Hockey Road Trip: Christmas in Big Ten Country

21 August 2014

Seeing as how we don't really get to see the seasons change here in Los Angeles, I always make it a point to come back to the Midwest for Christmas - my father still lives in Illinois; my sister Jennifer lives in northwest Ohio; her daughter Kayla lives in Columbus; and my dear friend Tony and his wife Kasey (die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fans) live near Dayton.  During a previous visit, I was able to see a Columbus Blue Jackets game and quickly fell in love with Nationwide Arena, so I figured I could try to make this an annual ritual during my holiday visits.  At the same time, I thought this would also be a good opportunity to head up to nearby Detroit and see Joe Louis Arena, before it closes in 2017.

In the summer of 2013, Kayla came to visit me in Los Angeles and suggested I return the favor by visiting her in Columbus.  I'd only been there for one brief evening (long enough to see a Blue Jackets game and then leave town), so this seemed like a great spot to start my visit.


My first-ever flight on Delta Airlines was a very pleasant 4-hour non-stop trip, which put me in Columbus just as the evening began.  From there, Kayla and I soon began an impromptu walking tour of Columbus, beginning downtown.  We were greeted with holiday cheer from both One Nationwide Plaza (headquarters of Nationwide Insurance) and Nationwide Arena, whose tree-lined walkways were beautifully lit up:

Near the entrance to Nationwide Arena is Buca di Beppo, presumably the dining spot for many a Blue Jacket fan on game nights.  They have locations all across the country, and while it certainly isn't unique to Columbus, we were both hungry and it was a nice place to unwind and catch up.  One Margherita pizza and a couple of Italian sodas later, and we were back on foot into the Columbus evening.

We continued to the historic Short North district, home to various art galleries and pubs, which runs along a stretch of High Street.  It has a feel of urban gentrification mixed with Bohemian artistry, which gives it a certain charm.  Couple that with nearby students from one of the nation's most heavily-populated campuses, and you get a bustling Friday night environment.

After leaving The Short North, our walk took us along High Street, to the northern edge of the Ohio State campus.  An indeterminate number of pubs, restaurants and coffee shops lined the streets - including Eddie George's Grille 27 (the sports bar named after the Heisman-winning Buckeye running back) and Kafe Kerouac, "a place that loves art in all its forms":

Our evening would end at Oldfield's North Fourth Tavern, "conveniently" located BENEATH Kayla's second-floor apartment!  I can't say that I've ever crashed on a couch in an apartment above a bar before, but with the cross-country plane trip and extensive walking, it didn't take long for me to fall asleep, no matter how many times I could hear Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" playing downstairs...


Saturday saw Columbus being hit with a pretty strong storm which lasted through most of the morning and afternoon, which meant that we had to scamper through the steady downpour to get lunch.  Kayla's girlfriend, Charity, joined us for a visit to one of their favorite local diners, Hang Over Easy - a popular spot for Ohio State students, due to its close proximity to the campus, though it was somewhat empty on this day - likely due to both the rain and the fact that many of them had gone home to visit family over the holidays.

With a sizable lunch in our stomachs, we returned home and were greeted by the arrival of Kasey and Tony, who made the 75-mile trip from Englewood.  I would bid a fond farewell to my niece (thanking her for the hospitality and the informative walking tour), and then it was back to discover more of this welcoming city.

Like myself, Tony is a huge music-lover, so he made sure to take me to his favorite Columbus destination: Used Kids Records.  

Don't trust the couple in the hockey jerseys!

Tony, trying to hide from the camera
Believe me, I could have spent countless hours at this terrific store - in fact, one of my worst habits while on vacation is my tendency to buy multiple CD's, which always ends up severely limiting the amount of available space in my carry-on bags on my return flight.

But we had a tight schedule and needed to grab a bite before the game, so Kayla suggested The Elevator Brewery, especially since it was walking distance from Nationwide Arena.  This might be the most charming "brewery" I've ever encountered - with its rich history and lush surroundings, I'd highly recommend The Elevator for anyone coming to Blue Jackets games.  We each had sandwiches, and took turns walking around the interior of the building, admiring the design and architecture.

Finally, it was time to get out of the rain and into the arena - it was Hockey Night!!

