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The rarely updated blog of Joel Dixon

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 20/12/2017 08:17:47

Getting over to Pittsburgh from Australia involves a long flight and many dollarydoos, so we planned to attend as many Pittsburgh games as possible while there - giving us the best chance to experience a hattrick for the good guys and to watch Fleury playing in his final year with the Pens. So after returning from Philadelphia we had tickets to catch two further Penguins games, one against the New Jersey Devils and one hosting Jaromir Jagr's Florida Panthers.

For the Devils game I took a peek at the ticket exchange website and a pair of seats jumped out at me. There were two tickets available on the glass, directly behind the Penguins bench. Of course, the price was exorbitant but it wasn't too much trouble to convince myself that such an extravagance was justified for the chance to watch legends of the game at ice level. When we sat at our seats, it was very clear that the cost was worth it - we had an incredible view of the entire Penguins bench.

Literal Front Row
Two Penguin heroes, Chris Kunitz and Rick Tocchet, unfortunately no longer with the Penguins this year

To be honest, the seats did not give the best view of the on-ice play unless the puck was on our side and directly in front of us. I had to look upwards at the scoreboard for most of the time to actually see what was happening in the game. We did get an awesome view of a Kessel goal from the wing (my favourite type) but it wasn't the offensive plays that I loved the most, it was the players behavior on the bench that intrigued me.

Sid And A Kid
Hmmm, this reminds me of another fantastic hockey-playing pair

Watching Kessel hunched over gasping for air directly before getting back out there and scoring that goal, seeing Crosby laughing along with Sheary after he missed an easy opportunity and hearing Hornqvist fuming mad after being pulled off the Power Play had me mesmerised for the entire time. We also got a great feeling for how huge the players were, especially when Ian Cole delivered a giant hit right in front of us. The mass and power speeding around along with cannon-like shots makes me wonder why injuries aren't even more prevalent. In the end the Penguins won by two goals and I was a very happy fan (even though Fleury wasn't in net for the game).

Glove Bump
Glove bumps following one of Crosby's two goals for the game

Talking To
Coach Sullivan during one of his numerous calm chats with the referee

With a day of between hockey games, we decided to keep things relaxed and had a pretty lazy time with a nice sleep in the next morning. We somehow found enough willpower to get ourselves out of the hotel and checkout a few of the lower-priority activities on our "things to do" list. I'm glad we did, as we both had an enjoyable day. We started by heading out to Canton Avenue, the "steepest street in the United States" and steepest in the world according to some (even though I'm pretty sure the New Zealand one has it beat). My first thought when arriving was "wow, that's a steep street" followed quickly by "but I kind of expected steeper". Pao and I took turns running up and down the incline as I'm sure those that live nearby bemoaned yet another stupid tourist. Canton Avenue probably only made the list because it was very close to a unique restaurant - Beto's Pizza - known for serving pizza with cold toppings. I was a little surprised by how quickly I got used to the crazy meal in front of me - a warm base, warm sauce and sausage with cold cheese, onions, peppers - and when the cheese started to warm and melt slightly it was pretty incredible. Probably not my preferred style of pizza going forward, but certainly a worthwhile experience and something that I still occasionally crave.

Steep, but not overly long

Pizza, but not as you know it

For the afternoon we headed to South Side to walk around and decided to catch a movie at the cinemas (another one of those non-unique, mundane experiences). Part of the local culture that we witnessed was incredibly rude people in the movies - much worse than things I would complain about in Melbourne. The best example was when a phone rang for the person sitting a few rows in front of me. Well, the example wasn't when the guy's phone rang, it was actually when he answered his phone and shamelessly carried on a conversation at a normal volume. Those around him didn't seem to surprised by this behavior, surely this can't be a frequent occurrence?

On our way home we decided on Five Guys Burgers and Fries for dinner - pretty much exclusively for a YouTuber's review and subsequent viral autotuned song. The burger wasn't quite as delicious as my all-time number one favourite burger in Japan, but it was pretty dayum close! The service was fantastic and I think this shows a similar amount of care put towards cooking the burgers, fries and hotdogs - as they were all perfectly-made and tasted amazing. I also had the best shake of the trip in Five Guys, I think they had real banana and strawberries instead of relying on simple flavouring. On top of it all they also had the peak example of man's technological innovations, a Coke fountain dispenser where you could create your own a beveridge with unparalleled customisations. I had a tasty lime Coke, but it took me a while to finally decide on my creation.

The meat just absorbs all the space, and all the air possible in your throat

I can now see how unoriginal I was, with Coke Lime the front and center suggestion

We slept off our fantastic burger meal and did almost nothing before the final hockey game on the schedule - an afternoon game against the Panthers. This was going to be a special game for me, as it gave me a chance to watch one of my favourite Penguins from our first two cups - Jaromir Jagr. Almost more myth than man, Jagr was a Penguins hero right through the lean years post-Mario Lemieux retirement, until he started "dying alive" and even Mario's surprise comeback wasn't enough as he requested a trade - heading off to the division rival Washington Capitals. The Penguins fans were quick to boo him whenever he returned to play in Pittsburgh, especially after he later double-down on the apparent disrespect by teasing fans (and Mario himself) with the idea of coming back to play in Pittsburgh after leaving the KHL before changing his mind and going to the bigger division rival Philadelphia Flyers (for more money of course). Even after his questionable loyalty I've always enjoyed watching Jagr play, and it seemed he and Mario buried the hatchet during the NHL's 100-year celebrations.

Lock No More
You can see Jagr skating by the Penguins bench here. Unfortunately his hair is no longer what it once was, otherwise I wouldn't need to point out his location

We chose seats on the side that the visitors attack twice so that we would have the best chance to see Jagr's offensive play. When we found out Fleury was the starting goaltender for the game I was ecstatic, as we were down his end of the ice for two periods - able to watch him up-close and be part of the Fleury cheer squad. One of the first things I noticed was that no-one was booing Jagr for this game, it seems after 16 years it just took a few comments in the press from Mario regarding his contributions to the history of the Penguins for the fans to give him a pass. The video tribute he received was pretty classy by the team, and I was proud to be a part of the standing ovation he truly deserved.

It didn't take long for the Penguins to take control of the game, or more specifically Crosby as he scored two great goals right in front of us. I told Pao this was it - bringing our hats to every game would finally pay off - and I was almost in disbelief when he did finally score that third goal. My hat was off my head and I took a second to concentrate as our seats were near the ice, but certainly not as close as the Devils game. I grabbed the brim and spun the hat towards the ice with all my strength as I watched it barely clear the glass before resting on the playing field. The opportunity to be part of the age-old tradition was amazing, and the fact it was my favourite player was scoring the three goals (natural and all even strength for that matter) made it that much sweeter. I took a second to savour the moment before thinking about the next unlikely achievement that the Penguins could provide to me - a shutout.

Hat No More
Off goes my hat...

I've never attended a game in which the Penguins shutout their opponent, with the score 4-0 and Fleury locked in I started to consider the possibility. Save after save as each minute ticked down - I was getting more and more confident that Fleury would deliver the goods. I couldn't believe it when the final horn sounded, but I was quick to join the chants of "Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!" as I appreciated not only his outstanding performance that night, nor the perfect hockey game I was able to witness, but the extraordinary gift that Marc-Andre Fleury gave the Pittsburgh Penguins over a career of excellence.

Standing Room Only
... and PoP goes my heart!

This is the 11th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 20/12/2017 07:31:17

Our final day in Florida was interspersed with my worrying about the weather and Pao getting annoyed because I was vocalising my worry about the weather too frequently. While for the majority of our time in Florida we enjoyed lovely weather, I was getting increasingly concerned by reports of an impending stormageddon in the North East. We had tickets to a Penguins game in Philly on the same night we were going to arrive, and all flights into Philadelphia were cancelled on the day before we were scheduled to fly. Our plans to that point had been satisfyingly successful (you know, other than the treatment Taylor received in LAX) but I couldn't help but stress at the situation I had absolutely no control over. We woke extra early on our final day in Florida and drove straight to the airport to drop off the car and make sure we could get onto a plan towards Pennsylvania. Sure enough, all flights were running as planned, and the airport didn't seem to be packed full with people that couldn't make it home the day before. The silver lining in the stormageddon sky was that we had breakfast at the airport and chose to try Chick-fil-A for the first time. Apart from the quizzical look we received from our order taker when we pronounced their brand as it was spelt (chick-fill-a) instead of the way that now clearly makes more sense (chick-filet, like the steak), the experience was fantastic. The chicken was incredibly delicious and we were only working with the limited airport store menu.

The majority of our domestic flights were booked with SouthWest and in general I love their offering (not too expensive, free checking of 2 bags and their flights seemed to always be on schedule) but there was one aspect that I was not on-board with at all. No assigned seating and limited cabin space for carry-on bags leads to an unenjoyable experience during boarding. I'm sure some advanced mathematical models support this seemingly bizarre policy, but in practice all it seems to solve is how to put me in a terrible mood. As Pao and I always seemed to be one of the last "groups" that were allowed to stand in the line for the plan, most of the seats were taken and we would need to settle for being only a few rows apart from each other. This time all of the aisle and window seats were snapped up, so I picked a random row and sat between two elderly passengers. Once they started chatting with each other while we were waiting for takeoff, I realised they were a couple and I offered to switch with one of them so they could sit together (I assume they left that empty seat in-between them in the hopes others would walk past their row and give them three seats together). Inexplicably they preferred to stick with me sitting between them, so instead they just carried on conversation across my lap for the flight. I was getting sick of the arrangement until the lady decided to talk to me about her strong political opinions - and I started wishing that they would speak to each other again instead.

Fancy A Swim
Pro: within walking distance to Philadelphia's sporting stadiums. Con: swimming pool probably closed to guests

There was snow everywhere, with more still falling from the sky, as our Uber driver took us to our hotel. With such bleak weather a lazy afternoon in our hotel would have been a perfectly reasonable plan - but my passion had been ignited in a way that is only possible when a regional sandwich is on offer. I had heard stories of how delicious a Philly cheesesteak would be, but it was a random room service meal when Pao and I were in Cairo that indoctrinated me into the cult of the enlightened. I was very excited to have the chance to try the original, so we put on most of our clothes and started walking towards the "cheesesteak district". Even though the weather had not improved Pao and I had a great time bounding between large mounds of snow as we inched our way towards our destination, something that would surely get old if we actually lived somewhere that snowed with any frequency.

