This one won’t be easy
I’ve always said that in this endeavour to visit every NHL arena, the game was secondary to the experience and the adventure of the trip. This attitude was quite helpful when our trip to Pittsburgh took an unexpected turn.
We knew we were cutting it close by flying in on the day of the game, so we booked a 6:00 flight that would get us to Pittsburgh at 10:30, via Toronto. A 6AM flight always sounds like a good idea when you’re making the reservation: not so much when you get up at 2:30 to get to the airport on time to catch your flight.
Still, we were right on schedule, even though the lines at security were quite long. The 99 minute layover in Toronto would give us enough time to go through customs, then once in Pittsburgh, we’d have most of the day to visit the town. Our one definitive plan was to visit the Andy Warhol museum, and we’d improvise for the rest.
The plane left on time, and my wife and I quickly dozed off, trying to catch up on sleep, but a pilot announcement soon woke me up. “You may have felt a thud”, the captain said. I hadn’t felt anything but it might have been what woke me up. “We hit some birds and one of our engines is operating at less than optimal capacity so we’ll be going back to Montreal.”
I wake up my wife and soon we’re running through scenarios. The plane is flying without any noticeable problem so we never worried about getting back to the airport to be honest. But clearly, even if they booked us to the next flight to Toronto, we’d miss our connection. The crew told passengers not to worry, that the ground team was working on rebooking everyone.
As we got back to the terminal, announcements started to trickle in. People going straight to Toronto would be on the next flight. People going to Mexico would be rebooked on a direct flight the next morning. That seemed to take care of more than half the plane (and explained why they were making announcements in Spanish!)
But no announcements were being made about people with connections. We were thinking the trip was a loss, and started looking into our travel insurance to see what could be recovered from this. And then I got a text message from Air Canada. We were rebooked on the same Montreal-Toronto-Pittsburgh route! Flight departure: 18:20. My heart sank.
My wife and I watched The Amazing Race for many years, before our interest faded, and we remembered that airlines can actually do a lot to help you make it to your destination. We couldn’t locate the Customer Service desk, but after explaining our predicament to an employee, and told us which gate to go to.
Waiting in line there, I checked flights on my phone and lo and behold, Delta had a flight going through LaGuardia that would get us to Pittsburgh by 14:45. If we could get credit for the day’s flight, we could book that and be on our way. So we explained our plan to Diane, who listened patiently and said to me “But that’s not how it works”. My heart sank once more.
“We won’t have you go out and buy tickets. We’ll just rebook your ourselves with the other airline.” EVEN BETTER! Our outlook was improving.
That flight ended up not having room, but she could get us to Pittsburgh via Chicago. We’d be tight, maybe miss a bit of the game, but the trip wouldn’t be a total loss. We were back on!
Chicago, here we come
So we went through security again, but the morning rush was over and it took less than 5 minutes. US Customs was the same, and soon we were sitting at the gate ready to go. We’d never let frustration get to us; we treated this as an adventure, and were willing to go with the flow.
But then our names were called. What now? What else could go wrong?
We showed up at the counter, and the woman informed us that we got bumped up to first class for the flight! Finally things were going our way. Upon landing at O’Hare, we went to our departing gate to get our boarding passes. Since it was operated by a different airline, Air Canada hadn’t been able to issue it for us. Considering how tight we were, I wanted to make sure everything was OK as soon as possible. Then I could relax for lunch.
The lady at the gate was, shall we say, less friendly than Diane had been. She punched our information into her computer, and started scowling. That wasn’t good… Eventually she picked up the phone and called for assistance “I’ve got a couple who were rerouted by Air Canada but their tickets aren’t tied to their reservation”. Uh oh… Seriously, how wrong could this trip go?
After more typing and scowling, I heard the familiar sound of a dot matrix printer. Surely that was our boarding passes being printed? It was! She handed them to us with nary a smile, but we were beaming. We were all set.
So instead of having lunch in downtown Pittsburgh, we were soon eating at O’Hare airport’s Stanley’s Black Hawks Kitchen and Tap. I love irony, so I bought a “City of Chicago” t-shirt as a memento of our trip to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh, at last
The flight to Pittsburgh was uneventful and we touched down 10 minutes ahead of schedule. We hurried to the taxi stand, jumped into a cab and were on our way to our hotel. Luckily, I’d booked us at the Marriott across the street from the PPG Paints Arena. Our driver skillfully avoided a traffic jam and got us to our hotel in great time.
The hotel lobby was full of fans going to the game, mostly out-of-town Pens fans. For the first time in our travels, Habs jerseys weren’t plentiful, possibly due to the horrible season they’re having. We checked in, put on our jerseys, then headed out to the arena.
The main entrance is adorned with a great statue of Mario Lemieux, Le Magnifique, depicted bursting through two defensemen. This is based on a famous photograph of Lemieux plowing through two Islanders defensemen. Lemieux headed the first respectable squad the franchise ever managed to put together, and saved the team later by purchasing it, making him the first player to ever transition to owner in league history. His impact on the team can be seen through the arena, and #66 t-shirts are offered in the shop, not in a legacy section, but right alongside current players.
