Hockey Road Trip: The Great Nor'easter (Part 1)

22 May 2020


I can't pinpoint the exact date, but I know it occurred sometime in 2012: I was having a conversation with a friend and she mentioned how she had hoped to spend her retirement by driving across the country in an RV with her husband, watching a game in every NHL arena.  I never forgot that moment, and the idea of "The Quest" was born.  It took even greater shape not long after, during some very emotional phone calls with my father.

My mother had gotten very sick about five years earlier, and as a result, I would use virtually all of my vacation time from work to fly home and visit her.  After she passed away, my father used to always bring up the idea of me traveling, as he had circled the globe when he was in the United States Navy.  I never could come up with the best way to start this adventure, but I figured Dad would be supportive - during our phone calls, he would always say "don't worry about visiting me too much, since you can always come back and see me around Christmas."  When I told him I wanted to travel across the continent to see a game in every NHL arena, he loved the idea immediately.

As I mentioned during the first Hockey Road Trip to Denver, I had a great "travel companion" in my college buddy Chad, who had also moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.  When "The Quest" began in 2013, I had already been to six NHL arenas, though I would end up going back to five of them so that Chad could cross them off his personal list.  We had now come to the final trip, so I wanted to make it a real "labor of love" by packing in as much time and locations as possible.

The trips were always planned the same, usually beginning on the day the NHL released their schedule.  I maintained a massive spreadsheet that would allow me a greater look at not just the NHL games, but also any other sporting events that were happening during the time of the prospective road trip.  The Boston trip was always going to be massive: I would cover several states over the course of nine days, seeing games in multiple leagues (and sports) - I knew I had to end it all with a bang!

FRIDAY: 1 MARCH 2019

My wife and I packed a bunch of thick winter clothes and were ready when Chad showed up at our doorstep at the crack of dawn - I'm not a big fan of going to the airport before the sun rises, but it was a great opportunity to take a six-hour non-stop flight and arrive early enough to squeeze in a hockey game the same night.  Plus, the traffic around Boston airport was chaotic, so arriving at 2pm did give us extra time to get out of the greater metropolitan area and head west through Massachusetts.  Our first stop of the trip would be Springfield for some AHL action.


After a quick stop for some fast food just off the freeway, we completed the 90-mile trip from Boston and arrived in Springfield in the early evening.  Yeah, it was cold - really cold.  We quickly scampered inside the warm arena to buy tickets and take our seats in the MassMutual Center, which has a long history of its own: during a brief period in the late 1970's, it was the home of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, who had to relocate to Springfield while their home arena was undergoing renovations from a roof collapse!

Tonight we would watch the Springfield Thunderbirds host their rivals from nearby Connecticut, the Hartford Wolfpack.  There was a pretty solid turnout for a minor league game, which I guess was to be expected when seeing hockey in the Northeast, so we had a great time walking through the concourse and getting our obligatory photo with the team's mascot, Boomer (all of the fans in attendance that night received a bobble-head figure of the mascot as well).

Exhausted from our cross-country flight, we ducked out before the game was over, and drove to our home for the next couple of days: an Airbnb apartment in Hartford, which was less than 30 miles away.  Snow covered the ground as we checked in, and we quickly nestled into our warm beds for some much-needed rest.  The final trip of "The Quest" had begun!!

SATURDAY: 2 MARCH 2019

It was a day I'd been looking forward to for quite some time.  Whenever I planned a potential Boston trip, I always made sure that I HAD to include a visit to the University of Connecticut, so that I could watch their amazing women's basketball team.  I'd been a fan of the Huskies since Diana Taurasi led them to back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2003 and 2004, and they've been a powerhouse ever since. 

The Saturday matinee game would also be special for two other reasons: it was "Senior Night", so star players Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelsson (who would both go on to be selected in the first six picks of the 2019 WNBA Draft) would be honored before the tip-off of their final home game, while UConn legend Rebecca Lobo would have her #50 jersey retired at halftime.  Little did we know there was another star in the house whose presence almost overshadowed them all...


The University of Houston was the lamb to the slaughter on this day, though they did hold their own and jumped out to an early lead which they held throughout the first quarter.  Sadly, Katie Lou Samuelsson suffered an injury in the second quarter and played sparingly after that, but Napheesa Collier picked up the slack and scored 29 points as the Huskies coasted to a 22-point win.  But the game itself was almost secondary to the experience of walking the famed halls of Gampel Pavilion.  I'd seen the arena on television so many times, and it was absolutely magical to be there in person.

The halftime ceremony honoring Rebecca Lobo was also quite special, with the Hall of Famer delivering a very heartfelt speech to thank her teammates and their illustrious coach, Geno Auriemma.  But the surprise for us came when we noticed that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi were seated behind the UConn bench - the Bryants were Huskie fans, and I remember seeing them when I went to Pauley Pavilion to see UCLA host UConn the year before.  The fans and media also noticed Kobe's presence, as he seemed to be the object of every's attention for most of the second half AND even after the game as he left the arena.  We were truly in the presence of greatness, on many fronts!

Rebecca Lobo with Kobe Bryant
The sun was still out on this cold day, so we made the short drive back to Hartford in order to visit the first state capitol building of the trip.  Unfortunately, we would only be in town for the weekend while the Connecticut State Capitol was closed, so we had to settle for a quick picture outside before moving on.


