Friday, November 30, 2007
The highs and lows, best and worst from Williamson's hockey odyssey
By David Amber Special to ESPN.com
Thirty NHL games, 30 consecutive nights, 30 cities.
Sound impossible? Well, one rabid hockey fan did just that.
Steve Williamson lived out his NHL dream and shares the highlights of his travels from coast to coast and back again in this edition of "Facing Off."
Question from David Amber: Before we get to your amazing trip, give us some background. Who is Steve Williamson, the hockey fan?
Answer from Steve Williamson: I grew up in England. I used to go watch the Wembley Lions hockey team, one of just a handful of pro hockey teams left in England. In 1973, I moved to the United States, just outside New York City. I became a huge Rangers fan, those teams with Ron Greschner, Rod Gilbert and Carol Vadnais.
Williamson said the Canadiens fans in Montreal were the best by far.
Q: So, even before this NHL arena journey, you had been to a lot of games.
A: I have been to hundreds of NHL games. Mostly Rangers games when I was younger. Since 1992, I have been a season-ticket holder with the Lightning. Before this trip, I had probably been to about six or seven different NHL arenas.
Q: How did you put your schedule together to do 30 games in 30 nights?
A: When the NHL schedule came out in July, I started to figure things out. I knew I wanted to do the trip early in the season so that the weather wasn't an issue. On some days, there were only two games scheduled; one Sunday, there were only games in Colorado and Chicago, so those were the games I penciled in first. Then, I worked around those dates as best I could. I tried to do what made most sense, like scheduling the Devils, Rangers and Islanders in a four-night period. But I did have to cross the border into Canada four times during the trip. Luckily, all my plane rides went really smoothly. I had one delay from Florida to Ottawa. I thought I might miss my connection and miss the game. Luckily, when I told the flight attendant about my trip, she let me be first one off the plane so that I made my connection.
Q: So give us the stats. How many plane rides did you take? How many miles did you travel?
A: I just calculated that I traveled 30,530 miles, including three trips across the country. I took 35 flights total, a few train rides, used a lot of rental cars and took one bus in Vancouver from the airport to the arena.
Q: How much did this journey cost you?
A: It cost about $7,000 total. About $1,000 I spent on food. I saved a lot of money on tickets. I was lucky that some fans took me to some games and some teams gave me tickets when they heard what I was doing. Also, I booked a lot of plane tickets through Internet deals. I used some points for hotel rooms and used frequent-flyer miles on some flights. So, I saved money along the way.
Q: So which was the best arena?
A: The nicest physical arena was the American Airlines Arena in Dallas. I was surprised to see people dressed up for the game. It had sort of a swanky feel to it. The arena was beautiful, kind of like a hotel lobby with the way it was shaped. It was rectangular, not oval, and the sightlines were amazing.
As far as atmosphere, Montreal was the best, without a doubt. It was unbelievable. It was a Tuesday night game against a last-place team, and the fans were still really into it. Ten minutes before the game, the seats were filled and the place was loud. I was really lucky because, that night, they were celebrating the 1,000th NHL game for Alexei Kovalev, Roman Hamrlik and Bryan Smolinski. Henri Richard came out to honor them, and he got a three-minute standing ovation. During the game itself, the fans followed every nuance of every shift. It was like watching a tennis match where every fan was keyed in to every play. I loved it there.
Q: Which arena had the best fans?
A: I didn't have high expectations for St. Louis, but, I have to say, those fans are great. At least two-thirds of the fans at the game were wearing Blues sweaters. It was cool because, that night, the team was honoring Al MacInnis for making it into the Hall of Fame. The fans were loud, rambunctious and love their Blues.
Q: Which arena had the best food?
A: The United Center in Chicago had the best selection. You could get Mexican or ribs or pretty much anything you wanted. I ate a hot dog at every arena, and the best by far were in Montreal, where the bun is slit on the top and they lightly butter it. Also, in Dallas, they have something called the "knife and fork" dog, which is a hot dog smothered in chili, cheese and onions. And yes, you do have to eat it with a knife and fork. It was great. The worst food was in Edmonton, where I got food poisoning. Not sure if it was at the arena or at a restaurant, but my flight the next morning to Toronto wasn't pleasant.
Q: What was the most surprising moment during your trip?
A: Well, the funniest moment was in Detroit, my first night of the trip. It was breast cancer awareness night at The Joe, so every woman wearing pink got some sort of discount at the concession stand. There was this one guy who looked like a biker. He was big, like 240 pounds. He was wearing a pink dress and a pink bra. I was about to take a picture of him, but I figured he would kick my butt, so I didn't.
Q: Which arena had the best beer?
