The 2023-24 NHL season is on the way, and Pittsburgh Hockey Now is planning our travel. We’re proud that we were the only outlet to cover all 82 Pittsburgh Penguins games and every practice last season. The road is my friend, and I enjoy covering Penguins games in many cities, with the adventure of different foods, beers, walks, and sights to be discovered.
Travel is certainly a challenge and a joy.
As one of the best-traveling fanbases in the NHL, perhaps a little travel log and a few recommendations are in order. The Penguins play in the best travel division; New York, Philly, Columbus, and Washington are easy trips and enjoyable visits. Who doesn’t like a little trip down High Street in Columbus, the night-time monument walk in D.C., or eating their way through Manhattan? So, we’ll skip those, but regret the NHL’s absurd schedule that provides just one visit to New York City this season.
Yes, I’m madder about that than most people.
We’re also skipping the tourist-heavy cities of Las Vegas and Nashville. You love or hate them, but they’re different animals that most people have (or will) visit, anyway. I do adore Vegas. Nashville? (Expletive deleted) no.
And there are a handful of places I would happily cancel or remove from the league, but we’ll get to the hate list tomorrow.
Our criteria for ranking the trips is multi-varied, beginning with the arena district. Good food within walking distance of the arena, affordable hotels, people, and activity separate the good from the bad.
I’m also not a fan of Florida, so many of you will have to agree to disagree on Sunrise. Golfers and families seem to like the Florida trip, but it doesn’t make the list since I’m neither. As a hockey destination, Florida rather stinks. There is no good food, no hotels near the arena, and everything is a 20-minute drive (or a $35 Uber ride).
Also, the American Express-recommended rental car company in Fort Lauderdale was an off-site rip-off that insisted on additional charges once they got you on-site. I may have led a revolt that encouraged a van full of people to walk out and demand transportation back to the airport. The poor van driver was so taken aback that he complied.
You’d think I never work while on the road, but it’s probably me if you see a guy working on his laptop through lunch, dinner, or in a secluded corner booth of a cheap sports bar. And if you know me by now, I choose cheap eats. I’m a happy guy when I find a 75-year-old hot dog shop, a little diner with a counter, or a deli with good pastrami. Though I occasionally like a good dinner, too.
I am a spartan traveler with both eyes on the budget, so perhaps you’ll have a little more fun than me.
Top 5 Pittsburgh Penguins Road Trips
Every hardcore hockey fan should make the trek to the Great White North. This isn’t for casual travelers, but Edmonton will take good care of you if you love hockey. Statues of Wayne Gretzky (unlike the Lemieux statue, there aren’t two giant rear ends beside him) and seeing Connor McDavid should be enough, but Alberta is an interesting place; it’s part Texas and part melting pot of Indigenous peoples, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Canadians who don’t mind short days and frigid temperatures.
The Asian influence in Edmonton surprised me. The food scene is flush with amazing and affordable Asian food, and you could eat for several days without repeating the same ethnic foods. There’s a Czech bistro (Bistro Praha) run by a wonderful family, and it has the world’s best goulash. No joke. Perhaps the best meal I had all season.
Rogers Place is the eighth wonder of the world. It appears to be the size of Acrisure Stadium, with a roof. Its silver exterior makes it seem like the aliens have landed.
There’s also a famous sports writer’s hangout downtown called Sherlock’s, and the little bar with wood-paneled walls will immediately remind you of Cheers. I was there in early November when a couple walked in and asked if anyone wanted to go pumpkin-smashing. I declined, not wishing to be arrested or deported, but only later did I learn the great truth about Canadian pumpkin-smashing: People bring their own pumpkins!
They were having a grand time outside, just smashing their own pumpkins.
Calgary is a walkable city, with beef on the menu. It’s also an energy-producing, cowboy city that isn’t very happy with the restrictive policies of the Trudeau government, and the signage around town doesn’t mince words. It’s a relatively short drive from Edmonton to Calgary, so take the two-fer.
Both arenas are hockey fan-friendly. Good views and affordable seats.
The once great tourist city took a beating from COVID. There are plenty of empty storefronts, but there’s still ridiculously good food around every corner and a wealth of great shopping (if that’s your thing). Just be careful. I wandered into one store and was impressed by the suit collection … until I flipped over the price tag ($7500).
There’s no smooth way out of that situation, aside from casually turning and leaving, hoping no one saw your eyes nearly pop out.
