Ending 2022 (and starting 2023) in the Sunshine State
Florida Man takes a lot of grief. But there’s something to be said about 70-degree days in late December.
For the past few years, I have taught courses at the University of Notre Dame’s business school. When the Irish finished the year 8-4, we were hoping the bowl game would be somewhere warm. They drew the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. As such, the family decided to make a vacation of it, and headed down to Florida (NOT on Southwest), stationing ourselves in Orlando for some theme park and sporting event action.
First Stop: Orlando’s Camping World Stadium
First sporting stop was the Cheez-It Bowl between Florida State and Oklahoma. This was my first visit to Camping World Stadium. Considering it was first built in 1936 (albeit with many renovations since) and that it lacks a permanent tenant (excluding the XFL), it’s not a bad facility. It was less basic than many college stadiums, and the concessions in the lower bowl and club areas were surprisingly solid.
The venue is just north of Orlando’s downtown in a bit of a dodgy area. We parked less than a mile away for $10 and hoped the rental car would still be there. Managed to hit two breweries, Broken Strings and Deadwords Brewing, before the game.
The game felt like a home game for the Seminoles, and the crowd left happy after a 35-32 barnburner.
As an aside, given that Cheez-It was the sponsor, fans had access to free packs of crackers throughout the stadium. I would have consumed fewer calories by sucking back 10 Miller Lites! Damn free addictive snacks.
Next Up: The Gator Bowl
The Jaguar’s TIAA Bank Field hosted the Gator Bowl between South Carolina and Notre Dame. With this visit, my total number of unique MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA or NCAA football venues hit 62 for 2022!
Made a quick stop for a brew and a bite at Kickbacks Gastropub about 4 miles away, then drove and parked less than a mile west of the stadium before enjoying Fan Fest and all the pregame festivities. We would have made a stop at the only decent pregame watering hole near the stadium, Intuition Ale Works, but the lack of pregame options combined with Notre Dame fans’ love of the drink, and South Carolina fans’ enthusiasm and party spirit meant there was a line out the door.
Once inside, we were treated to one of the best games of the year with the Irish overcoming a large deficit and partisan Gamecock crowd. By the way, a quick shout out to the Gamecock fan base; given the relative mediocrity of the football team lately, they are devoted and loud!
New Years Afternoon in a Tampa Ice Rink
Next stop was a hockey game in Tampa. You can take the boy out of Canada, but you can’t take Canada out of the boy.
I’ve been to Amalie Arena more than all but a handful of current venues and think it’s really fun. I was excited to bring my son for his first visit. Alas, it was a rainy afternoon, so Thunder Alley lacked the usual pregame buzz.
Once inside, the rink didn’t disappoint and we were treated to an exciting 5-3 hockey game in front of a full house, while catching the crazy TCU-Michigan game on our phones.
Bring In the New Year With More Football!!
Final stop was the game at Raymond James Stadium between the Bucs and Panthers to decide the NFC South. After a little tailgating in the grass parking lots, we went in to our wonderful seats. Carolina had a 14-point lead and an 11-point second half lead, but Tom Brady suddenly decided he was 28 again and lit it up to lead the team to a 30-24 victory for our fourth great game on the trip.
More Crowds Afterwards
After that, it was three days in overcrowded theme parks. If you wanted any proof that the pandemic is over, visit a Florida theme park over the Christmas-New Year’s break!
As I waited in seemingly endless lines to ride Space Mountain and Hagrid’s, I went to my happy place by plotting how I can see 63 venues in 2023.
I’ve never been much of a fan of suburban rinks with an attendance problem. Arena builders should put the rink in the city.
Phoenix is among the most non-traditional of the non-traditional hockey markets. In the absence of a fantastic on-ice product, teams in these markets need to put on a show. And when people go to the show, they also like to go for dinner and perhaps a few drinks before calling it a night. That’s harder to do if you know you have a half-hour drive ahead of you.
The Gila River Arena itself (now called the Desert Diamond Arena) was really very nice, just in the wrong place, which hurt attendance and therefore dulled the vibe. The sound system and scoreboards were top notch. The seats were comfy. Prices were reasonable vis a vis the rest of the league. And the fans’ Coyote howl was pretty cool; unfortunately, it echoed off thousands of empty seats on most nights.
