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Road tripping: Savoring the charms of each NHL city

The NHL has made the travel lover’s dream possible again. Want to see the Sabres play in the desert of Phoenix? No problem. How about catching a game on the tundra of Winnipeg? That’s doable, too. Thanks to the NHL’s return to a balanced schedule, Buffalo will play in northwest Canada, southeast Florida and all points between.

For the first time since 1997-98, every team will visit the other 29 cities as part of a home-and-away series. The league’s previous schedule matrix had Eastern Conference teams visiting their Western brethren every other year, which deprived Buffalonians of visiting fun cities and prevented transplants from getting a regular look at their hometown squad.

Those days are gone, so fans can pack a bag and pick a city.

The best thing about traveling alongside the Sabres is experiencing the sights, sounds and food that are featured throughout North America. Each NHL city has a distinct feel and specialty. There are raucous arenas in San Jose and Montreal, eye-popping architecture in Nashville and New York, and unforgettable food in Columbus and St. Louis.

During my 12 seasons covering the Sabres, I’ve been fortunate to spend time and attend games in all 30 NHL cities (31 if you include dearly departed Atlanta). There’s a simple rule to live by on the road, one that governs all others.

Be a tourist but act like a local.

What does that mean? It means view what each city is known for but also seek out what it’s not. The Empire State Building is a must-see in New York, but so is the view on the Staten Island Ferry. Parliament Hill in Ottawa is a sight to behold, but so is the line for a shawarma at 2 a.m.

There’s a reason tourist attractions become famous, so by all means check them out. Just be sure to see what else the towns offer, things that locals know and love.

That goes for food above all else. There is no reason – no reason! – to eat at a chain in Chicago or get a $5 footlong in Philadelphia. Restaurants are the heartbeat of a city. Buffalonians who stand in line for their favorite Friday night fish fry know that. Don’t eat anywhere on the road that you can go at home.

With those guidelines in place, here’s advice on what to see and eat before watching the Sabres put on their visiting uniforms.


What to do: If you didn’t know Disneyland was in Anaheim, you will in a matter of seconds. The “Happiest Place on Earth” dominates the landscape through ads and brochures. Downtown Disney is free, full of music venues and restaurants, and gives visitors the feel of the park without spending big admission prices.

What to eat: Get your heart healthy now because Slater’s 50/50 will do a number on it. The numbers stand for its claim to fame, a burger made of 50 percent ground beef and 50 percent ground bacon. Topped with bacon-infused ketchup and baconnaise, it’s a meat-lover’s dream.

Arena experience: The building is surrounded by palm trees, putting fans in a tropical mind-set on the way in.


What to do: Boston Common, the oldest park in the United States, has something for sun-worshippers and winter fans. When it’s warm, sit on a bench near the Swan Boats to gaze at the skyline and college students. When it’s cold, rent ice skates for a cruise around Frog Pond.

What to eat: Lobster and clam chowder steal the show. The Green Dragon Tavern in the heart of historic downtown and the Barking Crab along the waterfront offer amazing lobster rolls and views. Yankee Lobster Co. looks like a dive but is a chowderhead’s choice.

Arena experience: A black-and-gold seating pattern adds flair, but the chairs are soon covered by the sold-out crowd.


What to do: The glass floor in the observation deck of the Calgary Tower allows visitors to literally look down on the city while also checking out the prairies that lead to the Rocky Mountains.

What to eat: Canada takes pride in its Alberta beef, so find a homegrown steak near Stampede Park and wash it down at Cowboys Dance Hall.

Arena experience: The best part is off-limits to fans – crossing the catwalk above center ice to get to the press box – but the saddle shape of the arena is one interesting design feat.


What to do: Give it the old college try and experience the upper-class campus of Duke University (especially its pristine chapel, where the college’s namesake is entombed) and the fun-filled grounds of the University of North Carolina. The schools are 13 miles apart in distance but worlds apart in attitude.

What to eat: In a town filled with barbecue specialists, The Pit stands out for its commitment to using the whole hog and choice Southern trimmings.

