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Ranking NFL venues, the Stadium Journey way

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From time to time, you can find in your news feed some article trumping out “the best NFL stadium” or “Ranking the best and worst”. If you’re a stadium enthusiast, these will always make for interesting reads.

But in many cases, they’re also nonsense. And downright embarrassing at times, none more so than an article of this type that actually made it to the pages of USA Today this past October. Look closely and you’ll find that the misinformed writer assigned no actual scoring or metrics to his choices of what he deems to be the best, and the worst, stadium in the NFL, and everything in between. For example, NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, came in at 17th. Why, you wonder? The writer states, “My goodness is that a horrible name for a stadium, though I guess coming from a city that once had Enron Field, it could be worse.” That’s it. That’s all. So there you go.

Then there’s Stadium Journey.

If you haven’t heard of this media entity, you’re missing out. With a phalanx of writers scattered throughout North America and even beyond, the site is an aggregate of helpful and interesting information about sports venues everywhere. I have been affiliated with Stadium Journey for a number of years, keeping tabs on our sports palaces close to home, and from time to time, submitting profiles gleaned from our Ultimate Sports Road Trip travels.

stadiumjourney-193x67Stadium Journey has just released its annual rankings of the 31 NFL Stadiums and the experiences they offer. But unlike some of the write ups you stumble across, these rankings come to you thanks to the painstaking evaluation and review of writers from each of the cities that are profiled. Most of them have stellar credentials as accomplished sports travel enthusiasts, possess superior writing skills, and take the business of scoring and presenting their venue very seriously. Additionally, all the stadiums are re visited and re scored at the minimum of once every two years, so that information and data is fresh and relevant.

My contribution to this year’s roster of NFL venues and their scores is our very own Ralph Wilson Stadium. The longtime home of the Buffalo Bills landed at 19th of 31 once the scores were tallied. What places The Ralph at this level, being an aging though still (barely) functional stadium is the incredible tailgating scene, one of the absolute best in the NFL. Secondly, Buffalo’s unofficial anthem, the beloved Shout song, has endured for three decades and is as much a part of Buffalo as the chicken wing. What sunk Buffalo’s score is the location, sitting amidst 200 acres of asphalt in a manicured suburb, and the lack of access by anything other than private transportation.

And this year’s (returning) champ? Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. And why not! With a superb location on the edge of a bustling downtown core, endless pre and post game food, drink and entertainment options, a building with a retractable roof and retractable end zone wall, abundant space for tailgating, and suitable for a myriad of events far beyond 10 days of football. Indianapolis’ gleaming playpen offers exactly the template for Buffalo’s future stadium plans, and they managed to fund and build it at a comparatively reasonable cost.

So there you have it. Click on the rankings, then click through to your favorite stadium and check out everything from the food to the tailgating to the prices to the extras. It’s a fun site to visit again and again.

Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell cover the NHL Buffalo Sabres and AAA Buffalo Bisons for Artvoice


The Ultimate Sports Road Trip at 15

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This really didn’t start out as any sort of grand plan.

There was no strategy, no meeting, no spreadsheet or calendar.

The date was April 19, 1998, and the venue was what was then named Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo. It was the final day of the NHL regular season, and two neighbors and passionate sports fans living at the time in South Cheektowaga traded emails and then phone tag. “Hey let’s meet up at the Sabres game!”

Buffalo v Ottawa. Andrew and Peter, having a beer or two, talking sports and watching Dominik Hasek and the boys lose to the Ottawa Senators 2-1.

Little did we know that that event would be “Stop #1” on the joint quest to attend a home game of each of the (then) 121 franchises that play in the four major North American sports. And so, this past weekend we marked the 15th anniversary of the founding of the USRT, with a special celebration held Tuesday night at the Buffalo Bisons game at Coca Cola Field.

The actual plan was hatched 10 months later, in 1999. The Sabres were on the road in Tampa and in Florida as a prelude to the NHL All Star Game at the Ice Palace. Over too many beers and wings at a Buffalo themed sports bar, we began comparing who had been to what hockey arena. and to what MLB ballpark. The beers flowed and so did the ideas, and by the end of the night we had those place mats flipped over, listing names of teams and venues and cities and thinking this is all crazy and over the top and never going to happen. But on that night in January of 1999, the Ultimate Sports Road Trip was formally hatched. The rules were simple – we had to attend a home game of each of the teams in the NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB in their current and active venue. If a team moved to a new arena or stadium, or relocated to a different market, we had to do a do-over. When we hit the finish line, we could claim that we had seen each team play at a home game. Eight teams were already crossed off (although two of those eight were the Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, so those would require do-overs).