Go North
I've only noticed this now, but apparently Pat's Steaks is not part of the "cheesesteak corner"?? I'm going to have to return to investigate

We finally arrived at the first of the two purveyors of cheesed meat that the internet told me I had to evaluate - Pat's King of Steaks, apparently founded by Pat and Harry Olivieri in the 1930, the original inventors of cheesesteak. Although cheesesteaks were originally made with provolone cheese, the last 50 years has seen the processed cheese spread Cheese Whiz become the typical cheese of choice. For our first evaluation we tried to order a stock standard, and went with Cheese Whiz with onions and a side of regular fries. Unsurprisingly, it was incredible and we devoured our halves of this treat in very short order. My loving partner has a circulation issue that prevents her from getting too cold without severe consequences (mainly affecting her mood...) and although we were sitting out in the freezing snow to eat our cheesesteak, Paola still looks back in fondness of this amazing sandwich.

Crowning Glory
The crown may seem unjustified...

Belly Pat
... until you try one of Pat's steaks

Directly across the road from Pat's was Geno's Steaks which, judging by the numerous 8 x 10s, was a favourite of all manner of celebrities (that I didn't recognise). This time we tried the original provolone cheese on the steak, and went for cheese fries for our side. The steak was great, and the cheese fries thoroughly impressed me, but Pat is truly the King of Steaks. This also lined up with the internet's general opinion that the steak is better at Pat's and Geno's has the better sides. Luckily they are so close together, as I know what I'd be doing at least once a week if only I lived in Philadelphia!

Different Geno
Geno's seems like a slick operation...

Too Flashy
... but I don't think cheesesteaks is a time to be slick

After our late lunch we walked towards a highly-recommended gelato store to get some dessert. I can assure you that it is never too cold for gelato (or any iced cream for that matter), but even I will admit it was hard bit of a hard slog walking through the active snowfall. Pao had clearly reached the limit of her patience with the weather, so we stopped in to an Italian restaurant to get a coffee. The older Italian lady was actually quite nice and we had a lovely chat for an hour or so while warming up our extremities. I'm not sure why residents of Philadelphia get such a bad reputation, as the few we interacted with seemed like fine people.

Until we arrived at the hockey game. Our hotel was a very short walk away from the Flyers home arena and we had tickets to see the Penguins play an all-important cross-state rivalry game. We had already watched the mighty Pens defeat the Flyers in the outdoor game a few weeks prior, so this was a perfect chance to watch a similarly enjoyable triumph in Philadelphia. It was certainly a different atmosphere from the drop of the puck, even before the fans shouted any kind of adulation towards their team they started a hearty "Crosby Sucks" chant. I found this quite odd - firstly, it is quite objectively clear that Crosby doesn't suck. He has made this point clear again and again. Secondly, what does it say about a fan-base who's emotions gravitate towards hatred before appreciation for their own team? It wasn't hard to see why Crosby doesn't like them.

If you say so

Sure enough - the Flyer beat us 4-0, and the score doesn't even tell the story of how poorly we played. It was a wholly unenjoyable experience, at least when the blackhawks were dominating us their fans were nice about it. We walked back home, watched an episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia in Philadelphia to cheer up and then went to bed.

Two Men And Bird
It wasn't this episode, but I feel everyone should watch and enjoy this clip

The next day our fatigue was threatening to catch up with us, but we powered on and took a bus to the center of town for a walk around the sights. Getting there was half the battle, but we decided to surrender the second half, as we didn't really do much more than walk around. We didn't even enter the building that housed the Liberty Bell, instead being satisfied by the view that a small grotty window afforded us. We did make it to (and ran up) the Rocky Steps, but the angrily-aggressive homeless people nearby put a dampener on it a bit. The highlight of the day for me was seeing the "Market Place" sign from the always awesome intro sequence for Always Sunny, followed closely by the third Philly Cheesesteak we had for lunch (certainly not as good as Pat's or Geno's - but still delicious).

Up Close
Those kids in there - they were looking at the Liberty Bell, and Bernie Sanders in the reflection - he was probably wondering why we were taking a photo of a window

Me running up the Rocky Steps...

... is surprisingly no more interesting than me walking up regular steps

Market Street
At least this Market Street sign is super interesting!

Even though there wasn't too much that captured our attention in Philadelphia - I'd certainly go back in a heartbeat if only to have some of those terrific sandwiches!

This is the 10th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 20/12/2017 06:23:54

My overly-awesome girlfriend Paola was already completely on-board with my crazy dream of flying to America to play hockey with my childhood idol (also note that she was Florida's only "babe" referred to in the title of this blog). Even so, I was more than happy to include a location on our itinerary that was more of a sweetener for Pao, after a few weeks of the biting Winter weather. We said goodbye to Taylor at the airport (he was going straight back to Australia) and hopped onto a plane destined for Florida. A very pleasant experience (more so than the fact that we successfully transferred between planes in Atlanta with only 10 minutes available) was that our plane in New York was slightly delayed to have the wings de-iced before takeoff, only to land in Fort Lauderdale in the midst of some glorious sweltering weather.

I don't have any photos of the weather when we landed in Miami - but the painting on our hotel room wall is a fairly accurate representation

Hiring a convertible in France was 100% worth it, even though I only had one day with weather nice enough to drop the top, so we decided to do the same for our Florida road trip - settling on a Ford Mustang. I was concerned that it was early March, and we had just seen some crappy weather in New York, but thankfully the 4 day forecast was all smiling suns wearing dark glasses - and the drive from Fort Lauderdale down to Miami was very pleasant. Well, the weather was pleasant - the other drivers were crazy. Similar to Toronto it seemed that speed limits were merely casual suggestions, and the road signs were more concerned about slow drivers keeping to the right-hand lanes than being so bold to request people stick to sensible speeds.

We arrived at the Hotel Coloretta in the Art Deco district of Miami a short 10 minute walk away from South Beach (but far enough away to afford us sleep). As we checked into the hotel I could tell Pao was going to feel more at home here - everyone seemed to speak Spanish more-so than English, so I was happy to take a backseat and let Pao take care of things for a while. We arrived in the late afternoon, threw our bags in the room and looked for somewhere to eat. We were advised to check out La Locanda, a small Italian restaurant in the area, and I'm very glad we listened. The meal was amazing, the service was the best that we had experienced on our whole trip, and finally we could enjoy a delicious espresso. I called over the manager to let him know how much our waiter contributed to our delightful meal and after some initial confusion (I guess most people call him over to complain) we had a brief chat about who we were and where we came from. It turned out that the small Italian town he grew up in was very close-by the town that Paola's family originally comes from. This seemed to please the manager greatly as he instructed the waiter to bring us all a shot of Limonata (delicious even though it wasn't Danny DeVito's brand) as we continued chatting. He seemed like a genuinely great guy and gave us a few tips about the area before passing us his card and suggested we come to his restaurant anytime. A++ would buy again.

Yum Yum Yum
My mouth still waters at the thought

I thought the night would just keep getting better when I found some of the incredibly delicious Chewy Wonka Spree that I first discovered in New York years ago in a nearby Walgreens. I bought a few packets (plus returned before we left Miami to buy a few more later) and stored them in my luggage to bring back home. The night took a turn as far as I was concerned when we decided to take a walk towards South Beach to see what was going on (being a Friday night). I think this was also the beginning of Spring Break, as the beach and adjacent Ocean Drive was frenzied. So many teens and young adults crammed on the beach and streets (closed off to cars) and the people were acting like they desperately needed this weekend to be the best of their lives. We walked past a few small skirmishes before deciding that turning around and heading to bed was an excellent idea for two aging travellers.

Not So Cereal
I have no photos of the crazy Ocean Drive, so instead enjoy this photo of crazy delicious cereal in the US

I have heard the terms "Key Lime Pie" and "Florida Keys" bandied about throughout my life, without having a single clue as to what they refer (except that Key Lime is green - and I assumed it was a type of lime). So while planning our time in Florida I did a quick google and discovered it encompases two other terms I had heard but never had defined: Key West and Key Largo. We dedicated Florida's day two to the Keys, and it turned out to be a perfect justification to hire a convertible. The drive was relaxing, not too fast (apparently the Keys are the only place in Florida where speed is vigilantly monitored) and was complete with incredible views.

Pao didn't tell me she was taking photos...

Half Smile
... which is why she is smiling and I am not

We started as early as we could rouse ourselves out of bed, headed straight for Key Largo and went to the top-rated breakfast diner in the area. I'm still not 100% certainly what biscuit refers to in relation to an American breakfast - but it was 100% delicious. Even the coffee was great, the first time I've had a filtered coffee that didn't cause disappointment. We didn't stay long as we had a bunch of driving ahead of us, taking two hours to get from Key Largo to Key West. We stopped at Sombrero Beach on the way, which Pao loved and I thought was nice - but it was still a beach (in my opinion, the most overrated land form).

Great Fast
Drinkable filter coffee, but unfortunately no grape jam

Pao Car
Pao certainly liked the car

No Hats
Sombrero Beach - less hats than I was promised

When we eventually arrived at Key West we weren't particularly hungry, but decided to eat anyway (as you do while on holidays). We had not already decided on our lunch venue (one of our scheduled spontaneity appointments - who says I plan too much?) so we walked around looking for something that took our fancy. We decided on Pinchers, a crab restaurant that looked lively and strangely familiar. I had never been a fan of seafood (simply because I never gave it a shot) until I went on a trip to Byron Bay with work friends. I had some kind of seafood sampler and loved every single serving. As there was no crab in that selection - I took Pinchers as a great chance to tick off another food experience. I'm very happy that I did, as it was mouth-wateringly great (at least, I assume some of the mess covering my crab bib was water from my mouth). A blue crab was the most delicious, and also an equal struggle to find the morsels of meat within the pinchy shell. Even more delicious was the "boom boom" shrimp (nothing to do with slapshots) that had the perfect level of spice (for me at least). We took a short walk to the top-rated Key Lime Pie store in the area (it turns out key lime pie is a sweet lime pie made using key limes - a most delicious form of the citrus fruit). My stomach relented and allowed me a few bites of the pie (amazing as expected) before we rolled back into the car and started our journey back to the hotel.

A rare photo taken before we started eating. I made up for this by not taking a single shot of the key lime pie that we loved

As I had spent the majority of the day driving and eating, I was getting very sleepy as we made our way back towards Key Largo. I thought a takeaway coffee might help keep me awake, so we both looked out for a cafe as we drove eastward. There were numerous signs extolling "Cafe Cubano" that we completely ignored, being unsure as to their meaning (I assumed they were for cafes that sold Cuban sandwiches - something else I knew very little about - along with a crappy coffee so as to qualify for the designation of "cafe"). After driving around an hour without any alternatives we decided to give "Cafe Cubano" a shot (so to speak) - mainly so that I could take a break from driving. When Pao returned, and awoke me from the slumber I immediately entered, she was holding two small polystyrene cups along with 4 tiny plastic thimble-sized cups. We had no clue regarding the tiny thimbles and decided to sip directly from the polystyrene cups resulting in what could only be adequately described as a Cuban Missile Crisis in my mouth (is that comment in poor taste? Probably poor taste).

