Among the many more important things I wished to accomplish on my trip were the goals of:
1) my first NHL game in Canada
2) my first World Series game
When I started my trips it was not yet a sure thing that the Cardinals would be in the World Series and even then, it wasn't clear what days the home games would be, whereas I knew exactly what day I would be in Canada, knew that the Maple Leafs were in town that weekend, and that there was a big game planned.
I suppose the sub-story here is that I had tickets to neither of these events. Sure, there were tickets to be had, but I haven't yet gotten to the point in my life where I have spent more than $150 for tickets to an event, be it a concert or game or miscellaneous happening. Tickets weren't available for either the Leafs or the Series for less than a couple hundred on Stubhub. My thought was - get there and see what happens with the scalpers.
Surely, I thought, as the games went on, the face value of the ticket would drop until the desperate scalpers, eager to recoup some kind of money, would fold and sell them to me for whatever I would then coldly, but gleefully, offer. I say this because this has worked in the past, but there are two caveats to this strategy:
1. You have to have a non-negotiable amount you are willing to spend and you can't budge from it. Once you do, you lose any position you have on these pros. You can also build in some bargaining space, if you would like (have $60 in your pocket and start at $40, for example).
2. You have to not be emotionally invested in going to the game and have to be willing to walk away.
In both cases I had these, and in one case I had an additional backup plan. I'll start with the hockey game first.
Part I: Aboot the Hockey Game
I truly believe in cultural exchange. I believe that when you are visiting a country you eat the food the locals do and you partake of the things they enjoy. In Canada, this includes their quasi-religion: ice hockey.
I've never had a thing for hockey. I made it to a Boston Bruins game once when I was in college. I went to college an hour north of Boston and going to a hockey game was surely on the teenage Stephen's "to-do" list. We sat up in the nosebleeds and had a great time. I've also been to an Anaheim Ducks game (back when they were the Mighty Ducks). Hockey is fun - but in my case - it didn't lead to an addiction.
Part of something I look forward to next month is my first game at Emirates Stadium in London. Arsenal FC, the team I have followed in the Barclays Premier League, plays there to 60,000 fans most weekends during the season. The chanting and singing comes through the television set and I tell most people I take to soccer games for their first time - the EXPERIENCE is a big part of what attracts me to watching soccer. I've heard the same thing about watching hockey in Canada - and so I wanted to see it myself.
My friend Nicholas, a native Canadian, and in a past life a confessed hockeyolic (now retired), told me that I was crazy to think I could get a ticket for less than $100 day of. I scoffed and told him I could, and on a Saturday night I headed in to try to catch the Maple Leafs play the Penguins. I left a couple hours before the game started, made my way through Toronto traffic (not horrible, but certainly not awesome), parked at a parking structure four blocks from the Air Canada Centre, and started walking in.
My strategy was simple. Look like the young college student. Confess that I had $60 to spend, and see what I could get. Surely, I thought, as time wore on these outrageous prices would drop.
First Pass: East Side, Bay Street
Got stopped by two sets of scalpers. I let the first guy talk for about a minute, as he went on about how amazing his tickets were. I can get them for $240, he tells me. "Look, buddy, I've got $60 to spend." I pat my pocket. His face turns plaintive, "Name McNamerson (I don't remember) is the greatest player in hockey, he's playing tonight, what are you talking about $60." "That's all I got, man." "No you don't," he said with a sly smile. I kept walking.
Second guy walks around in front of the Galleria entrance to the Air Canada Centre, between it and Union Station (yes, they even have Union Stations up in Canada. Remember that "Union" doesn't necessarily refer to the criminal regime that belligerently invaded the Confederacy, it can also refer to the "union" of two different rail lines that link up at "union station."). His job is to yell, "Tickets, Tickets, Tickets" and then signal one of his boys when he sees a mark. I make eye contact with him. He zooms up, followed by one of his partners. They size me up: "How much are you willing to spend?" I answer back immediately, "$60." They give me the look of, "This guy can't be serious" and just walk away. Fine with me, I thought. I look at my watch: the game had started 5 minutes ago.
Second Pass: East Side, Bay Street
I loitered by the Galleria, thinking that Ticket Boy and his friends might reacquire interest in me as those pieces of paper continued to stay in their hands. I saw them accost others - most of them native Canadians (I could tell by the wannabe American accent. I kid, I kid.) with the same ridiculous prices. No one bought. I decided to walk back up to Mr. $240. "What do you have for me?" I asked. Same thing. I got grief about how crazy I was to think I was getting in there. "Look - go to the ATM over there - go get $40 more bucks, and I'll sell you this one ticket for $100. Best seats in the house!" I shook my head. He had 4-5 "colleagues" who teased me, "You still sticking with the $60 story?" "That's all I have, fellas." And that was true. That was all I had to spend for a sport I had seen exactly 3 times in my whole life. Walked back down to where Ticket Boy was with his friends. Loitered again. No dice.
Third Pass: Through the Galleria and all the way around the Centre
Okay, I'll go to the ticket office, I thought. It was the break after the First Period now and the air was thick with cigarette and marijuana smoke. If hockey was a religion, this was the incense offered up during the breaks. Maybe they have rush tickets, I thought to myself. I came to the Maple Leafs Box Office. "Do you have anything left, ma'am?" I asked. "The lowest we have start at $240." Of course, I thought. If Leafs fans knew they could just wait until the end of the First Period and then get some cut-rate tickets, this would affect overall ticket sales. The Leafs protected the integrity of their pricing by not offering this option. And there were more than 15,000 people on the other side of the wall (and I could hear them - they were loud) who had paid whatever was necessary to be in there that night.
