Hockey Road Trip: The Great Southern Sports Adventure

18 November 2016


My family moved to Kentucky halfway through my junior year in high school, staying there until my graduation, which was quickly followed by my father's retirement from the Navy.  Outside of this 18-month stretch of my life, I hadn't really spent a lot of time in the South.  Technically, my father was briefly stationed in Florida when I was very young, and my mother's family is mostly from Arkansas, but I've got the virtues of a tried-and-true Yankee.  As a result, I've always found the South to be quite mystifying: it's not so much a place as it is a "state of mind", personified by a relaxed way of life with hospitable inhabitants.  I had every intention of visiting after we left, but I just never got around to finding the time.

Enter Dave.

Dave is one of my oldest friends - we met while working together at an ACE Hardware store in Illinois, but he was originally from Kentucky (and wound up moving there after he finished high school).  After I had moved to Los Angeles, Dave followed suit and settled into Orange County, about an hour away.  He was also a longtime hockey fan, so we would often watch games together on television or make the occasional trip to a game itself.  After a few years, Dave moved to Mississippi to help run one of his family's grocery stores - he seized the opportunity for several reasons, most notably being his yearning for the Southern lifestyle.

From the moment he arrived, Dave suggested that I come visit so that he could show me this region that he loved so much.  His grocery store had a connection to get free tickets for New Orleans Saints games, and Dave also had family members who were season ticket holders for LSU's football team, so we naturally tried to find a weekend in which we could see both teams play.  When I began my Hockey Road Trip "quest", Dave suggested we expand our Louisiana football plan one step further, and work in a trip to see the nearest NHL team: the Dallas Stars.

Once the NHL announced their 2014-15 schedule, I found one particular weekend in October which allowed us the chance to see all three teams: we would watch LSU on Saturday, the Saints on Sunday, then drive to Dallas to see the Stars on Tuesday.  But what to do on Monday?  As luck would have it, the Dallas Cowboys were scheduled to play on Monday Night Football that exact night - it was too perfect!  I talked it over with my traveling buddy Chad, and he decided to opt out of the first part of the trip: he'd been to New Orleans and had seen the Superdome six months earlier (for Wrestlemania), so he would instead fly directly to Dallas and meet us there.

Hotels in New Orleans are rather expensive, and I couldn't find any Airbnb options to my liking, so we opted for a hotel 15 miles west of downtown.  Dave booked the Dallas hotel, which was one where he'd stayed in the past.  The plans were set, and off we went...

FRIDAY: 24 OCTOBER 2014

I arrived in New Orleans not long after the sun went down - Dave made the three-hour trip from his Mississippi home to pick me up from the airport - and we went straight to the hotel to drop off our things.  Since it was the nearest major city, Dave had spent plenty of time in New Orleans, so he brought us downtown and we walked around the historic area for hours.  Like so many other tourists before us, our first stop was Bourbon Street, which was just as I had imagined - basically, one giant block party with lots of drunk people, closely watched by cops on horseback.  

We made a quick stop at the famous Pat O'Brien's before ultimately continuing through the French Quarter to soak in the sights.  Most notably, I got my first taste of the local cuisine - we stopped at the Corner Oyster House and I took advantage of their "New Orleans Sampler" platter (Dave went with the Crawfish Étouffée).


Pleasantly satisfied, we left the restaurant and spent the rest of the evening wandering the streets, even ducking into a small club to listen to some live music for a while.  We knew that Saturday would be a very long day, so it was back to Avondale for some much-needed rest.

SATURDAY: 25 OCTOBER 2014

SEC Football on gameday.  I've been told there's nothing like it, and this was my first chance to experience it for myself.  LSU was hosting Ole Miss, who was undefeated and ranked #3 in the nation.  As an added bonus, ESPN would be filming their "College Football Gameday" program from the LSU campus, so we went up to Baton Rouge early enough to be a part of the broadcast - Dave even got a photograph with ESPN analyst, Kirk Herbstreit!



We stuck around for an hour or so until ESPN was done broadcasting, then made our way around the premises to soak in the sights of the tailgating experience.  It was everything I imagined it would be: people tossing footballs around, various forms of meat being grilled, and everyone was incredibly pleasant to deal with.  Two curiosities stood out: the awesome LSU-themed R2-D2 keg, and the lone Ole Miss tent staged in the midst of enemy territory:



Being the proud mascot of this historic university, there is Tiger imagery all over the campus - including a bronze statue…and a REAL TIGER!!



We still had several hours to kill before the game, so we continued walking around the campus before we finally stopped to eat lunch.  Being a game day, virtually every restaurant was packed with fans, but we found a nice little spot off the beaten path called Louie's Cafe.  Since it was slightly hidden away, it wasn't nearly as crowded on the inside - perfect for us to take in some home-cooked Southern cuisine...


