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Habs, Wings, Panthers are arena party poopers

by John Kreiser

Throughout their storied history, the Detroit Red Wings
have been major homewreckers against teams who are opening new arenas, ruining things for their hosts.

The New Jersey Devils finally get to open their new arena, the Prudential Center, when they host Ottawa Saturday night.

Despite the Senators’ hot start, history shows that the Devils probably would rather be playing Ottawa -- and not Detroit, Montreal or Florida.

The Red Wings have been the most common opponent in opening games played at facilities now in use – and have proved to be a very unwelcome guest. Detroit has three wins (Anaheim, Vancouver and Buffalo) and a tie (Edmonton) in those four games -- though ironically, the Wings lost their first game at Joe Louis Arena, to St. Louis on Dec. 27, 1979.

Montreal has been the opening-night opponent in three current buildings and spoiled the first games in Pittsburgh and Ottawa before losing in Toronto in February 1999. The Canadiens lost to the Senators in their first-ever NHL game in 1993 at their original home, the Ottawa Civic Center.

Florida is the only other team to open three current buildings as the visiting team – the Panthers sandwiched wins at Philadelphia in 1996 and Nashville in 1998 around an 1997 loss in Washington.

Six teams have been the visitor twice and seven have done it once; 14 others have never opened a current building, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, the only Original Six team that hasn’t been an opening night guest.

In fact, the first game at a new arena usually sends the crowd home disappointed. Home teams are only 10-15-4 in the first game at the 29 other arenas now in use in the NHL. The Devils are just 1-1-1 in the franchise’s three previous building openers – they lost to Chicago in the first game at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena as the Scouts in 1974, beat Toronto at McNichols Arena in Denver as the Colorado Rockies two years later and played a 3-3 tie with Pittsburgh in the first NHL regular-season game at the New Jersey Meadowlands in 1982.

Big-name beginnings -- Of the 29 buildings now in use, only three have been christened by Hall of Famers. Edmonton’s Jari Kurri scored the first goal in Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome in 1983, the Flames’ Al MacInnis got the first goal at San Jose’s HP Pavilion in 1991 and Detroit’s Steve Yzerman scored the first goal in the history of Vancouver’s GM Place in 1995.

Calgary is unique in that it has had two homes since the franchise moved from Atlanta in 1980 – and each had its first goal scored by a Hall of Famer. Quebec’s Michel Goulet christened the Stampede Corral in 1980 by scoring the first goal in a 5-5 tie.

Two to remember -- Bill Sutherland was a journeyman forward who scored 70 goals in 250 NHL games with five teams from 1962-63 to 1971-72. The expansion of 1967 rescued him from being a career minor-leaguer and gave him a chance to do something no other player in league history has done. Over a five-day span on two coasts, Sutherland became the only player to get the first goal in two buildings in the same season. On Oct. 14, 1967, Sutherland scored the first NHL goal at the Long Beach Sports Arena, one of the two buildings used by the Los Angeles Kings before the Great Western Forum opened later than season. The goal came just 42 seconds into the game – still the fastest first goal at any new NHL building. Five nights later, Sutherland scored the first NHL goal in the Spectrum as the Flyers beat Pittsburgh, 1-0.

The only other player to get the first goal in two NHL buildings was the Blackhawks’ Mush March, who christened both Chicago Stadium in November 1929 and Maple Leaf Gardens two years later.

Fast starts -- Sutherland’s goal is one of only two scored in the first minute at a new building. The other came back in 1924, when Montreal’s Billy Boucher started the Canadiens’ 7-1 victory over Toronto in the first game at the Forum by scoring just 55 seconds after the puck was dropped. But of the 29 current buildings, 22 have seen the first goal scored during the first period. Six had the first goal scored in the second, and only one – Florida’s 1-0 victory at Nashville’s Sommet Center in 1998 – saw the first goal scored in the third period.

That game was one of only two among the 29 active arenas that ended in a shutout – Montreal won 3-0 in the first game played at Scotiabank Place on Jan. 17, 1996.

Score four -- Like Sutherland, Chris Kontos was a journeyman forward whose biggest claim to fame stems from an opening. Kontos made the debut of the Tampa Bay Lightning at Expo Hall a memorable one by scoring four goals – the only time that’s been done in the NHL debut of a building or a franchise. Four other players had three goals in the first NHL games at new buildings (plus one at a neutral-site game played at Phoenix’s America West Arena in 1992). No one has gotten a hat trick in a building-opener since Boston’s Cam Neely did it at the TD Banknorth Garden in 1995.

Chicago Stadium’s opener in 1929 was unique – it’s the only arena-opener in NHL history in which a player from each team scored three goals. Art Somers had three for Ottawa and Hec Kilrea scored three for Ottawa in the Senators’ 6-5 victory.


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