I walked around to the West Side, where a giant display allowed the fans on their collective smoke break to see commentary from Hockey Night in Canada. TV crews were out interviewing rabid fans. There were food trucks and scarf vendors. It was a festive atmosphere for what must have been a "balmy" night for Toronto types: 50 degrees F (10 degrees C). No scalpers on this side. Only people with tickets smoking and laughing.
Fourth Pass: East Side, Bay Street (I know, again!)
The Second Period was getting ready to start so I thought why not give it one more chance? One of Ticket Boy's colleagues stopped me as I was leaving the Galleria. I told him $60 and he gave me this look. Now, I told you earlier that early on I got the, "You're Crazy" look from the scalpers. This guy simply gave me the, "You're Unreasonable" look. They are breaking down, I thought to myself.
I went back to the corner where Mr. $240 was. "You still looking for that $60 ticket?" he asked. "Yes." "Go talk to those guys," he motioned to his buddies on the corner. "Maybe they have a ticket for you." I quickened my pace for what were the most hopeful words of the night. I stop in front of 5 guys. "You still peddling that $60 story, kid?" I decided to lay it out for them.
"Look, I'm not from Canada. I've never been to a hockey game in this country in my life. I'm here for a couple days and I have $60 I can spend on a ticket. If I don't buy from one of you guys I'm going to go down there to a pub (I pointed to the Fox, catty-cornered from the arena) and spend this on a nice meal to watch my Cardinals play a World Series game."
This had to work, I thought. I laid it out for them. I'm telling them their tactics won't work on me because I don't have a high enough desire to go, and I'm offering them $60 in exchange for one of their unsold tickets.
Some bothered to shrug their shoulders, but all were nonplussed. "Well, good luck kid, we don't have anything for ya."
I shrugged back and walked down to the Fox. I managed to persuade the beautiful Australian hostess to do something unheard-of on a hockey night in Canada: change one of the TVs over to the World Series. Not only was the Leafs game on every TV, there was even a minor league game playing on one of them. I picked a booth - promised I would order some food - and she was kind enough to get the channel changed for me and I saw that game from the 2nd through the 8th, when I decided to head home - as my hosts did not keep as late of nights as I did. It was an unkind night. The Cardinals lost. I didn't get into my hockey game. Decent takeaway: more chatting with the hostess, who I found out was from Brisbane. In between telling her how underrated I thought that part of Queensland was, I managed to ask why the heck she was in Toronto. "See the world, you know." "No, that's not all," I teased. "You're from the beach! (Brisbane is near Gold Coast, one of the "beachiest" parts of that lovely country)." "Well, my boyfriend got a job here." Ah. I also sat directly across from a couple who seemed to be having a perfectly fine date until they started a 20 minute argument which culminated with the girl leaving, coming back in, slapping the guy 2-3 times, then leaving. I thought of buying the guy a drink and hearing the story but by the time I got up to leave he was gone.
So you were right, Nicholas. I even wrote a story explaining to people how right you were :-)
Part II: The World Series
The Redbirds lost the night I was in Canada but they had one more home game on Monday and I was determined to get in. I've seen a handful of games at this jewel of a stadium (probably about 8) and so this wasn't the novelty of getting into something I had never seen before. This was watching a team I cared about play in the most important series of games in the baseball season. But, with savings set aside for the move to Europe, I continued to hold the line on what I was willing to spend. This time I would go with $80 in my pocket. On my way down to St. Louis I called a friend (who we will call "Rob" for the purpose of protecting the guilty :-) ) who I usually invited to games when I came into town. I told him my plan and asked if he wanted to join me. "We'll just go to Paddie-Os and watch if we can't get a ticket. At least we will be there." He agreed and added, "I might have a favor I can call in. I'll keep you posted." Sounded interesting! My friend Rachel was also going to join us, as was another buddy of Rob's, Dan.
We met at the Home Plate side of the stadium. Rob was calling a couple connections who had enough pull to walk in escorted guests. "Should we buy tickets?" I asked as we got into the 2nd inning. "No, he'll come through." Rob was assured. I was listening to the radio call via my iPad. At the top of the 3rd I headed to one of the portable toilets for a quick visit and when I returned I couldn't find Rob or Dan. Rachel had left us in the 2nd to perch by a television - the radio wasn't a good enough call for her :-). "Stephen!" I heard. I looked. Rob and Dan were on the other side - the INSIDE - of the stadium. I came up to the grille. "What happened?" I was incredulous. "My friend showed up and you were in the bathroom." I was crestfallen. Of all the times I had picked to go to the bathroom. And maybe now I wasn't going to see the World Series. "I might see him again, oh, wait." Rob had spotted his friend and pointed at me. The guy nodded and started to come around to the gate. I called Rachel twice as he started to come out - no answer. We walked in and poof, I was inside Busch Stadium for Game 5 of the World Series.
Standing Room Only is no way to see any sporting event but I was happy to be there and the atmosphere was great until the 8th inning, where it looked like we just lacked the killer instinct the Cards were so famous for in deep playoff runs. We ended up losing, and while I had just been "happy to be there" Rachel recounted to me that her cousin had paid $500 for his seat (she had managed to get a pretty decent seat via $100 and her phone number. Guys can't get that kind of discounting :-) ) and when I heard that I thought it would have been a double whammy to pay that much for a bad seat and to watch the team you love lose.
On a side note the Red Sox fans were polite and friendly as we walked down the stairwell. No gloating or obSoxiousness which I had seen often enough.
So often I buy tickets to the events I want to see. This is not just a sure-fire way to get into the game, but it means you can count on being there for those special moments. Showing up and trying to get in sometimes works (and sometimes doesn't), but depending on what attitude you bring and what alternative methods you use, you can still have a great night out.