the Red Wings are not playing their best hockey, and the Kings are driving the play.

Detroit manages to get out of the first period down just 1-0 and were outshot 10-6. It could have been a lot worse, but Jonas Gustavsson makes some key saves to keep his team in the game.

After the first period ends, we decide to walk around Staples Center. Odds are I won’t be back for a long time if ever, so I wanted to see as much of the arena as I could. The Joe is almost impossible to navigate between periods. The narrow walkways quickly fill up, as spectators move toward the concessions stands or to the restrooms.

However, Staples Center is wider, which made walking around significantly easier. After a half-lap around the upper bowl, I notice an outside area. I open the door, and a wave of smoke hits my face, and I start to cough. This must be the smoking section. However, it’s a smoking section with added benefits. It comes equipped with a bar and a concession area where patrons can order steaks. Yep, this is Los Angeles.

We walk toward the balcony, where we can see Chick Hearn Court below us and the Nokia Theatre on the other side of the street. It’s an amazing view, one of many amazing views that I’m sure you can find in downtown Los Angeles.

Second Period

We make our back to our seats for the second period. I’m almost sure the Red Wings got a tongue-lashing from coach Mike Babcock. It’s a sloppy period, and Detroit is lucky to only be down one goal.

The second period is astronomically better for the Red Wings than the first. Stephen Weiss has a glorious opportunity to tie the game on a power play, when Jonathan Quick goes to play the puck behind his net. Tomas Tatar quickly gatheres the puck Quick left for his defenseman, and makes a pass to Weiss. But Weiss fans on the shot, and the Red Wings still can’t get on the scoreboard.

The Red Wings have three power plays during the second period, but the Kings kill every single one of them, making the league’s top power-play unit look obsolete.

Detroit outshoots Los Angeles 7-5 in the second, but the Red Wings definitely dictate the majority of the play despite not getting a goal. During the second, my friend comments “Man, the Kings are really hitting high,” to which a Kings fan sitting in front of us quickly turns around and nods his head in agreement. I expect some trash-talking, but he clearly has noticed the physical play as well.

At one point during a TV timeout, a fan has to guess which Kings player — Anze Kopitar or Justin Williams — names more McDonald’s menu items. A laugh erupts from the stadium when Williams lists bacon as one of the menu items. Close, Justin, but not quite.

Third Period

The third period starts, and the Red Wings still are down just 1-0. Gustavsson looks solid in net despite playing in just his second NHL game since Nov. 5.

The Red Wings have an early opportunity on another power play. Gustav Nyquist receives a pass from Tomas Tatar all alone in the slot. Kopitar drops to his stomach to block the shot, but Nyquist skates around him and wrists a shot toward the right side. However, Quick makes the glove save, one of many he made that night.

Near the end of the third, the jumbotron displays the dance cam, as it pans to different fans dancing to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” When the camera shows Kings coach Darryl Sutter’s son Chris, the fans scream with cheers, as Chris schools all of the other participants with his dance moves.

Chris suffers from Down syndrome, and is sort of a motivator/inspiration for the team, as Epic’s “Road to the NHL Stadium Series” showed. He visits the players in the locker room and loves cheering on his dad’s team. Everyone applauds for Chris, even Red Wings fans. Kings and Red Wings fans may be divided during the game, but in the grand scheme of things, we are all humans celebrating life.

The teams trade chances throughout the period, but with minutes remaining, the Red Wings make a disastrous mistake. With 3:46 left in the game, Luke Glendening shoots the puck over the glass on a Kings power play, which means the Red Wings face a five on three for the next 26 seconds.

The Kings pummel Gustavsson with shots, but he and the rest of the Red Wings penalty killers come up big. Detroit kills both penalties, and now the Red Wings have their opportunity to tie the game. Babcock pulls Gustavsson, and the six on five begins. As the clock ticks down, I think to myself, “Am I going to travel out all this way and not see one single Red Wings goal?” Unfortunately, that is the case.

Detroit had its chances, but Quick was equal to the task and earns the shutout, making 20 saves. Marian Gaborik has a chance to ice the game with about 30 seconds left on an empty-net goal, but his shot goes wide, which makes the crowd let out a collective groan.

As time expires, I was ready for the onslaught of trash talking from the surrounding Kings fans. Especially since I spent most of the game commenting on the lack of calls saying “That’s a penalty,” “That’s interference,” as the referees let the two teams play early on.

However, we receive no trash talking at all. It wasn’t until we made our way to the escalator when a “Detroit sucks” chant starts, followed by a Red Wings fan saying “Call me when you’ve got nine more Cups.”

Despite the outcome of the game, it was an experience I will never forget. There are a number of NHL arenas I hope to see during the course of my life, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to experience Staples Center.

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Tom Mitsos is a Detroit Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins staff writer for The Hockey Writers. You can follow him on Twitter @tom_mitsos.