Hockey Road Trip: Big Apple Trifecta

13 March 2015

As typical Navy families do, we often moved during my childhood, but while I did get to see much of the country (including a six-year residency in Hawaii), I haven't gone to many of the major metropolitan areas on the east coast.  Though I've now spent over a decade living in the heavily-populated urban setting of Los Angeles, New York City has always struck me as a mythical land, frequently depicted in movies and television shows, where life is happening at a breakneck pace.  Aside from the similar traffic and cost-of-living issues, these two major cities are quite different: I wanted to work in the film industry and I missed the warm weather, so California became my adopted home - but I always held a deep-rooted longing to eventually visit "The City That Never Sleeps".  That's where my hockey quest comes in...

During my first Hockey Road Trip to Denver, my friend Chad was having a great time and asked, "Where are we going next?"  I hadn't really thought that far ahead, so Chad and I immediately started to analyze the remaining cities on my list and came up with two questions to consider moving forward: "Are there any NHL arenas that are going to be replaced soon?" and "Are there any NHL veteran stars that I'd like to see who are close to retirement?"  There are a few answers to the first question, but Nassau Coliseum (home of the New York Islanders since 1972) quickly came to mind; while the only answer I could come up with for the second question was two members of the New Jersey Devils: Martin Brodeur and Jaromir Jagr, who were both 41 years old at the time, and are certain to be in the Hall of Fame at the conclusion of their NHL careers.  Chad had been to New York a couple of years prior, but had been eager to go back, so this seemed like the perfect chance.

I looked over the schedule to find a weekend that would allow us to see home games for both the Islanders and Devils, while also having to factor in Chad's work schedule, which didn't allow him any lengthy time off until the end of March.  I also had a nice conversation with Yahoo hockey writer (and noted Devils fan) Greg Wyshynski in January and asked him about going to see my first Devils game.  He suggested that I try to find a Saturday night contest against a rival team, or else he feared that I would not get to see a well-attended game.  As luck would have it, the Devils were hosting their arch rivals from across the Hudson River, the New York Rangers, on a Saturday night at the end of March.  The Islanders were playing the following day, and it was a week after Chad's job would have concluded, so the decision was made.  I started making the plans and found one interesting quirk in the NHL schedule: the New York Rangers would be playing a home game the day after the Islanders game, so we decided to make it a "trifecta" and see all three teams from the area in three days!

I spent a lot of time searching for hotels in the New York area, and was astounded by the prices, so we settled on a cozy little inn near a subway stop in New Jersey - it was a perfect "base of operations" as we ventured throughout the sprawling metro area.


Flying Virgin Airlines had the added bonus of allowing me to watch live NCAA Basketball Tournament games on the televisions located on the backs of the seats - this certainly made the 5-hour non-stop flight go by that much quicker.  While taking the airport shuttle to our hotel, I was able to look out the window and see the skyline of New York, but the enormity and history of the city still hadn't really sunk in from this distance.  That would change soon enough, as we quickly checked in to the hotel and walked to the nearby subway station to begin our first night in the city.

We came out of the subway in Manhattan, walked 10-12 blocks, and were confronted with this:

Times Square.  Just like in the movies.  So many lights.  Sure, we have areas in Los Angeles that are filled with flashing lights and other forms of electronic stimuli (Universal City Walk, L.A. Live), but the ebb-and-flow of the cars in traffic, combined with the hustling pedestrians, makes this a unique experience.  Just stay away from the creepy dudes in the Elmo costumes...

From there, we continued walking around Manhattan, getting lost in the scenery - I'm still amazed at how many iconic landmarks are so close to each other in this general vicinity.  Case in point: while standing on 50th St., you have Radio City Music Hall on one side and Rockefeller Center on the other.

No time for ice skating - we've got more sights to see!
Only a few short blocks away is the NHL Store, located next door to the headquarters of the National Hockey League.  My own personal heaven in retail form, the NHL Store offers clothing and memorabilia from every team - including some which don't exist anymore (the Hartford Whalers stuff was cool) - and also features a compact television studio where they tape the daily "NHL Live" show.  The show is co-hosted by EJ Hradek, a writer I've admired a great deal over the years, so my hope was to get the opportunity to meet him.  One of the store's employees suggested I come back on Monday before the show went live, and mentioned that EJ is usually very easy to approach, so I had that to look forward to.  In the meantime, I just wanted to enjoy the surroundings:

Interesting display in the window, which encapsulated the three NHL teams that I had come to New York to see.
Alright, now it was time to eat.  Whenever you hear about New York, you always hear about its amazing food - and I'm sure everyone else knew that on this evening too, as virtually every restaurant we encountered during our walk was packed and had a longer wait than we'd hoped.  I was in the mood for some Greek food, and luckily we stumbled upon the Pita Grill, a little spot tucked away on 9th Ave.  There was plenty of room to sit, with prices that fell into our budget, so we got our first chance to relax and enjoy some pretty good food.  Of course, the large amount of food, combined with a pretty exhausting day of travel and walking around the city, quickly took its toll on our energy, so we figured it would be time to head back to the hotel - but not before I convinced Chad to let me see one more sight that was only a few blocks from the restaurant:

I've been watching The Colbert Report for several years now, so I had to make it a point to come see where the magic happened, even though I knew we wouldn't be in town at a time when I could go inside to see a taping of the show.  Still, it was interesting to see how this nondescript location fit into the neighborhood as a whole.


We reserved Saturday morning/afternoon for arguably the most famous stop on the trip: the Statue of Liberty.  After a quick continental breakfast in the hotel, we set out on a rather curious public transportation adventure, which included brief rides on both a PATH train and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, before a random shuttle van dropped us off in Liberty State Park.  From there, an airport-style security check led us on to a ferry bound for Liberty Island.
Unbeknownst to me, the Liberty Island Ferry takes a specific route that goes around the island, allowing visitors to see Lady Liberty from the front - a most awe-inspiring sight:

Just like when I saw the Golden Gate Bridge during my road trip to San Jose, I was once again left speechless by the sight of such a historic landmark.  You find yourself deep in thought, imagining countless numbers of immigrants who passed this very spot.  As the ferry pulled around the island, I did manage to take another decent picture from inside the boat: here, the Statue of Liberty is nicely framed with Lower Manhattan across the river.  (If you look closely, just to the right edge of the pedestal, you can see the Empire State Building off in the distance)

A museum is housed inside the monument, containing a treasure trove of archival newspapers and photographs which wonderfully depict the history of this great attraction.  Visitors are allowed to walk throughout the monument, with several "lookout points" along the way - they even allow people to go up inside the torch, but those tickets had sold out long before we arrived.  We made sure to grab a quick picture at the final lookout point near the top of the pedestal.

Simply put - I can't imagine visiting New York City without stopping here.  Oh, and here's one more picture:

We left Liberty Island and took the ferry back to Battery Park, then made the short walk through Lower Manhattan to the World Trade Center site.  In the midst of a very busy city, here is a place for quiet reflection: two twin pools memorializing the locations of the demolished Twin Towers, each surrounded by a ring engraved with the names of the victims from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  A museum dedicated to the events of that fateful day would open two months after our visit.

After a quick lunch break at a nearby ramen restaurant, we were back on the subway going uptown to Penn Station.  From there, we took another train back to Newark, and our final destination for the day: Prudential Center, home to the New Jersey Devils.

We arrived a couple of hours before the game began, which gave us time to casually walk around and survey the local surroundings - from some incredibly old churches to modern sculptures:

The inside of the arena is quite impressive, and I was immediately drawn to this amazing display which featured jerseys from many of the state's high school hockey teams:

The game-day atmosphere was terrific, as the Devils mascot could be seen walking throughout the concourse, and there were several places to meet various members of the Devils Dancers, the home team's dance squad.  They even had face painting!  We chose to skip that, and continued to walk through the complex, before heading to our seats for puck drop.


The sheer number of visiting Rangers fans brought a certain electricity to the building that night, with many of them sitting in our section.  What we saw was a hard-fought, tight-checking defensive struggle in which both goalies (New York's Henrik Lundqvist and the aforementioned Martin Brodeur) were outstanding.  I personally felt vindicated in my decision to make the trip to New Jersey, as both Brodeur and Jaromir Jagr (the two players I specifically came to see) were the best on the ice during this game.  Playing opposite men almost two decades his junior, Jagr was a physical force on the ice and controlled play every time he had the puck.  Then there was Brodeur, two months shy of his 42nd birthday, making terrific saves at almost every opportunity, as he stopped 25 New York shots on the evening.  Unfortunately, he faced 26 - and the one shot he didn't stop was all the Rangers needed, as they added an empty-net goal and left Newark with a 2-0 road victory.