The Westgate Entertainment Complex that surrounds the arena and football stadium has a few good (mainly chain) restaurants and bars where you can whet your whistle. On my second-last visit, I stayed at a nearby hotel to take full advantage of the area and had a blast; but it’s not as fun if you’re part of the 90% who’ll have a longish drive home and therefore have to maintain some modicum of sobriety.
Ever since coming from Winnipeg, this team seems to be the one rumored to be going somewhere else, be it Kansas City, Houston or Quebec City. Maybe they should. But given how many stayed away from this nice place, I’m not sure a move 30 miles east will be the answer.
I was born in the great city of Montreal but left as a boy in the first wave of Anglo flight in 1977. The rise of French nationalism made my English parents feel increasingly unwelcome in their long-time home. So we moved southern Ontario, a place that has a lot more in common with the American Midwest than it does with Quebec’s largest city.
I’ve been back several times over the years, but with little family left in the province, there was less need to do so. I was making several business trips to the province between 2007-2010, but then moved to Chicago which stopped that. As a result, there’s been a huge gap in my visits.
In many ways, Montreal feels very foreign to me. It’s the world’s second largest French-speaking city. Its province clings to its culture. It’s unlike any city in the US, and frankly, unlike any other city in Canada. I notice how different it is, and I have roots there. If you’re a “meat-and-potatoes” American sports fan, Montreal can truly make you feel like you’re on another continent.
The language has a lot to do with that; while you can get away with just English, a little knowledge of French will help you navigate a little easier. It’s a city where people live in modest dwellings and drive modest cars, but go out to eat at great restaurants regularly. Montrealers party with a little more abandon (at all ages) and take a very open/liberal attitude to life. They dress with a little more style, especially the women. Summer is just one festival after another. And despite miserable winters, the locals just bundle up and refuse to let cold and snow keep them from experiencing that renown Quebec “joie de vivre”.
Quite simply, Montreal is more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated, and more European, than any other city with a Big 4 sports team. And it knows how to have a great time.
Many tourists fall in love with the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal. And centre ville (downtown) is always bustling. But it pays to go beyond those areas. Little Italy and Little Burgundy are both favorites for foodies. And Plateau-Mont-Royal and Mile End are home to many hipsters & artists and perfect for a stroll.
The 747 bus provides efficient service from the airport to downtown, so you may think twice about renting a car (and I say that as one who’s not a huge fan of public transit). The Metro makes travel easy, and taxis and Ubers are plentiful.
If you drive, be sure to note that you can NOT turn right on a red on the Island of Montreal.
But the best way to explore the city is on foot. If you have decent weather (hardly guaranteed), get a nice pair of comfortable, yet stylish shoes and take to the sidewalks.
EATING YOUR WAY THROUGH “LA METROPOLE”
While there are plenty of amazing restaurants in Montreal, there’s also great pleasure to be had in their cheap eats. There are five MTL staples that everyone should try if there on a visit: Montreal-style bagels, Montreal smoked meat, poutine, all-dressed “steamie” hot dogs, and an Orange Julep.
A fresh-from-the-oven Montreal bagel is a carby taste of heaven: like a perfect cross between a classic New York bagel and a soft pretzel. Try one, and if you don’t agree, you’re wrong. The two most iconic bagel shops are St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagel, both in Mile End. I’ll argue, they are the two best bagel shops on the planet. Grab a couple of dozen to take home, and try not eat more than three on the way back to your hotel.
A Montreal smoked meat sandwich is another pleasure. Not quite pastrami, not quite corned beef, a medium-fat sandwich with classic mustard and a pickle may be your best meal on your visit. While there are several good places in town, venerable Schwartz’s Deli has been smoking meats for nearly a century and is the place to go if you’re only eating one. Waiters are gruff, the place is always crowded, and it feels like a time warp, but they make a damn good sandwich. Other options here include Smoke Meat Pete, Snowdon Deli, Dunn’s and Lester’s.
Poutine was invented in Quebec. There’s something incredibly satisfying about a plate of excellent french fries smothered in gravy and squeaky cheese curds. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a place that sells it, but the top options include La Banquise (24hrs, very popular), Chez Claudette, and the Montreal Pool Room.
Under the right circumstances, a great hot dog can be incredibly delicious. A classic Montreal dog is served “all-dressed” (relish, onion, slaw and mustard) in a toasted top-slice bun. I prefer “steamies” to grilled dogs, and Décarie Hot Dogs does those best (unless you’re at the hockey game). Local chain La Belle Province also does a good & cheap steamie. Another local chain, Restaurant Lafleur offers a great grilled version and also makes great french fries to boot.