A sample of the tiny cups we were given

The coffee was incredible, and it didn't just feel that way due to the numerous bad coffees we had been assaulted with until that point. A quick google told us that it was a hot and strong espresso coffee (made with the espresso machines brought over by Italians) with demerara sugar that had been whipped into a foam before being added. It turns out Cafe Cubano is a social activity shared with friends (or even strangers) which is why each coffee come with 4 to 6 thimbles to help distribute. It also turns out that drinking Cafe Cubano along with some Key Lime Pie is probably the greatest food-based activity anyone can do in the Sunshine State (at least, the US one). We loved our coffee so much we just had one each - no need for a tiny thimble delivery system. The rest of our time in Florida we looked for Cafe Cubano every place we went - thankfully the sizeable Cuban contingent in the area meant this was more often than not. The coffee kept me awake just long enough return to the hotel, where we both immediately passed out from exhaustion.

As we drove towards the Zoological Wildlife Foundation on day 3, I was increasingly worried that I had put the wrong address in the GPS as we were travelling through a regular suburb with almost no indication that a zoo was nearby. Thankfully when we arrived at the address there was enough signage to put me at ease, so we parked the car and headed inside. I had checked out the website months ago and decided on two "experiences" that seemed to be fun - a sloth encounter and a tiger encounter. I figured a general tour would be superfluous to our requirements (and expensive at $80 each) - I was happy to be led to a sloth and tiger, given the requisite petting time, and then returned to the car park. As soon as we got there the staff pushed hard to sell us on the general tour, explaining that the money goes towards animal conservation. I caved - and I'm so glad I did because the general tour was probably the best part of our day.

We walked around the grounds, seeing some of the larger animals as well as some very cute high-fiving otters. At the end we were taken to a large pavilion with a heap of animal friends for us to interact with. We were able to scratch an incredibly cute owl behind the ears, hold a (baby) gator and cup an oddly beautify armadillo that had rolled up into a ball. By far, the best part was when a little monkey (named Oliver, appropriately my nephew name as well) came to visit everyone and climb over our necks and heads. The feeling of a little monkey scampering between Pao and my heads was pretty awesome - and disappointing when our time was up. Then again, we did get to move on to our sloth introduction.

Low Five
I'm sure this was a genuine attempt to give fives, as opposed to hoping for an edible treat

Camera Hog
I often forget that owls are birds since they are such awesome creatures

I can only assume someone had just farted

The chance to meet a sloth and a tiger filled me with joy, but also concerned me a little. I've always wanted to pat a tiger (or giant kitty if you will) but have heard horror stories about how the animals are treated in the countries that afford such opportunities. I didn't want any animal drugged just so I can give it a belly rub. Going on the general tour really helped to allay these concerns, as the passion of the trainers and foundation towards the animals was very apparent. They don't force artificial breeding situations just so they can acquire more animals, although if happy little accidents happen - that's fine too. They also spend a lot of money getting animals out of bad situations (generally celebrities buying exotic pets and are later unable to care for them) and the trainer was very forward in displaying his displeasure of that mistreatment. I very much hope that our visit resulted in a net positive for the animals, because it certainly did for me.

When we approached the sloth, she was holding onto a tree branch upside-down and it was very awesome. The laziness she displayed when casually taking apple slices from our hands and guiding them to her mouth, before slowly chewing and swallowing her treats, was everything I wanted to see in a sloth. Her fur was pretty rough, but still great to pat, and our allotted time was gone before we knew it. Unfortunately we couldn't see a white tiger cub as they were too old to have visitors, but we did get to play with a liger cub which was just as great. Patting a little liger kitty was amazing, certainly an item very high up on my bucket list. Even better was when the cub's favourite trainer happened to be walking past, because our new friend got incredibly excited and started begging to be played with. The trainer came over and they had a quick game together, so amazing to watch. Although we spent twice as much time (and money) as originally planned, we gained once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I won't soon forget!

Hanging Around
Actually holding the apple up to her mouth showed more energy that usual

Toy Distraction
Distract with a toy, go in for a pat

Pao Toy
Pao clearly knew how to play with a liger

While once-in-a-lifetime experiences on holiday are always great fun, I think it's a worthy goal to also have a few innumerous-in-a-lifetime style experiences as well. It can be hard to achieve, but being able to experience day-to-day life in a travel destination is something that I like to attempt if I have the time, trying to get a brief insight into urbanity. With this in mind we drove to a nearby mall so that Pao could do some clothes shopping. It turns out that mall-shopping is just as boring in Miami as it is in Melbourne, although I did get another cafe cubano which helped a little. It was interesting to see the mundane parts of life in the US, but it was also mundane (fancy that). For lunch we drove to another great recommendation from a newly-found friend and bought a few delicious sandwiches at La Sandwicherie and ate them on South Beach.

Good Cell Service
A good sample of the mundane - how I remembered where we parked the car

Our day reverted to fantastic travel fun, as we caught up with an old friend of mine that moved to nearby Jacksonville and was spending the weekend in Miami. We acquired tickets to the World Baseball Classic match between the USA and Canada. The stadium was mostly full and cheering for the US, but apparently the match between the Dominican Republic and Colombia was much better attended and far more rowdy (which is understandable considering the number of Dominicans and Colombians that live in the area). We had a fine time eating a hotdog, watching a home run and cheering when required - but it certainly wasn't as enjoyable as the other game we saw back in Japan. With the USA team easily beating the Canadians, we left early to beat traffic (something I'd never do if it was a game involving my Penguins) and headed for a brief walk up Ocean Drive on the Sunday night. Certainly not as crazy as the first time, it was still very busy and packed with scantily clad women and shirtless guys showing off their crazy vehicles. We were going to checkout a local dance club, fortunately the massive line convinced us on an early night instead (phew!).

Night Ball
Ok, maybe "mostly full" is overselling it

Our final day in Miami was easily my favourite, certainly as far as food was concerned (by a very wide margin). I'd go as far as saying it was the best food day of my life - and I'm very excited to see if something will overtake it one day. My friend from the night before suggested Big Pink, which just happened to be around the corner from our hotel. While the breakfast was the weakest meal of the day, it was pretty darn delicious even though the serving sizes were too big (a usual occurrence), forcing us to waste. We had a brief mid-morning snooze on the beach before heading into Little Havana for a walking food tour.

The walking part of the tour was pretty incredible on its own - Little Havana had an awesome lively atmosphere especially around Domino Park. It was very clear where we were with so many dominoes forming part of the decorations, even the local McDonalds wall incorporated dominoes in their design. Watching the old Cubans getting angry while playing dominoes at the tables had a real similar feel to watching Italians playing scopa. We were told there was no betting allowed for these games, but pencils and paper was provided for people to keep track of how much they would owe each other if they had been betting (which, of course, they were not). We also loved the old man sitting out the front of the cigar shop, smoking cigars constantly (apparently a form of marketing for his brand), but the best part of the tour was the food.

Domino Path
Yes, those moves all appear to be legal

Maccas Domino
Even the McDonald's sign put the right numbers together

He literally only got up to get another cigar while we were there

As far as the food went, we started with empanadas (delicious, even Pao thought so) and a cafe cubano (which had me on-side very early). This is when we discovered that the tiny cups were distributed which each cafe cubano for the purposes of sharing - which I found a little odd. A full-sized serve was around the size of a regular espresso in Australia, Pao and I routinely handled on of these each whenever we bought coffee (we were later told that Cubans would have many cafe cubanos throughout the day which made a little more sense). We followed this up with a mojito from a local bar, and it was easily the best mojito I've ever had - I think this was due to the subtle amount of mint they added (I'm too used to mojitos resembling toothpaste). The guava pastry from a small bakery and cubano sandwich from the Old Havana Restaurant were good, but I was expecting more from each if I was honest (especially the guava, being a huge fan from way back). The food tour really delivered in the home stretch, with guarapo juice (we watched as they squeezed raw sugar cane - so it was basically sugar juice, how perfectly suited for me) and finishing with ice cream from Azucar Ice Cream - both amazingly delicious!

Empanada, delicious...

Cafe Cubano
... Cafe Cubano, delicious of course (but serving size was lacking)...

... mojito, delicious plus musical accompaniment...

Sugar Cane
... sugar cane drink, you better believe that was delicious!

We drove straight from the food tour towards Naples which was our next destination. Even though we were completely full we had not yet had a Cuban-style burger - which apparently contained thin crispy fries as a topping. Fortunately for us (but not our stomachs) El Mago De Las Fritas, or the Cuban burger magician if you'd prefer, was on the way. I'm very thankful we put our bellies through the extra punishment, as a Cuban burger is amazingly great (and the place we went to also served cafe cubano).

Worth A Frame
We tried out some local soft and not so soft drinks while we were there

We chose to drive through the Everglades as I wanted to go on an airboat tour (as recommended by Police Academy 5). Unfortunately everything was closed, which made our route almost pointless (Everglades roads are very similar to regular roads). On a whim we stopped at a lookout near a very small river initially spotting some turtles on the side of the road. Thankfully we spent a bit of extra time looking, as it turned out we were close to a huge alligator relaxing in the water. Pleased with our brush with the wildlife of the region, we continued on.

Under The Bridge
We see you Mr. Gator!

I had selected Naples for this night as it is roughly half the distance between Miami and Tampa. I booked us into a Best Western that was very close to an IHOP (something that I Am Sam convinced me to try out) and had not planned to do much else in the area. We later discovered that Naples is actually the home of many Floridan millionaires, and we were staying in the worst part of the town. The hotel ended up being fine (albeit certainly bare bones) and we drove into the swanky part of town for dinner later that night (once our stomachs finally complied). We picked a seafood restaurant named Citrus and man-o-man did we strike gold. Pao isn't much of a seafood fan (but adventurous enough to give it a go) so we just asked our super knowledgeable waiter for his recommendations. His suggestions were excellent as we thoroughly loved our octopus starter followed by mains of macadamia grouper and a snapper. We couldn't stop talking about how incredible the food was and finished everything on the plates even though we weren't that hungry to start with.

