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DiLorenzo on 'The Road to the Winter Classic'

Wednesday, 12.10.2008 / 11:58 AM / WingsLive
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DiLorenzo on \'The Road to the Winter Classic\'
Correspondent Michael DiLorenzo, aka "DiLo," goes on the road to Wrigley Field with the NHL mobile ice-making plant.
Michael DiLorenzo is the NHL's director of corporate communicatiions. He is on the road to the Winter Classic with the NHL's mobile refrigeration unit from Mobile, Alabama to Chicago and will be blogging for NHL.com.

Day 3 - 10:45AM
Joe Whalen and John Giannone of MSG were kind enough to bump up our segment with them up to 10:30AM.  CNN next at 11:30AM.

Day 3 - 10AM
Turns out the exterior of Phillips Arena is noisy with trains and trucks, so we're doing multiple takes.  Dan is a pro with interviews.  Oh, and Mike Hooper is a Brit!

Day 3 - 9AM
Arrived at Phillips Arena, awaiting FSN.  Its pouring out so we have to figure out how best to host the media.

Day 2 - 10PM
Winding down Day Two on the Road to the NHL Winter Classic, here's what we now know:
 -- I am not eating a balanced diet.
 -- The State of Illinois will get a lot of attention throughout the month of December (because of the 2009 NHL Winter Classic, of course).
 -- Atlanta takes a back seat to no city when it comes to traffic.
 -- The Road to the NHL Winter Classic has a busy day tomorrow with stops at Fox SportsNet, CNN, The Weather Channel, MSG Network and the Thrashers game tomorrow night.
 -- I cut myself shaving and bled BBQ sauce.
 -- Hotel cable TV isn't all that good.
 -- After negotiating his rig to downtown Phillips Arena, Road to the NHL Winter Classic truck driver Mike Hooper could have beaten Marcia Brady in a driving contest.
 -- Twitter is not only a social media platform, but a would-be competitor to Zagats.
 -- From Mobile to Atlanta, there are no shortage of places to get waffles.
 -- "Hooper drives the truck, Chief."  That will never get old.
 -- I might be getting tired of BBQ.  There, I said it.

Day 2 - 8PM
If I'd gone to the grave knowing Sam and Dave only as that iconic R+B act from the 60s and 70s, I would have been content.  Then I discovered Sam & Dave's BBQ2 in Marietta, Ga.

First, the backstory.  Ben Wright is the Web guy for the Atlanta Thrashers and has been following The Road to the NHL Winter Classic at both NHL.com, as well as my bootleg journal entries and photos at Twitter (you can find me on Twitter @umassdilo).  As I was wrapping up at the Marietta Ice Center, I received a note from Ben that I was tantalizingly close to the best pulled chicken I would ever eat.

Faster than you could whip out your Stax record collection and put "Hold On, I'm Comin'" onto the turntable, my car was pointed at Sam & Dave's BBQ2.

Sam & Dave's appears actually to be the restaurant of the competitive Lost Mountain BBQ team.  When you enter the unremarkable retail storefront, you realize that Lost Mountain must be pretty competitive - it looks like they robbed Bobby Orr's trophy case.  I don't think these trophies were for participation, either.

I made my way to the register and quickly asked for recommendations.  I was told that the ribs were amazing.  But Mr. Wright had already recommended the pulled chicken.  It was then I remembered that for men of a certain carriage, ordering just one entree can be so limiting.  Therefore, I ordered a pulled chicken sandwich with a sidecar of baby back ribs (note to my personal trainer: I opted for the dainty half rack; note to readers: I don't really have a personal trainer).  The nice lady taking my order also upsold me on the macaroni and cheese.

I'll get right to the point.  Sam & Dave are the 76-77 Canadiens of this BBQ tour.  The pulled chicken was simply perfect.  Kissed with a rub whose recipe must have come from the angels, it was perfectly smoked and moist, yielding a very pleasant flavor.  The sweet-and-tangy sauce on the side was a strong-to-quite-strong compliment.