Finally, there’s the Orange Julep. This milky-orange elixir may be my favorite beverage on earth. The closest description would be like it’s drinking a juicier, not-quite-as-sweet Creamsicle, but better. You can get it at Gibeau’s Orange Julep car stand; just look for the giant orange sphere. The place makes a good hot dog and poutine as well, so you can get three food groups in one visit.
BEER. MY OTHER FAVORITE DRINK.
Of course if you follow this blog, you also know that my “other” favorite beverage is beer. Montreal is home to Molson Breweries but also offers a rich assortment of great craft breweries. Many are stylish joints that feel more like Euro cafés than they do brew houses. Most offer Belgian-style grisettes, sours and farmhouse ales, English-style stouts and ESBs and American-style IPAs in addition to some well-crafted lagers. I made it a point to visit as many as I could on my last trip and was not disappointed with any of them.
In the Rosemont/Petite Patrie neighborhoods:
Isle de Garde: Sleek, stylish, almost romantic spot. They emphasize clean lagers and offer an excellent menu as well.
Broue Pub Brouhaha: Good house beers as well as a few guest taps. Patronized by locals, not tourists. Good carnivorous bites as well.
In Mile End:
Siboire: A smaller selection, but everything was done well. My bartender was exceedingly friendly. Beautiful space.
Dieu du Ciel: My choice for best microbrewery in town (and I know I’m not alone given the consistent crowds). They do the classics perfectly, but also offer some cool takes such as their Disco Soleil (a kumquat IPA), and the Rosée d’Hibiscus, a Belgian style hibiscus wheat beer. The Moralité and Petit Détour IPAs were among the best in town as well.
In the Plateau neighborhood:
Pit Caribou: The Montreal outpost of a great Gaspésian brewery (Gaspé being a rustic, rural area in Eastern Quebec with a strong maritime vibe). Combine a visit here with a stop at La Banquise for a beer/poutine carb overload.
Reservoir Brasseur: Another stylish place close to Schwartz’s (though the food is really good here too). On a cobblestone road which adds to the charm.
In Old Montreal:
3 Brasseurs: A chain featuring decent home brews, Main draw is the location: a neighborhood that feels more like France than North America.
In the Latin Quarter:
L’amère à Boire: Had more in the Czech, German and American style here. Mix of older and younger patrons. Fun vibe.
Le Saint-Bock: Huge selection and range of styles. Outdoor seating was packed on a cool March evening. One of the few places with TVs (you decide if that’s good or bad). Loved their Sanguinaire, a blood orange IPA. Fun vibe.
Cheval Blanc: Montreal’s original microbrewery and home to the namesake Belgian white found all over town.
Places-Des-Arts Centre Ville (Downtown):
Benelux: Lots of Belgian-style offerings in this very stylish space.
SATURDAY NIGHT HOCKEY IN MTL
This was feeling more like a travel log than a post in sports blog. But there were sports involved.
The 2021-2022 Canadiens, despite being only a few months removed from a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2021, stink. The 2021-22 Ottawa Senators also stink. The two met for a meaningless late-season game on a drizzly, cool Saturday in March. But the Bell Centre was packed, and the atmosphere was fantastic. It felt like a game that mattered.
I wax poetic in my review on stadiumdude.com/montreal-canadiens and call this the closest true “Bucket List” rink in the NHL. While, I find it hard to believe that those narrow concessions are up to fire code, it truly is a place that all hockey fans must visit.
I also loved that among the many banners was an Expos banner honoring the 4 retired numbers from the team’s 35-year history. And Youppi! continues with his wacky antics that brings me back to games at Olympic stadium.
The Montreal Conundrum
My return to my “foreign home” was a walking contradiction. On one hand, it’s a city that feels very, very different. Yet it still manages to remind me of my roots and bring me back to my childhood. It’s novelty and nostalgia, sometimes simultaneously.
Unlike baseball which have two grossly subpar facilities, none of the 32 NHL arenas are “bad” places to watch a game. All have some merit.
Interestingly, the New York Islanders played in two different barns prior to their move to the state-of-the-art UBS Arena. The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was a former dump that was made a lot better thanks to a $100 million renovation. And the Barclays Center in Brooklyn was a beautiful arena, but was bad for hockey.