On the left are hash browns, covered in cheese and jalapeños.  My favorite Southern dish, biscuits and gravy, can be seen on the right.  I mistakenly was under the impression that these would be side dishes, rather than entree-sized, and was instantly shocked by the feast laid out in front of me.  I jokingly told the waitress that there was no way I could possibly eat all of this food, to which she responded, "You can always give the rest to a hobo outside."  Yeah, this place was great!

It was time to head back to campus for another pre-game tradition: the marching band serenading the players as they walked into the stadium.  The pageantry was incredible - we had an ideal spot right next to where the team bus ultimately stopped, and once the players and coaches gathered their belongings, the band followed soon behind.


With the band acting as pied pipers, we followed them directly into the stadium - a mass of humanity chanting words of encouragement toward the gridiron heroes.


The excitement outside the stadium would carry over to the interior, as the large contingent of football fans (mostly clad in purple and gold) roared incessantly from the opening fireworks until the final whistle four hours later.  In that time, Dave and I witnessed a hard-fought defensive struggle, with the home team pulling the upset of the previously unbeaten opponents - this, of course, would lead to the fans storming onto the field.



All in all, it was a very fun but exhausting day - we made some new friends, had some good food, and I even bought a cool LSU t-shirt.  We stuck around the stadium as long as we could after the game, both to soak in the atmosphere and avoid the traffic, but we knew there was more fun in store tomorrow and headed back south.

SUNDAY: 26 OCTOBER 2014

Today was the day to experience New Orleans: we had no specific plans other than to walk around and see as much as we could possibly see.  We started the day out at Jackson Square, walking around to view the various street art, admire the architecture, and eat the delicious food at the legendary Cafe Du Monde.



With our bellies full of beignets and coffee, we continued with a stroll along the Mississippi River banks and ultimately wound up at the markets in the French Quarter to do some shopping.  It's a beautiful part of this historic city, and I cannot recommend it enough.  When it came time for lunch, I tried some more local cuisine: a po' boy sandwich made with alligator meat (it's an acquired taste for sure, which I wouldn't necessarily need to try again).

The day was growing long and our walking tour was concluding, so we prepared for our next game on the trip by walking toward the tailgating area around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints.  While the pre-game festivities certainly didn't match the pageantry and tradition of the college game the day before, there was still a vibrant buzz outside the stadium - a live concert was taking place on an outdoor stage, and Dave got a picture and autograph from NBA All-Star Anthony Davis (whose New Orleans Pelicans play in the arena right next door to the Superdome).



I've always enjoyed seeing sports stadiums, so I knew we'd be in for a treat on this evening.  Despite only having been open for about 40 years - a brief period, by comparison to other famous venues - the Superdome has quite a rich history with includes major events from the Super Bowl to the aforementioned WrestleMania.



The excitement for this NFL game was palpable, as the seemingly-always-popular Green Bay Packers were in town to play the Saints.  Two high-octane offenses gave us a very thrilling game, which the home team would go on to win.  We ducked out early before the game had finished in order to get on the road for our lengthy 3-hour drive back to Dave's house, but I made sure to take a picture of the Packers fans (KISS fans as well, I presume) sitting behind us before we departed:


MONDAY: 27 OCTOBER 2014

Today was the "driving day": more than five hours in the car, covering three states.  We began in the quiet Mississippi town of Natchez - a pleasant and sleepy village nestled just across the Louisiana border along the Mississippi River, where Dave has lived for the past few years.  Amidst the buzzing of various insects and the quickly-evaporating morning dew, we ventured west through the Louisiana cities of Alexandria and Shreveport, before crossing into "The Lone Star State".  While I certainly appreciate the peacefulness and serenity of its wide open spaces, there is really not a whole lot to see as one drives through East Texas.  But the freeway rest stop is quite welcoming!


We arrived in Dallas by mid-afternoon and even had some time to relax after checking into the hotel - Chad was waiting for us in the lobby, his flight having arrived a couple of hours earlier.  Refreshed, we fought through the traffic and made our way to Arlington and a peculiar dining experience.  It was called Redneck Heaven, and it was..."unique".  Well, not THAT unique, as it definitely has a real Hooters vibe to it - but like everything in Texas, it just felt bigger.


Scantily-clad waitresses.  Enormous portions of food.  Southern hospitality and charm.  If you're coming to Dallas - and especially if you're going to a game at either of the nearby football or baseball stadiums - it's a must-see on your visit.

We then made the short drive over to the colossus known as AT&T Stadium - a gargantuan complex which is home to the Dallas Cowboys.  I've seen some large stadiums, including the SuperDome the day before, but this place was massive.


I'm not sure if the Cowboys do this for every home game - or just because it was Monday night - but the atmosphere felt like being at a large party.  In addition to the expected tailgating, there was live music on an outdoor stage AND on a patio inside the stadium as well, which was a great way to kill some time before kickoff.


