Hello, hockey nerds! Today, I’m hopefully going to wow all of you, and maybe inspire some of you to go on a Hockey Road Trip. Over the summer, Tom Dundon, The Most Interesting Man in Hockey, reached an agreement with the Greenville (South Carolina) Swamp Rabbits to become the ECHL affiliates of the (North) Carolina Hurricanes. This made a lot of sense as they are only little more than an hour’s drive from Charlotte where the Calder Cup Champion AHL affiliate Charlotte Checkers play. Almost as soon as this was announced, my friends and I waited with bated breath for the schedules of all three teams to be published and looked for a time to visit on a Lost Hockey Weekend Roadtrip. That perfect weekend ended up being January 17 to 19, 2020.
My wife, my best friend and I planned this weekend because all three teams were playing at home on consecutive days; the Canes played on Friday, the Bog Bunnies on Saturday, and the Checkers on Sunday afternoon, which was all too perfect because with a three hour drive back, it meant that we only had spent one night out of town and without having to take a day off of work!
Friday Night in Raleigh
As Season Ticket Holders Members of the Hurricanes, we have a set pattern for a typical game day. We met up at a local Buffalo Brothers a little after 5 p.m. for dinner and drinks because we’ve grown tired of food at PNC Arena over the last decade. The 7:30 p.m. start time on Fridays gives us plenty of time to get to the game. With a $20 parking fee, we tend to park well away from the arena; 0.7 miles, in fact. We bundle up for the sub-40*F weather and hoof down to the arena, because $820 to park one car per season is a lot of beer money when we pay $774 for our season tickets. PNC has no parking decks, so the parking lot shared with the local college football stadium sprawls waaaaay out. Great for tailgating, but if you think your $20 will get you close to the building, you are sorely mistaken. This also allows us to enjoy a beer or an airplane bottle of whiskey on the walk down. Another option is that the Hurricanes have a few buses that pick fans up for free at various bars and restaurants around Raleigh and drop them off at the door, then return them after the game. We’ve used this a lot in the past; it’s a very good alternative if you’re visiting Raleigh and staying downtown!
Getting into the building we’re greeted by a Storm Squad cheering crew member and a younger cheerleader from nearby Campbell University; turns out it’s a college night. Starting a couple seasons ago involving three colleges along Tobacco Road, the Hurricanes now have about a dozen college nights recognizing many of the universities in NC where they bus in the students, provide special ticket pricing and hats, while their cheerleaders and mascots get to join in with the Storm Squad for the game.
The only thing I question is why they decide to pick the college where the colors are orange and black on a night when the Hurricanes are playing the Ducks. This game also falls on the heels of Whalers’ night, which you might have heard Sal and I talking about on a recent podcast. Since the final card of the set had to be picked up at the team store, “The Eye,” I headed over there. Sadly, it’s the Dougie Hamilton card and this is the first game the team plays without the All-Star defenseman after a potentially season-ending leg injury.
Anyway, I wander off to grab a beer. A local craft beer on draft will run you $13 (I recommend New Belgium’s Old Tuffy), domestic is $11. Now you could get a $5 can of Bud Light, on the assumption that you lack taste buds and you love something worse that municipal water. OR you can spend $5 and get a local light beer from R&D called Storm Brew that made exclusively for the Hurricanes. Still really light, but you’re supporting local and sipping slightly better; just drink it fast before it gets warm.
The prices of some other concessions at PNC Arena for comparison:
Cheeseburger with fries – $12
Hotdog with fries – $11
Giant Pretzel – $7
Garbage Pizza – $6
If you want chicken, there are a couple stands from PDQ, which is fine. It’s…it’s fine. It’s no Bojangles. But it’s fine.
Another unique thing you can get, if you’re so inclined with a raging sweet tooth is a Cheerwine Slushy. Cheerwine is a local cherry soda that is quite sugary and fairly popular with a population of Sweet Tea Enthusiasts. On a warm day I might be interested in this if I could dump in a few ounces of decent Gin with it.
Everything is a-go at puck drop and it feels like a nearly full stadium with more than 18,000 in attendance. During breaks of action, games are played with fans, gift cards are parachuted from the catwalks, t-shirts fired into the crowd, pre-recorded videos of player antics are shown on the new and GIGANTIC jumbotron.
The Canes eventually lose to the Ducks in OT; Reimer played great, everybody else…not so much. Dougie’s absence is clearly felt. It’s a cold walk back to the cars, but you’re also not sitting in traffic. We get home and get to bed a little before 11 p.m.