While we were at the game in Newark, our friend Matt had arrived at our hotel in Jersey City to join us for the Sunday game in Long Island.  Having done my own exhaustive research on the possible routes to the Islanders arena (which involved some combination of subway, railroad, cab, or bus), I was certainly grateful that we would have Matt guiding our way in his car - I even paid for his game ticket, as a small token of my gratitude.

After the lengthy trip through the Holland Tunnel and down the Long Island Expressway, we arrived at the historic Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum - however, the doors to the building hadn't yet opened, which gave us plenty of time to wander the premises in the slightly frigid weather.

Much like my visit to Joe Louis Arena, going inside the Nassau Coliseum was like stepping back in time.  Opened in 1972, the Nassau Coliseum is the second-oldest arena in the NHL - behind only our destination for the next night, New York's Madison Square Garden - and walking through the building brought a sense of appreciation.  The team is far removed from its glory days of winning four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980's, but the history is undeniable in the facility.  The cramped confines harken back to the arenas of yesteryear, and our seats were a prime indicator - we were located in what must have been some sort of makeshift row that was added to increase seating, but at the cost of any sense of comfort (once seated, my legs were so packed in that I wasn't really able to move).  The view was slightly limited, so there were television screens installed into the ceiling above us to fill in any necessary gaps:

As you can imagine, there was no way that I was going to be able to stay in that seat for the entire game, so we spent most of the first period scanning the arena to find a group of empty seats (of which there were many), and moved during the intermission.  And being so sparsely-attended resulted in a rather subdued crowd, mostly made up of families with young children - very indicative of matinee games.  Unfortunately for us, this particular matinee game also gave the Islanders mascot, Sparky the Dragon, most of the day off - instead, the spotlight had shifted to Curious George and his pals, including The Man With The Yellow Hat, as they would entertain the crowd during stoppages in play.  We wandered downstairs before the game to find people lined up to meet the beloved children's icons, in an area located next to where the MSG Network was doing their live pre-game broadcast - which gave me the chance to meet the Hockey Maven himself, legendary journalist Stan Fischler.


After losing star player John Tavares to a season-ending injury during the Olympics in February, the Islanders' playoff chances quickly vanished and they were left with little more than pride to play for during this game - and they put forth a very solid effort.  Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov stopped all 41 shots from the Columbus Blue Jackets, leading the way to a 2-0 victory for the home team.

Matt had to head back to Baltimore once the game was over, so we had him drop us off at the Brooklyn Bridge on his way out of town - what a majestic sight!

At that point, we continued walking through Brooklyn for the rest of the afternoon and early evening, making a stop for dinner at Sal's Pizzeria.  Chad was working for the Fox series, Kitchen Nightmares, which featured the restaurant on the show during the previous season.

Of course, we couldn't leave Brooklyn without making one more stop at a place I hold dear to my heart:

For years, I've had to deal with having my last name mispronounced and misspelled (the 'K' is capitalized!), so it was very refreshing to come to a subway station that properly honored my ancestry. [Editor's Note: There is no definitive proof that my family is genetically linked to the station's namesake, Revolutionary War hero Johann de Kalb, but why let that get in the way of a good story?]

The DeKalb Avenue station was also our final locale in Brooklyn, as we took the subway back across the East River to Manhattan to wrap up the evening with another brief walking tour.  As I discovered two days earlier, Manhattan is absolutely magical at night, so we used the opportunity to check out a few more of the sights that we had missed on Friday.  First up was the New York Public Library - Ghostbusters fans that we are, Chad and I made sure to visit this familiar location from the film.  We concluded the evening just a few blocks away, at the world-famous Grand Central Station - an absolute marvel of opulent architectural design, both inside and out.


Our final day in New York had a full itinerary, so we set out into the brisk 30-degree weather (i.e. we miss California!) quite early and headed for the PATH train that would take us to Wall Street.  Being a Monday morning, both the train and platform were absolutely jam-packed with commuters on their way to work - when we got off the train and made our way above ground, Chad and I both joked that there were more people on that subway platform than there were in both of our Illinois hometowns!

After stopping for the obligatory photo with the bull statue, we continued walking through the Financial District to the New York Stock Exchange.  Chad had heard rumors that the Stock Exchange was open to the public for tours, but sadly that was not to be - an exterior photo would have to suffice.

Once again emphasizing the close proximity from one New York City landmark to another, we walked about one mile north to reach Hook & Ladder 8 - another Ghostbusters filming location, which served as the firehouse for exterior shots.  They even have a Ghostbusters logo painted on the sidewalk (which was slightly worn down during our visit).

