Hockey games are special. Being packed in an arena with 18,000 of your closest friends, rooting on your hometown team is one of the best sports experiences I can remember. What stands out even more than those games played in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena are the times I've been fortunate enough to see the Blue Jackets play on the road. After seeing the Blue Jackets play in the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, I thought now might be a good time to share some experiences.
First, a fair warning. The first game I saw on the road was in 2007 in Nashville. So it's been seven years. I've also only been to six arenas total for NHL hockey, including Nationwide. I'm sure there are people who've traveled a lot more than I have. I also imagine my experience might be different if, say, I traveled to Philadelphia as a Penguins fan. Until the Blue Jackets make some more noise in the playoffs and enemies on the ice though, I'd say we're pretty safe to travel to any arena without much heckling or hassle.
As mentioned, we first set out on the road to see the Jackets play in Nashville at the Gaylord Entertainment Center (now Bridgestone Arena). My then-girlfriend-now-wife and I hit the road for the long drive from Columbus for an evening of fun. It was our first time doing anything like that, and neither of us knew quite what to expect.
We were, to be honest, shocked at how kind the people of Nashville were. We left in the morning and arrived a few hours before the game, so we didn't have a ton of time to explore. But we did walk around Broadway in our Blue Jackets gear and had nothing but nice interactions with other hockey fans. We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, because sometimes you just have to be a tourist when you're away from home.
This was the year the Predators were one of the top teams in the league, and we got to see the likes of Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, and Kimmo Timonen take the ice together down south. The fans were not only kind, but once the game started, they were loud. Every fan group should aspire to be like Section 303.
I'm not sure if they still do this, but really not a fan of the giant "Predator" head that lowers down and the team skates through at the start of the game. A cheesy gimmick.
Overall, I couldn't recommend Nashville more, especially for your first road game experience. Being from Columbus, you definitely have a different perspective of the so-called "small market" teams. While a team like a Predators may not rival the Toronto Maple Leafs in terms of history, Stanley Cups, or any other metric that matters to some, what we know better than anyone is there are passionate fans everywhere. And maybe it's because hockey isn't as popular of a sport, or the arenas aren't quite as big as NFL stadiums, so it doesn't attract quite as many people–but we have yet to meet a single jerk. Everyone's just a fan of their team, a fan of this game, and they know that you are, too.
Our next road game experience was in 2008. We drove up from Columbus to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It's old. Yes, you see sights of hockey's past and many greats that have played for the Detroit Red Wings, but the place has been dying for an upgrade. (Which is finally on the roadmap.) Still, I'd recommend seeing a game there while you can–especially now that you can actually see the Jackets beat the Wings on the road. :)
The Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup that season.
We hung out around Comerica Park and Ford Field, and ate at a sports bar in the area. I'm sure there are fun things to do in town if you know where to look, but the next time we went to see a game in Detroit, we hopped the border and stayed at Caeser's Palace in Windsor, Ontario.
This trip happened in 2009, while I was a Website Production Intern with the Blue Jackets, which I wrote about here. We ate lunch at the Souper Bowl. This was while it was still the old Igloo, but I can only imagine the Consol Energy Center and surrounding areas are beautiful now, especially since it's been modeled after the Arena District in Columbus.
Penguins fans are loud, but that was back in 2009, the year they won the Stanley Cup. (Oh, man. Is that becoming a theme?) At any rate, Blue Jackets fans give them a run for their money now.
Since I was there for work, I didn't get to experience the game from a fan's perspective. Sat up in the press box, you can't exactly cheer your team on. I bet it'd be a lot of fun now with the budding rivalry between the two teams.
The National Anthem is historic. It was fun to witness in person. Although this wasn't "The Game," it was Antoine Vermette's first game after being acquired from Ottawa. Vermette scored two goals and the Blue Jackets won 5-3. It's definitely more fun when they win on the road.
There's not much to do around the United Center, but we did (years later) watch a Bulls playoff game at the Billy Goat Tavern down the street. Beyond that, there's too much good food and too many fun things to do in Chicago to even recommend here.
We went back to Detroit in 2011, and I don't really have anything to add except it was cool to see Nicklas Lidstrom play in Detroit in his final season. Those are the little kinds of cool experiences you have at the time without even realizing it. Later, it becomes maybe the only thing I remember about that game.
We just moved our little family to Los Angeles this month. No, I'm not becoming a Kings fan, although I did pick them to repeat and win the Cup again this year.
The Honda Center was really nice, and the fans were great. The most ribbing you'll get is a comment like, "Have fun... but not too much fun." I like hockey fans.
Our one-year-old, Jack, didn't understand why we were the only ones in our section not cheering. He joined in on clapping once, and tried to mimic the "Let's Go Ducks!" chant from a few young kids in the seats in front of us. I'll work on that.
My wife ran into a Blue Jackets family who was making the whole West Coast trip, so they had just been in San Jose the night before. If you're reading this, shout out to you road warriors. We'll enjoy the sunshine for you.
California's beautiful. I don't have a bad thing to say about it. Yes, it took over two hours to drive to Anaheim. (It's not that far. And it only took one hour to get home when there was moderate to no traffic. Sick.) But if traffic is the worst part of being able to go to the beach or Hollywood or the mountains, and you literally never have to check the weather because it's perfect every day, then I'm ok with that. Now that the Blue Jackets should always keep playing Anaheim and Los Angeles in the same weekend just once a year, I'd highly recommend getting it on the calendar. Unless you plan on going to Disneyland though, you'll probably end up staying more near Los Angeles. Give yourself at least a few extra hours if you want to make it down and explore Anaheim before the game.
(If the Ducks win the Cup this season, I'll make sure to attend a "road game" in Columbus next year. And, sorry.)
I guess all this is to say, it's a heck of a lot of fun to go to road games. And it doesn't have to be expensive, either. I'll bet there's a pretty good chance you probably live within a few hours of an NHL team. We've made some of these trips, there and back, on a single tank of gas (we even drove to and from Nashville in the same day, although I do not recommend it) and we sat in the cheap seats. It's worth it for the experience and the memories. It's worth it to be one of a handful of fans cheering on your team on the road.
With Yelp and Foursquare, you don't really need my recommendations on where to stay or where to eat. The point of all this is that these are memories I'll have forever. Sometimes we get so caught up in the wins and losses and injury reports that we forget hockey's a game. The Blue Jackets, both the players on the team team and the organization as a whole, have provided me with life experiences that I'll share with Jack's kids one day. That's special.
So get out. Explore a new city. Cheer on the Jackets. Have fun. Make a few friends wearing the wrong color jerseys. And then share those good times so other people are encouraged to have those experiences, too. You all deserve it.