As If We Needed More
As if we needed any more delicious food on this day

The next morning we stuck to our IHOP plans even though there were probably some much better options in the area, but I'm glad we did. I look for excuses to eat at Pancake Parlour in Melbourne, and IHOP was pretty similar (even the serving sizes were reasonable - probably tiny for US standards). After a very brief detour at a local Naples beach (looked nice, as far as beaches go), the rest of our day was spent driving up to Tampa. With little time to rest over the last week, we were super lazy when arriving in Tampa and just headed to our hotel in nearby Clearwater (we didn't even check out the city of Tampa). The weather had finally taken a turn for the terrible that evening (super windy with occasional rains) so we headed to a local pizza place where we watched that night's Tampa Bay Lightning game (the other diners were very into the game - which was nice to be part of) before getting an early night. Certainly a dour note to end our road trip, but as a whole we had an amazing time driving (and eating) around Florida.

Waffle Chomp
My first time having US-style waffles - I can see where Leslie was coming from

This is the 9th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Monday, December 18, 2017

New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 18/12/2017 07:17:14

Part of my North American trip with my little sister back in 2011 included a few days in New York sharing the smallest hotel room I've ever experienced. I felt that I had to show Taylor what New York had to offer, as well as my partner Pao as she had never been to the US before (even though she grew up much closer to New York than I did). We were going to need a bigger room.

We had to get up very early to catch a flight to La Guardia airport, as soon as we got into the shuttle towards to the airport I was reminded by how crappy traffic in New York was. I never really used the subway system the first two times I was there (I'll admit TV and movies scared me off), but this time I figured we would pretty much have to get around in something other than taxis. Our hotel was decidedly average, but directly in the center of town (right next to Times Square) and still not as expensive as the tiny place my sister and I shared in Greenwich village.

Bright lights, construction and people - plus a giant ad for a crossword puzzle (why not?)

It was early in the afternoon, so we headed out into the streets and took a walk around. We started in Central Park (picking up a hotdog from a street vendor - delicious) before heading down to Times Square. At this point Pao was a little underwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Times Square, which surprised me. I guess it doesn't seem as incredible during the day - but I would still deem it impressive enough. We did immediately benefit from the advantage of staying in somewhere like New York however, as we walked down the street passing a poster ad for a Broadway show. Pao was drawn by the picture of Mark Ruffalo (as far as celebrity crushes go, at least Mark is a fan of Bernie Sanders) while I was taken by the appearance of Danny DeVito (being a huge fan of Always Sunny myself). With Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht joining them in a performance of an Arthur Miller play The Price (I had at least heard of his name), we thought it would be too good an opportunity to pass up. Tickets were expensive, but we had some free time for one of the performances and decided to buy the tickets.

Six and Four Eights
We also visited one of the only "half" avenues in the US, how could I miss such a thing?

The Price Indeed
"The Price" was an appropriate title considering the cost of matinee tickets

Another great thing about being in New York was that we could then go over the road to McDonald's and buy something I had heard about on podcasts for many years - a Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they no longer make them with lemon and lime sherbet - but the mint variety was delicious enough for me to buy a few more during the rest of our trip.

When walking back from the McDonald's towards our hotel, I waited outside a store while Pao and Tay went inside to shop for something (women be shopping, amirite!?!). I leaned up against a wall and absent-mindedly watched the people. I stumbled upon something that would keep the three of us entertained each time we were in Times Square - the Mascot Mafia. I was enthralled by intricate dance of the 20 or so panhandlers in popular cartoon / mascot costumes mugging tourists for money. They would approach the children, offer to be in a photo with them, and then badger the parents for money. It was particularly amusing when one of the tourists actually wanted to be in a photo with a particular character - because instantly every mascot in the vicinity would rush over to and stand in the frame (clearly those in the photo would get a cut of the "tips" paid by the harangued parents). It's interesting that the article I linked above indicates that the person in the Minnie costume seemed to be in a leadership position, following a "bad" tourist and let the others know that there was no money to be had from them. When I was watching there was also a Minnie that clearly ran the show (disconcertingly only putting the Minnie head on when a child particularly wanted her photo). I wonder if it is the same Minnie - or if the leader is always in a designated "Minnie Manager" suit. Either way is hilarious as far as I'm concerned.

Who Is That
I don't have any photos of the mascot mafia, to be honest I didn't want them to think I owed them a tip. Instead here's one of the rare photos of Pao and myself while travelling (or at all for that matter)

After a bit of rest, we decided on a change of pace and went out to Shake Shack for some burgers and milkshakes for dinner. Although we waited around an hour to be served while the massive crowd removed any option to sit down when we did eat, it was so very worth the trip! Amazingly delicious burger, and the shake tasted great as well (unfortunately it was almost frozen, and took ages to get through).

Best Shaq
It certainly doesn't look like much in this photo - but damn this was good eating!

An afternoon of eating put us in a sleepy mood, so we had a semi-early night to be ready for day 2. Our first full day in New York ended up having a bit of a Jewish / Larry David theme (at least as far as food was concerned), which I was more than on-board for.

I think a trip to New York wouldn't be complete without trying a bagel, so my research suggested we checked out Absolute Bagels uptown - supposedly an excellent example of the delicious ringed bread product. Turns out I wasn't that much of a fan of bagels as I was expecting - even though our vendor was pretty busy, I wasn't as impressed by his fare as I thought I would be. In retrospect I enjoyed Pao's pronunciation attempt of "baggle" must more!

The strawberry cream looks similar to my favourite Krispy Kreme filling but was nowhere near as delicious

After breakfast we walked to the "Graffiti Hall of Fame", mainly for Tay as I'm not necessarily a big-time purveyor of street art. We quickly discovered that the aforementioned "Hall" was actually a few small walls - more specifically a few small walls in an operational high school. There were signs reminding us that trespassing on school grounds is a bad idea, so we took some photos through the chain-link fence and moved onwards.

I'm pretty sure the hopscotch is not included in the hall

The first two times I made it to New York, I felt that the Museum of Modern Art was not worthy enough to make the itinerary (too many candy stores and sporting venues to visit). Maybe I'm growing more cultured, as this time we made it out there - and I really enjoyed it. There were some cool Warhol pieces (which I had a better appreciation for after our Pittsburgh visit), but I was most taken by seeing The Starry Night and an actual Jackson Pollock up-close and in person. The gyro from The Halal Guys that we brought home afterwards was also pretty great to see up-close and in person.

My knowledge of the arts is woefully limited...

... but at least I knew of these two paintings

Lazy Tay stayed in the room (he's not used to my frenetic travel pace I guess) while Pao and I took a stroll down the Chelsea High Line - a disused elevated train line that has been converted to a nature walk. It was fun to do, and a brilliant use of space, but the time of year certainly limited the colours and odours that would have otherwise impressed us. We then headed to one of my favourite lesser-known (or cared about) landmarks in New York City - that you'd certainly miss if you didn't know it was there. The Hess triangle.

Hi Chels
Certainly not the right time of year to enjoy this

Hessy Fit
Take that!

Hess owned a five-story apartment building in the area, that was taken and demolished by the city in the 1910s to make Seventh Avenue bigger (which they can do under eminent domain). In 1928, the heirs of Hess discovered that when the city took the land, their survey missed a tiny triangle with sides of around 70 cm. The city asked if the Hess Estate could donate the tiny portion of land to the city, but of course, the only reasonable response was to refuse and install the plaque you can still see today - making it clear that the land was never donated to the city. The land was sold to the nearby cigar shop in 1938, but thankfully Hess' plaque still remains. I love nail houses, or any example of someone sticking it to the man in an extremely petty fashion, so I'm glad I got a chance to visit Hess' triangle of disgruntlement.

After passing the "Friend's Corner" (the external of a building that is prominently displayed in the Friend's opening and transition shots) and grabbing some amazing chocolate from Kee's Chocolates, we wanted to head to a proper cafe and try to some regular american coffee. The majority of the coffee we'd had at this point was pretty foul (mostly cheap filter coffee), so we wanted to pick a good-looking cafe and give them a proper shot (so to speak). We settled on something nondescript nearby and ordered lattes. It was a better quality that we had experienced to that point, but still certainly below the bar of quality that anyone should expect (the touch of cinnamon was a welcomed surprise for me - but a final kick in the gut for Pao as she finds the spice abhorrent).

The discarded napkins were the result of Pao trying to remove cinnamon from her beverage

We moved on to some more of the Jewish stereotypical places I've seen in TV and movies - first with a (pretty gross for me, Pao liked it) chocolate knish from a bakery and then onto Katz's Delicatessen. Katz's is famous from When Harry Met Sally... due to the line "I'll have what she's having" which thankfully is no longer quoted extensively. The whole experience was great, including the person making our sandwiches entertaining us with a few funny stories while we were waiting. The sandwich itself (we shared a Reuben) was as delicious as it was monstrous in size, and my first attempt at matzah ball soup was equally enjoyable. I'm very glad we made it out there, even though I imagine it is a bit of a tourist trap - I would recommend it to anyone.

I Had What She Had
I presume this is what Meg Ryan's character was having

During the initial planning I felt that a trip to New York couldn't be complete without catching a Broadway show - we all agreed that Disney's Aladdin would be a great choice. Being one of my favourite Disney movies (with a perfect Mega Drive tie-in game) I was slightly worried that a Broadway-reimagining may completely ruin my childhood memories, and this fear seemed to be realised at the very start of the show. Apparently in the Broadway-universe Aladdin has two buddies (one constantly making low-effort fat jokes) and Abu the monkey is nowhere to be seen. The latter violation was turned criminal during the Prince Ali number when they extol the prince's "ninety-five white Persian monkeys" by showing a painted sign of a white Abu. Firstly, showing us a picture of Abu just reminds us that one of the best characters is missing. Secondly, Abu was brown - not white! Boy I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder!

Watching this is almost as good (except that the guy recording was pretty crap at the game)

Thankfully the rest of the show was pretty great, and I ended up enjoying almost all of it. The songs from the show were excellent, the Genie character was played brilliantly (even though it was completely different to the original) and although he was kind of panned in reviews, I loved the funny Iago character. The best part was probably that Jafar was played by the actual voice actor from the movie - he did an amazing job as you would expect. The actor playing Jasmine was pretty average (her singing was more similar to talking to music) but you can't have everything. We finished the night by wasting some money at the nearby Dave and Busters (something on the list that I've ticked off so don't need to do again) and headed off to bed.