Then, it was onto the ribs.  My personal favorite are baby back ribs and these did not disappoint.  A delicious rub was paired with a gentle painting of sauce to create a terrific flavor for ribs that were smoked just right and fell off the bone. 

The macaroni and cheese was adequate, though unspectacular.  The novelty here was that they use ziti instead of elbow macaroni. 

If Sam & Dave's ends up being the last BBQ that I sample on The Road to the NHL Winter Classic, I think I'm going out like Ray Bourque.

Day 2 - 5PM

Traveling from Mobile to Atlanta on The Road to the NHL Winter Classic, you don't run into many people who have played outdoor hockey.   Today I set out to find someone who could talk about it, and my search brought me to the Marietta (Ga.) Ice Center, home of the Atlanta Knights junior team.  [Here's some practice footage that I shot with my Flipcam]  There, I met Kevin Kerr, the Knights' program director and the coach of their top junior team, which competes in the Southeastern Junior Hockey League.  Kerr was wrapping up player meetings when I was welcomed into his spartan office.  

The surroundings were extremely familiar to the "office" at Skate 3 in Tyngsboro, Mass., that I called home as the head coach of Alvirne High School in Hudson, NH.  Mismatched furniture, jerseys hanging in a corner, practice plans scribbled on greaseboards and notepads, and the smell of hockey in the air.  I felt at home.

Kerr is well qualified to discuss both professional and outdoor hockey.  He was a third-round selection of the Buffalo Sabres in the 1986 Entry Draft (one spot ahead of Jyrki Lumme), and played a remarkable 17 years of minor-league hockey.  Throw in a handful of coaching stints at the minor-league level, and you're talking about a seasoned hockey guy.  At the same time, Kerr is a native of North Bay, Ontario, where the average high temperature in January is 17 degrees (F), five degrees south of where Dan Craig's sheet of ice at Wrigley Field will be.  Kerr is a guy who has spent some time in the elements playing hockey.

"As a coach, I'd bring guys up to Canada and we'd play on the ponds, you know, just to have a little fun playing games," he said.  "Hockey was made to be played outdoors."

And then it was back to my rental car to scope out a barbecue place close to the rink.

Day 2 - 2PM

Willie Mays once said of his greatest catches, "I don't compare 'em, I just catch 'em."  After sampling a true Texas BBQ joint (editor's note: it's in Georgia), I feel somewhat similar.  If Southern and Midwestern BBQ are my Gretz and Mario, then Texas is my Mark Messier.  Strong to quite strong, and on any given night the best player in the world.  One Star Ranch should be a must-see for anyone looking for an authentic experience here in Atlanta.  After the corn bread and stew, I was treated to a beef rib that fell off the bone, and had just enough sauce to let me know it was there.  The saucy baked beans could play on anyone's top-6 sides, and the diced cole slaw brought some zest and sandpaper to the plate.  I'll be retreating to Southern BBQ tonight, but for one lunch in December, Texas BBQ was the game's first star.

If Mobile is the East Coast League of BBQ, then the One Star Ranch in Atlanta is the big leagues.  On sight, you knew you were walking into a barbecue experience, not just a place that serves BBQ.  It is a shack through and through with outdoor seating, a bucket-of-blood bar area, and BB King belting from speakers throughout the shack.  My gracious hostess Valerie turned out to be a displaced Devils fan who just completed her studies at Spellman and used to skate at New Jersey's practice rink at the Turtle Back Zoo.  After describing their glorious menu, I decided that this needed to be an a la carte experience, starting with a delicious Brunswick Stew featuring corn (off the cob, as Mitch Hedberg said), lima beans and okra.  For a sidecar, I chose jalapeno cornbread which was pleasingly dense, almost like a poundcake.  Only poundcake never had a bite like this.  I'm going to savor the starters, then think about an entree after a quick conference call.

