Ultimate Hockey Experiences in North America
This can get tricky. In 30 years of covering the sport, off and on, I've sampled a lot of hockey experiences around North America. But not all of them. So this list of my Top Ten North American hockey experiences comes with disclaimers.
(A deep-voiced guy will read the following in a voice faster than an Al MacInnis slap shot: Some attractions on this list serve as representatives of a genre, so to speak, and it is meant to be a cross-section of various experiences. This will not include events that move from site to site, such as major junior's Memorial Cup, NCAA hockey's Frozen Four or even a Stanley Cup Final. That's an issue of definition of terms, not a judgment of worthiness. And offer void in Nebraska, though there is entertaining hockey played at, among other places, the University of Nebraska-Omaha.)
My Top Ten, in no particular order:
QUEBEC INTERNATIONAL PEE-WEE TOURNAMENT, QUEBEC CITY
This is an annual Woodstock of hockey, minus Country Joe and the Fish. Well, and with a younger cast. Pee-wee teams (11 and 12 years old) from 16 countries play in the 11-day tournament in Quebec City, at the Colisee Pepsi, the former home of the NHL Nordiques and the current home of the reigning Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts.
The hockey is a blast, but it's worth the trip alone for the arena's famous toasted hot dogs. And at one point, a trip to the narrow and hilly streets of Quebec City's Old Town is mandatory. If the wait is going to be long at Cafe de la Paix, ask to see the owner, Benito Terzini, and quietly say that "Giuseppe from Denver" sent you. And if Benito tests you by asking what year Giuseppe won the Hart Trophy, the answer is 2001.
The 2007 dates are February 8-18.
RANGERS GAME AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, NEW YORK
Take in a show the night before. If you're staying in Manhattan, walk down 8th Avenue, tip your hat to the statue of Ralph Kramden outside the Port Authority Terminal, cut over to 9th and have the world's greatest hero sandwich at Manganaro's, and then look down and check the time on the genuine fake Rolex you bought from the shadowy figure who pulled the selection out of a plastic black bag on Canal Street. Head to the Garden, avoid getting run over by the scrambling commuters heading into Penn Station, and go into the game.
Whatever you do, don't say your favorite player used to be Denis Potvin.
And if you wander into the upper reaches of the arena between periods and need to make sure you can pass a drug test at work in the near future, don't inhale too deeply.
This is the annual four-team college tournament, now relocated to whatever the Bruins' and Celtics' arena is called this week. The tournament is played on consecutive Mondays in February, which this season fall on February 5 and 12. Generally, you can count on Boston College meeting Boston University in the championship game and Northeastern facing Harvard in the third-place game.
Eat in the North End before the game and just for kicks, as you're heading to the arena, knock on a bar window, hold your tickets up for the drinkers to see and holler: "How 'bout them apples?"
At the games, it helps to know that if you spot Jesuit priests, they are rooting for BC, and that BU is near Fenway Park. (If you want to get a withering look from an NHL player who played for one of the two schools, slip and say he played at the other school.)
MAPLE LEAFS GAME AT AIR CANADA CENTRE, TORONTO
The arena itself is pretty much a generic new one, but there's so much more to the hockey experience in Toronto. Depending on the game, even if it's a sellout, you can dicker with the nice fellows on Bay Street whose cousins were unable to use their tickets and want to pass them along for a "reasonable" amount -- which of course includes the seller's, ahem, overhead.
The mandatory side trips are to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is downtown in a nearby office building/mall, and Maple Leaf Gardens, the historic landmark a few stops up the subway line.
MAJOR JUNIOR HOCKEY WITH THE PORTLAND WINTER HAWKS
Oregon, not Maine.
First, sample one of the game's most heated rivalries, driving on Interstate 5 to catch barn-to-barn Western Hockey League games between the Winter Hawks and the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The best set this season is February 2 in Portland at the glass palace, Memorial Coliseum, which is where Cam Neely, Glen Wesley and Marian Hossa, among others, played; and where Bill Walton played when he didn't talk at all, much less so darned much. Stick around after the game as long-time radio voice Dean "Scooter" Vrooman hosts "Hawk Talk" and visits with a Portland player on the ice, with the sound heard both in the arena and on the radio. Then catch the rematch the next night at Seattle.
Eat at Huber's in Portland, having the turkey and the famous Spanish coffee afterwards. Dine at Ray's Boathouse in Seattle, but be sure you allow enough time because of the gridlock traffic and take great care not to get on the Lake Washington bridge accidentally because there's no turning back for miles.
There also is a slight chance it could be raining, so take an umbrella. And don't let it bother you that you're pretty much watching a bunch of Canadian teenagers playing under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella.
If you want to extend the trip, you could follow the Hawks to Kelowna, Prince George, and Kamloops, all in British Columbia.
COLLEGE GAME AT GRAND FORKS, NORTH DAKOTA
The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are the biggest athletic act in the state. They play their Western Collegiate Hockey Association home games in what might be not only the nicest arena in college hockey, but also in the sport -- the 11,406-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena.
It would be wise not to say anything nice about the NCAA, and certainly not about the organization's PC-driven crackdown on nicknames.
CANADIENS GAME AT BELL CENTRE, MONTREAL
Again, some of the charm has evaporated with the move into the new arena, but the history and tradition still resonates. The recommended pre-game dining is Gibby's. Celebrate or lament the game's result on St. Catherine Street. Just about anywhere on St. Catherine Street.
AMERICAN HOCKEY LEAGUE GAME AT HERSHEY, PENNSYLVANIA
This is another case of a nice arena replacing a funky old barn, but this still is one of the top experiences in minor-league pro hockey. The chocolate company's town near Harrisburg is amazing, and full enjoyment requires touring the factory and company store; the orphanage founded by Milton S. Hershey; and the Hotel Hershey.
HURRICANES GAME, RALEIGH, N.C.
Yes, really. This is here because of the unique pre-game tailgating in the parking lot the RBC Center shares with the North Carolina State University football stadium, and also because it represents all the NHL markets that have fans that have come to love the sport, or have been raised on it in other markets.
YOUR LOCAL RINK
Pick a Saturday. Any Saturday. Head down to the rink, whether it has one sheet or eight. Just wander back and forth and watch, whether it's adults or kids. Ignore, if you can, the obnoxious parents and perhaps even point to the signs announcing the USA Hockey's code of conduct.
Then go home.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
Do you second these thoughts, or possibly disagree? Send ESPN Sports Travel your choices for best hockey experiences and we'll run a sampling of your responses.
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