Saturday: Greenville Bound
The next day, we get up early (for a Saturday), shower, toss some clothes into a bag, feed the birds, put extra food in the various bowls for the cats and clean up cat barf with Gretzky cards. Our chariot, a VW GTI, arrives at 9 a.m. and we’re off…to get gas, cash and coffee. It’s 226 miles to Greenville, we have caffeine and there’s an all Rush station on XM these days. We are also introduced to an interesting cover of Subdivisions by a metal band called Allegaeon, but otherwise it was Rush for the next 4+ hours. We discuss the nuances of South Carolina BBQ, which is mustard-based, and two of the three people in the car hadn’t tried it, but we take the subject of slow-roasted meats very seriously in our part of the country and decided that we need to find some South Carolina BBQ when we get to the city of our destination.
We take the rural highway routes across out state; it’s far more relaxing, has fewer speed traps and only adds about 15 minutes onto the drive. Around 11:15 a.m. we stop in Asheboro NC for snacks and a bathroom break. I grab a bag of Utz Fried Pickle chips, a North Carolina brand and a favored flavor to savor.
Along the way, I get to visit a few of the bridges and project sites that I’ve helped to build in the past.
By 1:40, we are across the state line into South Carolina around Gaffney, made famous by its peaches, its peach water tower, a memorable episode of House of Cards, and the film “The Abyss” was filmed at an incomplete nuclear facility nearby. Also, the rain sets in. ☹ By 2:30 we arrive in downtown Greenville and grab a late lunch at a restaurant called Smoke on the Water.
I had the Palmetto Exspresso Porter that was very coffee-forward and tasty, and sharing a plate of surprisingly spicy deviled eggs before a course of pulled pork and fried okra. The restaurant provided a handful of different sauces: Vinegar based (Eastern NC), tomato based (Western NC), a sweet Kansas City sauce, a spicy-but-not-too-spicy Habanero, and finally the fabled Mustard based SC sauce. As amateur chemists, we like to mix things up: I recommend mixing East and West NC sauces to make a Piedmont Sauce, or the KC with the hot stuff for a sweet and spicy. But that mustard…look South Carolina has a lot to offer, like Firefly Sweet Tea Whiskey (not the vodka), South of the Border and anywhere that isn’t Myrtle Beach. And while the mustard-based sauce is doable on a grilled chicken, possibly even some salads, please just be advised to keep it away from contemporary barbecued meats please; too much effort goes into cooking them. End of sermon.
Unfortunately the rain was fairly unrelenting, so while we’d hoped to spend a few hour exploring the quaint little burg of Greenville, we retreated to our Holiday Inn Express, just a half mile walk from the Bon Secours area. Collapsing and relaxing due to a mild food coma, we eventually got ready and prioritized our evening at the Swamp Rabbits game as they took on the Norfolk Admirals; a team from a city that’s actually closer to Raleigh than Greenville, but whatever. Geared up with rain jackets, over our jerseys and cowbells clanking, we set out a little after 5:30, walking through a historic cemetery in the rain (so goth!), and hung out under the eaves until the doors were unlocked at 6 p.m. We talked with many of the locals and found they really enjoyed the team and the sport if hockey here in town. Good to see!
Once inside, we got to the team store, known as the Hop Shop, because the ‘Bits have one of the coolest logos in hockey, plus orange and blue just look great together.
I grabbed a hat, stickers, puck and a shirt proclaiming, “Ears Ups, Beers Up!” My friend bought a sweet jersey, and my wife grabbed a few tchotchkes. The shirts weren’t the greatest quality fabric, and the kids and ladies’ shirts had cooler designs, so I took what I could get.
Now this was a special promotions night, paid for by DC Comics, so the team wasn’t wearing those sweet threads like my friend had bought, but full Superman jerseys that looked super silly! But the jerseys were being auctioned off later to raise money for a charity, so it doesn’t bother me. Lot of people dressed their kids up in comic costumes, and a few folks cosplayed as Wonder Woman, Supes, and Green Lantern roaming the concourse taking pictures with the kids as well.
Comparable concessions are as follows:
Beer, regardless of craft, domestic, can or draft – $10
Garbage Pizza – $8
Cheeseburger – $5.50
Pretzel – $5.50
Meh Hot Dog – $4.50
SUPERIOR Hot Dog – $9.00 (more on this later)
I had read that there were cheesesteaks that were a must-have at this arena, and the story goes that they went to Philly to talk to people and find out the RIGHT way to make a Philly Cheesesteak (Cheese Whiz, kids). But unfortunately, I didn’t see a stand selling them this night. Boyz II Men would be very disappointed.
