Postseason hockey, a long way from home

Posted on April 24, 2014 by John Walton

Honda Center

I’m coming to you this morning from a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, somewhere over Kentucky. Possibly Missouri. Another trip west, with playoff hockey awaiting on the other side of the country. After an early morning ride to Dulles, I’m off to a hockey practice in a few hours. Instead of Arlington, it's Anaheim that I’ll be watching players being put through their paces, with Game 5 on tap Friday night at Honda Center between the Ducks and the Dallas Stars. For the third time in the best-of-seven, I’ll have the play-by-play call for NBCSN from high above rinkside, with former Caps squaring off against one another. For almost a decade, calling playoff games in one way or another has been a rite of spring for me. I thought my streak was coming to an end a couple of weeks ago. I’m incredibly thankful to have been wrong about that. The ups and downs since the middle of March that have landed me on this flight this morning are pretty incredible, looking back.

On the morning of March 16, I woke up at home in northern Virginia, packed a bag, and headed to Verizon Center with the Toronto Maple Leafs in town. The Caps were still in contention for a playoff spot, and would be departing for Anaheim immediately after the game for a week in California. I couldn’t have known that day that I was about to spend more time in the Golden State than Virginia over the next 46 days. But between a week long trek with the Caps, and a couple of yet-to-be-revealed assignments, I was just getting warmed up out west.  

The road trip to California was very good to the Caps in March, taking five points out of a possible six. Flying home from San Jose, it looked as if the boys were on the verge of making a late season rally for a playoff spot.

It wasn’t meant to be.

A five-game winless skid at the worst possible time sent the fortunes of the big club sideways into early April. On April 9th, the night before a date with the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, Washington was officially eliminated from playoff contention as both Detroit and Columbus clinched the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots. I went to bed in Raleigh that night, believing I wouldn’t be calling playoff hockey on some level for the first time since 2005. As you might imagine, that wasn’t a pleasant prospect. I’d called games into June four different times in Hershey, and been there for three Calder Cup championships. Following my move to Washington, I’d seen hockey into May each of the last two seasons, and got to call three different Game 7’s. It was with a bit of disbelief that I woke up in North Carolina on April 10th, believing that my good fortune was about to come to an end.

Then the phone rang.

Over the last three seasons, I’d worked for NBCSN on several college hockey broadcasts, and even called the Hockey East championship two years ago. This season, I worked with former Caps forward Anson Carter on a broadcast at Michigan State in between a couple of Washington road games in January. But I'd never called an NHL regular season game for the network. 

Which made the call I got in Raleigh on April 10th a bit of a shock. 

Just prior to leaving for Washington's morning skate, I was asked by NBC if I’d be willing and able to call a first round matchup to be determined. Details and assignments  would be known in the coming days, what do you think? 

Rest assured, it didn’t take me long to answer.

I went into the last three games of the regular season disappointed that our Caps were playing out the string in meaningless fashion. That feeling for me was oddly balanced by knowing my season wasn’t ending with the home finale against Tampa Bay. Stranger still, I had no idea where I was going. After the final broadcast on radio, I was just waiting for the phone to ring, and deciding what to pack. Which is rather difficult, when the destination is still a mystery. But just hours after the regular year was put to bed at Verizon Center, I got the word I’d be heading west.

I was fortunate to have seen both Anaheim and Dallas play the Capitals in the closing weeks of the regular season, so heading into Game 1 at Honda Center, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on both teams and how they were playing. It certainly helped to have familiar faces on both sides. On the Ducks side, having Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods to ask questions of was a huge boost for preparing for the national broadcast. Chatting with Mathieu Perreault prior to Game 1 was great as well. He told me it was hard for him to leave Washington, but it turned out the move to Anaheim was the best thing that ever happened to him. He played with Teemu Selanne most of the season, and put up the best offensive numbers of his career. It felt strangely like home in the Anaheim dressing room, more than 2,200 miles from the corner of 7th and F Streets. The Dallas dressing room was also familiar, with former Washington forward Cody Eakin getting a lot of minutes up front for the Stars. Eakin picked up a huge goal for Dallas in Game 4, and is in the middle of his first Stanley Cup playoff. As you might imagine, he's having the time of his life. 

The atmosphere at Honda Center has been fantastic, especially in Game 2 of the series. I haven’t been assigned to Dallas for any games in the series yet, but I’ve been told by those on the scene it’s been every bit as strong in the volume department. The series has gone from fairly pleasant in Game 1 to all-out nasty after a Dallas victory to even the series in Game 4. A best-of-three will now decide who will advance, and who will be sent home. A pivotal Game 5 awaits at Honda Center tomorrow, and I’m honored to be the one on the call.

So, I’m back on the plane. Back to California, with a Game 6 already assured. It’s possible the series could bring a seventh and deciding game to Orange County before it’s all said and done. At the time of this writing, Game 5 is my only confirmed assignment, but I’m hopeful for another kick at the can after Game 5 tomorrow night. But no matter what happens the rest of this round, I’ve already kept my streak of calling playoff hockey alive. I wish it were the boys in red in the District. But in the meantime, it’s been a tremendous honor to be called up for the national broadcast. I can’t thank NBC enough for the chance. Four years ago, my travel was by bus throughout the American Hockey League. It’s been quite a ride since then. The privilege of being a part of a broadcast in a playoff series is one I’ll never take for granted. 

For those of you who sent well wishes via Twitter, your encouragement means a lot. Being an independent observer just hoping for an entertaining game isn’t the same as following around Washington’s boys of winter. But I hope you’ve enjoyed the series as much as I have. More than anything, I hope having a familiar call in the postseason keeps hope alive for seeing our guys back in the postseason this time next year. 

Posted in: Sports
next up:

2013-14 Plays of the Year

April 14, 2014

Hear the highlights of the season here, as assembled by CRN studio host Ben Raby.

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