Hockey Road Trip: The Prodigal Son Returns

01 May 2020

After moving to Los Angeles in 2003, I always make it a point to go back to Illinois to visit my family over the Christmas break, where my Dad likes to greet me with the same expression: "The Prodigal Son Returns!"  My plans have gotten a slight tweak since I met my wife Charlene, when I also need to make time to see her family, who thankfully live nearby.  As a result, we've had the same ritual since we got together: spend Christmas day with her family, then fly home to visit my Dad on December 26.

Charlene has slowly been meeting members of my family each year, mostly at weddings and family gatherings, so when my Aunt Patty and Uncle Gary suggested we stay with them for a night around Christmas 2018, we gladly took them up on their offer.  Gary and Patty live in the suburb of Wentzville, not too far from the St. Louis airport, so we joined them on the night of the 26th before departing in the morning.  They have a huge house and we had a great time catching up over dinner, where something interesting happened...

Gary mentioned that one of his son's friends worked for the St. Louis Blues - Charlene and I were going to see a game the next night, and planned on buying tickets at the last minute before Gary stopped me to make a quick phone call.  Within minutes, he had arranged for us to receive free tickets through his contact - this trip was already off to a terrific start!


We left Gary and Patty fairly early in the morning and headed to nearby St. Charles, which has a wonderful historic downtown district and is famously known as the point at which Lewis and Clark began their expedition west.  We walked up and down the cobblestone streets, ducking into various shops and learning some history at the First Missouri State Capital State Historic Site.  We observed even more history by visiting the Lewis and Clark Boat House Museum, which details the legendary trip made by the Corps of Discovery after the Louisiana Purchase, led by the two famed explorers.

From there, we drove to St. Louis for a brief walk around the downtown area - unfortunately, the government was in the midst of a shutdown which had closed all national parks, including the St. Louis Arch.  But that wasn't going to stop us from exploring the grounds and taking plenty of pictures.

We had dinner at Caleco's with my good friend Adam (a longtime Blues fan who joined us for our Nashville trip), then walked to the Enterprise Center for some NHL action.  This would be my first Blues game in nearly a decade, yet it seemed like no time had passed at all when I walked through the front doors.  The added bonus of the free tickets was wonderful, especially when I found out they were situated at center ice in the lower bowl - my uncle's contact, Kyle, had HOOKED US UP!!


Sadly, the Blues were toiling in the middle of a horrific first half of the season, hovering near the bottom of the overall NHL standings, but that didn't deter the raucous crowd on this evening.  St. Louis always seems to support the Blues and the fans were electric from the opening face-off, which brought back a lot of great memories.  

The opposing Buffalo Sabres were off to a surprising start, which included a 10-game win streak earlier that year, and were led to the ice by goaltender Carter Hutton, who left St. Louis after two seasons to sign with Buffalo as a free agent earlier that offseason.  Meanwhile, the Blues were paced by Ryan O'Reilly, who was having an outstanding season after coming over during the summer in a blockbuster trade from Buffalo - it was a night of familiar faces for both teams.

After a scoreless first period, the Blues took the lead early in the second frame, then notched two quick goals near the halfway point to lead 3-0.  Jack Eichel would finally get Buffalo on the board just before the period ended, but O'Reilly scored in the third to stake the Blues to a 4-1 victory.  It was a fantastic night all around - I was unable to meet Kyle and thank him in person, but I did manage to get my obligatory mascot photo with the lovable Louie!

Like my aunt and uncle the night before, Adam also offered up the guest room of his house for us to stay (you have to love the Midwestern hospitality!), so we followed him for the two-hour drive to Decatur, Illinois and crashed for the night.


Though I'd lived in Illinois for 10 years, I never really spent too much time in the central portion of the state.  My newfound appreciation for state capitols meant this was the perfect opportunity to finally visit Springfield, and learn some history about my "home state" and one of its most famous residents, Abraham Lincoln.  

We began the day at Lincoln's New Salem, a historic site devoted to the Great Emancipator, recreating a village from the time of his young adulthood.  The makeshift town features a series of cabins, allowing visitors to roam the premises and learn more about Abraham Lincoln through various films and displays.  With it being the dead of winter, the outdoor portion wasn't too lively (the cabins were all shut up), but we were able to watch the introductory film from the main lobby and take a quick stroll in the frigid weather, before heading to Springfield.

The Illinois State Capitol building is an impressive structure, and we took a pleasant and informative trip around the venue.  Illinois was celebrating the bicentennial of its statehood in 2018, so there were various exhibits and signage denoting the anniversary.

Just around the corner is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which would be our next stop.  This is one of the more impressive museums I've visited, and we managed to spend the rest of the afternoon taking in the vast array of facts and information presented.

I've been a bit of a Presidential history buff since I was a child, so I never pass up a chance to see museums devoted to our nation's leaders.  I'm glad we came here when we did, as the end of 2018 (and the end of the Illinois bicentennial) was the last chance to see a really fun exhibit called "From Illinois to the White House", detailing the four U.S. Presidents who came from the state: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.  It also provided another great photo op!

We then grabbed a quick dinner and made the hour-long drive to Bloomington to see another hockey game, this time from the United States Hockey League.  Hockey teams had come and gone from Bloomington over the years, and this particular franchise had called home for the past four years - first as the Bloomington Thunder, and now...the Central Illinois Flying Aces!

Their home rink (Grossinger Motors Arena) is a nice facility, but unfortunately, the fan support just isn't there - as evident from the above picture, which was taken at the opening face-off.  Once again, I'm glad I visited the area when I did, as the team suspended its operations at the end of the 2018-19 season.  As a special treat, this night was also "WWE Night" with wrestling legend "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan conducting the ceremonial puck drop, and sticking around to take pictures with fans all night.  He couldn't have been nicer and it was fun to share a moment with someone that I admired from back when I was a very young wrestling fan in the 1980's.


Charlene had been asking if I could take her to Cracker Barrel for some time now, but we always missed out when we were back home.  Today was finally the day, as Adam and his wife Allison joined us for brunch at the famed "greasy spoon" hometown restaurant - thankfully, it lived up to all of Charlene's expectations.

We said our goodbyes and made the 90-mile drive south to finally arrive at my Dad's house, where we would spend the next few days relaxing and enjoying our vacation with family, ultimately returning to California just after the New Year.  The lasting image I have from the trip would take place during this time, as Charlene - who was born and raised in the greater Los Angeles area - got to get a close-up look at some adorable animals from my extended family's farms, which certainly warmed my heart!


Sadly, the government would still be in a shutdown as we finally descend upon the nation's capital, but we do our best to make the most of the trip...

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