Oh, and you know what else they had? A Bojangles. A legitimate, Cajun chicken/steak fry serving/sweet tea slinging Bojangles. You know who doesn’t have one of those? PNC. Don Waddell, I know your reading this and I’m squinting at you right now.
Down in our $20 seats behind the Bunny’s bench, with more leg room that similar ones back home, we got ready for a very spirited game. The arena is just a couple years older that PNC in Raleigh (Bon Secours opened in 1998), kids from the local elementary school sang the anthem, and loose start for both teams eventually tighten up into a very quick and entertaining match. In-game entertainment was similar to what you find at most pro hockey games, and the cheer squad known as the Rabbettes certainly provided some pulse raising dance moves that might have made the Storm Squad envious. Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” will do that.
The mini Jumbotron was perfectly sized for the arena; it looked like it had an Atari logo on the bottom, but I don’t know what company it’s for.
By the first intermission I finally needed a beer, a bite to eat, and maybe a cold shower. As we walked the hallway, we ran into some buddies of ours from the Canes games who planned on the same trip as us. They are from the Red Eye Rowdies group, big ol’ local Futball nerds who decided to carry their passion and their need to sing drunken jaunty tunes at hockey games too. Finally, I got a beer and while I could have gotten a Swamp Dog with pulled pork BBQ on it, I opted for the traditional Chicago Dog, which I will argue is a sandwich when you have that much crap on it. It tasted OK. I’ve had better, but with the size of it and the liquid seeping out from various toppings, it’s kinda exploded a little more than halfway through eating and I just gave up.
While the Swamp Rabbit logo has a svelte-athletic look about it, their mascot Stomper has been hanging out in the carrot patch quite a bit lately. Not to body shame a mascot; Gritty has a similar pear shape about him, and the kids love him more than Santa. It’s just a noticeable difference is all.
After the game, we walked on back a slightly different way to the hotel; noticed the parking deck was super-close to the arena and only charged $5. Good to know. There were a few places open should we have felt the need for a night cap, but we had plans to get up the next morning.
Sunday: Bridges, millions of peaches, French toast a la cart, fried pickles. Oh, and hockey!
Before we left Greenville, we had to go see Liberty Bridge, because two us are dorks and the other person is my wife. We had planned to grab coffee in a little café nearby, but it turns out that almost no coffee shop opens before 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Greenville. Lionnel Richie would be very disappointed. But the Liberty Bridge was not! It’s a long, curved pedestrian bridge supported by a single suspension cable over Falls Park on the Reedy river. The whole scene was spectacular.
We couldn’t stick around too long; by 8:45 we were on our way to Charlotte to meet up with my friend’s niece for brunch before the 1 p.m. game at Bojangles Coliseum. I bet you can guess what kind of food is in there, Don Waddell!
Along the way through Gaffney again, the song Peaches by Presidents of the United States of America came on as were driving by the peach water tower. A little creepy, I’m just sayin’.
The original plan was to hit up a joint called Snooze that features pancake flights. Hang on, read that again. That’s right. Pancake. Flights. Like beer flights. But with pancakes. Different kinds of pancakes. However, as we were getting closer to our destination, we got a call from our local eyes on the ground that the wait at this place was over an hour so we quickly found a backup plan. Charlotte is a place that takes brunch seriously; high finance will do that to people. So we ended up in a place called Zada Jane’s close to the stadium. While they did not have pancake flights, they did have multiple varieties of French toast; I ended up with Amaretto and almond toast and when the waitress asked what side I wanted, I chose the apple cinnamon French toast on the side. No questions asked, and that’s what I got! Also, really good mimosas with fresh squeezed OJ all around. I told ya, this town doesn’t mess around with brunch!
A short drive from Zada’s and we’re at the Bo-Round. Or as some people call it The Biscuit. (A bo-round is a small, puck shaped hash brown and Bojangles is known for making really good biscuits, just so you know where those names are coming from). Either way, it’s the Bojangles’s Coliseum and it’s been around for well over half a century; Elvis played there in 1956 and a few times in the 70’s, but it was refurbished just a few year ago for the Checkers.
