My 14 year-old son and I spent his Spring Break on a 7 day trip to watch hockey in some of the great venues in the NHL. We saw 4 NHL games and 1 QJMHL playoff game, saw Niagara Falls, CN Tower and the Hockey Hall of Fame. We went on guided tours of the Rogers Center, Bell Centre and the Montreal Olympic Stadium and Natatorium. We also visited Parliament and managed to make stops at Copps Coliseum and Frank Clair Stadium. And we managed to be part of the Kerry Fraser Retirement Tour as well.
I asked a lot of questions on the various TA forums and for the most part we were very well prepared for the trip. Thanks to all who helped. I have a lot of individual hotel and attraction reviews to write, but wanted to start with a trip report that will be very long and hopefully helpful in some areas. I plan to post this on the Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa forums.
We started with a Friday morning flight from Indianapolis to O’Hare, then on to Buffalo. We found the Buffalo airport easy to navigate. We did have to wait in line at Alamo for our rental car. Alamo had by far the best rate for a rental to be returned in Toronto – apparently we weren’t the only ones with that plan. I normally don’t accept the rental car insurance, but the collision coverage was only $9 per day – well below the normal rate. The Alamo rep told me that the State of New York limits the charge to $9 per day. That was something I did not know and led me to buy the coverage on top of my $49 per day charge for a Chevy Impala.
We stayed at the downtown Hyatt. Very nice hotel, decent rate. The off-site parking was diagonally across the corner from the hotel and was only $6 for overnight. Very easy and very reasonable. The hotel accommodated our request for a room on a high floor.
After a quick visit to Prima Pizza for a few slices of pizza, we took the MetroRail to and from the game. Easy access from the Hyatt.
HSBC opened the gates two hours before the game. For the first hour you are allowed in to the entrance “lobby” and in to part of the concourse – plenty of opportunity to shop, buy 50/50 tickets and eat. This was our first game with Kerry Fraser as one of the refs and the Sabres had a nice acknowledgement of Fraser. This was the only NHL game we had with lower bowl tickets. We really liked the arena – very nice place to watch a game.
We took the train back after the game and went to the lobby restaurant for a pizza and to watch some NCAA hoops. We liked Buffalo style pizza. Much better than Indy pizza.
We were up early Saturday for our trip to Toronto with side trips to Niagara Falls and Hamilton. We had been to the Falls before, but never in late March. The temps were just above freezing on Saturday morning and the wind blown mist from the Falls turned the area right around the Falls to a frozen winter wonderland. It was beautiful to see the ice hanging from the trees and railings. It was something different. The Maid of the Mist does not run at this time of the year due to ice in the river, but we did do the Behind The Falls tour. My son said it was “cool.” Very few people in the attraction – we were in and out without waiting and were able to spend as much time as we wanted.
We stopped for lunch at Montana’s in St. Catherine’s. Might have been the best meal of our trip. What was different for me was that when we paid the check with a credit card, the server brought the credit card machine to us instead of taking our card. I wish all restaurants could do that. We did avoid a major problem while at Montana’s thanks to CAA. After we ordered I went out to the car to get my travel folder to review while we waited for our food. I ended up locking the keys in the trunk. My AAA membership came in handy. The restaurant staff helped me call CAA. They arrived shortly after our food came and within five minutes I had my keys back.
My son wanted to try to find and see Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, where they are trying to get a NHL team. We found it with minimal issue and were fortunate to find the Coliseum open for packet pickup for the half marathon the next day. We spent about 30 minutes walking around – nice facility but it would seem to need a lot of upgrades to be home to a NHL franchise.
I knew Toronto was a large city, but the downtown gridlock on a Saturday afternoon surprised me. I had to get gas for the car before I returned it at Alamo’s Union Station location. I wish I had bought the gas before we got to downtown. Alamo’s car return (along with National’s) was three levels down in the parking garage beneath the Telus building. There were no outside signs and I would have never found it without the excellent directions I got by calling Alamo’s Union Station office before leaving Buffalo.
