Years ago while working at the University of Vermont, I'd read in Rink Magazine about something called STAR (Serving The American Rinks) and the event they held annually called NARCE. I had always wanted to take courses but more importantly go to the grand-daddy of them all for our industry. Oddly this was year 16 of NARCE (North American Rink Conference and Expo) and that's about as long as I've been in the biz. And yet here I was... about to finally go to my first.
All of the classes offered by the U.S. Ice Rinks Association (Formerly STAR) are available at the week long event. I have mostly taken ISI (Ice Skating Industry) classes therefore I still hadn't taken the easiest class of all. Having already taken the IMPT (Ice Making & Painting Technologies) when we hosted the course last summer at Warrior, and with us hosting the BAR (Basic Arena Refrigeration) this August... It opened the door for the IMEO (Ice Maintenance Equipment Operation) course at Columbus. Since I've been doing this for years if I couldn't pass this test I'd need to hang up my sunglasses and walk away... keep in mind that as I write this, I haven't found out if I passed yet but I'm that confident that the test went well.... BTW if I didn't mention those are the 3 courses required to be a CIT (Certified Ice Technician) it's recognized by the NHL and is a must if you ever wish to drive NHL games. (Hello bucket list) Any who, being in a course means the structure of being at classes every morning. So that filled up most of the days but hell let's do this right....
Monday night the 21st. We arrive in Columbus at about 5ish and head for our hotel which is attached to the convention center. The hotel is enormous and I'm blown away but the view from my room on floor 14. See my Instagram or Facebook for video of that and much more.
After settling in we went and signed in to pick up our packets of stuff. We greeted some folks we knew along the way (which was a constant all week) and then headed for Huntington Park. Home of the Columbus Clippers the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. On this night they were hosting the Toledo Mud Hens and to up the ante it was Dime-a-Dog night! We got 10 for a dollar and Pete and I did most of the work on those.
I quickly found the pro shop determined to grab a new Clippers lid. I was faced with a tough choice. I narrowed it down to 4 and send the pics to my 2 dudes in VT and 2 in MKE to see what the vibe was. A winner was chosen and then purchased and has been worn a lot since.
Jarod Saltalamacchia was behind the dish for the Mud Hens.
We didn't pay much attention to the game. We were too busy taking in the sights, hot dogs, and beer tp pay much attention except when home runs were flying out of the yard. I saw at least 3 or 4... we left before the game was over and I'm not even sure who won. Normally I'm a game purist wanting to take in the whole thing from start to finish but I wanted to roll with the group and see what other sights and sounds Columbus had to offer. So we made our way to the hotel to drop off our stuff and then it was out to the bars.
In an effort to stay professional I'll only tell some stories from the bars... not all are acceptable. Although I mostly was an observer and not a participant in most hijinks.
That said I did drink every night and it rivaled my journey to Milwaukee last fall for most consumption in a one week period... what can I say... the Midwest brings it out in me.
Tuesday morning came early, which was a theme all week. I usually get up around 10 and work 11 to 7 and then stay up til 3am. So while I was used to the 3am the getting up at 7 or 7:30a was jarring but each day no matter what I was well hydrated, well-dressed, and on time. I'm super proud of how I stepped up my personal game to be able to deliver all the way around throughout the week on what was an average of 4 hours of sleep a night while there. It felt like I was there for 2 weeks because I did so much stuff each day. I think I should teach an Intro to NARCE class for all future incomers. I may suggest that... but I digress.
Tuesday we started class and it was nice to have Pete, our Assistant Manager, right by my side. Pete started in the industry here at Warrior so it was cool to see him really get a lot out of class and know that he will now know more when we talk Operations in our meetings. Also it made us really feel lucky to hear horror stories from other rinks while knowing we don't have a lot of problems a lot of other places have. Without getting too off it was just nice to have a buddy to walk to class with and although hit Tim Hortons everyday. While most classes were at the conference center we had to walk a few block to the Ice Haus which is the Columbus Blue Jackets practice facility. It's attached to the back of the Nationwide Arena which is where they play the games. It was a pretty cool facility. Reminded me of my time at the Bradley Center with a lesser Warrior Ice Arena attached right to it.
Class started up with us in a room at the back of what would be a bar on an event day at Nationwide that overlooked the practice ice. We often went down there for instruction as part of class. We all also had to at one point during the week, drive either the Olympia ice resurfacer with designer/owner Don Schluppe Jr. or the Zamboni with Don Zamboni.
