Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Witnessing James Neal's joy of hockey up close

In honor of James Neal's incredible start to the 2017/2018 NHL season with the Las Vegas Golden Knights I dug up these memorable photographs from 2013.

At the time I was shooting photographs for a now-extinct website that got me ice-level access to Islanders games at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island. Sitting through hours of dreaded traffic on I-495 was worth this.

Because here I was shooting through one of the six photo holes at ice level. The ice cool air was blowing through as I stuffed either of the two lenses of my cameras through for the perfect pic. I had to pull back the camera to avoid stray pucks, sticks and players.

Sometimes an NHL player like Antoine Roussel or a ref would hand me a puck through the photo hole to give away to fan behind me. My friend Greg would get mad at me for not keeping the puck, but there are rules amongst the professional photographers, mind you :) Plus, I had already caught a NJ Devils game puck years earlier as a fan, so I was good as far as game pucks go.

When I was putting my 70-200 camera lens through the photo hole during warm-ups sometimes a player would deliberately try to destroy it with a wrister from the blue line for some laughs. Yeah, Robyn Regehr, I'm talking about you! But, these were experiences that I will not easily forget. Especially as a fan of the game.

So, here is how these James Neal photos came about. After I drove in for the game with some good friends and a bit of tailgating I put my press face on and wandered around the parking lot to collect pix. The parking lot pix were fun. Fans were in their gear going nuts. There was a car smashing area. If I recall, this was the first Islanders home playoff game in five years. So the atmosphere was alive. It was a rare afternoon weekend game too so the tailgating was in its maximum state. The smell of grilled up goodness and booze was all around. My crew got on the local TV station with their Stiga hockey tables.

After gathering up some outdoor parking lot pix I decided to meander inside the arena to see what was happening and if there was anything was worth photographing. It was early and it was pretty much just me inside with a handful of ushers and security folks. My press badge gave me access to pretty much everywhere.

I remember getting lost in the boxes upstairs one time. There were these enormous photographs of Islanders greats covering the hallways up there. You know, guys like Mike Bossy. The Islanders were one hell of a team in the 80s! They won four straight Stanley Cups!

When I wandered inside the empty arena I noticed that every seat in the place was covered with orange playoff towels. That was really cool. Here are some photos of that:

While I was setting up these photos I noticed some people skating on the ice.

View some of the game pix here including one of Sid the Kid Crosby working the corner during the game. This is when Sid had a broken jaw and was rocking the lower face protective glass. I had some interesting encounters or observations of Crosby during the couple of years I was photographing NHL games at at the coliseum. Crosby is very particular about taping up the blade of his stick between periods. He was one of the first ones out of the locker room between periods and onto the runway taping up his stick just right.

Maybe this is part of his needing to have an awareness of things happening outside and around him and the team. This extended beyond the ice into the locker room area. It's not quite unlike John Tavares' pregame stretch routine in the hallway outside of the press room. I believe Johnny, as his teammates call him. Maybe this is also a need to establish an awareness of the things happening around him. Or they both just need a quiet moment to focus. It was fun to see that up close, whatever it was.

Anyway, James Neal was in a sweatshirt and shorts that day standing at the end of the runway shooting some pucks around. He was actually injured at the time and didn't play in that game. I was struck by how much fun he was having just shooting some pucks at the net. He's a Whitby, Ontario born Canadian, just outside of Toronto.

Here he was, James Neal, standing on the threshold of the ice in sneakers shooting pucks at the net. I think, here is a player who just loves the game that much that he can't stay away from it. Teammates, like the legendary Evgeni Malkin were there checking out what Neal was up to. And they were enjoying the moment like kids that love hockey.

And for me to be there, that close to a moment like that, that close to these superstars that I love to watch play the game...it gives me chills to this day to think about it.

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