We had a two block walk to the Fairmont Royal York. We enjoyed our stay. Without a doubt the fanciest hotel my son has stayed at. I was surprised to find that we needed to navigate some stairs to get to the lobby from the street level – this became a theme throughout Toronto and Montreal – it would seem Canada does not have a law like the ADA in the States. A wheelchair bound individual would have trouble in both the Fairmont and Union Station.
We had seats in the top row of Air Canada Center at the blue line. We were behind the press box – we saw most of the scoreboard, but not all of it. After being in the lower level in Buffalo, it seemed we were on top of Mount Everest when we first sat down. The seats turned on to be very good once we adjusted. I don’t mind sitting up high for hockey and watching everything develop. My lasting memory of the game will be the Canadian national anthem. O’Canada is a beautiful song and the enthusiasm with which it was song in Toronto was amazing (and by far the best of our stops). I wish us Americans sang our anthem as loudly and proudly as the Leafs fans did. And we found we followed Kerry Fraser from Buffalo to Toronto.
Sunday’s objectives were Hockey Hall of Fame, CN Tower and Gretzky’s for dinner. Our schedule changed when we woke up and realized that rain was forecast to move in later in the day. We had hoped to visit the CN Tower around sunset, but made the decision to head there first. We bought the entire package including the Skypod. Getting to the Skypod was very inefficient. Even though we had bought Skypod tickets in advance, we had to wait in line with those waiting to buy tickets. There was only one worker selling tickets, taking tickets and running the elevator back and forth. The views were amazing even on an overcast day. We really enjoyed watching the planes at Island airport.
The Hockey Hall of Fame was both the highlight of our trip and one of the biggest disappointments. The highlight was being able to view and touch the Stanley Cup. I had my picture taken with the Cup in the early 90’s when the Penguins won the Cup and I worked for the company that owned the team. But for my son it was his first time and we were both in awe. We bought the photo package for $10 which included a download from their website that we can use to get extra prints made. Contrary to some other reports, the photographer told us he could not use our camera to take an extra picture for us. We did get another guest to do so for us. But the rest of the Hall was a disappointment. In comparison to the baseball and football Halls, the Hockey Hall pales. We only spent about 2 ½ hours there – much less than we planned. Maybe it was the crowds, maybe we expected too much. It also seemed that the “plaques” of the inductees did not compare the bronze plaques in Cooperstown or the busts in Canton. It was nice to see some of the old memorabilia, but I would have preferred more video highlights of some of the great hockey plays (Bobby Orr’s Cup winning goal for example). I was glad we went, but without the Cup it would have been very disappointing.
We left the Hall to hustle over to the Rogers Center for a tour that was very informative – we had a great guide. It was nice to see some areas of the stadium that the public cannot see. It would have been nice to see the Jays locker room, even if they were off at Spring Training. We went to the Jays team shop where my son purchased a game worn Jersey from 2002 that he has worn multiple times already.
After a brief rest at our hotel, we walked through the drizzle to dinner at Gretzky’s. We found a place in the bar so we could watch the NCAA basketball and hockey games. Food was good – memorabilia around was better.
We enjoyed our time in Toronto. We knew when we planned this trip that we did not allow enough time in Toronto. We were right.
We had an 11:30 train Monday morning to Montreal. It gave us enough time to rest up and allow my teenager a rare chance to sleep in on this trip. Even though the Fairmont is across the street from Union Station it took us way too long to get there. We had been told that the underground access to Union Station would be open on Monday – so we took the elevator to the basement of the Fairmont. The direct access to the VIA rail portion of Union Station was still closed – so we went to the subway portion of the station, then had to find a way to get our bags upstairs to baggage check. There are no escalators, elevators or ramps – we had to take a ramp back to street level then go outside before we come back in to Union Station – just across the street from the Fairmont.