Let’s take a trip to the not too distant past and take a look at these now-defunct Islanders’ arenas.
The Barclays Center is a gorgeous facility. It uses a tasteful dark brown and grey motif and has a fantastic HD videoboard. The Oculus above the main entrance with its LCD screen is quite impressive and unique in stadium design. Nice touches like planting the Ebbets Field flagpole at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush helped give it a sense of place. And they sell wonderful (albeit expensive) local delicacies in the concession stands.
…But Not for Hockey
It’s flaw was that it wasn’t built for hockey. During the building stage, they decided not to build it as a multi-sport facility, and instead focused on basketball and concerts. As such, this state-of-the-art building was a horrible place for pucks in many seats.
The scoreboard sat over a blue line rather than center ice. Many of the seats did not allow for full views of the ice. Hell, some seats at one end of the upper deck had no view of one of the goals! That’s a VERY obstructed view.
Poor fan support
Not only that, but there was also a real lack of fan support. The Islanders have a proud and loyal base on Long Island (yes, Brooklyn is technically part of Long Island; but a tomato is technically a fruit). Many didn’t follow the team to Brooklyn given traffic or the hassle of taking the train for a weeknight game. And the team was unable to build much a new fan base with the Brooklyn hipsters.
In the end, the Islanders got kicked out and moved back to the Nassau Coliseum on a full-time basis in 2020-21
As it turns out, I saw one of the last hockey games played here. I would have taken some souvenirs had I known that at the time.
NASSAU VETERANS MEMORIAL COLISEUM
The Nassau Coliseum had a reputation for being a bare-bones dump. But that’s not true anymore. If it were bigger, the Isles might have stayed.
There were only 32 luxury suites, and they sit above the upper deck of seats, and not in between the lower and upper bowls. There was no Club Level. As such, the upper-level seats were the closest to the ice in the NHL. This proximity of “the real fans” created more energy in the building despite its low seating capacity; unlike most larger rinks, this place felt full even if there were only 13,000 people there. Attendees tended to be older, long-time supporters (often wearing vintage New York Islanders jerseys) making it a savvier, albeit cynical, crowd.
The renovations helped with some sore spots.
With the reduced capacity, every fan got more room. Washrooms were doubled. A VIP area was added beneath part of the lower bowl. And the new exterior, with the façade featuring 4,700 aluminum fins, looked a hell of a lot sharper than the old Soviet-style concrete design.
But she was still flawed
Concourses were still cramped, and concessions were surprising inefficient with long lines and poor throughput (at least on the night that I attended). Unless you lived/worked in Nassau or Suffolk county, getting there was a pain; the rink is 30 miles from NYC and it was easier with a car since public transit involves a rail line and a bus through dodgy Hempstead, or the LIRR and an Uber. And there was very little within walking distance other than a Marriott and a few fast-food joints, meaning the pre-game scene was lacking.
Despite all that, it reminded us of a simpler time in pro sports. In a weird way, I’m sad to see her go.
Throughout the course of my life, I’ve managed to see a regular season game in 34 NFL stadiums and 40 NHL rinks, including all that were in use as of spring 2020. But baseball parks are my true passion. I’ve seen a regular season game in 56 stadiums. With the exception of the newish park in Atlanta (which I’ve been to a half-dozen times) and the new park in Texas, I’ve seen at least 10 games in every single current park. Many summers in the 2010’s, I managed to get to all 30. It’s my thing.
I wanted to share my travels with other fans, but never had the time to fully craft a website until the COVID-19 shutdown. And so, I now offer my biased opinions.
The baseball reviews are detailed. I feel most qualified to review them and I have painstakingly agonized over the actual scores. Baseball venues tend to have more character, and therefore more difference between them. Baseball fans seem to have a greater connection with their home venue than fans of other sports. I also think that the ballpark has a bigger influence on the experience due to the more relaxed pace of baseball — one can soak everything in and still pay attention to the game. It’s likely the reason why the ballpark circuit is a more common goal than hitting all the NFL stadiums or NHL arenas.
The football and hockey stadiums are ranked but don’t have the same detailed breakdown. For one, I’ve only been to 1-2 games in most of these places. As well, the differences tend to be more pronounced in the exclusive premium seating areas rather than the main seating bowls (which is where I sit).
If you disagree and want to debate a little, I’m game. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what I find attractive, you may find plain. What I find to be kitschy cool, you may think is dumb.