For day 3 I had booked the earliest crown tickets possible for the Statue of Liberty hoping to beat the crowds. Of course, that was stupid as there was still quite a crowd when we got there, and we still waited in line an hour before being able to board the ferry. Ascending to Lady Liberty's crown is one of the highlights from my second trip to New York, so I wanted to make sure Pao and Tay had the same opportunity. I possibly oversold the number of steps - and the repeated warnings on the ticket didn't help - as both Tay and Pao were worried that they wouldn't be able to handle the climb. We discovered in Macchu Picchu that going up stairs is certainly not Pao's favourite activity, and Tay was worried that his fitness level would result in a slow climb and annoyed people stuck behind him. Thankfully I convinced Pao to give it a go anyway, but we had to leave Tay waiting for us at the bottom.

Two Faced
It's pretty amazing how small this looks when you are inside it

While it certainly wasn't an easy climb (even moreso for me with my foot injury), we made it up without annoying anyone, and Pao was extremely happy that I talked her into it. While the crown tickets generally sell out months in advance, they are considerably cheap and 100% worthwhile looking into when you visit New York City.

I would pay many dozen of dollars to be allowed up into the torch via the old rickety ladder

We quickly took the ferry back to Manhattan (skipping Ellis Island for a third time - I wonder if I'll ever make it there) and rushed to the 9/11 monument. Much like Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the 9/11 monument was confronting and not very enjoyable - but certainly a worthwhile activity. The memorial was visually stunning, I loved the re-use of Twin Tower wreckage as well as two massive fountains taking the place of the original building's footprints.

Fountain Zero
The exhibits inside were pretty cool - but I liked these fountains the most

After a quick lunch (guess what - Maccas again, I guess you could say I had the Shamrock Shakes) we just arrived in time to watch The Price (the play we booked on our first day).
I can't say that I had any awareness of Arthur Miller's work, nor could I say I particularly understood the play that we watched - but I can still say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shalhoub were pretty great, I managed to pick up on some of the basic themes and from the moment Danny DeVito's character appeared he completely stole the show (at least as far as Pao and I were concerned). Given the chance, I would love to attend similar productions in the future - perhaps casting a quick eye over the Cliff Notes beforehand so I had a little more understanding of what was going on.

Turns out I didn't take any photos of The Price, but we did get a shot of the Mascot Mafia afterall, Pao is clearly displeased by their behavior

We did walk through the Rockefeller Center but opted to not do the "Top of the Rock" due to a growing exhaustion from trying to fit too much into each day. Instead we found a local bowling alley for some cocktails, snack food (which, of course, was enough for dinner due to the serving size) and healthy competition. While Tay beat me in both games we played (with Pao beating me as well in the second game) I am fairly sure this was due to my recent foot injury and not an indication of the relative bowling skill of myself or my brother.

Terrible Ice
The ice quality looks pretty average, we were far too exhausted to give it a shot

Please Stay
Pao and Tay were far more keen to "please stay" than I!

Our final day in New York was mostly spent in Brooklyn, and from what we saw I suspect spending our whole time investigating the rest of Brooklyn would have been just as enjoyable. I wanted to give bagels another shot, so we stopped at Bagel Hole for breakfast, this time I ordered a more traditional filling of lox with cheese (apparently lox is a type of fish). We ate our breakfast in the nearby Prospect Park, and while the park was nothing special (then again, I'm generally not much of a park person) the breakfast was pretty delicious. Pretty delicious would then be blown out of the water by our choice for lunch.

Lox Of Flavour
The fact that I didn't think to take a photo of this bagel until it was almost finished shows how much I enjoyed

When I took my first overseas solo trip, I started in Portugal and posted about my progress on Facebook. A few of my friends from home asked if I would be enjoying a custard tart while I was in the area, which initially stumped me. After a quick google I discovered that I was very close to Belem, an area credited with the first sale of a custard tart. I took a quick detour, devoured one of the highlights of my three-month trip and decided that I should listen to my friends more often. Since then I've always made a point of checking with my more-cultured pals while making my plans for each adventure I take. Later on that same trip while in Barcelona I met Lisa, a lovely New York school teacher, and added her on Facebook. While soliciting suggestions for my latest US holiday, she was adamant that I would have to try pizza from El Farolito if I made my way to Brooklyn. So when we did arrive at the small pizzeria that was short on tables but packed with people, we decided to brave the wait and order lunch anyway.

While standing around we saw the reason for the hour-plus wait, there was only one wood oven manned by two cooks, with one person taking orders. One of the guys making the pizza was quite old and not very nimble - but he clearly knew what he was doing especially during the hand-kneading of the dough. Pao absolutely loved the atmosphere, only occasionally interrupted by customers angered by the wait or lack of tables - plus one guy who started a heated discussion with the order taker regarding his hygiene when taking money. Once we did finally get our meal, we all agreed it was probably the best we had enjoyed so far - and even in retrospect it is certainly up there in the top five meals of our whole trip.

Pizza Pizza
Turns out this is the only picture we got at the pizza store, I'll have to go back to rectify that!

Satisfied with our taste of Brooklyn, we took the subway home and walked towards the hotel. We walked past a pop-up Pop-Tarts cafe - another advantage of a city like New York - so Pao and I enjoyed a delicious (albeit intensely sweet) afternoon snack while Tay went back to rest.

These were exactly as delicious as they looked (very much so)

Our final night was spent at Carolines on Broadway to enjoy a comedy show from Gilbert Gottfried, who famously (for me at least) voiced Iago in Disney's Aladdin. After also catching the voice of Jafar a few days earlier, all we needed was to bump into Frank Welker, voice of Abu and many, many others. When we sat down we realised we were in the front row and directly in the center next to the mike (I could touch the stand from my seat). Thankfully we did not become fodder for burns from the performers, and enjoyed a hilarious set from Gilbert (and the lead up comedians).

Up Close
Our table was pretty much touching the microphone stand

As we are clearly gluts, we walked to Doughnut Plant and a nearly gelato store for a snack (both pretty good, but not great) before heading back to the hotel for a final night's sleep. This marked the end of the trip for my brother Tay and much like I found during my Canadian trip with my sister - I loved being able to spend time with him while enjoying the attractions of incredible cities (and watching hockey games). I also hope that this means he'll remember me if he becomes rich from his artistic pursuits in future.

Quality Time
Tay and I spending quality time together

This is the 8th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 14/12/2017 09:02:27

Continuing our jet-setting lifestyle, we flew back to Pittsburgh from Chicago just in time to see another hockey game - this time against the Tampa Bay Lightning and my first game at the Penguin's new-ish home - PPG Paints Arena (seems like a strange mouthful for a name, but I'm actually used to it now). I was wearing my awesome Magnitogorsk Malkin top (a gift from my equally awesome girlfriend) and it attracted a fair few double-takes. I also ensured we were all wearing a hat that we wouldn't miss, as I was sure one of the Penguins would score three goals allowing us to engage in the age-old tradition of throwing our hats on the ice to celebrate a hat-trick.

A much better view, sitting with a much classier bunch of fans (Penguins fans, of course)

Our seats were pretty cool, we had an awesome view of the Penguins attack in the first and third periods - but when the puck was up the other end of the ice the view was limited. Seeing Malkin take control of the game was awesome, and he scored two goals in the second period leaving me assured that he would get the hat-trick and I would be able to toss my headwear skyward. It was pretty lucky as the seats we had for this game was easily close enough to clear the distance to the ice. Malkin did have a few chances in the third period to score the final of his trick - but he could not do enough to have my hat leave my head. The Penguins won, so that was more than enough for me as we walked back to the hotel in high spirits.

We had a day off between hockey games, so I wanted to cover off some more of the local flavour of Pittsburgh. This started with a trip to Gaucho Parilla Argentina, a highly recommended Argentinian restaurant in a trendy part of town. The food was amazing (as Argentinian food so often is) and we all agreed this was the best meal of the trip to that point. We were in walking distance to a few local tourist spots, the first of which was the Warhol museum.

Line Up
We thought we'd get there early (as booking are not accepted) but still had a bit of a queue

Gauchito Gut
A picture cannot do this meal justice - although you can see some empanada remains on my plate that were quick to disappear

Somehow I didn't already know that Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, although further research has suggested that he was pretty happy to get out of the 'burgh and wasn't too interested in highlighting his Steel Town upbringing. It was an interesting museum and pretty cool seeing some of his more famous works, but on the whole the celebration of an avant-garde artist is not exactly up my alley.

Soup For You
The Warhol money shot

Three Jeans
There wasn't many pieces I recognised - but this was one of them

Surprisingly more up my alley was the nearby Randyland and Mattress Factory, a colourful local landmark and public art space respectively. More than anything, Randyland was an excellent idea of Randy Gilson - to clean up and bring colour to the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh by decorating his home and collecting and painting pieces of junk found or donated to the cause. I frequently pick on my partner Pao for her junk-collection compulsion (Pao never throws anything out - reusing it as part of her job educating children) - but she's got nothing on Randy.

Randy Baby
It certainly catches the eye

Take A Seat
Randyland was more for Pao's benefit - but I actually thought it was pretty neat

If Randyland was a pretty good spectacle, the Mattress Factory was a great spooktacle (I may have been listening to too many podcasts that over-value the use of horrible puns recently). The Mattress Factory is a public art space that is available to rent for short-term projects - and when we walked through it was a super creepy installation, but in a good way. The building itself was curious to start with, with tight corners, narrow staircases and winding hallways. The artist had decked out every available surface with cool minute hobby trains, doll houses and anything else that shouldn't be creepy, but somehow is (especially with the eerie music being pumped out of the speakers).

Weird Gets Creepy
Shadows, stairs, string and creepy music - still enjoyable

Feeling culturally full, we headed towards a local burger joint that was recommended to us - Burgatory. A build-your-own-burger establishment, we were blown away by the options available to us, and may have gone a little overboard in our selections. People joke about US portion sizes compared to the rest of the world, but this seemed especially true in Pittsburgh. I wanted to try all of the delicious options as I would not have a the same chance back home, but this meant I was consistently ordering more than I needed and feel terrible when I left anything on the plate. I'm guessing the meal at Burgatory was the exact point when I put back on any weight I would have lost during the gruelling exercise of the hockey camp.

Yes, thanks for bringing us the left over milkshake in the mixing cup. I will certainly be needing that...

After our meal we had a chance to head to the local casino and try our luck at the table games. Instead we chose to go straight home and sleep. After all of the recent eating, I'm very content with the choice we made.