We easily printed our documents and checked our bags. We walked back to the food court to get a lunch and then boarded Train 60 to Montreal. All the Montreal passengers (both Dorval and downtown) were segregated in a single car. We were kept in that car throughout the five and a half hour trip. It was better than driving. There were a few differences between Via and Amtrak. The few Amtrak trains we were on had foot rests – we were kind of surprised the VIA trains did not. We had more room than on a plane and more than enough to be comfortable. The other difference was in how drinks and food were served similar to airplanes from a cart. I was used to the snack car on Amtrak. The VIA train had a “water fountain” near the restroom. It was helpful once I finished the water bottle I brought on board. My son used the free wi-fi, I read a book and newspapersWe were following along with our map of Ontario to see where we were. We had a good idea of when we passed in to Quebec and we knew for sure once the conductor began making announcements first in France.
We easily gathered our luggage in Montreal and went out in to the rain for the three block walk to our Hotel – Le Square Phillips. When we set out to do some discovering of Montreal, we went to purchase 3 day Metro passes. We discovered cash only, no credit cards, and a $3.50 fee to buy a Metro card. Otherwise we found the Metro easy to use. We needed to pay attention to the station map and station names and we were fine.
We did visit the site of the Montreal Forum. We enjoyed sitting in the section of seats that they kept, but it was otherwise uninspiring. Nice to say we were there, but probably not worth going out of way to see. We had hoped to find a sports bar near the Bell Center that we had been given directions from the hotel concierge. We didn’t find the place until we went to the Canadiens game two nights later. It was the start of a series of misadventures in Montreal. We eventually ended up eating at Quizno’s near the hotel and returned to the hotel.
We were up early Tuesday because when we got to our room, the hotel had a letter stating that the water to the hotel would be turned off at 9 a.m. Tuesday. We wanted to see the Olympic Stadium and headed out for the tour. During our visit, tours were offered in English on the hour and in French on the half hour. We had a small group and our guide was very good. The tour lasted 30 minutes and included the swimming and diving venue as well as the stadium. It was very sad to see the current state of the stadium (empty). We are big Olympic fans and big baseball fans, so it was worth it for us. I can see, however, why many say the tour is not that great.
We did take the tour of the Olympic Tower as well. The ride to the top was very efficient. Nice view on the way up of the Olympic Village apartments and the new soccer stadium on the grounds. Excellent view of the City from the top. It was during this part of the tour by son started with a fit of hiccups. It turned out to be two days of on again, off again hiccups.
After the Tower visit we went outside and played catch for awhile (orders from his baseball coach) then took the Metro back towards the hotel and had a good lunch at Nickels.
We had wanted to take a tour of the Bell Centre and left the hotel to make the 2:45 tour (as per the website). We arrived at the tour start (by the Canadiens Hall of Fame) around 2:10 to discover the tour was at 2:00 and we had missed it. We wanted to do the tour Tuesday so we could see the Canadiens locker room (which would not be available the next day). The workers went the extra mile to get us to the tour (which at the time was in the press box at the top of the Bell Centre). A security guard took us to the group and tour guide was great filling us in on what we had missed. The tour was excellent – seeing the locker room was a thrill. You are allowed to step about one meter in to the locker room – but you can get great pictures from there. We followed by viewing the Canadiens Hall of Fame. In some ways it was better than the Hockey Hall of Fame. I am not particularly fond of the Habs, but I would recommend it to any hockey fan. I particularly liked to exhibit that detailed the train travel to other Original Six teams in the 50’s and 60’s.
We had a real treat on Tuesday night. We went out to Laval to watch game 7 of the QMJHL playoffs between Montreal and Gatineau. We had posted a question about the accessibility of the arena to the Metro on the Montreal forum and after a couple of positive responses, we bought tickets on line and headed out. What a wonderful evening – double overtime, game 7 in an intimate setting. The seating set up was something we had never seen before. Fold down seats, that were double seats – two seats together folded down. My son would have rather had his girlfriend with him than his Dad, but it was a nice night with good hockey conversations with the fans around us.
