Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hittin' The Road For Hockey

A good friend of mine was sitting at work last week and decided to use her time the best way possible (if you ask me): by planning a hockey road trip for her next vacation. She shared her plans and it got me thinking about how much fun it is to see how the other side lives by hittin' road to go watch hockey elsewhere. As regular readers know, I try to get out and about when I can and have had some utterly amazing experiences. I have one booked for certain this season (a week in Sweden) and have a few more possibilities lurking around in my head.

So what goes into a hockey trip? With a little help from the well-traveled Tapeleg of the terrific blog Jerseys & Hockey Love and Seth Mates, a road-weary/wary buddy of mine, I'll break it down into the misnamed five Ws: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How? Some are easier to answer so let's knock those off first:

Cause you love hockey, duh. Everyone should make a hockey bucket list that includes things other than 'see my team win the Stanley Cup,' especially when it is pretty likely you won't (sorry Canuck fans).

Many people make sure to include their favourite team. Steve Williamson pulled off 30 games in 30 nights and managed to include eight games with his Tampa Bay Lightning. But cheering on your team doesn't necessarily have to happen. Sometimes it is easier to take in the scene when not blinded by your own fandom. As Tapeleg warns, "if you are at an NHL game wearing your teams colors, then you are in for various degrees of ribbing. Remember, you chose to wear your jersey. The degree to which you will be taunted will vary depending on where you are. Be prepared, and learn to laugh it off. Being confrontational will not help your cause." If you do decide to see your team in an away setting, do your best to abide by A View From My Seats' Road Trip Etiquette.

During hockey season and when you can get off from school/work/responsibility. But even then that isn't necessarily the case as work trips often allow for some time off and if you are in good locales, you can fit in some puck. A friend of mine caught a game in Chicago last year, another hit the Hall of Fame last weekend ... and both were expensing it. It is a beautiful thing when you can manage it. But if you have to use your vacation time, choose wisely - remember hockey is played when it is cold, so snow could be a concern for many a trip. And holiday travel is always a hassle; the Rangers make their trips to Florida over Thanksgiving and New Years this season - sounds great but you will pay more and have to put up with more nonsense. Mr. Mates recommends that you "try to aim for games against crappy teams or in the middle of the week. The overall game experience is better when you avoid the crowds and chaos. Presents more opportunities for you. Also much cheaper." While I think the chaos is fun at times - i.e. Montreal - I have to agree on all of the other points. Plus the fans at those 'lesser' games are primarily the hardcore folks, the ones you want to be around anyway. I went to a Friday night WHL game in Seattle and no one around me knew anything about anyone; it sucked.

Well, when you aren't tied to the location of your business trip, the where can be anywhere you desire (or can afford). Some folks copy the classic baseball bucket list item of hitting all the ballparks, something my baseball obsessed buddy Mates is close to completing. I was up to 15 NHL arenas myself but with the Pens leaving the Igloo, a trip back to Pittsburgh will be in store down the line (dammit). But the NHL's teams are scattered across the country so it is hard to include a lot of NHL games in a geographically reasonably area for one trip. Tapeleg suggests, "going to hockey games outside your home rink is fun, but putting a theme to the trip is even more fun. My three major road trips all had some purpose to them: a trip through Texas (hockey on the border is great stuff), a west coast hockey tour (NHL, ECHL, and WHL), and a road trip through the entire UHL (14 teams in a league that doesn't exist any more). Having a theme can keep you focused on your trip, or just be a bit more fun, and give you more of a story to tell."

Let's change this to What to Wear?
I don't know about you but this is a big deal to me; I know, I'm ridiculous. If you are following the Rangers do you wear road whites to match the boys? Do you wear a fan favourite? I donned my Ortmeyer once in DC and had many Caps fans come up and say how much they liked his heart, asking what team he was on ... it was great. Then again I wore my Rangers Blair Betts to a Philly game and it just felt like I was rooting for the wrong team - but it did get some of the more ... enthusiastic ... Flyer fans to back off. The Blueshirt is so iconic that you can just go with NNOB (no name on back) and still get accolades and start conversations. But what if you aren't watching your boys on the road? I have some generic goodies that always work - a USA Olympic sweater from '02 being one. But that's a bit boring and Tapeleg recommends "if you don't have a horse in the race, wear a jersey that is somewhat remarkable, something a little different. My go to jersey is my black Johnstown Chiefs jersey. Most people will recognize the Chiefs from Slap Shot, but this isn't some novelty jersey. This jersey is from the home of Slap Shot, worn in a game at the War Memorial. You would be surprised at how many people from Johnstown, PA you can meet at an airport, or at a hockey game. Hockey jerseys are social objects. They draw other hockey fans to them. If you want to talk to hockey fans, wear a hockey jersey. And you might as well wear an interesting one."