Day 2 - 12PM
After some exhaustive research of the Atlanta area, I've decided that the next stop on our BBQ tour will be the One Star Ranch.  From the stuff I saw online, the place looks like a classic rib shack.  And if there's any culinary idea that guarantees excellence its the marriage of shack to cuisine.  From the reviews, it seems like there's a kiss of Texas in their barbecuing.  I know Texans take their barbecue seriously, perhaps to a prideful fault.  I can't say with certainty where Texas ranks as my dining experiences have been limited to some Whattaburgers and the Shuck and Jive in Dallas.  Still, my curiosity is piqued.  This may be too much information, but I considered wearing the same dress shirt and tie I had on yesterday because it was already stained and I figure a clean shirt will be right in the line of fire.

Day 2 - 10AM
The Road To the NHL Winter Classic continues today from Atlanta, where we were able to get settled last night.  Today, we're just navigating the truck over to Phillps Arena and doing some logistical coordination before tomorrow's big Wednesday fan and media event.  Today I will venture out into Atlanta tosample some more BBQ and hopefully find a hockey rink.   Also, check out XM 204 today for an exclusive interview with our driver Mike Hooper on NHL Live sometime from 12-2p ET.  Lastly, I was able to get ahold of some bootleg photos from the event in Mobile yesterday, and and am including them in this post.

Day 1 - 9PM
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get off the highway at Auburn University and see what it had to offer in terms of smoked goodness.  That's where I found Byron's Smokehouse and its 5 buck samdwich special.  The guy working the controls behind the counter was a friendly sort named Joe.  Not only did Joe know about the NHL Winter Classic, he cooks the heck out of a chicken.  His pal Lauren Emily recommended a spicy pulled chicken sandwich and a cup of Brunswick Stew, which is a tomato-based chowder with beef and corn.  I think it was all delicious, but not sure my testimony would be admissable because of the speed at which it was consumed.  Lauren Emily was kind enough to re-charge my Blackberry so I could type these words and get back on the Road to the NHL Winter Classic.

Day 1 - 8PM
Funny thing about the South.  Sometimes when you look up "skating rink" in a directory, what they really mean is roller skating rink.  I found this out the hard way in Montgomery, Alabama, where two rinks we went to not only did not have their own huge refrigeration trailer, but no ice at all.  We probably could have made our own, but the roller skaters might not have liked that.  One thing Montgomery has in common with Atwell, its BBQ places are closed during the week.  At least the one I wanted to go to.  So it's back on the road and we'll look for something closer to Atlanta.  A quick shout out to Alabama Five O for keeping me safe out here.

DAY 1 - 6 PM

It's now 6 p.m. ET on The Road to the NHL Winter Classic and here's what we know so far:
 -- I pulled off on perhaps the most rural road in Alabama, abour 65 miles south of Montgomery.
 -- This is one big truck ... 53' and 22 wheels.  We're still awaiting the weight.
 -- Many BBQ joints in the South aren't open every day. (Dave Garr says he regrets not telling me that earlier, but promised to make it up to me in Chicago with a BBQ tour there).
 -- The bartenders at Dreamland Bar-B-Cue aren't the avid NHL fans I had hoped, but expressed interest in our truck.
 -- I've heard more Cher songs on the radio today than in the last 15 years combined. (The number is one).
 -- Speaking of radio, finding good stations outside of your hometown always seems harder than it should be.
 -- Our driver Mike Hooper has a Minnesota Wild tee on, and an accent I cannot place.  I've narrowed it to Brit, Aussie or Scot.
 -- More from Montgomery around 7:30 p.m. ET

DAY 1 - 5 PM
My good friend in Chicago, Dave Garr, is a championship brisket man.  He's had some impressive finishes at Memphis in May and is always quick with a recommendation to make a good BBQ better (eg, coat your ribs with mustard paint before adding the rub).  Anyway, when Mr. Garr insisted that I try Gold's BBQ in Atmore, Ala., I was all ears.  Besides, it helped draw the connection to Chicago even more closely.  So I've arrived in Atmoren which is right out of Central Casting for the small town South.  Lots of roadside stands, and two gentleman that were extremely friendly in pointing me to Gold's.  Unfortunately, I've discovered that Gold's is only open Fridays and Saturdays.  So I am pointing the Road to the NHL Winter Classic at Montgomery, Ala., where I intend to find a skating rink (I'm told there's one) and talk to the locals about the NHL.

