When I embarked on this radio gig for the first time, I didn't know what to expect. The WCHA, to me, means "great hockey". Having followed the league as a fan for so many years, it was an absolute priviledge to get a chance to cover the league and see all the different cities and arenas the WCHA has to offer.
We started with a trip to Houghton, Michigan, on October 28, and the journey finished in St. Paul at the XCel Energy Center on March 16 for the WCHA Final Five. Here is a list of the cities that I had a chance to visit, many for the first time.
Houghton, MI - October 28-29
Anchorage, AK - November 16-20
Mankato, MN - December 2-3
Colorado Springs, CO - December 8-11
Bonita Springs/Fort Myers/Estero, FL - December 25-30
St. Cloud, MN - January 20-21
Grand Forks, ND - February 17-18
Minneapolis, MN - March 3-4
Denver, CO - March 9-13
St. Paul, MN - March 16-17
Since I was on my first tour of duty, I took a few notes. Nothing special, but enough to look back and put together rankings of the cities and arenas I visited. Remember that everyone's experiences are different and, therefore, your mileage may greatly vary.
We'll start with the cities. Since our stays are usually short and I try to get as much rest as I can while I am traveling, my ratings of the cities are often centered around the quality of the hotel we stayed at. Where the stays were longer in duration, other things (i.e. quality of sightseeing)were taken into account.
There are three scores for each city. "Amenities" centers around the hotel itself. Was it comfortable? Were there enough channels on the TV to keep me interested? Did I have a nice view of something, or was I staring at a parking lot or a pool? Was room service any good? Etc...
"Convenience" is, simply, the proximity of the hotel to the arena and to restaurants. You gotta eat while on the road, and I don't like having to drive 20 minutes to find good food.
"Scenery" is what it says it is, and then some. Was the city fun to visit?
We'll go in chronological order, starting in October. All scores are based on a scale from 1-5, with 5 being the best and 1 the worst. I tried really hard to avoid handing out "1"s.
Amenities--> We stayed at the Best Western Franklin Square Inn. Clean room that smelled pretty good, but the bed was like a rock, especially compared to other hotels on the circuit. Didn't have much of a view, but the TV channel selection was among the best. That's good, because there wasn't much else to do there. Score: 3
Conveniece--> The rink was about a 5-8 minute drive away. Houghton is laid out strangely, but that's not much unlike Duluth. I got around okay. It wouldn't have hurt to have a few more quality restaurants to choose from in the general area. I don't remember anything standing out within walking distance from the hotel. Score: 3
Scenery--> Contrary to widely-held belief, Houghton is a cool little town. There aren't any great sights, but it's not a rat-infested smog-hole, either. Very reminiscent of Duluth in a lot of ways, including the overall character of the city. Score: 4
Total score: 10
Amenities--> Stayed at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. Top-notch. Great service, comfortable room, very spacious. Could have used more options on the TV, but the movie channels were great on the Thursday we were up there, as I ended up in bed by around 5pm AT while my body adjusted to the time difference. Score: 5
Convenience--> Was traveling with the team on this long trip, so I rode to the rink on the bus. The bus driver was annoying, and the rink was far, far away - about a 15-minute ride that felt like it took forever. There were only a couple eating establishments within walking distance from the hotel, and I took full advantage of them. Score: 2
Scenery--> While it was too cloudy to ever catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, my niece and her family treated me to a couple of great trips around Anchorage. The second, on the Saturday we were there, took us along the Seward Highway to catch some of the mountains and glaciers outside of town. It was a great experience. The pizza joint in Girdwood was fantastic, too. Score: 5
Total score: 12
Amenties--> Stayed at the Holiday Inn adjacent to the Midwest Wireless Civic Center. It was reasonably comfortable, with as good a channel lineup as I found anywhere. My only complaint is that my room was right on the pool. I don't have a problem with pools, but the chlorine smell almost knocked me out every time I walked into the room. Score: 2
Convenience--> Bonus points for being within walking distance of the arena. However, there wasn't much for eating establishments anywhere around the hotel, and with how much it snowed on the Saturday we were there, it proved to be a pain trying to find places to eat. Score: 3