Now this one is the biggie so strap in. First there is the scheduling. I mentioned Steve Williamson's 30 in 30 before but Tapeleg warns against booking a packed trip like that. "Seeing 30 teams in 30 days is a stunt," he said. "It will get you a few free beers from people who want to say hi, but it will also make you hate your life. Build in a day of rest every so often." Mates, on the other hand, thinks that you should "oversubscribe yourself. If you're going for a week, book a different team for every day, some hundreds of miles apart. Also, stay flexible. You can always change plans, but better to have constant options than to change your mind and there's no game when you want one." While I like to have options, I do agree with Tapeleg in that some rest time between games is necessary. When I went to the Olympics this year, I took in nine games in four days (and watched another two on tv in bars). It was awesome, but insane. And frankly, it was hard to take it all in and remember everything as it seemed to be just one long game. Plus, when you include free time, you can head out and just explore. If you are going to go all the way there, might as well play the tourist and see the sights too. I'm a big art and museum fan so I make sure to include time to stop at the biggest one in town. Mates agrees that you should see the landmarks, but he thinks the sightseeing should be planned. "Schedule your day from sunrise to sundown," he said. "Depending on how much driving you do, you'll want every ounce of sunlight you can get. Try not to drive too much at night, and try to restrict your post-game activity (especially early in the trip) so you don't tire yourself out before you even begin."

To avoid having to avoid post-game partying Tapeleg offers this advice: "I do my best to have my hotels lined up for game nights, and stay within walking distance of the arena. This allows me not only to have a beer or two at the game, but save on the parking fees that so many rinks want to charge as well. Sometimes this isn't possible, so I try to say in places that are comfortable. If I can, I stay where I can get some perks (Holiday Inn Express is a great option), and even a little consistency. When I stay at a HIE, I know what I am getting. Cheap is great and all, but when you are driving day after day, having a nice - or at least clean - place to stay can help keep you sane. Pro tip: some of the smaller 'boutique' hotels like Hotel Indigo can be really nice without costing a ton of money. The O Hotel in downtown Los Angeles is a great option for Kings games, and whatever the hotel next to the arena in Stockton, California is great."

Personally I book the hotels last as they really don't mean too much to me. If you are going to a big city, it is nice to find a place near the touristy stuff as you can run right over to check those out, then go back to your room to drop your souvenirs off and relax before heading out to the game. You have to be careful in selecting your souvenirs too as you will be bringing them along with you for the rest of the trip - not to mention that it often ends up being an expensive endeavour.

But back to lodging as Mates has an interesting opinion, one that runs contrary to my own obsessive nature: "Never, ever book hotels in advance, unless you're 1,000% sure you'll be where you think you will. Wait until you're tired of driving, then just get a room. If you stick with interstates and daylight, you'll never have trouble finding a hotel. Plus, there's enough iPhone apps, etc, now that you can still get a great deal. You can haggle at most hotels too -- if you're checking in on a Tuesday night and half the place is empty, they're likely to give you a great deal just to get something for the room. After all, if they don't rent it for something, they get nothing. But stay with friends along the way if you can (great way to save money)."

It is the little things like that that help you save money that can be better spent better tickets, better souvenirs or even best, on another trip. And Mates has more: "Also, even after you book a rental car or hotel, keep checking afterwards for a better deal (NEVER pay in advance for anything except a flight). I booked a car for an LA to Denver weeklong trip that I thought was a bargain at $588 (everything else had been over $1,000) - then I got a rate for $280. Wound up payin $211 by the time the trip came. Sign up for every free credit card/travel rewards program you can. You'd be surprised how quickly the hotel/flight/cars points add up. Also, don't buy the game tickets until the week right before. I've bought tickets and then changed my mind and never made it to the game."

When it comes to buying tickets, I'm usually the opposite myself. I like to make sure that no matter what, I will be in the building gamenight ... after all, that was the whole reason for the trip. And I definitely do not want to have to go through scalpers. If you deal with them, you will get your best price at or after game-time but you will miss so much. I like to show up to a new building as early as possible to explore everything - take a lap around the concourse, hit the team shop, get a game-night pretzel and watch warmups. As for picking the best place to sit, you can always email the local bloggers or even call the team for tips. "You would be amazed at how friendly and helpful team staff can be," Tapeleg said. "Calling ahead and telling the team what you are doing can not only give you a few perks (I've gotten better seats, as well as cheaper tickets and a few souvenirs). And if you are going to a minor league game, they will bend over backwards for you, and you may gain some interesting insight and background before the game."

Seeing as NHL teams aren't often as accommodating, you might just say 'screw it' and hit up Ticketbastard or Stubhub for your tickets. If you do, Mates says that you should "get either really cheap seats or really expensive seats. Either you want to save money, or you want to have an amazing time. Why half-ass it?"

While I certainly think you can (and probably will) have just as amazing an experience upstairs as you would down low, he has a point. If you aren't used to being a few rows off the ice and think you would find it enjoyable, what the hell? Go for it, you're on vacation.

This day and age we all spend far too much time cooped up at work or school that the rare moments of freedom should be enjoyed to their fullest. And what better way to do that than to hit the road and watch some hockey?


Unknown said...

Best use of my time all week!

Dennis said...

Awesome that you posted this. I have a fantasy, as I'm sure many of you do, of retiring or taking a long sebatical, getting an RV and seeing a game in every NHL stadium, hopefully timing it so the Rangers are in town for many of them.

Anonymous said...

Good article, also liked the Road Trip Etiquette article you linked to. I think I break most of those rules but section 329 doesn't feel like a road trip to me.

Kelly said...

Good timing. I just got time off from work to go see the Rangers in Toronto this month. I can hit the HHOF while I'm there. Still deciding whether to wear my jersey or not...

Garfinkus said...

I can't wait to be able to afford a trip and have time to do it.

Great article and very informative! I'll be sure to check back with you before a trip I take.