We launched a web site. Initially, it was one of those one page thingys so that our families and friends could keep track of our schedule, but eventually grew into the voluminous monster you see today with profiles, thumbnailed photos, ratings, and delving into the minor league parks, arenas, Europe, college football and other things we’ve done to enhance the journey.

It took almost five years to complete the quest. We combined multiple visits on faraway journeys to save money and time and knock the teams off the to-do list. For example, in March of 2001 we traveled to the Pacific Northwest, started with the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Grizzlies (Grizzlies later moved to Memphis, requiring a do-over, get it?), then down to Portland to see the Trailblazers, ending in Seattle to see the Supersonics. The trip ended on Opening Day of the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. One trip, five teams, three sports, $218 r/t flight. That’s how we rolled.

detroit033It all came to an exciting conclusion on December 15, 2002 in Detroit. We took our families with us, and did the weekend celebration in the Motor City, culminating with stop 121, the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. There were a couple media appearances, the Lions flashed our names on their video board, and we initialed our “Good Book” for the final time and toasted our accomplishment.

What happened next was something we never expected. A story about our mission which ran in the sports pages of the Buffalo News went viral and hit the AP newswires. In the ensuing days and into the New Year, we were deluged with interview requests from around the country. It all culminated with a live appearance on NBC’s The Today Show, which was beamed across the country via a satellite uplink right from the zamboni entrance here at our downtown arena. Truly, there is something to be said about one’s 15 minutes of fame.

So what have we been up to since the finish line was crossed? Well, plenty. To start with, we have been back 30 “official” times for do-overs involving teams that have relocated and/or changed venues. The NBA added an expansion team, the Charlotte Bobcats, and that became the 122nd franchise in the four sports. We have also added minor league baseball, minor league hockey and college football to the mix. We can now count over 90 separate minor league baseball parks visited as part of our project. There will be more in 2013. Add to this 40 NCAA division 1 college football experiences.

And how about Europe. Three separate trips, in 2010, 2011 and this past February, to experience the true joy and wonder of big league soccer in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga. We followed the Buffalo Sabres as they debuted their 2011-12 season in Helsinki and Berlin, and forged lifelong friendships with the folks in Mannheim, where Buffalo staged an exhibition game. Think we’re going to go back to Europe again? Hell, yeah!

We decided to commemorate the 15 years milestone at Coca Cola Field, because the Buffalo Bisons have been such an integral part of our success. Back in 2001, we showed up at their doorstep as “media”, representing a poorly constructed and unwatchable public access sports show. Yet they credentialed us. We met and made contacts with so many important people who supported us and helped us along. Fellow media members Mike Harrington and Dave Ricci played huge roles. Mike took an immediate shine to what we were doing and did two feature stories on the USRT in the Buffalo News; Dave gave us the “Media 101” orientation to how to be good reporters. When we signed on with Artvoice as their baseball columnists in 2004 (adding coverage of the Buffalo Sabres beginning in 2005-06), his advice was invaluable in our being effective freelance journalists. And speaking of 2004, just two months into the baseball season the team’s PR director had left, and a young assistant named Brad Bisbing became the new head media relations guy for the Bisons, thrown abruptly into the deep end of the pool. He’s still at the media helm at Bisons baseball, and in these past 10 years we’ve all sort of grown together in our jobs and our roles.

So what does the future hold for the USRT? The core part of all this are the 122 teams. For now, the next “official” visit doesn’t take place until fall of 2014, when the San Francisco 49ers move into their new home in Santa Clara, now under construction. Right now we’re also on the relocation watch for two franchises, the NBA Sacramento Kings and the NHL Phoenix Coyotes. If either or both move, we go see them in their new homes. The do-overs. And we’re constantly adding more minor league baseball and college football to the list of venue experiences.

We acknowledged three names in this article as people who have been helpful and supportive. But there have been more. Many more. And we wish we could list them all. Our families have been wonderfully engaged in our project, and our friends, fellow media members, contacts in other cities and throughout the world, other sports travel enthusiasts many who are actually crazier than we are, and representatives from the teams’ front offices have been remarkable. The friendships and fellowships we have built over these past 15 years have been tremendous. Thank you to everyone.

We are Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell. We write for Artvoice. We travel. A lot. Here’s to the next 15 years!

Follow Andrew and Peter on Twitter… @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT


Euro countries offer unique hockey experiences

“Going to play in Europe”.