Scenery--> I've been in Mankato in the summer, and I've been in Mankato in the winter. I'd much rather visit in the summer if I can control it. It's just a better-looking city in the summer. (Some cities are like that...others, like Duluth, are great no matter the time of year that you're there). Either way, there isn't a whole lot to see in Mankato. Score: 2
Total score: 7
Colorado Springs, CO
Amenities--> The Doubletree in Colorado Springs was among the top hotels on the list this season. Kind people, comfortable rooms, quality service, plenty of space to put your feet up. Of minor annoyance were the two fire alarms that went off during the day Thursday. They didn't make us evacuate, but the noise was deafening. Score: 4
Convenience--> Again, we're within walking distance of the rink. Great. Also great was the selection of eating establishments within walking distance, and if I had forgotten anything important, there was a Target there, too. Score: 4
Scenery--> Spent Saturday traveling up Pikes Peak. Seriously, can you beat that? Well, as I found out a couple weeks later, you probably can. Score: 4
Total score: 12
Bonita Springs/Fort Myers/Estero, FL
Amenities--> Stayed at the Staybridge Suites in Bonita Springs. All I can say is "Wow". If you're ever lucky enough to get to visit this area, whether it be for a hockey tournament or just because, look this place up. Huge beds, two TVs, huge bathroom area, refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, counter space. Based on how I was treated, they really wanted me to move in, but I resisted. Score: 5
Convenience--> While it was a pretty good drive away from the arena, I'm not going to dock the score a whole lot. There was plenty to do around the hotel, and I found a way to get around (freeloading off former colleague and good friend Chris Long was a smart move). Plus, I was in Florida in late December. How the hell can I possibly complain about that? Score: 4
Scenery--> Spent a few hours at the beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Saw a pelican hanging out on the dock. Watched a sheriff's deputy in a speedboat pull over two people on jet skis. Ate at a beachside restaurant. Saw palm trees the day after Christmas while walking around in shorts and sandles. Yeah, it was good. Special thanks to Long for Driving Mr. Dizzy for a couple days. It was a blast. Score: 5
Total score: 14
St. Cloud, MN
Amenities--> Hung out at the Best Western Kelly Inn. Nothing special, but nothing bad, either. My lasting memory was catching Bob Uecker on Leno the Friday night we were there. Possibly the hardest I've laughed in a long time, and it was for about 15 minutes straight. Score: 4
Convenience--> Easy drive to and from the rink. Plenty of places to eat in the general area. Traffic getting out on Saturday was a bit of an adventure, but St. Cloud is pretty easy to get around. No major issues. Score: 3
Scenery--> No offense, but it's St. Cloud. Not much to do or see there. The river looked nice, but that's about it. Score: 2
Total score: 9
Grand Forks, ND
Amenities--> We were at the Holiday Inn. This trip was hurt appreciably by the bone-chilling cold weather that greeted us, but I didn't let that stop me from enjoying myself. The room was nice. Beds could have been a bit more comfortable, but I don't have any other complaints. Score: 3
Convenience--> The station vehicle really needs a remote starter. That thing got cold. The hotel was a short drive away from the rink, and I didn't have any issues finding places to eat or kill time. Score: 4
Scenery--> It's Grand Forks. It's February. It's -30. I'll give them a "3" because I didn't bother to try getting out to see or do anything. Score: 3
Total score: 10
Amenities--> Radisson University Inn was the worst hotel we stayed at this year. I didn't like the bed. I didn't like how the room was laid out. I didn't like the room service (good food, but bad service). I didn't like the people. Just not a great experience. Score: 2
Convenience--> Another hotel within walking distance of the rink. Williams Arena and the U Aquatic Center were also nearby. Also plenty to see, do, and eat around the rink. Score: 4
Scenery--> Close enough to downtown Minneapolis that there wasn't much in the way of scenery. My wife was down for this trip, and I took her to the Mall of America and IKEA on Saturday. She hated IKEA, like I did. I felt like I was a lab rat trying to run through a maze in that place. Score: 2
Total score: 8
Amenities--> Stayed at the Four Points Sheraton Tech Center. Nice hotel. BIG hotel. Good food. Good service. Friendly people. Comfortable room. Score: 4
Convenience--> Not close to the arena, but not that far. Helluva ride from the airport, but that was okay. I'd rather be close to the rink than the airport. Not many places to eat around the hotel. Score: 3