There was still plenty of walking to do, and it was still pretty cold, so we used the opportunity to go underground and keep warm on the subway as we headed back uptown.  My friend Lisa works at NBC, so we took her up on her offer to have lunch in Rockefeller Center - this also gave us a chance to see the observation deck on the roof, known as Top of the Rock.  We specifically chose to come here for a panoramic view of the city, rather than the taller Empire State Building, since Chad said it made more sense by allowing us to see the Empire State Building itself (which we obviously wouldn't have seen in the skyline since we would have been in the building - makes sense, right?).  His decision was justified when we got to the Top of the Rock and looked outside:

This was the view of Central Park on one side, and here is the view of Manhattan on the other (with the Empire State Building in the foreground, and the Freedom Tower in the distance):

We stayed on that Observation Deck for as long as we could withstand the howling winds (did I mention it was cold on this day?), and then it was time to head inside and meet Lisa.  The NBC Commissary had a wide variety of food to choose from, and it was nice to relax and catch up with an old friend whom I'd known since college.  But we were burning daylight and it was time to head back out and continue the adventure...

Our next stop was the famous FAO Schwarz toy store, best known for the giant piano seen in the film, Big.  Even for a Monday afternoon, the store (and the line to stand on the piano) was quite crowded, but I did manage to snag a photo with the store's "security guard".  From there, we stepped outside and walked across 5th Avenue into Central Park, where we would spend the next hour or so.  Thankfully, the weather had warmed up a bit, so we took our time to enjoy a somewhat quiet break from the bustling city - including a somber moment of reflection at the John Lennon-inspired memorial, Strawberry Fields (his final residence, the Dakota Apartments, borders the park itself).

We made our way out of the park, and went back to the NHL Store.  As they had promised on Friday night, the store's employees said that I could meet NHL Live co-host EJ Hradek - I just had to kill some time in the store until he had a moment to come and visit with me.  What to do when killing time in the NHL Store, you ask?  How about…a photo machine?!?

Thankfully, we didn't have to wait too long, and EJ was very gracious to meet us.  We told him about our quest to see all 30 NHL arenas, and how we had managed to see all three New York venues in three days - he even joked that we should have taken a train to Philadelphia to include a Flyers game on our trip!  I'm certain he must have been terribly busy preparing to go live on national TV, yet he talked hockey with us for about 10 minutes and could not have been nicer.  Here's hoping I get another opportunity to cross paths with him in the years ahead.

We wrapped things up in the NHL Store (without spending a small fortune, which I could have done rather easily), and made the one-mile walk through Manhattan to...

The World's Most Famous Arena!

From the outside, Madison Square Garden looks like an ordinary office building, but once you step inside you know you're ready for some hockey...

Though it is technically the oldest arena in the National Hockey League, a recently-completed three-year renovation project has turned Madison Square Garden into one of the most extravagant venues imaginable.  Walking through the concourse had the feel of strolling through the lobby of a five-star hotel - it was absolutely night-and-day from the Nassau Coliseum the day before.


The evening's festivities began with a tribute to Henrik Lundqvist: tonight was the first home game since he had broken Mike Richter's record for most wins by a Ranger goalie during the previous week.  The team honored him with a series of gifts presented by his current teammates, as well as Richter and Hall of Fame goalie Ed Giacomin.

The visiting Phoenix Coyotes would start the scoring less than five minutes into the game, before jumping out to a 2-0 lead a few minutes later.  Undaunted, the Rangers stormed back to the tie the game in the second period, before falling behind once again before the intermission.

But with less than four minutes remaining in the game, the Rangers would tie the game and force overtime - setting the stage for defenseman Ryan McDonagh to be the hero and net the game-winner to complete the comeback win.

We escaped into the freezing New York evening for one last walk around Manhattan, including a stop for a late snack at White Castle, where I chatted up a few Rangers fans who had come from the game.  But then it was time to take the subway back to Jersey City, and return to warm California in the morning.  It had been an incredible trip, full of monumental sights and memories I won't soon forget.


Sadly, neither Nassau Coliseum nor Madison Square Garden had any shot glasses for sale at their respective team stores, so I would have to look online for my collectibles.  I also wasn't too thrilled with the lone shot glass that the Devils were selling at the Prudential Center, so I opted for this sweet souvenir celebrating New Jersey's last Stanley Cup championship from 2003:


A reunion with a high-school classmate, as part of a return visit to see one of the "hottest" teams in the league...

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