Wednesday morning started poorly. When we returned to the hotel Tuesday night we were told the water issues were fixed. I went to breakfast around 8:45 while my son slept. When I left the breakfast room at 9:05 there were letters posted on the elevator wall that the water was going off at 9:00 a.m. Apparently late notice by the water company, but what we were not told by the hotel staff when we checked in was that this water problem had been an issue for over a week. So my son went without a shower that day, the hiccups continued and we had no toilet facilities available after the room was cleaned since the housekeepers decided to flush the toilet and remove all the water from the basin.
We walked down to Old Montreal and went to see Notre Dame. We just missed a tour, the schedule during the offseason is apparently irregular. We gave ourselves a self guided tour for about 45 minutes. Simply stunning – a beautiful place. We walked back towards the hotel, had a great lunch at The Keg then went back to the hotel to rest since my son was still not feeling well.
The Canadiens game on Wednesday was a blast. We had seats in section 329, row DD, the fourth row of the upper level, with plenty of rows behind us. We could not see the various banners hanging from the ceiling as the press box blocked our view. The only disturbing part of this visit was the playing of the national anthems. Many people openly carried on conversations during the American anthem and more than a few did the same during the O’Canada. Nowhere near the enthusiasm for O’Canada as in Toronto despite the Canadiens introducing a pair of Vancouver gold medallists before the game. I had not paid a great deal of attention to the behavior of fans in Buffalo during the anthems, but the lack of respect paid by more than just a few fans in Montreal was noticeable. I knew the Montreal fans were known for voicing their displeasure with poor play by the Habs and they didn’t let me down. Very vicious with attacking their own players. The passion is great – watching the game there is like no other place we have been. And yes, for the third time in three NHL games, Kerry Fraser had the game.
We had a 10:00 a.m. train to Ottawa the next morning. Quick checkout from Le Square Phillips and a short walk to Union Station. This train did not have a baggage car. We had to carry our bags down a flight of stairs. While I had concerns about the size of our bags against Via’s limits, we had no problems. I guess Via figures if you can get the heavy suitcases down the stairs, you can take it with you.
This train had assigned seats and only a couple of stops. Unlike the Toronto – Montreal train, most of this train was through the countryside, not along a major highway.
We had reservations at the Best Western Victoria Suites in Ottawa. Cab fare on the meter was $12.55, with tip $16. We checked in, went to Budget to get our rental car and headed towards Parliament Hill. We parked at Rideau Center, ate at the food court (expensive fast food) then walked over to Parliament. We watched Parliament in session for about 20 minutes, went to the top of the Peace Tower. One of the guards gave us a very good history of the tower and the Memorial Chamber and Book of Remembrance. The Chamber itself was very moving and a highlight of our trip.
As advertised, downtown Ottawa traffic was miserable and the ride out to Scotiabank Place was even worse. The “15 minute drive” was more like 45. Los Angeles and Chicago have nothing on Ottawa when it comes to traffic!
We eventually found a public parking lot and headed over to the game. We knew no Kerry Fraser this night as the Senators were playing the Hurricanes, who had been in Montreal the night before. We had a concession stand dinner (good chicken sandwich at the TexMex stand). Some talking during the American anthem, respectful for the Canadian anthem but not enthusiastic. Good game, nice arena. Like Buffalo, a fine place to watch a game but nothing memorable stands out. After the game we let the traffic clear out while we ate at Frank Finnegans. Very fast service, good food, somewhat overpriced, which is to be expected. Easy drive back downtown.
After checking out of our hotel, we headed down to get a glimpse of Frank Clair Stadium, played catch in the adjacent park then headed out to the airport. It was an empty airport on Good Friday around noon. The Air Canada desk told us the rush had been early in the morning. We connected through Toronto. The longest wait was to claim our bags to clear customs. We had no wait going through Customs and cleared them easily, with enough time for my son to have one last Pizza Pizza meal in the concourse.
I really wish we had more time in Ottawa – so much to see and do and a beautiful city. Maybe a return trip with more time will be in store.
Again, thanks to all for their help – if anyone made it this far, well thank you.