Scenery--> It was fun driving by the new Mile High Stadium and the Pepsi Center. I should have found a way to get inside one or the other while I was there. Score: 3
Total score: 10
St. Paul, MN
Amenities--> Another big hotel - Crowne Plaza. It was tough to get a parking spot, but everyone was nice. The lady at the front desk even told me the easiest way to get to the XCel Energy Center (one person said I should take the skyway, but the other lady made it clear that it was closer - though it was also colder - to walk down Kellogg Blvd). Score: 3
Convenience--> Just a short walk to the rink. Didn't stay long enough to sample any of the nearby eating establishments. Score: 4
Scenery--> Had a really nice view of the Mississippi River from my window. I didn't stay long enough to check out much else, though I'm sure I wouldn't have been impressed, as I've seen it all in St. Paul before. Score: 3
Total score: 10
Now we'll move on to the arenas. The scores are listed in order for each rink. The first score is "press facilities". Since it's where I spend most of my time at the rink, they better be good. Second score is for "comfort and convenience". Are the fans comfortable? Is everything so spread out that it takes forever to get from one area of the arena to another? The final score is "atmosphere". That one should speak for itself. Things like "students on break" or "weather" are not factored into consideration.
Macinnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton--> Great character, much like the town. Easy to get around, with one of the most underrated press boxes in the WCHA. Scores: 4-4-3--10
Sullivan Arena, Anchorage--> Not much atmosphere, as the crowds were pretty small and didn't include many students. No press box, and the setup for the TV and radio people is atrocious. One plus: The rink is very easy to get around. Scores: 1-3-2--6
Midwest Wireless Civic Center, Mankato--> Atmosphere was lacking, except for a large and vocal group of UMD fans on the opposite side of the rink from us. Press box again missing, this time because they decided to make what was to be the press box into an extra suite when they built the place. The setup for media in Mankato was primitive, but it was easier to get around than Anchorage. Had issues getting let in the arena on Friday night because the media passes weren't where they were supposed to be, but I have no major issues. Scores: 3-2-3--8
World Arena, Colorado Springs--> Very nice building. Elevator was slow, but at least it was there and it worked. The people were magnificent, and the arena was very easy to get around. It was a bit of a walk through the ice-level areas to get to the visitors' locker room area. Also, the atmosphere was lacking a bit in the building. Not much noise to be had unless CC scored. Scores: 5-3-2--10
Germain Arena, Estero--> Not bad. Didn't have a ton of atmosphere because the crowds weren't very big, but it was easy to get around with a pretty nice press box. Scores: 4-4-2--10
National Hockey Center, St. Cloud--> I had never been there for a SCSU game before (only to a Division III game and some youth tournaments). I was really missing out. Great atmosphere. Boorish fans in some cases, but a great atmosphere for hockey. Rare modern building in that it wasn't just loud when St. Cloud scored. Easy building to get around with somewhat primitive press accomodations, but a fun place to watch a hockey game. Scores: 3-4-5--12
Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks--> What can I say that hasn't already been said? Unbelieveable building. Easy to get around, with a very nice press box. Great sightlines. Not much atmosphere unless UND scored, which is too bad, because atmosphere was a hallmark of the old Ralph. Scores: 5-4-3--12
Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis--> Anyone who says this place isn't cooler than the Ralph is kidding themselves. Much more atmosphere, and a building that is just as easy to get around and just as comfortable for the fans and media. I loved being able to get to Mariucci for the first time. I can see why so many people think so highly of that building. Scores: 5-4-4--13
Magness Arena, Denver--> Nice building. Good layout, though the press box is a bit screwy (low to the ground with very narrow "desk" space). I liked the place, and it was very easy to get around. But the atmosphere was very poor. The fans who did show up didn't appear too terribly interested in the games, even when Denver was doing well. Scores: 4-4-2--10
XCel Energy Center, St. Paul--> It's really not a fair fight. I could nitpick and say it was a long walk from the elevators to the locker rooms, but it would be nothing but nitpicking. Amazing facility. The atmosphere lacked a bit, but it doesn't take away from the quality of the overall experience. Scores: 5-5-4--14