By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
So begins the next go-round into the unknown, strangely enough, Jet Blueing up to Buffalo late on New Year’s Night.
Less than 24 hours after greeting 2015 next to the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, rocking out to a band called Mr. Nice Guy playing “Southbound,” we’re inexplicably flying northbound into an expected lake effect snowstorm.
Hardly the normal course for a South Floridian. Unless you are a sports writer on the hockey beat. The hometown Florida Panthers had a date at the tip of Lake Erie to begin a six-game road trip, so we were hot on their tail to a region best known for chicken wings and motorists getting stuck in their cars on the highway in snow drifts this time of the year.
The beauty of travel is the serendipity, the surprises that alter perspective and expectations about a given destination.
Such as looking outside the hotel window the first morning in Buffalo and seeing a public outdoor ice rink. That is when you know you are in a hockey town.
Though I have gravitated to the beach for most of my adult life, I grew up on pond hockey 200 miles southwest of there in the snow belt of Northeast Ohio.
It was a pleasant surprise when a crowd began to form late in the morning as music began playing and the rink was opened for public skating at the Canalside rink. The line to get in wound around the corner and remained that way throughout the afternoon and after dark when lights were illuminated to keep the procession flowing around the ice.
Across the street, another line was out the door at the new Tim Hortons Doughnut Shop. Late in the afternoon the store manager became concerned with meeting the skaters’ demand for hot chocolate.
“It’s going fast,” said the kid filling cups as fast as the machine could pump it out.
The shop is part of the newly opened HarborCenter skating complex with two indoor rinks adjacent to the First Niagara Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres. Fitting as the Hall of Fame defenseman whose name graces the extensive chain of coffee shops played for the Sabres at the time of his death in 1974 (the team played at the old Memorial Auditorium in those days). This particular Tim Hortons, opposite the corner with a statue of the legendary hockey player, is one of a kind, set up as tribute to the legacy of its namesake.
The new additions, including spacious sports bar and Courtyard Marriott (there will also be a Marriott International, under construction) make the Canalside area a mecca for fanciers of ice sports. There is even a curling sheet connected to the outdoor rink.
Buffalo takes as much abuse from outside opinion as it does from the harsh weather that rolls off Lake Erie for much of the year. This day provides a glimpse of the soul of the city and underscores why it takes first-hand experience and an open mind to get a true sense of any place.
Let it be known that Buffalo isn’t the coldest corner in hockey. Nor will this be the most frigid hockey trip I have taken in the past 12 months, topped by the four-city sub-zero hopscotch through Canada from Montreal to Toronto to Ottawa to Winnipeg.
The coldest spot, any NHL veteran will tell you, is the intersection of Portage and Main, a few blocks from Winnipeg’s MTS Center. The wind whips through the canyon between buildings with such a notorious ferocity that they have an underground walkway to cross the intersection.
Portage and Main was where the great Bobby Hull signed his contract with the Jets of the WHA in 1972. It embodies the spirit of hockey, best learned with toes numb and cheeks reddened from wintry afternoons on the pond.
The spirit is celebrated in the National Hockey League each New Year’s Day when the Winter Classic is played in an outdoor stadium converted to an outdoor rink for a day. The tradition was continued to christen 2015 when the Washington Capitals played host to the Chicago Blackhawks in the baseball stadium in the nation’s capital, a perfect marriage of my two favorite team sports.
But I’ve never enjoyed watching hockey more than the pickup game observed a few years ago in the picturesque setting of Lake Louise in western Canada against the backdrop of a majestic glacier. The occasion was the end of a day of skiing and we were sipping martinis in the lounge of the quaint Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Now that is the way to celebrate outdoor hockey.
The nature of hockey has changed dramatically since I first watched and played it as a kid in Ohio. With the game taking root in the Sun Belt, to varying degrees of success, it has fostered a generation of players, some of them reaching the pro ranks without ever experiencing it on a pond they had to shovel first in order to play.
But even those who play in Florida have to venture into the cradle of the sport in the coldest of climes. I was fortunate on my first visit to Portage and Main a little over a year ago that the notorious wicked wind of Manitoba was playing possum.
But the ‘Peg met expectations, as bitter cold as its inhabitants were friendly and hospitable. The temperature the morning I flew out was minus-22. I arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, that night to 78 degrees, a 100-degree swing in the course of one day.
That is the upside of covering a Florida hockey team, knowing you’ll thaw out quickly at the end of the trip.
As for this particular visit to Buffalo, the snowstorm had fizzled and the temperature was barely below freezing upon arrival. But the wind was howling with staggering gusts up to 37 mph – blowing away what we’d experienced at Portage and Main. Go figure.
None of that mattered to the steady stream of skaters who waited patiently for their turn on the ice on a sun-splashed afternoon – Buffalo’s version of a day at the beach.
My only regret was that I didn’t bring my skates.