We hear that phrase often about an NHL player who perhaps is past his prime, or, with two labor stoppages in this past decade, we saw quite an exodus of big league talent off to ply their trades across the ocean.

But what’s it really like over there? The arenas, the crowds, the music, the food, the sophistication of the fans? We got the opportunity to find out, in a big way.

Today we returned from an 11 day Ultimate Sports Road Trip journey across Europe. The itinerary took us through three countries, seven separate game experiences, four of them involving professional ice hockey.

Our thoughts? The purest fan experience can probably be found in Germany. The Deustche Eishockey Liga operates in 18 cities, some of them in glitzy and opulent NHL-ready arenas (Berlin and Mannheim), others in plain old hockey barns. But make no mistake, the fans own the event.

Game night at a German hockey game rivals that of a soccer match, albeit on a smaller scale. Fans own the night – they bring their drums and horns, they wear scarves, they pack the end zone standing sections, and lead the crowd in songs and chants and heap derisive scorn on the visiting team. And it goes on all night long.

The EHC Red Bull Muenchen fans light sparklers as the teams take to the ice

The EHC Red Bull Muenchen fans light sparklers as the teams take to the ice

EHC Red Bull Muenchen plays in a small and spartan hockey rink on the grounds of the park where the 1972 Olympics took place. The 4000+ seat arena is nothing much to speak of, one basic dot matrix board hanging over center ice and two replay video screens hanging in each corner. But add the fan energy, synchronized hopping up and down, a bevy of fight songs, the PA announcer exhorting the crowd to shout out player names after each goal, not once, not twice, but three times, and barking out the score after every home goal which prompts a crowd response. You learn fast that this is nothing like you will never experience in North America. Oh, and no kiss cams, no silly blooper reel, no constant commercials. The only canned music is played during the pregame warmups, and that leads to a crescendo of fight songs as the teams take to the ice.

It was more of the same in Mannheim, although on a larger stage. SAP Arena has a capacity of 13,700, and despite the less-than-NHL-threshold could pass for a major league rink anywhere. And like in Muenchen, the fans there absolutely control the event, with a never ending loop of chants and drumbeats. They call themselves “Hockeytown” in Mannheim. And the fans there mean it, for it is not a casual interest in their Alder, but a true passion.

That's Stefan Schaefer leading the drumbeat high atop SAP Arena in Mannheim

That’s Stefan Schaefer leading the drumbeat high atop SAP Arena in Mannheim

To get a taste of hockey in Switzerland, we solicited the folks in “Hockeytown” for advice on where to go. Most fans here in Buffalo know the Swiss for two things – goalie Martin Gerber, and the Spengler Cup, which is staged each year in December in Davos. The advice we received? “Go see SC Bern”.

And so we did, and the folks in the capital city of Bern take great pride in their team, and like to describe themselves as the marker for all of Swiss hockey.

What’s not to like? They play in their country’s largest hockey building, the 18,700 capacity Post Finance Arena. They have 12 league championships to their name in their 73 year history, they continually lead the league in attendance, and in the past NHL lockout, Islanders stars John Tavares and Mark Streit were their team’s standouts.

Post Finance Arena is the most unique facility for hockey we have ever seen in our travels. It is massive, with a tall arched roof which slopes downward on one side, but the signature area is a large standing room area which straddles the length of an entire sideline upper deck with a steep pitch, and that area alone has a capacity of 10,000 fans. Here is where the drums are banged and the flags are waved . The arena itself is not heated, yet for fans seeking respite from the chill, or just a special culinary experience, there are no fewer than five full service restaurants onsite, with a total capacity of almost 1300 seats.

Over in England, ten franchises play in the British Elite League, and in this soccer centric country, ice hockey could be considered something more of a niche sport (think National Lacrosse league where we live). We headed to Coventry, just east of Birmingham, to take in the Coventry Blaze in their home venue, named Skydome Arena. Their most noted NHL-er? Former Leafs bad boy Wade Belak, who played for the Blaze during the ’04-’05 lockout.

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The Euro experience takes a back seat here, and game night has more the look and feel of going to an ECHL arena, or perhaps the Ontario Hockey League. The rink is small (capacity here about 3000 although there are larger arenas in their league elsewhere). Pregame they do the North American style music and light show for the intros. They perform the national anthem, God Save The Queen, where anthems of any kind are unusual for domestic Euro sporting events. Once it’s showtime, breaks in the action prompt music interludes and artificially induced chants, and the PA announcer helps lead the cheers. A mascot performs on the ice and works the crowd and the kids during the action.