There are three-star hotels that won’t drain the wallet within walking distance of the arena. The walk from my favorite hotel to the arena passes several churches that are 18th- and 19th-century creations. Don’t get exasperated that you don’t speak/understand French, and they’ll be much kinder, though the occasional eye roll is pretty funny.
Food. Night life. Picturesque walks. The worst part is the drive. Getting a flight from Pittsburgh to Montreal is almost impossible without spending $800 or two layovers, so I make the nine-hour drive, but, oh, that drive through New York takes forever.
Another city that was hard hit by COVID. The “mall” downtown is a lengthy street recently filled with shops and restaurants, but not so much right now. Denver has a tram from the airport to downtown, so getting back and forth is easy. Next time, I’ll definitely stay closer to the tram. The arena is walkable from downtown, and there is a bevy of locally owned restaurants, including a famous little greasy spoon diner (Sam’s #3), sports bars, and an old-school pool hall. Coffee shops are plentiful, but I was told I was overdressed and “Colorado casual” is a thing.
Sorry, my shirt had a collar. Actually, I ALWAYS wear a collared shirt in public. ALWAYS.
Killing an off-night at a pool hall was one of the better nights of the year. Two days in Denver was the perfect amount.
Affordable hotels and low-priced food, with a few spiffy upscale options that aren’t corporate chains or stuffy places catering to business accounts, make for a nice visit. But watch out: Those gummy bears might not be what you think.
2. Tampa Bay
I’m as surprised as you that a Florida city made the top five, but Tampa Bay is a small city with lots of food, a bit of shopping, and friendly people. It reminded me of Pittsburgh about 10 years ago (with a few more tourists). Three days in Tampa was not a trip I looked forward to, but by the end, I didn’t want to leave. The Riverwalk hotels fluctuate in price, but if you can snag one, by all means, do so.
Day 1 was a food truck lineup a couple of blocks away. Yes, please. There were a few really good little Mexican restaurants, a cozy sports bar, a pizza place that imports water from New York City, and a few streets that are restaurant rows.
Like Pittsburgh, Tampa closes up a little bit early — the late-night party spots are a short drive or Uber ride away. Fortunately, I was well-fed and busy.
The hotel pool scene seemed to be pretty lively, too. I haven’t done enough sit-ups, and I’m a little too old, so I avoided being “that guy” by joining in…
Vancouver is unique. It has a heavy Asian influence from all corners of that continent, but like many left-coast cities, it has an exacerbated problem with homelessness and crime. And it can be expensive if you’re not paying attention.
Yet it’s also my favorite trip on the calendar. It’s beautiful, has a calm (but ever-present) nightlife, and everything is within reach.
Three full days in Vancouver were perfect, although I could have tolerated a few more. My off-brand hotel room above the harbor was more like an apartment. There is an easy-to-navigate light-rail system, but I didn’t have time to go whale-watching. Hopefully, next time.
In three days, I found several memorable places, including a shockingly good Italian restaurant that was more like a second-floor speakeasy. From street level, there was only a small bronze sign that read (I think) “Spaghetti ⬆️,” with an open door, giving entry to a dreary staircase lined with that dark red outdoor carpet used in cheap hotel lobbies and a beat-up thick steel door with a caged peephole at the top. There was no way I was passing up this chance for an adventure and story.
Score! On the other side of that door was an extraordinary Italian restaurant with a brick wall interior, including the far wall that was entirely a wine rack with hundreds of bottles. At the same time, the staff was dressed in traditional white shirts with black ties. Small lamps lit the tables as I looked out through the trees to the street below. With the Canadian exchange rate, I managed a chicken parm, wine, and lemon tort dessert for under $50.
The walk around the harbor is beautiful. The coffee shops are, umm, interesting. I find the belief in Communism as fascinating as the ethos is destructive, and I wandered into a couple of coffee spots for “fellow travelers.” I’m sure I looked like a narc. And for the first time in my life, I found a food that was too spicy.
The little chalkboard on the street read, “No. 1 Korea Hangover Food.”
At the little place I walked past every day, I tried this hangover cure, just for future reference. The owner’s daughter was working the register, and she warned me. She warned me twice, actually.
“Ha,” I thought. I can handle the hottest hot wings and level-five spice at Thai restaurants. I can handle this.
No, I couldn’t. It was the No. 1 Korea kick my butt, sweating upper lip, gasping for air, food. It was a red soup, and a bowl was $5 CDN.
I dare you.
I’m happy to share and receive some tips for the road. Drop me some notes in the comments.