Arena experience: Sabres fans can occupy half the arena, and the rivalry kicks into high gear right before puck drop when Carolina shows a clip of Bills legend Jim Kelly saying, “Let’s go ’Canes.” He was talking about the Miami Hurricanes, but that doesn’t matter to the crowd.


What to do: It costs money to travel to the observation decks of Willis Tower and John Hancock Center, two of the tallest buildings in the United States. But for the cost of a soda, visitors can experience the same amazing view from the Signature Room at the 95th floor of the Hancock Center.

What to eat: Celebrity chef David Burke went overboard with Primehouse, where the prime-grade meat supplied by his own bull is dry-aged in his Himalayan salt room. One bite explains why he went through the trouble.

Arena experience: The sell-out crowd screaming and cheering throughout the national anthem is one of the greatest traditions in sports.


What to do: A free tour of the Coors brewery takes visitors through the timeline of beer production, and it ends with complimentary samples. Be sure to get there before 3:30 p.m., which is when the local college students rush in to get primed for the evening.

What to eat: Western New Yorkers will feel right at home at Lodo’s Bar and Grill, home to a huge chapter of Bills Backers.

Arena experience: The grand atrium gives fans a view of downtown and the Rockies.


What to do: Head to the game early. Columbus has the best arena district in the NHL, a brick-lined area with enough restaurant and entertainment choices to keep the experience fresh even for longtime season ticket holders.

What to eat: There’s a reason Schmidt’s Restaurant usually has a line stretching around the corner. The sausage kings in quaint German Village do knockwurst and their Bahama Mamas right.

Arena experience: Anyone sitting near the reproduction of a Civil War cannon should bring ear plugs and a camera.


What to do: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza – better known as the Texas School Book Depository and firing perch for Lee Harvey Oswald – brings history to life with its tribute to President John F. Kennedy.

What to eat: Like Calgary, Dallas takes pride in its homegrown cattle, so fine steakhouses abound. Texas-based Whataburger joins California’s In-N-Out Burger as one of the few fast-food chains worth visiting.

Arena experience: They do things large in Big D, as evidenced by the huge public plaza with an enormous outdoor high-definition screen.


What to do: The Detroit People Mover is an elevated rail that carries riders across the landscape through the city’s different neighborhoods.

What to eat: Fishbone’s in Greektown is an eclectic fusion of New Orleans specialties and fresh sushi. Not many places are equally adept at creating andouille sausage and California rolls.

Arena experience: Possibly the coolest moment of my career was walking through the Gordie Howe Entrance and seeing Gordie Howe on the other side.


What to do: The West Edmonton Mall contains a 17-slide water park, an NHL-sized rink and an exact replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship. It’s so big that a News co-worker took a cab from one parking lot to another.

What to eat: Tap 25 sports lounge in River Cree Resort and Casino allows visitors to watch hockey and hear the call of slot machines.

Arena experience: The statue of Wayne Gretzky recalls a time when Edmonton was the place to play.


What to do: Fort Lauderdale is known as “The Venice of America” with its intercoastal waterway, and riding the Water Taxi is a quality way to see the sights or travel from the beach to downtown. The guided tour floats past majestic yachts and $12 million homes.

What to eat: Officially known as the Drunken Taco, this Oceanside “House of 100 Tequilas” defies its tourist trap setup with the finest blackened fresh fish sandwich you can find. The hangout of former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff used to have a signed Sabres jersey on the wall. Ask the owner or bartender why.

Arena experience: Stretch out and relax. No one will be sitting next to you.

Los Angeles

What to do: Stargazers of both kinds have it made. Those who want to catch a glimpse of movie and television stars can head to Hollywood for its cinematic glory. The best view of the city and sky can be found at Griffith Observatory, made famous in James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”

What to eat: Sushiya on Sunset delivers food along with intrigue as patio diners will wonder who is about to step out of the Lamborghini or Rolls-Royce that just parked on Sunset Strip. The restaurant is near famous music clubs Whiskey a Go Go and the Roxy, setting the stage for post-dinner entertainment.

Arena experience: The sheer size of Staples Center, especially the height of the ceiling, is eye-popping.