One thing you won’t find at your local minor league or junior rink within driving distance of Buffalo? Slot machines. Yes there was a betting parlor tucked off into one corner of their arena, with a bank of one arm bandits for adults to play.

This was the third Ultimate Sports Road Trip Europe experience, and despite the differences in cultures, how we put on the games, the manner in which we all cheer and chant, there is one constant – fans are fans everywhere. We go to support our teams, and keep going back despite the likelihood of more disappointment and heartbreak, because there is a special bond which resonates between the fans and the teams we love.

Nowhere more was that evident than at The Etihad, the glitzy new home for FC Manchester City, last year’s Premier League champs. We took a ride over there on an off day to check out the stadium and the grounds. Displayed everywhere – on walls, on benches, on poles, are fan quotes, describing their signature game experiences. In rapid fire comments, fans talk about going with their dad to their first game ever, or seeing a goal or play which inspired them, or a bonding experience with other fans which left them longing for more. Many of the quotations are lump-in-your-throat thoughts. Then there is this tome, simply plastered on the side wall of a concession stand outside the stadium. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it.

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The Ultimate Sports Road Trip – all 122 franchises in four North American sports, and now add European stops in Germany, Finland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom to the itinerary of sports experiences. The only question that remains now is… How soon can we go back?

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Special thanks to the many people who helped out and assisted in making this USRT so memorable and special.

In Mannheim, our friends Stefan Schaefer, Dominik Kaiser, Anna Chaluppa, Max Gotz and Sven Schaller rolled out the red carpet. Adler press officer Mathias Fries provided game tickets, and the incomparable PA guy and game night host Udo Scholz was lights out awesome.

In Bern, it was Mathias Mueller from IMS Sports AG who gave us the royal welcome, the tour, and a great viewing perch from their end zone sky box. Special assist to Rudy Consoni from Resort Realty in St Petersburg, FL for setting all this up.

Our magical time in Dortmund, beer and schnitzel and an evening in a soccer clubhouse came about thanks to cousins Mathias Burchardt and Ralf Burchardt.

What more can we say about our superstar booster Chris Boyes of Wakefield, UK?! He flew down to Zurich and took the local train to join us for the SC Bern game, then when we got to England took care of getting all the game tickets and drove us around to all the events we attended. Beer, wings and baseball await for the Boyes family when they come visit Buffalo in ’14!

Lastly, cheers to our friend at home, Matt Ricchiazzi. When our outbound flights got messed up, Matt raced over to fetch us and get us to the airport to make it to an earlier flight. And he picked us up at Toronto/Pearson on our return home.

Thank you friends, one and all, the USRT is that much more because of support from great friends like you!

Follow the Ultimate Sports Road Trip on Twitter
@akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT


Scenes from the USRT…How they do sports in Munich

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If there’ one thing the Germans don’t do when attending and taking part in a big league soccer event? It’s tailgating.

Munich’s Allianz Arena, home of the powerhouse Bayern Muenchen soccer team, would seem to be a perfect tailgate venue. The stadium is situated far enough out of town, located next to manufacturing plants and office parks, with oceans of space for surface parking. One would think that the smell of bratwursts would be wafting from the grills, the beer would be flowing, and kids would be kicking soccer balls around the creatively decorated vehicles and busses.

But there is none of that, and tailgate traditions would be the one cool thing we Americans could teach the Germans.

As for everything else in the game day experience, it is we Americans who could learn some lessons.

This past weekend we kicked off the 2013 edition of the Ultimate Sports Road Trip Europe journey, and things got underway in the southern German city of Munich. Besides the Bayern Muenchen soccer club, the city is home to the EHC Red Bull Muenchen ice hockey team in the DEL.

At both events, the energy of the fans, the enthusiasm in the stands, the way they take over the events without any prompting from public address announcers, cheesy scoreboard graphics or canned music is what makes attending a game here so very special.

The Olympia Eishalle in Munich is one of the smaller venues in the DEL. Fans pack the place, and just like at a soccer match, it is the end zone stands where the cheers emanate from. The chants start well before the players take to the ice, and the pregame intros involve the introduction of each player on the home roster, with fans shouting out the players’ last names. Then, right as the puck is dropped, the drums and the songs and the chants start up, some taunting the equally robust visiting fans assembled in the opposite end zone, other songs just to support their team.