For our final full day in Pittsburgh with my little brother, we packed into another Uber and headed out to the top-rated of Pittsburgh's escape rooms (we'd caught the bug in Chicago). It was another great fun experience, and we even escaped this time, but there was certainly a dip in quality noticed compared to our last outing. After our success we took yet another Uber, this time to the Duquesne Incline (which I still have no idea how to pronounce). The incline goes up Mount Washington, and was on all of the "things to do in Pittsburgh" lists. It certainly was a thing to do, but I suspect it would have been much cooler at night time (as the Pittsburgh skyline is actually pretty cool at night). At the top of the mountain we had lunch at the nearby Grandview Saloon (which, I must admin, did have a grand view). The lunch was pleasant, but a few minutes after sitting down I noticed that most of the paintings on each wall contained children smoking cigars. Further research suggests the Grandview is also a cigar bar, but I'm not sure this is enough to explain the artwork of kids partaking in the habit. After declining Mount Washington and heading back to the hotel, we took a quick detour to the Milkshake Factory with a predictable result (delicious but impossible to fit in) before getting to the arena in time for an afternoon Penguins game.

The view from the incline and the corner of my very photogenic thumb

More Shake
Absolutely no need to buy this milkshake, still delicious though

We had some average tickets for the Buffalo game, but one of the guys I met at the hockey camp very generously offered to let Pao and I join him and his partner in their seats - a far better part of the arena. We were situated basically at center ice in the top of the lower bowl - an absolutely perfect view. One day, when I make my millions selling advertising on this blog site (*cough*) I would love to have season tickets in that area of the ice.

View Please
Watching a hockey game from any of the seats is an unbeatable experience - but these seats certainly added a little something!

Pao and I are both huge Fleury fans - mainly because his impeccable on-ice performance is only surpassed by how much of an awesome guy, father and teammate he has proven to be (as if you needed more proof). I was lucky enough to see him play in his first season with the Penguins, way back in 2005, and I was hoping we'd be able to watch him play in a few more games during our trip - in what would surely be his final season with Pittsburgh (due to the early resurgence of Matt Murray). Unfortunately Murray (being Sullivan's guy) had been starting many games for us, and he also did so this afternoon against the Sabres. However, after the Pens let in three goals in the first period, Fleury took the ice in the second and he seemed determined to right the ship.

The Pens were still a little off their game, but Marc-Andre was certainly ready to go. He played incredibly, making multiple amazing saves while waiting for the Penguins offensive machine to get started. Eventually they did, with goals from Schultz, Malkin, Guentzel and Sheary propelling the Pens over the Sabres - but the crowd certainly knew the star of the show. I couldn't have been happier to join the chorus of "Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!" shouts that led to Fleury later commenting to a reporter that the Penguins fans are good to him. No matter how good the fans are to Fleury, he was certainly better to us!

This is the 7th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Monday, November 06, 2017

Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 06/11/2017 10:30:05

Immediately after we lost the championship game Taylor, Pao and I packed up our belongings and rushed to the airport for an afternoon flight to Chicago hoping we would make it in time to watch the Penguins playing the Blackhawks. While the Pens were crushed by the home team, I'm still glad we made it in time as the game in Chicago was a unique and enjoyable spectacle.

The Blackhawks stadium was full to capacity and this would figure in to the incredible experience that was the singing of the national anthem. While this is a well-known tradition for the Blackhawks audience, I had no idea that everyone in the arena would lend their voices while Jim Cornelison belted out The Star-Spangled Banner before the game. Especially enjoyable was when everyone extended their arm and pointed to exactly where "Old Glory" hangs from the rafters during the "... the flag was still there" part of the song. The guy I was standing next to told me that this only happens during Blackhawks games (and not for the Bulls), so I'm glad we had a chance to be part of it. I wasn't happy to see the home team scoring goals, but hearing the whole crowd sing along with Chelsea Dagger did kind of make it a little easier to stomach. Barely.

It was also great to finally watch a hockey game sitting next to my little brother Taylor, essentially the whole reason we brought him along with us for the trip. While I would have liked to watch a victory with him, we did have a great time. We shared a chuckle at the industrious salesman hawking his "ten-dollar shirts!" with the follow up of a defeated "C'mon guys, they're only ten dollars" and the unmistakable flare of the guy directing traffic. The compressed schedule meant we couldn't spend much time at all with Taylor in our first week, so it was great fun to finally have a chance to hang with my brother (as opposed to all the ex-NHL stars I was now used to hanging out with...).

While outlining our travel plans to my US friends - everyone seemed to be positive about our choice of Chicago, apparently "a bigger Pittsburgh" (which is a good thing). The number one suggestion was to take a boat tour demonstrating Chicago's unique architecture, and I was very annoyed to discover that the boat tours didn't start their season until the week after we left Chicago. If I ever make it back to the US, another stop in the windy city is a must - especially during a better time as far as weather is concerned.

Stupid Weather
The weather was actually quite nice, which made missing the boat tour even more annoying. Pictures like this one make me think we would have loved it

One Shamrock Please
Also important, checking out the architecture of the local McDonald's stores

Even though we did miss the architecture tour, we still had a great time walking around the city (in our heavy jackets). Our first stop the next morning was to Portillo's to have a traditional Chicago-style hotdog - along with a beef chilli and malt. The hotdog was nice but undeniably strange to the taste (which is what you'd expect with pickles, peppers and celery salt among the ingredients). More delicious was the beef chilli I had, perfect food for the almost freezing weather (although somewhat counteracted by the malted milkshake).

Pao Photo
While Pao was busy taking photos of the unique places we were visiting...

Joel Photo
... I was taking photos of the food we ate at those places

We headed out towards the John Hancock Center building for the view when we walked right past one of those trendy new "escape houses". I had heard something about this recent pastime before (it's kind of like a adult treasure hunt / logic puzzle where you are locked in a room with clues of how to escape) but had never really looked into it further. Taylor assured us that they were super fun, so we went inside to see if we could possibly drop in to a session. We chose the more difficult of the two experiences offered (at Taylor's suggestion) and luckily enough there was a game starting in 5 minutes time.

As I think back - the escape room in Chicago was probably the most fun we had together as a group, at least from my perspective. The escape room we experienced was very well designed, with just enough clues to keep interest and red herrings to slow us down. I think we worked together pretty well, and we were probably only 5 minutes away from completing the escape 100%. As we were a group of only 3 (in a room designed for 6) the host let us slide and called it a win - we walked away talking about the puzzles for the rest of the trip.

We continued on to the John Hancock building to enjoy a cocktail, take a photo of the view before heading off to Millennium Park (possibly better known as the park with the giant chrome bean thing - or the Cloud Gate). We took appropriately embarrassing photos (against a delightful backdrop of light snowfall), and continued on to Giordano's for a Chicago-style deep dish pizza. While probably not the #1 pizza on our journey, deep dish is certainly very cheesy and extremely filling (which was not great considering how often we were stuffing our faces while travelling). I'm still happy we could tick off the two most uniquely Chicago foods (at least as far as I'm concerned).

Mr Big
It was a pretty nice view while having a drink, but I suspect it would have been more impressive at night time

I thought it was a pretty pointless installation, but the giant bean does look pretty cool from different angles

Thug Life
Yes, my thuggish brother is flipping us the bird here..

Disney Princess
... whereas here it looks like he is waiting for a bird to land on his hand like in a Disney movie

Looking Good
Ok, pointless is probably unfair - it does look pretty sweet here

Full As A Goog
We really shouldn't have eaten so much food, but how can you go to Chicago and not try their famous pizza?

Our remaining Chicago attraction was to watch the Bulls playing basketball, against Steph Curry and his Golden State Warriors. I was telling my good friend and massive basketball fan Ryan how excited I was to watch a Bulls game, as I've been a casual fan of the team since way back when I had myself a B.J. Armstrong rookie card. In a stroke of coincidence he told me that it was possible that Armstrong would be in attendance as he is currently the Warrior's Draymond Green's agent. Strangely enough I didn't end up bumping into him in the bathroom line.

Nose Bleeds
You can't say we got the best seats, but it was still a pretty awesome atmosphere

While not quite up to the amazing level of the hockey game, a basketball game was a spectacle worthy of our time and a lot of fun. Even better, it was an interesting game with the Bulls coming back to win the game from quite a deficit (although this was mainly because Steph Curry was missing buckets he would usually take care of easily). One thing that the basketball game had over hockey games was the mid-game entertainment was actually quite entertaining (at least, more so than hockey). I've watched a few games of NBL back home, and it was a surprising change to see the crowd actually interacting with the various "dance-cam" and silly jumbotron games. More than that - Benny the Bull was just as awesome as I had hoped for, even considering I've watched a fair bit of his schtick on YouTube beforehand. All-in-all it was a great experience and I was happy to finally watch the Bulls in person.

Chicago was awesome, I can't help but wonder how much better it would be during better weather. Perhaps in the future I should ensure I don't need to wonder about that again!

This is the 6th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 07/05/2017 12:28:53

My Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp experience provided innumerable jaw-dropping moments - yet they all fail in comparison to the first time I stepped out onto PPG Paints Arena on day 4 of camp.

Locker Room
We had regular hockey stalls at PPG Paints Arena, I wonder if the volunteer equipment manager knew how awesome this all was to me. I did try to tell a few of them - but due to the alcohol I think it just came out as "I love youse guys"

I had watched a few NHL hockey games many years previously, back when the Penguins played in "The Igloo" or Mellon Arena, but I had not yet seen a game in the new multi-use facility that is currently named PPG Paints Arena. It struck me as more than a little odd that the first time I would ever glimpse the ice surface of the Penguins in person was while I was walking out to play a game (with a Hockey Hall of Fame teammate no-less). It's difficult to describe how amazing it was to step out onto that ice the first time. While we did play a game outdoors at Heinz Field, the stands were quite far away and it just felt like playing on any outdoor rink (which certainly was an experience in itself). Seeing thousands of seats looming above the ice was an incredible feeling - I can't imagine how I would have reacted if the seats were filled with screaming fans. It made me wonder how the rookie pros can concentrate when they finally make it to the NHL - I was struggling to keep my mind on the game as it was. I did, however, make sure to warm up like a champion - by stick-handling over the well worn McDonald's logo which is a favourite of Crosby (or an inescapable superstition that he now regrets).

Almost Full
Previous camps have had games open to the public - which could draw quite a crowd considering you can watch Mario on the ice again. As if I didn't feel the need to crap in my padded shorts enough…

Almost Warm
I'm not sure if I've adequately described how bat-shit crazy it felt was that I was about to play a game of hockey at PPG Paints Arena

When the game started I cobbled together another mediocre performance, but this time I didn't have any level of faceoff prowess to make myself feel better. Although the laws of probability would insist otherwise, the majority of my faceoff tilts were lined up against the opposition's pro Ron Duguay - most well known for his glorious flowing locks (and the understandable response that followed from his female fans). Duguay completely destroyed me at the faceoff dots, and it wasn't even close. I'm fairly certain I didn't win a single faceoff against him - thankfully I did win a couple when he wasn't on the ice. This abject domination made me question whether Turgeon actually had been trying against in the previous game - but for the sake of storytelling (and my sanity) I've since decided that he was.