Thinking about how to best connect the journey from the Deep South to Chicago, I thought about some of the things both areas have in common.  Two that came to mind were blues music and barbecue.  Sincew my GPS can't guide me to any front porch bluesmen, I've directed it to take me to some local barbecue joints.  The local CBS news dept and Tanya at CIMCO Refrigeration both recommended Dreamland Bar-B-Q on Old Shell Road here in Mobile.  It's not much to look at on the outside (or inside, for that matter), but the fine smell of hickory filled the place.  Fun fact: if you're ever searching for BBQ in Mobile and your Blackberry is out of juice, the barkeeps at Dreamland will let you charge it here.  Really friendly service, I was immediately greeted like an old friend and given a stack of Sunbeam bread and a side of house sauce.  I ordered a half-slab of pork spareribs.  The level of hickory was just right, which helped offset the fact that the house sauce, tomato-based with a trace of vinegar, lacked bold flavor or bite.  Overall, it was a solid-if-unpectacular start to the BBQd Rink Tour (unofficial title), and I'm going to drive up to Montgomery to see if I can locate an ice rink.

DAY 1 - 1 PM

Got to Battleship Park in Mobile where the USS Alabama is moored.  This is where the event is, and where our truck will be launched to the world.  The truck is a real eye-grabber, as you can see from the photos.  While all of the rink components are right off the shelf, the configuration is totally unique to the NHL trailer.  Every system in the truck is redundant, so if one component fails, there will still be ice at Wrigley.  I learned that they spent more than 3000 man hours building the equipment configuration and the trailer housing.  All of the local news affiliates - Fox, CBS, NBC - showed up.  I scored a cool Cimco Refrigeration jacket for my troubles.  Now they're off to a weigh station and the Road to the NHL Winter Classic begins ...

DAY 1 - 9 AM
Heard from Dan Craig as we both make our way to Mobile (I am at the Charlotte airport).  Dan, as you may know, is our ice guru.  He assures quality control for the ice surfaces at all 30 NHL arenas, and anywhere else where we hold events.  He's the guy that makes sure 10,000 gallons of water becomes a 1-inch sheet of ice @ 22 degrees.  Anyway, Dan reports that the truck looks amazing - our crack graphic design folks put together a wrap for the truck that transform it into a rolling billboard.  I am looking forward to seeing it - the trailer alone had to be custom built for the NHL and is 53 feet long.  Going to try to snap some photos and video of it.

DAY 1 - 4 AM
There's something comfortably familiar about waking up at 3:30 a.m. for hockey.  My father and I spent years during my youth waking up in the pre-dawn hours to drive to Boston-area rinks in Boxboro, Wilmington, Concord and Tyngsboro.

The difference this time is that I'm not up this early to actually play in a game (my competitive career ended two knee operations and 50 pounds ago).  In fact, the game in question won't even be played for another 24 days.

Today, I'm headed to Mobile, Alabama (via JFK airport), where I'll catch up with what I believe to be the largest mobile rink refrigeration unit in the world - the same unit that will help Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru, turn Wrigley Field into a frozen pond at the 2009 NHL Winter Classic, January 1. at 1 p.m. on NBC/CBC.

Today at a ceremony in Mobile, the truck will be launched into the world and will begin "The Road to Wrigley Field" (presented by XM), which is the 1,200 mile journey that will take it from the Deep South to Middle America.  The first stop is in Atlanta, where the truck has a date with the media and the fans attending Wednesday's Rangers @ Thrashers game.

I'll be following behind, blogging along the way and passing along as much local flavor as I can.


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