Nationwide Arena is an awesome venue, featuring many interesting "fan attractions" - two of these caught my eye in particular.  The first was the Hat Trick Bin, a display showing EVERY hat that has been thrown on to the ice during a Blue Jackets hat trick, with the details inscribed on the outer glass:

And the other was the Hall of Hockey, an exhibit commemorating high school hockey throughout the state of Ohio:


The Blue Jackets hosted the Philadelphia Flyers, and their surprising number of visiting fans, in what actually wound up being the most exciting game that I attended all season.  After jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the first, the Jackets would double their lead with a goal late in the second period:

Unfortunately for the home team fans, the Flyers would score twice in a 20-second span to tie the score just before the period ended, setting up one of the more memorable third periods I've witnessed:

Cheerleaders in Santa hats - always a festive sight!
After spending the first two periods in the upper deck, we moved down to a "standing area" just above the lower bowl seating, on the penalty box side of the ice.  It was a great vantage point to see the Jackets take the lead five minutes into the period, and then go up 4-2 two minutes later.  The lead was extended to 5-2 with under eight minutes to go in the game, at which point the local fans started a clever chant, mocking a former Jacket now sitting on the opposing bench.

Goalie Steve Mason, much maligned in Columbus after he won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year then struggled for the following years, was playing in his first game at Nationwide Arena since being traded to Philadelphia late in the previous season.  Though starter Ray Emery had already allowed five goals at this point, it seemed like the Flyers coach wanted to spare Mason the embarrassment of making his return to Columbus ice at the tail end of a blowout, but that didn't stop the fans from unleashing a "WE WANT MASON!" chant that seemed to last several deafening minutes - it didn't work on this night, and it didn't work one month later, when these same fans started the chant when the Flyers (again led by Emery in goal) suffered a similar defeat in Columbus:

The fun-filled period continued as Nationwide Arena played Stompin' Tom Connors' "The Hockey Song" during the final television timeout, with lyrics on the scoreboard so all of the fans could sing along.  Just when I thought the night couldn't get any better, it happened.  I heard the sound of a banging drum, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see a bright green flash.  It was Stinger.  I LOVE mascots, plain and simple.  I had to meet him.  I had to get a picture with him.  And, thankfully for me, it was quite easy - he didn't even wait for a stoppage in play:

The Flyers would score a late goal, but the home team would add an empty-netter to wrap up a 6-3 victory on this Saturday night, sending thousands of Jackets fans back into the unseasonably warm Columbus winter night (once the rain had stopped, the temperature hovered around the low 60's) - and sending Tony, Kasey and myself on the road back to Englewood for some well-deserved rest, though not before a brief stop at Steak 'n Shake for a round of milkshakes.


This was the "day off" between games, as Tony worked in the morning and we relaxed at home watching football throughout the afternoon.  The evening brought a trip to nearby Dayton, which began with a very nice dinner at Thai 9 and ended with some Christmas shopping at The Mall at Fairfield Commons.  I'm actually one of those rare people that enjoys going to shopping malls during the Christmas season, and I was even able to find a nice gift for myself: a St. Louis Blues shot glass (with their current logo), to add to my collection.


Tony worked another morning shift, and then it was time to head north - but we would need some "fuel" for the trip, so I convinced him to take me for my first trip to Tim Hortons:

Not. Too. Shabby.
Sufficiently nourished for our two-hour trip along Interstate 75, we arrived at my sister's apartment in Findlay in the early afternoon.  Seeing as how she had recently celebrated a birthday, I thought taking her to her first hockey game would make for a nice present, and so her boyfriend Chris graciously drove us 100 miles north to Detroit.  Next stop…Hockeytown!

[Editor's Note: To be honest, there was something a little unsettling about the fact that both I, a long-time St. Louis Blues fan, and Tony, a die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fan, would be spending our evening in the historic surroundings that is home to a team we both referred to as a "hated arch-rival".  However, our collective love of hockey and its traditions would quickly dispel any negative feelings that we may have held toward this particular franchise and city, at least for this one night]

We arrived in Detroit a few hours before the game, and proceeded directly to Hockeytown Cafe - a terrific sports bar downtown, located within walking distance of the home stadiums for both the Lions and Tigers.  From the autographed jerseys to the delicious food, this place had a wonderful atmosphere (I particularly loved the Red Wings logo door handles), making it a must-see for any sports fan.