No organ music. No kiss cam. No blooper reel. The one in game music interlude occurs during the single media timeout in the middle of the period.

The home team scores? The PA Announcer only gives the first name, wth the fans shouting out the last name three times; then shouting out the updated score. PA Announcer then says “Danke” (thank you), and the fans shout out in reply “Bitte” (you’re welcome).

The crescendo just rises as the game reaches its conclusion. Watching the EHC Muenchen squad nursing a 2-1 lead over visiting ERC Ingolstadt, a good number of fans in Buffalo’s First Niagara Center would be making their way to the exit and the parking lots.Not here. No one left this game. With two minutes to go, the fans all stood in unison, clapping in rhythm as the visitors pulled their goalie. Players on the ice have to feel and feed off that sort of energy.

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Then the final.. a 2-1 win for the home team, and after player of the game honors are meted out, the entire team, many already taking off their jerseys, return to the ice, some with their kids and infants, and then the real party begins. Fans are cheering, the players are joining in and even leading the chants. More waving as the player race towards the end zone and raise their arms in unison. Then it’s the goalie’s turn, and he is the last one off the ice, playing the role of cheerleader and inducing even more roars from the stands.

What fun! And it got even better when this scene was repeated before 71,000 fans at the gleaming and new Allianz Arena. The BYM have been tearing up the Bundesliga this season, and are well on their way to capturing the league championship. Their roster is stocked. and followers of international play know the names… Schweinsteiger, Gomez, Boateng, Nuner. And just like at the hockey game, they keep it simple. The pregame crescendo consists of dramatic and uplifting music tracks and the team’s anthem and fight song. The players take to the field, the fans take over with their chanting and singing, and that’s it. And for the Bayern fans, there was plenty to sing and chant about on this day, as their team absolutely demolished the visiting Werder Bremen team by a 6-1 score. They made it look easy.

USRT – Munich is in the books. Next stop, Mannheim, where the locals have a true and intense love affair with their Adler Mannheim ice hockey team. One fan even posted a note to us on Facebook “If you have Pominville and Hecht inside your luggage and will return them to us, we’ll build you guys a statue.”

Wish we could help out. Call Darcy.

Puck Stop and Play Ball columnists Andrew and Peter are on an 11 day tour of several European destinations, attending sporting events and reporting from the road. Check back for further updates.
Follow on Twitter… @pfarrellUSRT and @akulykUSRT

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USRT – heading on that Europe sports trip

Nothing like lighting up a few flares in the stands after a big goal

Nothing like lighting up a few flares in the stands after a big goal

If there was ever a good a time to get away from the Buffalo Sabres and the Puck Stop desk here at Artvoice, it would be now.

Back in 2011, we had the priceless opportunity to travel to Europe to cover the Buffalo Sabres as they opened their regular season in Berlin and Helsinki. We did the exhibition game in Mannheim, Germany, where we got to make all sorts of new friends, and a few months later, we got to welcome them here in Buffalo. The trips to Berlin and Helsinki gave us an opportunity to reconnect with our ethnic heritages (Andrew – German; Peter – Finnish). The games were epic, the crowds different than what we got to experience here in our neck of the woods. We rode the high speed rails, clean, efficient, comfortable and always on time. We got to take in not one but two Bundesliga soccer matches, in Hannover and Buffalo’s sister city of Dortmund. Both were terrific experiences.

On our final day in 2011, after a whirlwind day of sightseeing in Berlin which took us to Checkpoint Charlie, Olympic Stadium, the Reichstag, the Kurfurstendamm and the Berliner Dom, we wrapped it all up at a sports bistro in the city, where lo and behold, the Bills-Eagles game was on live on all the TV sets in the house! We reflected on an amazing 10 day journey, and we said…”we gotta do this again.”

That time is upon us. In mid December, we pulled out sports schedules, assessed the frequent flier points in our accounts, checked vacation and time off schedules at work, and cobbled together an 11 day journey through Europe. This time it will be three countries. We leave tomorrow for Munich, Germany, and this weekend will take in a hockey game of their team, EHC Red Bull München, and then a soccer match featuring their powerhouse team Bayern München at the glitzy Allianz Arena.

Hard to imagine here in Buffalo, but over in Mannheim, Hecht is an icon and local hero

Hard to imagine here in Buffalo, but over Mannheim, Hecht is an icon and local hero

Our Adler Mannheim peeps are already expecting us at SAP Arena in Mannheim on Sunday as we do a return visit. Interestingly, both hometown hero Jochen Hecht and Sabres captain Jason Pominville played for the Adler during the NHL lockout. Had the NHL season been cancelled, we were planning an extensive media visit and interview and you’d be reading Pommer’s story from Germany in next week’s Puck Stop. But gratefully (or maybe not so much) the guys are back here in the USA, and we can just hang out and enjoy a game with friends.