For lunch we had to walk back to the hotel and the spread was solid. It was one of the first buffets I took some of everything. I called it "check yes to all"...it was magical. Then we returned to class where most of the afternoons were spent outside in like a 84 degree heat under the sun while going over circle checks and blade changes with the two ice resurfacing gurus. I'm not used to getting that much sun so I burned... but the hotel had free moisturizing cream in the room and that was almost as clutch as me remembering to always have a Gatorade or two in my fridge.
After class the opening ceremonies of the event took place with some announcements and as usual free beer and wine... most of the gatherings done by NARCE included free booze til they ran out... which was solid. Not long after the squad was out again. When I say the squad I mean a collection of folks we already knew. I'll leave names out. But we had a good core squad and then others would always latch on... even if we sometimes wanted to catch and release, but for the most part everyone I met was awesome. So awesome in fact that I didn't have a tab of my own until Thursday.
Amongst some of the awesome stuff seen in bars were Capitals logos in the urinals, old video games, great outdoor seating - including TVs, horrible trivia nights, pics of Habs legend Maurice Richard, fire pits, and more Columbus Blue Jackets swag than I've ever seen in my life (true fact, not an exaggeration). Then of course people watching... it was solid... also there were tons of stories bandied about. Hard not too with folks from NHL Arenas and. NHL Practice facilities were repped highly including the 2 Eastern Conference Finalists. Colleges from Western Michigan, Colorado, UNH, Michigan, and nearby Ohio State just to name a few. Many town and city rinks and also several companies that do multiple facilities. If I ever found myself out of work again I feel like one week in NARCE would get me back somewhere almost immediately. The ability to network is honestly half of the goodness of the conference.
Tuesday was the night we went to Char-Bar. Pass on that if you get the chance. The musty basement has a creepy Blair Witch vibe that makes holding it a better option than going down to the bathroom. Also we saw a couple bros who wanted to fight almost everyone and it was funny to see grown men wad their panties over almost nothing. The bros trying to start stuff were morons the whole week no matter where we saw them. I guess the guy wins a few Stanley Cups and thinks he can bully people around. I won't name names here but he's a douche
By Wednesday morning I realized that I had not yet finished our schedule for next week at Warrior. I usually have it out by Tuesday or Wed at the latest. So during our lunch break I went to my hotel room and banged it out and was only about 5 minutes late to class. I missed another great lunch to be sure but I considered it my sacrifice to make sure my work was done. Then that afternoon I did my on-ice driving portion and left there feeling ready to watch some Game 7 from the R-Bar which quickly became our go-to bar there. It's a hockey theme and right near Nationwide so it made since for a bunch of rink people. Also Marissa made friends with the cute bartender so our service was outstanding! If you go, tell Emma I sent ya. She'll act all coy like she doesn't know me... and then maybe her boyfriend will be like "WHO?!" cause he works there too, but trust me she knows me... if all that fails just mention Marissa... everyone knows her.
But before the R-Bar it was round one of the trade show. Having been to NEISMA a month ago a lot of the vendors were the same but the booths were bigger. and all the heavy hitters were there. I walked around with Pete and we chatted with guys from the TD Garden to set up a future exchange of tours in Beantown. We also discussed new stuff for our arena that I don't want to spoil or say we have until I actually see some it on site. More free booze. and then catching up with our vendors and asking some questions. I was a note machine over the course of the week. Constantly increasing my to-do list for when I returned to Warrior. I was so geeked about it that in the airport before we left I finally went through everything and organized it to make my chicken scratchings mean more while they were still fresh in my head. But anyway day 1 of the show was ok.
We got a good spot by both TVs so we could see the Celtics/Cavs and also the Game 7 between the Caps and Lightning. We had told everyone to go there for the game so it was lucky that we got a solid spot outdoors because it didn't take long for the bar to be consumed by most of the NARCE conference. Some came and left because it was too crowded. And sure the service suffered but the spot was great... except for their outdoor seating... the chair/stool was one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever sat on in my life. I chose to stand more than sit...
As the game ended and the night continued the bar thinned out and we hung out. I cut a promo on this one dude who argued that New Jersey was better than Maryland. I set him straight while getting some laughs from the table. This was the same bro who thought it good to hammer on the button at trivia when he didn't know the answer, and also argued with me that the NHL would overtake the NFL in ratings in 5 years. I mean this guy... damn...