Fans of both teams can appreciate good music - and patriotism!


Over the next four hours (NOTE: football games take forever, especially nationally televised NFL contests), we were treated to a very entertaining game between two longtime rivals, which culminated in the visiting Washington Redskins defeating the home team in an overtime nail-biter.  Being so close to Halloween, one of the more amusing highlights was the halftime show, which included a large choreographed dance number featuring various "zombies" getting down to Michael Jackson's "Thriller":


Time to head back to the hotel, but not before stopping for a late-night snack at a nearby In-N-Out Burger (Dave reminded me that they don't have these fine burger joints in Mississippi, so he wanted to make sure he got his "fix" while we were in Texas).

TUESDAY: 28 OCTOBER 2014

The final day in Dallas had a full itinerary, so we headed downtown fairly early to find a spot to leave the car for the rest of the day.  Our walking tour of downtown began with a visit to the historic Majestic Theatre, which was the filming location of my favorite musical, 1974's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.


Aside from a ten-year stretch in the 1970's - during which the filming of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE took place - the Majestic Theatre has served the Dallas community for nearly 100 years!


After contacting the staff ahead of time to express my love of the film and my interest in seeing the theater, we were offered a private tour of the building from the venue's event coordinator, Hayley Dyer.  She couldn't have been more gracious and I couldn't have been more grateful - Hayley guided us through the palace, evoking the rich history of the theater and patiently answering any and all questions (of which I had many).

It was a memorable morning that any fan of the film - or architecture in general - would truly appreciate.




After a brief moment to recharge at Stupid Good Coffee (how can you not love that name for a business?), we continued walking around the area on the cloudy morning...until this caught our eye - pun intended:


Yep, just a 30-foot-tall sculpture of an eyeball.  Nothing to see here.  Carry on.

I was a huge Presidential history buff as a child, so any potential trip I had ever planned for Dallas had to include the infamous Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the location of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.



To say that I was fascinated with my visit here would be a tremendous understatement: I must have covered every inch of the premises, from the notorious "grassy knoll" outside (where conspiracy theorists can peddle their propaganda) to virtually every corner inside the museum itself.  Though you cannot see through the very window where Lee Harvey Oswald was alleged to have carried out the assassination, you can look through the window right next to it - and it is a very eerie sensation to see that fateful intersection below.


We had a couple of hours until the hockey game started so we filled up on some delicious Tex-Mex at the El Fenix restaurant ("Brisket enchiladas?!?! Yes please!"), then proceeded to aimlessly wander around the bustling streets until we stumbled upon the serene beauty of Klyde Warren Park - a perfect place to relax!

I love this picture - it could have been included in the liner notes of any alt-rock album released in the 1990's.
It was time to finally walk to American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Stars.  More than anything, I was just excited to meet their recently-unveiled mascot, Victor E. Green, who would be greeting fans outside the arena before the game.  I make no apologies for the simple fact that no matter how old I get I will always love sports mascots - they bring out the kid in you, which is always welcome.  Chad also shares my feeling on the subject, and the two of us immediately hunted down the lovable alien:

So awesome.

We made our way inside the cavernous arena (one of the tallest and most expansive I've visited) and proceeded to the lower bowl in front of the glass to watch warmups, and get a close-up glimpse of the St.  Louis Blues and their budding superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko - little did we know he would put on a show for us this evening...


THE HOCKEY GAME ITSELF

Even though it was a Tuesday night contest played in front of a sparse crowd during the first month of the NHL season, the game was highly entertaining - two Central Division foes squaring off, with neither giving an inch and routinely displaying varying levels of physicality.  Dallas opened the scoring in the latter half of the first period, only to see Tarasenko tie the game 35 seconds later.  The seesaw match had begun...


The teams would trade goals in the second period, before Dallas grabbed a 3-2 lead early in the third.  The Stars continue their tight checking while preserving the lead, only to see the skillful Tarasenko notch his second goal of the night to even the score with less than nine minutes remaining in regulation.

Overtime ensued, and Dallas soon found themselves short-handed after Tyler Seguin took an unfortunate high-sticking penalty.  Then...this happened:


Hat trick.  1st Star of the game.  Blues escape with a 4-3 victory.  Excellent conclusion to this very fun trip!


MEMORABILIA

I often find myself checking eBay for NHL shot glasses before embarking on these trips, so that I can compare them to the ones I find in the arena's team store and ultimately buy my favorite one.  But this trip was different, because the Dallas Stars had updated their logo going into the season and all of the merchandise online featured their previous design.  As a result, I found this beauty on-site and quickly snatched it up:


…and let's put it up on the big board!


NEXT ROAD TRIP

Our longest trip so far: a week-long Holiday outing, which found us circling around one of the largest states in America...

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