Off Faceoff
I'm glad those three people in the background got adequate footage of yet another faceoff loss for us

After the game we were treated to another tour - this time of the locker rooms at PPG Paints Arena. While the main dressing room didn't surprise me (as we'd seen already seen the copy at the Penguins practice facility), the rest of the amenities were suitably impressive. My favourite part was when we got to the custom-built shooting gallery in the depths of the arena. What was previously a storage area was furnished with a goal and nets - providing the players an ad hoc area to work on their shot. I made a very primitive version of this myself by hanging some tarp from my garage back home and throwing down a square of high density polyethylene for a shooting pad. Obviously the Penguins version was much cooler than mine - but what really drew my attention was the stack of sticks on the side of the room.

I love the small touch with the crowd in the background

I'm guessing they don't clear these out too frequently (judging by the stick for Plotnikov)

We had been told repeatedly that we were not to touch any of the players gear or sticks while on our tours - which is more than fair enough. Fortunately, the sticks that the players deem unlucky made their way to the shooting practice room, and these sticks we were allowed to use. Being able to grab one of Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel's distinctive candy stripe sticks and use it to fire some pucks at the goals was all kinds of awesome! Not many of the Penguins are right-handed like I - so I could only take use of Kessel, Letang and Patric Hornqvist's twigs - but there was also a stick in the rack that was a tad strange. The previous owner's name had been scratched off, but I did notice it was Crosby's height and had Crosby's specific blade profile. I imagine it had the name removed to prevent people from stealing a stick that could make some money on eBay - but I was just happy enough to be holding it and firing some incredibly weak left-handed shots at goal (just so I could experience using a rejected Crosby stick).

The actual player sticks (that we could not touch) - Kessel clearly expects to go through more than a few

Skate Repair
Dana's skate repair work area - well-organised would be an understatement

I was wondering around the "Suite 66" section of the arena, casually glanced at these two Conn Smythe trophies…

... and the sticks Mario used to score his 500th and 600th goals. When I was a kid I always wanted a Koho Revolution because it was used by Mario

After an autograph session (in which I got my two new jerseys and a heritage Lemieux top from the 1992 season signed by all of the camp pros) we had our semi-final game (we finished second to play off against the third team). Not much changed as far as my play was concerned - but it was awesome seeing Coffey and Caufield shift into a higher gear. They were clearly invested in the result of the semi-final, and it was fun watching Coffey's skating improve to impress me further. We ended up winning the game and booked our ticket to the final - the winner of which would receive a trophy that could be lifted at centre ice. I wanted that trophy bad!

Faceoff Loss
The semi-final was against Duguay's team again - but this time I think I actually won one faceoff against him (not pictured)

Behind Net
Setting up behind the net to send out a pass

It was pretty cool having Lemieux push me out of the crease protecting his goalie

Playing against so many amazing people - I almost forgot to mention that one of the captains was Bryan Trottier winner of 6 Stanley Cups with more than a few interesting stories

We headed back to the hotel for dinner and drinks while watching the Penguins lose in Dallas to the Stars. I had another few interesting conversations - but headed to bed much earlier than the last night. I had to be ready for the grand final (when I would surely score my first goal of the tournament).

I woke up very nervous on day five of camp. Even after 3 seasons of weekend ice hockey, I never fail to be full of nerves before each and every game - and this always ramps up during finals. Surprisingly, I was at a pretty average level of jitteriness before and during each of the camp games I had played in so far - I assuming my body just didn't know how to handle the events transpiring around me. This all changed with the camp grand final, I was amped up to a level I hadn't experienced before. Coach Larouche had brought in his Stanley Cup rings - as he had promised he would if we won the semi-final. Sticking one of those bad boys on my finger was pretty cool, as was the feeling of relief when I safely removed it and returned the jewel to its box.

Coffey pumped us up in the rooms before the game, and there was lots of camaraderie amongst the team. If felt really cool to be a part of, but certainly did add a little to my nerves. As if that wasn't enough - Mario Lemieux was playing for our team again, and would be playing with my line. Now was my turn to score a goal with Mario assisting - as the prophecies (my dreams) foretold.

Strategy Session
I certainly don't remember what we were discussing here, so I'll just assume Mario was asking for my advice…

Up on the big screen (without having to dance to Cotton Eye Joe)

I certainly played one of my better games, pretty defensively sound and had a couple of rushes up forwards resulting in good scoring chances. Coffey tried to set me up for a goal a few times to no avail. I also had a great chance when Mario passed me the puck in the attacking zone, I got past one defender before unfortunately losing the puck off my stick before I could shoot. The size of my new stick was really bothering me the whole camp long, certainly not a mistake I'll make if I do return next year.

Mario sees me trailing the play with speed...

... passes the puck past three defenders, as you'd expect…

... before I let it roll off my stick. Like you'd also expect

Mario Lemieux was supposed to switch sides at the half-point of the game, but as we were trailing the stacked team by 5 or so goals, he elected to stick with our sinking ship. We did score a few late goals to make it interesting, but team Patrick won the game pretty easily. After the game, Mario Lemieux signed the helmet he had been wearing and gave it to me, plus Coffey signed his water bottle with a nice message for me to take home. It's hard to explain how these small gestures pretty much made my year (and hockey career in general), if Mario's helmet wasn't too large for me I'd be wearing at every single one of my future games until it fell apart.

Unfortunately the helmet hasn't given me "Super Mario" powers

I am thankful that I have reached a position in life that I can assist such a worthwhile charity as the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Put simply, the foundation's Hockey Camp is a one-in-a-lifetime event that I will always treasure. The more I think about it, the more I realise it's not the results of the tournament or even the sweet autographed equipment I carted home that will affect me in the years to come, sustaining me when I eventually lie in bed too old to lace up my skates. I will value most the awesome people I met during the camp and our shared experience of playing hockey with a bunch of pros that were just as happy to be there as we were. I certainly hope I can convince some of them to come back next year so we can do it all again!

I'll have to work on my faceoffs.

This is the 5th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 25/04/2017 10:54:23

The timing for the 2017 Lemieux Fantasy Camp was perfect as not only was the Stanley Cup in the house for our contract signing, the 2017 Stadium Series consisted of an outdoor game at Heinz Field against our most-hated rival the Philadelphia Flyers. Watching the outdoor game was a pretty incredible experience - but day 3 of camp gave campers the chance to actually play our own games on the outdoor ice sheet. As if I hadn't already had enough excitement.

We left in the early morning to depart for Heinz Field, and from the moment we got there it was a strange experience. We got changed in the visitor's locker rooms - an NFL locker room is much different to the NHL equivalent. With twice the number of players dressing for an NFL game than an NHL game the locker room seemed cavernous even with all four camper teams in there. Walking out onto the ice was weirder still, and as we crossed the rubber-covered football ground towards the makeshift ice arena I started to feel the cold. Obviously ice hockey is a sport that can get chilly - but being outdoors during a Pittsburgh Winter was something else entirely. They turned on the heated benches but this just made me feel like the majority of my cooking (burnt on the outside and frozen in the middle). On top of all this, we were in the middle of a football arena and whenever my gaze drew upwards I was captivated by an incredible view (of empty seats). The one aspect that wasn't strange for me was the quality of the ice. The ice conditions were a little bit choppy by the end of our game, something I'm very used to back home. That the temporary, outdoor ice rink built during unseasonably warm weather was just as good as the purpose built ice arenas back home says a lot about the state of ice hockey in Victoria.

Walking Out
This felt exactly as strange as it looks, but also a little bit badass

Nothing Odd
This shot captures both the incredulity of me playing on a team with Mario Lemieux, but also the zero people that were watching in the 65,000+ seats available for viewing

There were also no surprises when it came to my performance in the second game - I was below average in most aspects of the game. There was, however, one thing that I was pretty happy with. I've always played centre throughout my inline and ice hockey career - which means I've taken a lot of faceoffs. I quite enjoy the game within a game that faceoffs provide and I take them quite seriously (as exhibited by the number of sticks I have that were crushed at the end of the blade). Learning the way different refs drop the puck, how each opponent will take a draw, knowing whether to go forehand / backhand, going for a clean win or tie up are all going through my head when I line up after each stoppage. Somehow, I won most of the faceoffs cleanly during the outdoor game - including 2 out of 3 against Pierre Turgeon, an ex-NHL centre and personal favourite of mine for many years.

Finally, something I didn't completely suck at. Turgeon's grin makes me think this was the first faceoff I won against him

The first draw against Turgeon was won pretty easily to my backhand, I suspect Pierre wasn't trying all that hard. He gave me a "well done" in congratulation but his tone suggested he would actually try harder when we faced off next. The next draw I won cleanly to the forehand side, and I heard an immediate noise of displeasure from Turgeon that had me feeling pretty good. The final time we lined up was a win to Turgeon but I would hazard to say it was not a clean win - it required a second effort from Pierre before the puck was directed to his side. At the handshake line after the game he recognised me and congratulated me for the minor victory. It sounds silly (and insignificant when evaluating my entire contribution to the tournament), but this was another highlight of the camp that I will never forget - no matter how many faceoffs I will later lose for my Victorian team.

Pao managed to capture my grin during the handshake line while chatting to Turgeon about my faceoff prowess

Each of the four camper teams would have one chance to play with Mario Lemieux joining the lines, and the outdoor game was our opportunity. He would join a different line each period and float through the positions - but as I was on the fourth line I didn't have a chance to skate with him this time. I did have a chance to watch him from up close - and that was an experience in itself. Lemieux is still such a smooth skater and capable of making incredible passes with his head up. It was clear he wasn't trying at 100% for this game and even so he was very impressive to watch. I was so happy for my new mate Bryan as he received a pass from Lemieux, and then setup their third linemate for a goal. I can't imagine how amazing the resultant fist-bump with Lemieux would have felt!

Caufield Bomb
I think we're a victim of a Jay Caufield photobomb here

After I got changed one of the camp organisers took me to the side and let me know that my partner Pao had sprained her ankle quite seriously. As my personal camp photographer, Pao was running around the outside of the arena taking photos with our phones and camera. She was doing such a great job but perhaps not paying enough attention to the terrain under her feet. When our itinerary begun with the camp being the first thing we did in the U.S., I was worried that any injury I sustained would then make the rest of our travels annoyingly difficult or even impossible. We had no expectation that it would actually be Pao suffering an injury during the hockey camp. Thankfully there were 2 doctors taking part in the camp - both super great guys and happy to help us out with an initial investigation of the injury. The camp organisers were also awesome and really took care of Pao - we ended up in a local Pittsburgh hospital where Paola's ankle was x-rayed and no fracture was detected. The aircast she limped away with was a great help for the rest of our trip and Pao was even able to climb a certain statue a week later.