This is a still a concrete bunker arena. The team store is mostly mobile carts that can be locked and stored away when not in use, much like a typical concert set up. Parking is $8 in a sprawling lot and it’s easy to navigate. The center ice second tier tickets, a little above the glass had a face value of $25, but the team had a promotional sale of 40% off per ticket. Just for reference, season tickets range from as low as $440 for the season to only $1,425 for the best seats in the house.
The night before, the Checkers played in some bad ass black uniforms with a unique logo. The jerseys were of course auctioned off, and a limited amount of shirseys were available, but only small sizes remained. However, there were still autographed pucks for sale at $15; I pulled prospect Chase Priskie’s scribble for mine.
Walking around and looking at food and drink I noted:
Garbage Hotdog – $5
Beer, Domestic, can or draft – $6
Beer, craft, can or draft – $8 (also, they are only 16 oz, whereas beers at Raleigh and Greenville are 20 oz)
Trash Cheeseburger – $6
Mega high-end chain restaurant cheeseburger – $14!
Giant Pretzel – $4
But what you must get there are deep fried pickles. Plain or cajun spice are $6; $8 for buffalo and bleu’d or Ranch and hot sauce. If you come to a game, expect to stand it line for this. They make them per order for you, get in line early because you very well may miss part of the game if it’s during intermission. You have been advised. But damn they were worth it. I had also had a Big OH IPA from Sugar Creek Brewing, very nice, floral hop forward, not too bitter.
The first thing we all noticed when we got to our seats was damn, those seats were cold! That French toast coma was abated quickly after that. Once again, we had an elementary school singing the Star Spangled Banner, and still ridiculously sweet. Some other lady sang Oh Canada since the Toronto Marlies were in the house. The game was very quick, and while the first period didn’t show much in the way of goals, latter periods definitely made for a ruckus affair in the stands.
Between the action, the Checkmates cheer squad did there thing, Chubby the mascot dumped popcorn all over a planted Toronto fan, and the famous Greazy Keyz pumped out hit after hit on the organ. I’m not sure if other minor league teams do this — I hope that they do, and that this catches on at the NHL level — but the Checkers players get to choose their song that gets played when they score a goal (even and including the goalie Alex Nedeljkovic). I love that Julian Gauthier chose “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls; truly the Hallelujah Chorus of the 20th century. With the Checkers scoring seven goals (to the Marlies’ three), there was a lot of singing along in the stands.
There’s a special club/restaurant downstairs that anyone can to during the game, and the Checkers players have to walk right through it to the locker room; it’s corridor is roped off, but the fans (especially the kids) are encourage to line up to cheer on the players, high-five, fist-bump and hold up signs of encouragement. Or as one young lady decided to do, hold up a sign with a message to Jake Bean and asking him to, um…well the term “Five Hole” was used; let’s leave it at that. It’s clear from the looks on their faces that the players enjoy this interaction.
The game felt a lot closer than the score let on; when the Marlies pulled within one, the Checkers ratcheted down and played like no lead was safe. There was clearly a lot of talent on this club, even after many players jumped to other opportunities from winning the Calder Cup last spring.
After the game, we headed out the cars and ran into the Rowdies one more time. The Hurricanes were playing at 5 p.m. so we could only listen to them on the radio as we took the three-hour drive home. If the game had been at 7 p.m., we might have tried to floor it back to Raleigh in time, but we were all beat from exciting hockey, eating terrible food and having fun. Too bad; Justin Williams made his return to the game that night and scored the game winner in the shootout. Despite being a low-scoring game, it’s sounded pretty epic!
This was a fun road trip. Minor League hockey is pretty much about entertainment and the fans. Visiting new cities, meeting new people who share the game you live, picking up a few trinkets along the way and eating awful food is a treat that people should enjoy (in moderation). If you have to opportunity, get out and see some games wherever you are. Go see the Phantoms, the Solar Bears, the Roadrunners, the IceHogs, Steelheads or the Fuel. Go watch some college hockey or WNHL teams battle it out. If you have the financial ability, go see an NHL game if you must, but get off the couch and go. Hockey has always been a better sport to watch live than on TV. Just don’t forget to feed you cats. And for the love of god Waddell, get some better food options at PNC, the minor leagues are burring you! ■
Jim Howard is a Carolina Hurricanes fan and reformed baseball card collector who is trying to keep the hockey collection from becoming overwhelming. And while he wishes he could give Crosby the business with his mitt, he is in fact NOT the goalie for the Red Wings.