What to do: Like Edmonton, it’s cold in Minneapolis, so the locals created an indoor playground at the Mall of America with an amusement park and aquarium in the 500-store galleria.

What to eat: Firelake Grill House focuses on local foods, supplying a taste of the Midwest with elk, bison and walleye.

Arena experience: The State of Hockey pays homage to all levels of the sport in the lodge-like arena, with jerseys from local high schools hanging near NCAA displays.


What to do: A walk down St. Catherine Street during the day is the closest you can get to Paris, with Montreal’s most fashionable people trying to out-dress each other. A stroll down the street at night leads the masses to nightclubs and debauchery.

What to eat: Smoked meat is the city’s specialty, with poutine (French fries covered with cheese curds and gravy) sharing a plate with the piled-high sandwich. Schwartz’s draws the tourists while Reuben’s has a following, but it’s hard to beat the taste and atmosphere of Dunn’s, which is open 24 hours a day.

Arena experience: Anyone who is a fan of hockey should see a game in its birthplace. The crowd of 21,273 celebrates the sport like no one else.


What to do: Country fans know how to party. Nashville is the only place where the bars around the arena are packed during the morning skate, which starts at 10:30 a.m. Live music blares up and down Broadway with singers trying to become the next Kenny Chesney.

What to eat: Jack’s Bar-B-Que, with award-winning meats and sauces, is a napkin-sopping delight. The only trouble with the combo plate is deciding which three specialties to leave off.

Arena experience: You have a chance to hear Dierks Bentley and Carrie Underwood cheer goals and sing the anthem.

New Jersey

What to do: Go to New York City. Seriously. If you insist on staying in Newark, Red Bull Stadium for the local Major League Soccer team has an interesting design.

What to eat: Two restaurants are right outside the arena doors, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que of Rochester and Syracuse fame, and Brick City Bar and Grill.

Arena experience: The building is palatial, complete with a 4,800-square foot outdoor screen that can be seen while circling above in an airplane. More people watch from the sky than inside.

New York

What to do: Extend the trip an extra day. The city truly never sleeps with historic sights and activities around the clock throughout Manhattan. Even the harshest critics of the Big Apple will get a laugh at the headliners at Carolines on Broadway and the up-and-coming comedians at Comic Strip Live or Dangerfield’s.

What to eat: The lines and ticket-ordering system at Katz’s Deli can be intimidating, but one taste of the hand-sliced pastrami will melt away any worries.

Arena experience: The blue-collar Joes and media celebrities make Madison Square Garden rock whenever the Rangers play. Meanwhile, on Long Island, the Islanders are counting the days till they move to Brooklyn and leave their old, empty arena behind.


What to do: Pack your skates for the world’s largest skating rink. The city puts Zambonis on the frozen Rideau Canal, giving folks a nearly five-mile surface on which to skate.

What to eat: One joke says Ottawans give directions by using the many shawarma restaurants as markers. The starting and ending point should be 3 Brothers in ByWard Market. Their shawarma – a Lebanese specialty featuring spit-roasted chicken, pickled turnips and garlic sauce inside a pita wrap – leaves a taste diners won’t forget.

Arena experience: The arena is 15 miles away from downtown, and the rush-hour commute can be painful.


What to do: Few places are better for history buffs. A tour of Independence Hall walks visitors through the signing of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, while the Liberty Bell and Benjamin Franklin’s body rest nearby.

What to eat: In case you hadn’t heard, Philly is famous for cheesesteaks. Pat’s, Geno’s and Jim’s have faithful followings and different takes on the classic.

Arena experience: The fans are adrenaline junkies who make the City of Brotherly Hate an interesting visit.


What to do: Camelback Mountain is 2,700-feet high, has sheer, redstone cliffs and is shaped like a camel. It’s also climbable for everyone from beginners to outdoor enthusiasts. Grab a water bottle and head up for stellar views of the desert, cities and million-dollar homes.

What to eat: The Mission in Old Town Scottsdale – my favorite restaurant in North America – is unforgettable dining with tableside guacamole, Latin-influenced creations and mescal margaritas.