The arena opened its doors in 2010, and offers most of the commodities seen in the best NHL buildings. The open concourse design is a favourite of mine and makes the corridors much less claustrophobic. Food and drink offering was varied but expensive. Hot dogs were disappointing (Bell Centre dogs rule them all), but the rest was good.
Visitors were handed Penguins cell phone grips, and a game program full of information. We made our way to our seats, helped by the really nice ushers who welcomed us and joked with us (one tried with a smile to tell us we needed to go to the balcony). Fans were incredibly nice and treated us as guests in their building; the kind of graciousness that comes with a team that has been on top for a long time, similar to what we experienced in Chicago. The rink seems to be lit slightly brighter than in other arenas, something I really appreciated. Through all the obstacles that day had thrown at us, we were in our seats 20 minutes ahead of the 19:00 game time. Seriously, nothing could ruin our night now.
Drop the puck!
We knew even back in August when we planned this trip that the Habs would likely not be up to the challenge of facing the repeat Stanley Cup champions. And they weren’t. Backup Anti Niemi was in front of the net for the visitors, and judging from the boos he received, people in Pittsburgh haven’t forgotten the horrible start he had this season with their team. Niemi ended up in Florida without any more success before being picked up on waivers by Montreal and finally getting his mojo back, but this wasn’t his best outing in a red, white and blue jersey. Still, I wouldn’t put all the blame on him. He let in a softie when he didn’t close the gap with his post properly, but the 3 Penguins power play goals are really what killed the Habs, who could have made a better showing than the 5-2 final score lets on.
Habs got the early lead in the first half of the first period, and for a few seconds we could hope to hold our own agains the defending champs, but a minute later, Pittsburgh evened the score, and added two unanswered goals to take the lead. A late period goal from Jonathan Drouin revived our hopes throughout the scoreless second period, but the Penguins added two more goals in the third to run away with this one. Hey, at least that put us in a better position for the draft lottery!
But above all I’m a hockey fan, and watching the Penguins play is always a treat. What a team! Sidney Crosby always seems to show up at a spot on the ice where he can do a lot of damage, same thing for Malkin, and Phil Kessel reminds us that despite his struggles in Toronto, he’s an immensely skilled player. Hopefully our team can climb back up and battle it out with the Penguins soon!
Before exiting the arena, we made a stop at the official Penguins store to grab some souvenirs, and headed back to our hotel. Some fans stopped us, saying they were sorry we’d come all this way to see our team lose. I repeated my mantra: great building, great fans, great team: we had a great time!
After the game, we stop by the shop where I picked up one of those Mario Lemieux t-shirts, and headed back to the hotel.
After the game
Back at the hotel, one semi-drunk Pens fan tried to be cocky with me in the elevator, poking fun at my Subban jersey. “Don’t you know he’s been traded?” “Hey man, I saw some people with Lemieux jerseys”, I replied as his friends started giggling because it was becoming clear he wouldn’t win a battle of wit in his current state. “Did you tell them he’s retired? How about those with Fleury jerseys?”
In good hockey tradition, the exchange ended with a good handshake and a shared passion for the game.
We got to our room, and felt the exhaustion as the adrenaline level went down. What a day. We ordered room service so we could leave early the next morning for our 10:20 flight and called it a night.
The next morning, we called a Uber to go to the airport. Our driver Vernon was really happy to get a substantial fare on Easter Sunday, and we started chatting. Turned out he was a big hockey fan. “Why did you guys trade that boy Subban?” he asked. That questions follows us everywhere. But Vernon had a gripe of his own with the Pens management. “I’m mad they let Fleury go. I mean, when my boy was in the zone, Fleury would SHUT. YOU. DOWN. Murray’s good, but Fleury was MY. BOY.”
He was a blast, and we chatted hockey for the entire trip. Talking hockey with fans of other teams is always one of the highlights of these trips. For every drunk asshole trying to pick a fight, there’s a hundred great, passionate people who share a passion for this great game. And as I’m writing this, 6 weeks later, Marc-André Fleury has dragged the Vegas Knights to the Stanley Cup final. And with each amazing save he pulls off, I can’t help but hear Vernon call it.
We got to the airport ahead of schedule, and there weren’t a lot of travellers due to the holiday, so we could afford to shop a bit in the mini mall that you go through before entire the airport proper. We stopped at Sportzburgh, a tiny shop crammed with great sport souvenirs covering all major Pittsburgh sport franchises. Shout out to the mega friendly staff who chatted with us and helped us pick some cool mementos.
Being Easter, the airport wasn’t very crowded. We breezed through security and were soon on our way to Chicago. I wanted to use the opportunity to taste some Chicago-style pizza again, so we stopped at Reggio’s. It was pretty good, but not as awesome as Giordanno’s, which we’d had that time we (properly) visited Chicago. With a full belly, we left the Windy City for the final leg of that whirlwind trip that took us back home to Montreal.
Far from disappointed by the way the trip turned out, this trip holds a special place for me on this list. What a day it was!
You can check out the game’s boxscore here.