Next we shoot down to Berne, the capital of Switzerland. We’ve been told that Post Finance Arena, home of SC Berne in the Swiss League, is the place to experience hockey in that country. Oh yeah, the locals there heard about the USRT and are extending game tickets, a tour and the VIP welcome.

Two days in Switzerland and its us heading north. Overnighting in Köln, home of Germany’s most famous cathedral, and reconnecting with the Kulyk relatives outside of Dortmund. The next day, it’s the Rail Eurostar through the Chunnel, over to the United Kingdom and on to Manchester. One of the biggest supporters of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres living in England, our good friend Chris Boyes, has lined up a rugby match in St Helens, an English Premier League soccer match in Stoke City, and a hockey game in Coventry.

So there you have it – seven games in three sports in three countries.

Many times people ask us about sports travel, and the questions usually revolve around what are the neatest stadiums, who has the hottest cheerleaders, where does one find the best food. The bricks and mortar are fine, the game day experiences can be extraordinary, but the best part about doing what we do has to do with all the strong friendships and fellowships that are built around these trips.

To give you an example, last year in Berlin we met a guy named Peter Dowling, a member of the US Army then stationed in Korea and on leave. He is a friend of WGR Radio sports announcer Pat Malacaro, who was also on that Europe trip. We all got together, became fast friends and had a great time together during our stay in Berlin. Fast forward to the present – Dowling is still in the military now stationed in Vilsack, Germany about 130 miles from Munich. When he saw we were coming, he and his buddy secured tickets to Saturday’s soccer match. They are coming down to Allianz Arena just to hang out with us.

So city hopping by railroad, sightseeing and architecture, seven sporting events, hanging out with some special people. It should be a great time. We will post updates and send over tweets from time to time. Please follow along. We’ll be back in the B-lo on March 4. By then the Sabres will have righted their ship, no?

follow Peter Farrell on Twitter @pfarrellUSRT
follow Andrew Kulyk on Twitter @akulykUSRT


Artvoice’s Farrell and Kulyk mark a USRT anniversary

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of a momentous event in the history and tale of the Ultimate Sports Road Trip.

On December 15, 2002, the Farrell family and the Kulyk family traveled en masse to Detroit’s Ford Field, home of the NFL Detroit Lions. The occasion? It was the final stop, team 121, of our quest to visit and attend a home game of each of the franchises in the four major sports. So we took our families along to celebrate the achievement.

This was an idea that we had concocted over beer and wings in a sports bar in the Tampa Bay area back in 1999. We were down there following the Buffalo Sabres on their swing through Tampa and Florida, then it was NHL All Star time down in Tampa. We had been friends for less than a year, and that night we started comparing which ballparks and other sporting venues we had each been to. Can’t remember how the conversation started, but one of us must have said, “how about we go visit all 30 NHL arenas?” Had the beer not continued flowing in abundance that night, all this might never have happened. By the end of the evening, we had those restaurant paper place mats flipped over, scrawled with the names of teams, and notes like “Utah Jazz, Delta Center” and “estimated Kingdome demo date?”

Back then this wasn’t even called “The Ultimate Sports Road Trip”. It would probably have been better to name it “Two Idiots Who Need A Life”. The cool moniker and web site would come later, but we started hitting the road. We combined multiple visits and games on most swings, kept prodding along, the scope of the project and what we were attempting to do just grew and grew. In less than five years we hit the finish line, achieving what we believed to be a singularly unique accomplishment in the annals of sports travel.

That final visit to Detroit was a joyous celebration. Some controversy and hilarity ensued when we tried to carry that specially crafted banner that you see in the picture above, made just for that occasion, into the stadium. Today it’s a great story to tell.

But what happened next we were totally unprepared for.

Our friend and now colleague at the Buffalo News, Mike Harrington, did a feature story on the USRT in the News. However it happened, the story made it onto the Associated Press news wires. Then all hell broke loose.

We started getting calls from all over the USA and Canada, even a radio station in the UK, asking for interview requests. We were on the phone, and on the air, for like two weeks straight sharing our story to listeners on sports radio stations and in print publications. Sports Illustrated called, and we ended up being showcased with a small article on their pages. And then… The Holy Grail of media, NBC’s The Today Show, contacted us and asked if we’d be interested in doing an appearance on their program.