Arena experience: The Westgate Entertainment District rivals Columbus for top arena surroundings, but fans from more populous Phoenix and Scottsdale rarely make the drive to Glendale.


What to do: The Duquesne and Monongahela inclines take riders to the top of Mount Washington in century-old cable cars for a dazzling view of Pittsburgh’s eclectic downtown, where architects brought their craziest creations to life.

What to eat: The Church Brew Works, with exotic pierogies and house-crafted drafts, is formerly a Catholic church built in 1901. With the brewhouse situated at the altar, they truly put beer on a pedestal.

Arena experience: Having some of the most talented players in the NHL has created sellout after sellout in the league’s newest building.

San Jose

What to do: While San Jose is nice, passing up a world-class city like San Francisco would be a mistake. Just 45 minutes away, San Fran offers a walk across or boat ride under the Golden Gate Bridge. Baker Beach provides magnificent views of the famous structure.

What to eat: The freshly steamed Dungeness crab in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a seafood-lover’s delight. They love hockey at the San Jose Bar and Grill, which transforms from sports bar to nightclub when the games end.

Arena experience: With a low ceiling to trap the noise, San Jose is one of the loudest buildings, especially when skaters zip through the open mouth of a shark.

St. Louis

What to do: The journey to the top of the Gateway Arch might be even better than the views. The enclosed, five-person tram rocks as it rises up the curved masterpiece, giving a feeling that can’t be duplicated by a straight-line elevator.

What to eat: Former Sabres defenseman and St. Louis native Chris Butler raved about the toasted ravioli at Imo’s Pizza. He had good reason to laud the seasoned pockets of deliciousness.

Arena experience: Aside from the scoreboard, Western New Yorkers might feel like First Niagara Center got moved to the Midwest once they step inside.

Tampa Bay

What to do: The Sabres’ first visit (Oct. 26) coincides with Guavaween, the craziest Halloween party around despite attempts by organizers to scale it down. The streets, bars and restaurants are packed in Tampa’s Ybor City, which used to be lined with cigar factories.

What to eat: Jackson’s Bistro offers waterside dining with fresh seafood and sushi, then turns into a raving nightclub with three distinct musical rooms that appeal to Tampa’s finest-looking folks.

Arena experience: From the outdoor plaza to the gigantic scoreboard that goes from blue line to blue line, Tampa may provide the best game experience.


What to do: The Hockey Hall of Fame brings fans face to etched-glass face with the royalty of the sport. Interactive exhibits can make kids feel like the next Sidney Crosby or Rick Jeanneret.

What to eat: This may deserve an asterisk because there’s a location in Niagara Falls, Ont., but there’s no Keg Steakhouse like Mansion Keg in Toronto. The castlelike structure built in 1868 unchains the restaurant from its brethren.

Arena experience: Expensive tickets make the lower bowl a hangout for uninterested business folks, but the true fans try to make up for it.


What to do: The Sea-to-Sky Highway has an off-the-charts wow factor. Starting in the picturesque seaside city of Vancouver and curving along the water to the mountaintop resort town of Whistler, the drive is unlike any other.

What to eat: Pacific salmon leaves the water, arrives fresh in the kitchen of Water St. Cafe in the Gastown District, hits the grill and is topped with peppered honey basil strawberries and a balsamic reduction.

Arena experience: Fans fill the building, and someone fills his pocket. The 50-50 raffle can top $100,000.


What to do: A two-mile stroll along the National Mall cruises past the White House and memorials to the greatest presidents and war heroes.

What to eat: Former NHLers Jaroslav Spacek and Donald Brashear join me in swearing by Fogo de Chao, a decadent dining experience in which gaucho chefs slice 16 types of fire-roasted meat off sticks and onto your plate.

Arena experience: Located in the heart of Chinatown, the hustle and bustle outside carries inside.


What to do: Try to stay warm at the corner of Portage and Main, referred to as the coldest intersection in Canada. The heartiest folks can skate at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet.

What to eat: Moxie’s Grill and Bar combines casual dining with minimal exposure to the weather – it’s located inside the arena.

Arena experience: Jets fans waited 15 years for the NHL to come back. Their enthusiasm will prevent it from leaving again.