Since our Airbnb was fairly close to the downtown area, we were able to walk around the snow-covered landscape at Bushnell Park before eating dinner at Black-Eyed Sally's, a terrific Southern restaurant.  From there, we walked to the nearby XL Center, home of the Hartford Wolfpack, for our second AHL game in as many nights.


As the former home of the Hartford Whalers, I was delighted to see so much of that team's history on display inside the XL Center, which even included the retired numbers hanging in the rafters.  Of course, having an AHL team playing in a former NHL arena meant there was a lot of empty space, with several sections closed off, but it was still a fun game between the Wolfpack and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  More than anything, it's always fun to walk around these older facilities to observe the standard of NHL arenas built in the 1970's for comparison to today.



It was a long day for sure, but still a lot of fun to see two sporting events played in two historic venues.  Our final day in Connecticut was fast approaching, but first...mascot photos!!


SUNDAY: 3 MARCH 2019

This was our day to play tourists and visit as many attractions as possible, beginning with what I consider to be the most popular destination in Hartford: the Mark Twain House & Museum.  The tour was terrific, as our guide was dressed up in period costume and took on the role of Twain's daughter as she walked us through the house and told us stories in the first person.  Both the house and museum are worthy of your time, filled with wonderful exhibits devoted to the life of the legendary author.  Cell phones must be turned off and no pictures are permitted inside, so I snapped a shot from the front lawn:


We returned to the rental car and headed south to Dinosaur State Park in the town of Rocky Hill, which offers guests a glimpse into the very distant past, highlighted by a geodesic dome that houses real dinosaur tracks from the Jurassic period.  It's a very small building, so our visit was just long enough to soak up some history and continue along on our way.

Actual dinosaur tracks!
We were now off to Orange, Connecticut and another fun attraction - the PEZ Visitor Center!  That's right, a museum and information center devoted to both the candy and the popular dispensers that have made that candy so iconic.  There was a very fun scavenger hunt to keep everyone busy, and all three of us made sure to take home a dispenser of our own.  It's another location that I would highly recommend to anyone who might be in the area.


We could have spent even more time at the PEZ Visitor Center, but we still had one more stop for the day, which took us for an hour-long drive along the Atlantic Coast before arriving in the village of Mystic.


A popular tourist destination that is home to a maritime museum and aquarium, Mystic will forever be recognized in the world of pop culture for the 1988 film, Mystic Pizza, starring a young Julia Roberts.  Though the restaurant itself wasn't actually used as a location for the movie, it was still near the top of my list of "must-see" places for this visit.  As a result, I made sure to screen the film for my wife ahead of time, even though it plays on a loop on TV screens inside the restaurant.  There are also various production photographs and memorabilia on display, as well as a gift shop that sells branded merchandise.



We thought we'd spend the rest of the night walking around the charming village to burn off the delicious pizza, but a snowstorm was rapidly approaching on the horizon.  In an effort to get out in front of the storm, we quickly grabbed dessert at a local ice cream place and hopped back in the car for the drive to Warwick, Rhode Island and our next Airbnb location.  The snow began coming down heavily along the route, though we arrived before it had really begun to accumulate, and settled in for the night.

MONDAY: 4 MARCH 2019

We had one day to see Rhode Island, and we woke up to NINE inches of snow on the ground!!  We couldn't let that delay us, so Chad and I dug out our rental car out as much as we could and off we went to see the state capitol building in Providence.  Thankfully, the snow plows had been working all morning and the streets were mostly clear, yet it was still a nasty day to be out - but we had no choice and kicked things off with a self-guided tour of the Rhode Island State House.


Though our visit was brief, we were able to take in a lot of history with some informative exhibits on display throughout the building.  But we had no time to waste, so it was off to Newport for the afternoon - I'm so grateful that these original "Thirteen Colonies" in the Northeast are so compact and close together, which allows a person to take in many sights in the same day!

A friend who grew up in New Hampshire recommended that we visit the Newport Mansions, and I definitely echo her suggestion.  I'm always worried whether Charlene will enjoy herself on these trips, so this was the highlight for her.  We arrived at the first and most extravagant mansion, known as The Breakers, right around Noon, which gave us plenty of time to tour the opulent structure.  It offers a fascinating look into high society at the dawn of the 20th century and is an absolute delight for anyone visiting Rhode Island.



Our hunger brought us to Annie's for a delicious lunch, before we ended at our final destination of the day: the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  I'm a huge fan of these types of shrines devoted to sport, but I know my wife isn't, so Charlene walked around nearby Bowen's Wharf while Chad and I checked out the tennis memorabilia.

There were interactive games for the kids, as well as a detailed history of tennis through various exhibits, and I was enthralled by nearly everything.  I'm sure I could have spent all day at the museum, reading all of the plaques honoring the inductees or observing the assorted wardrobes donated from some of my favorite players like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters.


I'm so glad that I finally made it to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, but the time had come for us to finally return to Boston, which was only about 70 miles away.  Darkness had set in when we arrived at our Airbnb house in the northern suburb of Revere, which would be our "base of operations" for the second half of the trip.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Both this Northeast trip and "The Quest" wrap up in Part 2, as we watch the Boston Bruins in our 31st NHL arena, while also visiting the world's largest video arcade and the epicenter of one of the darkest periods in American history...

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