Be sure to try the "Hockeytown Burger"!

Autographed jersey commemorating the 2002 Stanley Cup Championship, a season that included a second-round playoff defeat of my St. Louis Blues.
Obviously, there were plenty of Red Wings fans there on this cold night, which only added to the anticipation of seeing the game.  Thankfully, we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy our meal, and Tony and I also took a few minutes to roam around the restaurant to see all of the hockey memorabilia - they even had Christmas decorations displayed!

Joe Louis Arena is situated in a very odd location, pressed up against the Detroit River and surrounded by several parking garages.  In fact, it appears that the only way to enter the building is through an extended pedestrian walkway, enclosed and separated from the streets outside.  It made for a unique pre-game pilgrimage, both protecting us from the cold weather and directing us past a nice statue of Joe Louis.  But just when we got used to the warm surroundings, we were unexpectedly detoured and found ourselves walking outside along the river, through several construction areas and past a series of service entrances, before ultimately arriving at the hockey palace.

And then I was instantly speechless...

Here I was, standing at the arena's entrance, which I'd seen on television countless times.  I don't even remember being cold at that point - just confounded with awe.  As I journey through NHL history with each arena visit, I found myself thinking that this might be the most historic venue that I will get to see.  It was very humbling, and filled me with a sense of pride that I never thought I'd experience during my stay.

Going inside was like traveling through a time-warp - this is a 35-year-old building after all, and it's amazing how accustomed a hockey fan can become to the pristine environment of the modern NHL arenas.  This place had an old-school charm: only one concourse circled the building; gifts were sold in kiosk stands rather than a designated "Team Store"; and there were friendly ushers situated in every section, quick to tell you about the history of the building.  One usher in particular was even nice enough to take our picture before the game started:

Tony, myself, Jennifer and Chris
Of course, we made sure to walk around that lone concourse, taking in the ambiance of the venerable arena - which included statues devoted to Red Wing legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, as well as a display case featuring the various Stanley Cup-winning teams that Detroit has seen over the years:

"Strap on your skates, Gordie - you're going in!"

Though nicknamed "Terrible Ted", there is now an award which bears his name, given annually to the NHL's most outstanding player - as voted on by the NHL Players Association.


The Hockey Gods work in mysterious ways, and karma can be a funny thing: if the game in Columbus was the best game that I attended this season, then the game in Detroit may have been the worst.  The visiting New York Islanders jumped on the Wings early, scoring three goals before the first period ended, and cruising to a rather easy 3-0 shutout victory.  This led to a wide assortment of boos directed at the home team throughout the evening, as a general sense of malaise and discontent fell upon the Detroit fans.

But that was only a minor impediment to our overall enjoyment on this evening.  Tony and I still had a great time admiring the history of this old barn, and my sister was impressed with her first game - in the end, that's really all that matters.  

Have I helped to create a new hockey fan?!?

We made sure to take our time exiting the building, slowly strolling around with the knowledge that we'd likely never see a game here again.  This presented a unique photo-op: Tony and I wanted to create a definitive record of our visit - simultaneously displaying both our love of hockey and this historic arena, while also alluding to our aforementioned "displeasure" with the Wings and what they'd previously done to our favorite teams.  Consider it "ennui mixed with regard":

Note: Whereas I like to collect shot glasses from each arena I visit, Tony prefers to buy a jersey - even if it belongs to a "rival" team.
While I certainly would have preferred to have spent more time in this memorable city, the holiday season was in full swing and we all had to return to Ohio for family obligations.  I do look forward to experiencing Detroit again, preferably with an extended visit - with its close proximity to my sister, as well as the new hockey arena on the horizon, I'm sure I'll return to the Motor City in the very near future.


Nationwide Arena actually had several shot glasses to choose from, and I settled on a really nice one which featured the current Blue Jackets logo against a wrap-around text design.  However, I wasn't really impressed with the lone shot glass being offered at Joe Louis Arena, so I instead chose to go online and find this beautiful "mini mug", perfectly fitting for a franchise of such esteem:

A weekend trip up the California coast, which included a visit to a "galaxy far, far away"...

You Might Also Like


Popular Posts