Wow! We were astounded and of course jumped all over this opportunity. We initially thought they’d be flying us to New York, putting us up at the Waldorf, limo rides, kicking with celebrities, meeting the “common folk” who line up each morning on the sidewalk outside their studios at Rockefeller Center.

Nope. NBC wanted us to stay put in Buffalo and do the interview via satellite feed. The Sabres (and props to former Exec VP Ron Bertovich and Public Relations Director Mike Gilbert), were gracious enough to provide the arena as a host venue and back drop for the interview, and offer their TV crew for technical support. The Today Show flew in a producer, a camera man, and an engineer to put the production on. For us… For US!

Show day had a couple hitches. .. When we arrived downtown we learned that Matt Lauer was out sick that day, so Lester Holt would be doing the interview. Then we found out that there was some big terrorist explosion or something in Jakarta or Manila, and that breaking story would cut into our time, which was initially planned to be 7-8 minutes. We were prepped, yes they applied make up, earpieces provided, and presto… There we were live from coast to coast on NBC.

Looking at the video now (embedded below), yeah ten years later and I’m still dealing with those pesky 40 pounds. Never until the End of Days will you ever again see Peter sporting that nice a haircut. And despite all the experience we had gleaned doing interviews, many in the three weeks preceding this appearance, we were both nervous. Ver-r-r-r-y nervous! But it all went off OK, and as long as we live we can claim bragging rights that our 15 minutes of fame culminated with a live national broadcast.

 

So what since? Well, in these past ten years we have gone back 29 times to visit teams which have either relocated to a different city, or replaced their venue, or both. The NBA since added the Charlotte Bobcats as an expansion franchise so that became the 122nd 4-sport team. In a few weeks we travel to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the new home of the NBA Brooklyn Nets, and that will bring our ongoing quest to up-to-date status once again.

We have also expanded the geographic footprint… In 2004 we attended the NFL Pro Bowl in Honolulu; in 2010 to the United Kingdom to see the NFL at Wembley and an introduction to the English Premier League and soccer at its finest. Last year we followed the Sabres on the Europe swing to Mannheim, Berlin and Helsinki.

2013 will be a busy one for the USRT…A return trip to Europe, city hopping by rail through Germany, Switzerland and England and catching soccer and hockey along the way. March Madness will have us going to Lexington and Dayton for a smorgasbord of college hoops. MLB trips to Baltimore, Atlanta and Denver are on tap, with minor league baseball side trips set for all three journeys.

We joined Artvoice in 2004 to cover Buffalo Bisons baseball, and following the last NHL lockout, took on the Sabres beat. We are proud to represent this publication as accredited members of the sports media, as well as holding membership in the Professional Hockey Writers Association. We now are also affiliated as contributing correspondents with Stadium Journey.

We are… The Ultimate Sports Road Trip. And as along as our health, our finances, and our life circumstances permit, we will continue doing what we do. Thank you to our readers for following along and for all your support, and thank you to our families, our friends, and all those remarkable people who we have built such strong fellowships with along the way. It’s been a great ride!

Special thanks to Marc Odien at WNYMedia for transcribing the video and uploading to You Tube

Follow the Ultimate Sports Road Trip on Twitter:
@akulykUSRT
@pfarrellUSRT


Adler Mannheim gets their newest Sabre

Jason Pominville is heading to Europe.

That’s the breaking news which our friend and colleague Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times-Herald is reporting today. Pominville is taking his entire family with him and will be playing for the Adler Mannheim of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. Should the 2012-13 NHL season be cancelled, Pominville plans to make the commitment to the Adlers for the rest of this season, according to the report.

So of all the player signings in Europe made during this dreary and depressing lockout, why is this one more significant than most?

Several reasons… Mannheim is the home, and the home team, of Buffalo Sabre Jochen Hecht. The German connection goes further… the Sabres played the Adlers in their home venue, SAP Arena, last fall as part of their excursion to Europe to open the regular season. Buffalo defeated Mannheim 8-3 in an exhibition game played before a packed house of over 15,000 full throated Adler fans that night.

A few months later, Buffalo laid out the red carpet, as a large contingent of Adler Mannheim fans came to our city to cheer on the Sabres.