A: I had a self-imposed two-beer limit at every arena, but I made sure to try the microbrewery beers as much as possible. The best I had was in Phoenix; it was called Oggi's California Gold Blonde Ale. It was awesome.
Q: What was the biggest disappointment?
A: The atmospheres in some of the Canadian rinks, especially Vancouver and Calgary, were surprisingly bad. The fans seemed indifferent during the game: not a lot of cheering, not a lot of excitement. I was expecting the Canadian rinks to be the best, but it was pretty dead in those two cities.
Q: Overall, which arena had the worst atmosphere?
A: Washington was really sad. It was a Saturday night, there was a small crowd. It was quiet. Just didn't feel like hockey there. In Florida for the Panthers game, it was also quiet and a small crowd. You just didn't get the feeling there were a lot of real hockey fans in these cities.
Q: Who did you go to the games with?
A: About half the games, I went with friends or family. And the other half, I was alone. It was a great way to reconnect with some old college friends. My sons, my brother and my girlfriend all met up with me along the way.
Q: What was the best moment from the games?
A: A couple of great moments stand out. In Carolina, against the Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier scored an amazing goal. He broke through the defense, and with Bret Hedican draped on his back, he just shrugged him off and scored. It was an incredible show of strength and skill. I saw a total of 158 goals. That one and a Sam Gagner shootout goal were the two beauties I remember best.
Then, in Phoenix, Daniel Carcillo of the Coyotes had three fights in one game against the Ducks. He had, like, 34 penalty minutes. He was the most entertaining player I saw, a real pest on the ice. The fans loved it.
Q: Did you meet any of the players or get any special VIP treatment along the way?
A: In Philly, I was the guest on the intermission show with Flyers broadcaster Steve Coates. He was great. He actually took me down to sit on the Flyers bench for the pregame skate. So, I'm sitting on the Flyers bench, and first, Jeff Carter skates up and starts asking me how the trip is going. Then, Mike Knuble comes over, and we start talking about the games I've seen. They had read about the trip in the newspaper, so it was cool that these guys were coming up and asking me questions.
The last game of the trip was in Tampa. Before the game, I was at center ice to do the "Let's play hockey" chant to start the game. It was amazing, standing there with the spotlight on me and looking up at this huge arena from ice level.
In Chicago, between periods, I was picked to shoot a puck from center ice to try to win two airline tickets anywhere United Airlines fly. Obviously, I could have used those tickets [laughs]. You had to try to score on one of those nets with a big board hanging in front of it. I did horribly. This young girl was after me, and she did way better than me. It was pretty embarrassing [laughs].
Q: Overall, which would you say is the best NHL city to visit?
A: I didn't get to do as much sightseeing as I would have liked. I spent most mornings planning my travel for the next city. One place I would like to go back to is Vancouver. It's really a beautiful city. It was raining when I was there, but I like the vibe of the city.
Q: How did you spend your time between games?
A: I didn't have too much down time. Every day I wrote my blog. It was supposed to be a way for my friends and family to keep posted on the trip, but I was getting thousands of visits to the site every day as the media and other fans started to hear about what I was doing. So I ended up spending a lot of time making sure I wrote a detailed account of what was going on. That took a lot of time. I did get to the Sears tower in Chicago when my girlfriend joined me. We get to the top, and I'm thinking, "I'm spending $25 to do this, when every night I'm thousands of feet in the air with a great view at the games" [laughs]. So, we left after about five minutes.
Q: Would you do this trip again?
A: Thirty cities, 30 nights, 30 arenas. It's now been done. If the NHL were to expand, I would consider doing it again. But I feel like it was a dream of mine that has been completed.
Q: Is it safe to say you are the most devoted hockey fan in the world?
A: I don't know. There are great fans all over the place. I had guys e-mailing me, telling me they saw me on television in Chicago one night, Washington the next night and Colorado the next. These guys are watching like three games every night. So, there are great fans everywhere. There are guys out there who dream about doing something. I'm glad I did it. I'm 49 years old, so time is short. I wanted to do it, and I did. I am passionate about the game and doing this trip meant a lot to me.
Q: What was the first thing you did when you woke up the morning after your 30th and final game and you didn't have a plane to catch?
A: I actually woke up in the afternoon [laughs]. I slept in until 1 p.m. It was a Sunday, so I woke up and watched football and spent time with my family, just hung out. It felt great that the last game was in Tampa, so I was already back home. I went to my final game with 10 friends and family members. It was a fitting conclusion to a fantastic voyage. By the way, somehow, despite all the hot dogs and beer, I lost five pounds on the trip. Not a bad way to lose weight [laughs].
ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.