The second game for the day was cancelled due to poor weather (more fortuitous timing, considering we spent most of that time at the hospital) so we headed back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest. After an appropriate nap (essential for hockey players I think you'll find) we had dinner at the nearby Morton's Steakhouse. Great food and excellent conversation was then followed up with some surprising, heartfelt and hilarious speeches from the pros. Tie Domi was pretty amusing the first few days of camp (and the butt of the other pros jokes at times) but I was really impressed by the impassioned speech he gave when talking about the opportunity we all have to help the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Some of the other speeches were pretty funny, but certainly nothing that I could or should be repeating here.

When we got back to the hotel I wanted an early night in hope of performing a little better in the following games - but I'm so glad I didn't. We stayed up a bit and had a few drinks with various campers, and I ended up standing next to Larry Murphy at the bar for over an hour. He regaled us with stories from the Penguins heydays during the 91 / 92 cups - Scotty Bowman taking over as coach after Badger Bob's tragic early death, the Penguins rally from a 3-1 series deficit in 1992 against Washington, how it felt to be hit by Ulfie Samuelsson or how it felt to go into Philadelphia and get beaten by the Flyers. Larry was particularly interested in how a video game led to me following hockey and the Penguins - he was actually one of the five starters that specifically caused me to choose the Penguins. I know I had far too many beers, and I felt pretty crap the next day - but I will treasure those conversations for a long time to come.

This is the 4th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Marc-André Fleury still giving high fives to his injured buddy

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 19/04/2017 04:08:48
Updated by Joel Dixon at 19/04/2017 04:11:38

There's so much to love about the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, not least of which is our goaltender Marc-André Fleury - by all reports an awesome dude.

I noticed he is still doing his high five routine - even with Letang out injured.

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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 08/04/2017 08:56:14

The "fantasy" aspect of the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp approached warp speed on Day 2 with the contract signing and jersey presentation. I knew that Mario Lemieux himself would be signing my 5-day "skilled hockey player" contract and presenting me with my #53 jersey - but as I entered the contract signing room I was met with a surprise. As the Penguins had defeated all challengers in the most recent NHL season, the Stanley Cup served as an incredible backdrop to the jersey presentation photograph. I'm sure some of the camp goers would have been in awe of one of sport's most storied trophies, but I almost ignored the Cup with my attention fixed on the fact that Mario Lemieux was signing a contract specifically for me (the fact I had visited the cup previously in my travels was also a factor). I had a quick chat to Mario about my travel plans after leaving Pittsburgh (at least I think I did, it was a bit of a blur) before Pao and I got a photo with Lemieux (and that Cup). Sure, it was all fantasy and contrived - but what took no longer than 5 minutes will remain a fond memory as long as I live.

Five Day Bargain
Joel Dixon of Surrey Hills (I probably should have guessed they didn't want me to be so specific when they asked my "hometown" during the application process)

No Hold Out
The the stuff of dreams is made a reality - I still can't believe the opportunity I've had

Now that the camp had secured my skills (for the week anyway) we piled onto the bus and drove to the Penguins' practice facility in Cranberry. Team Adams (the group I was placed with) had a training session first up, so we headed to our locker rooms to change. Time for another shock to the system, I walked into the locker room and my gear was neatly laid out with my jersey hanging name and numbers facing out. I'm a huge fan of Penguin's equipment manager Dana Heinze and his Twitter account - so I've seen so many pictures of the Penguin's locker room setups. Seeing my gear laid out, my skates freshly sharpened and a table stacked with various snacks and tapes - I really started to get a small insight into the life of a hockey player. It sounds like such a small thing, but the camp's volunteer equipment managers had a huge impact on the feel of the camp for me - I was not expecting how much they would bring to the experience.

More Gear
Love the old school NHL logo on the shoulder

Sharp Work Desk
Jason Binnie was often stuck here - but we all really appreciated having freshly sharpened skates waiting for us at the locker rooms

After all the preamble, it was finally time to throw on my skates - and I was justifiably shitscared. My lead up to camp wasn't ideal as I had fractured my foot three months prior, which ruined my chance for some last minute fitness gains (admittedly I was probably too late for any real fitness - by about 12 years). My doctor was a good sport and we eventually settled on enough anti-inflammatories / painkillers to keep me walking and skating throughout the camp period (and following holiday). Even so, I wasn't sure how the foot would hold up to 5 days of constant skating (when I usually only have a chance to skate once or twice a week). I also had a new pair of sticks (which turned out to be two inches shorter than my normal sticks) and a heap of new gear to break in - all while playing the most important games of my hockey life. Thankfully, when I stepped onto the practice ice, had a few laps and started the simpler drills my foot felt fine and I started to feel a little better. Then Mario Lemieux joined us on the rink and my butt resumed clenching.

Brains Trust
Our coach Pierre Larouche was the youngest player to score 50 goals (until Gretzky) and captain Jay Caufield telestrates for Root Sports (and was part of my favourite bad movie) - yet they still weren't enough as we completely botched most of the drills they drew up

Mario Tries
Mario tried to catch me...

And Fails
... but had to give up (*cough*)

I wasn't expecting Mario Lemieux and Mark Recchi to be joining us for training, but it was really cool seeing them skating around the ice. Sure enough - I found myself in line for a pair drill - and Mario was lined up next to me. A few turns later and it was Recchi standing there. I passed a puck to both (and received one) so as far as I was concerned at that point - the camp would have ended a success if my foot didn't hold up and I had to go home. To add to the good-time feelings, I scored a goal in the end-of-training shootout and seemed to catch the attention of my coach and Mario - can't ask for more than that.

Dont Fail
I think I was pleading with the puck and my stick to be nice for this drill

Yes, I stuffed up the second pass, but things went better after that. I should point out that the dude that defended far too hard on the drill was Bryan, the guy I enjoyed hanging out with for the week - he felt terrible he didn't just let Mario's pass go through. I gave him a hard time about it (of course), but I was just happy to be there!

I was having trouble puck-handling with my new stick - but at least I managed to hold it together long enough for this one!

Getting changed in the locker room I was still feeling pretty good (even though we stuffed pretty much every drill). Our coach told us not to worry - as bad trainings lead to good games and good trainings lead to poor games - little did I know how right he was.

Before that ominous game, we had a tour of the Penguins locker rooms - and it completely blew me away. The extensive weights room had very few weights - most machines operating via hydraulics with the program and results being saved on individual FOB tokens for each player. The player's kitchen and social area was pretty cool too - I would love to sit in the corner and just see how all the players interact during downtime. Most impressive was the team's change room at the practice facility - an (almost) exact replica of the facilities at PPG Paints home arena. Everyone's gear was hanging up ready for the team's return from Dallas (except for Crosby, of course, as he only uses one set of gear that comes with him for every game / training). We had a meal cooked by the team's chef (pretty damn delicious, considering it was all healthy) and started to get ready for our first game of camp.

Chill Zone
This is where the players can chill before training. Kitchen in the back, Xbox One and PS4 in front of these comfy chairs. I tried to hide out in here until the next training days later - but they were onto me

No Crosby
This is just the locker rooms in the training facility - but still look amazing. Crosby's gear travels with him, of course

The first thing I noticed when the game started was Paul Coffey's incredible skating. It was unlike anything I've seen before, he took a few smooth strides and he was already up to top speed. I suspect he may have lost a step or two since his Pittsburgh days - but you couldn't tell from ice level. Watching him swing around the net and fly around the opposition like they were pylons was such a joy - I couldn't have asked for a better team captain.

Line One
You know, just lining up for a faceoff with Coffey as one of my D-men

Crouching Wolverine
One of the professional photos taken during our first game - it looks like I just checked someone but I assure you I did not

During training I was thinking I wasn't so much slower than my teammates, but when we started the game I realised that I was just slow enough to matter. I was always a step or two away from where I wanted to be. I was beaten in most puck battles and felt like I was constantly chasing my opposition player. I had a few good shifts (even stole the puck from Tie Domi at one point), but was certainly on the poor side of average.

Just Tie To Stop Me
After stealing the puck from Domi (more luck than anything really). At one point Domi stood in front of our bench and welcomed anyone to drop the mitts. Huge regret that I didn't take him up on the offer!

Not wanting to be a defensive liability, I didn't want to change while the puck was in our zone - unfortunately my line didn't get the puck deep into their zone at all the first period - which meant my first few shifts were longer than I wanted. This upset the center that was coming on when I was going off.

Now I have been on the receiving end of this before - especially during pick-up games back home - so he was justified in his annoyance. What I don't feel he was justified in was how he choose to deal with that annoyance. Instead of telling me personally to watch my shift lengths - he choose to yell his concerns at me in front of the whole team, following this up with a threat to take a slapshot to my ankles so I would have to go home. Not exactly in the spirit of a charity camp as far as I was concerned.

While it felt like shit to be treated like this in front of my short-term team (especially since I admittedly caused the problem) - I actually think it helped in a small way. The other members of the team seemed to agree that the reaction wasn't proportional to my crime - and most of them told me to "ignore that guy" and had a quick chat with me to see how I was going. I was so happy to be a part of the camp - I wasn't about to let that one guy ruin it for me. So while I did take shorter shifts (without caring too much where the puck was while doing so) I kept a positive attitude and I think it helped me bond better with a few of the other players on the team.

After the game the short-shifted angry man did seek me out to apologise, and did so again in-front of the whole team before a later game, which I do appreciate - especially as I could see he felt bad about the way he reacted. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit of a dampener on the camp for me - but it was no worse than the self-inflicted dampener that was the general lack of skill and fitness I had compared to the rest of the participants. At least I've got something to improve on for next year!

This is the 3rd in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)Game 5 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)Game 6 - Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017Game 7 - Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017Game 8 - New York - Third time's a charmed lamp, 2017Game 9 - Miami, Naples and Tampa - Beaches, Babe and a Baby Sloth, 2017Game 10 - Philadelphia - Not that sunny, 2017Game 11 - Pittsburgh - For some hockey (why not?), 2017
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Pittsburgh Return - Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!, 2017
Chicago - Blackhawks, Bulls and a bean, 2017
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 4 and 5 (Final Games)
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)
Marc-André Fleury still giving high fives to his injured buddy
Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)

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Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017
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