From our standpoint, here’s the best news:

Your two Artvoice sports writers, that being myself and partner Andrew Kulyk, are heading to Europe at the end of February for a 10 day sports odyssey through three countries. And thanks to the strong bonds and fellowships made with a great group of Adler Mannheim supporters, we are taking them up on their open invitation for a return visit to Mannheim, and have scheduled a game at SAP Arena as a part of the city hopping adventure.

Here’s our schedule:

Fri 2/22 ERC Ingolstadt at EHC Munchen – Olympia Eishalle (DEL)
Sat 2/23 Werder Bremen at Bayern Munchen – Allianz Arena (Bundesliga)
Sun 2/24 Iserlohn at Adler Mannheim – SAP Arena (DEL)
Tue 2/26 ZSC Lions at SC Berne – PostFinance Arena (NLA)
Fri 3/1 Leeds at St Helens – Langtree Park (Super League – Rugby)
Sat 3/2 Watford at Wolverhampton – Molineux Stadium (Champions League)

By the time we get to February, will the NHL season be saved and back on track? Here’s hoping it is, but if by chance its not, the 2013 Ultimate Sports Road Trip to Europe just got even more exciting. And a promise for one very cool Puck Stop column coming at ‘ya come early March, direct from Mannheim, Germany.


Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center – An Inside Peek

So this past Tuesday we finally got our first glimpse and experience at the Consol Energy Center, the new home of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins.

We were impressed. Blown away is more like it.

We’ve already come to know that when it comes to sports venues in Pittsburgh, they do things here with a sense of tradition, style and flair. The Steelers’ Heinz Field has earned the #2 spot in our NFL venue rankings, and PNC Park, the home of the Pirates, would easily win one of our top scores, had it not been for their surly and miserable game day staff which sunk them.

Tom McMillan, the team’s head of Public Relations, graciously gave us the VIP tour, and our friend and colleague Mike Harrington from the Buffalo News also came along to check things out. McMillan has been around the team for close to two decades, as a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and then with team’s front office, and was showing off his new digs almost like a proud father.

Some of the highlights? Certainly the technology. The HD scoreboard is
a monster, another Mitsubishi product, and the screen alone is larger than the entire scoreboard at the old Mellon Arena. Two levels of 360 ribbon boards encircle the seating bowl. But it is the technology in the public areas that blew us away.

On the 100 level concourse is an interactive area for youngsters, sponsored by the local Blue Cross/Blue Shield. But this is no ordinary play area with bubble hockey and bounce houses. There are touch screens with games and player info, and even a camera screen where one can have a photo taken with a virtual player. Then down in the main lobby, another series of touch screens, showcasing the best players to wear the Penguins uniform over the decades, with stats, video highlights and other info. The Penguins’ three Stanley Cups are also showcased in virtual format, on touch screens which enable viewers to tap on the image of the Cup and access names and information.

In designing the arena, architects took elements from peer venues in such buildings as Phoenix and Minnesota to incorporate here. The upper level concourse is at the very top of the seating bowl, offering views of the playing surface from every vantage point. Downstairs, concession areas are mostly set up in food court style so as not to impede traffic flow. The topography of the building’s footprint is such that the arena is built on a sloping hill, and that offers three distinct entrances at three different levels of the arena.

And with a glass wall facing the downtown skyline, the views are stunning, especially from the Brewhouse on the upper level, where even fans from the lower level head up to congregate and hang out in one of the coolest places in the city.

The arena has a real Steel City vibe, with exposed steelwork in the concourses and seating bowl paying tribute to this city’s heritage. The Penguin’s great history is also showcased here. They don’t pretend to be one of the Original Six, but they certainly toot their horn as the marker among the Next Six, and through murals, displays, and well presented banners in the rafters, you immediately get a sense of history and tradition and that you are part of a very special place.

This area of downtown Pittsburgh is a mish mosh of high rise office towers, hotels, sunken expressways, the old Mellon Arena next door which awaits eventual demolition and redevelopment, a gritty neighborhood of older buildings which also need some t.l.c., and up the hill the campus of Duquesne University. No distinct “bar district”, but with a little exploration there are places to be found, from hole-in-the-wall dive bars to hotel bistros to a Damon’s restaurant at the ground level of the nearby UPMC tower.

Going to the ‘Burgh is always a great road trip, just a quick three hour drive from Buffalo. If you can snag a ticket to a Pens game, do so. The game day experience is one not to be missed.

Interactive touch panels in the main lobby

They call this the largest goalie mask in the world. No one has stepped forward to dispute this yet

Check out the amazing scoreboard

Primanti’s! Primanti’s! A Pittsburgh taste treat not to be missed!