Another early morning Thursday led to lunch and then more trade show and was a shorter day class wise. This day I went around with Marissa who is like a celebrity at this thing. It was a different experience and I enjoyed talking to different people than the day before. I learned a lot and then I talked Marissa in to buying some fun stuff for the rink. It's awesome to think about how 2 years ago I didn't know Marissa and Pete. The Warrior Ice Arena was still being finished and was still 4 months away from opening. I was brought in at a small time level and gradually worked my way to a newly created position which I picked the name of. My opinion was always accepted and now I'm helping make choices to better the building for our patrons, staff, and thereby us. It's a cool part of the process to be a part of. I've been to a lot of like-conferences and part of why this one was so cool was I was rolling with Marissa and Pete and the other great folks we met or knew. We all came away better for the week with a great sense of how lucky we are to be where we are and have each other and our other managers. Most places would be lucky to have 1 or 1.5 of us. We have a great team in place here... but I digress... again
Thursday was to be the night of the Bags tournament and Horse race (I'll get to that). But before Marissa took Pete and I to a restaurant with these killer pirogies. Then we went for a walk down by Ohio St. and hit up a bar down there because they had bags and we wanted to get in some practice. The University of Akron was there for an alumni event and they had a hysterical "Wacky waving inflatable arm tube Mascot" It was making me laugh because it was behind Marissa while she was throwing. Then we made the long walk back and prepared to join the madness downstairs...
The Bags tournament was way bigger than I imagined. Game were limited to 5 minute free-for-alls to make sure all the games got in on time. Marissa and I won our first game easily over 2 dudes from Western Michigan (one who was an arm-wrestling National Champion) and then we waited for the second game. The dude running the show on the mic had all the charisma of a mass transit announcer but with less sound. Despite me standing near the board we were to play on (I saw other people playing on it) we were deemed a no-show. I was peeved but let it roll off. Meanwhile Marissa talked us back in to the tourney somehow. But we lost to the Blademaster (skate sharpers) guys who were on fire!
After the tourney concluded there was the 6th annual NARCE Derby. People bid on the horses earlier in the week. Decorated them. Named them and then before the race others could place bets on which horse would win. Odds were based on the amount of people who bet on whichever horse... also there was a best dressed trophy and award... this whole thing has to be seen to really grasp it. I took video of the race where one guy spins a cage with dice in it and calls out the number of the corresponding horse. The crowd got really in to it and even I stood to earn $132 after only betting $20 on horse #2. See my video on Facebook and Instagram for some highlights of the race.
Then it was supposed to be off to the dueling piano bar but people were getting a slow start and kept getting drinks at the hotel bar... finally a scooped up a fading Pete and said lets go. They will all meet us there later. Pete and I walked in to a pretty empty room where 2 dudes were taking requests and playing any song you could think of. There was even a drum kit one of them would swap to some time... It was awesome! And as the Hall and Oates concert let out and the NARCE people finally showed up the place was hopping! We all requested songs and danced and sang... it was a joyous way to go out on our last night in Columbus. Later as the talented songsters wrapped their set I convinced one of the guys from Tampa Bay's practice rink to show off his drum skills. He is an accomplished drummer with his own kit. So he went up and started to lay it down much to the crowd's delight. Only to be removed from an aggro security dude who was in no mood for fun, games, or even a smile. I'm pretty sure he went home and kicked his puppy.
But the fun was mostly over there so we went back to our old faithful at the R-Bar. We got towers of Labatt Blue and went til closing time. At this time I must say the Columbus reminded me of a Canadian city in the American Midwest... I'll explain... The presence of Tim Hortons, Bob Evans, Labatt and Molson easily found... people were friendly, streets were clean,I was one of at least 3 guys wearing Vlad Guerrero Montreal Expos stuff, and hockey is the only major pro sport in town... probably why I liked it so much. Also the near perfect weather in the 70's and 80's didn't hurt either.
Friday night we had to be to class for 8am and by 9:30a we were outside with our flight not until 3:20. Pete and I went back to the hotel and packed up and checked out. Then hit the buffet at the restaurant there. Marissa soon joined us and we went for stroll in a direction we hadn't been yet and eventually found a spot for lunch. Eventually we ended up back at the hotel where we headed for the airport. There I grabbed some swag from THE Ohio State University and went through my notes.
On the plane I passed out for a second but quickly woke up to my snore. We had a stop in Baltimore and then the 3 of us moved to the front of the plane. Marissa watched part of Black Panther while I on almost every leg of the trip listened to my Adam Carolla podcasts (I'm still WAY behind). Soon after landing we made our way across Fenway traffic back to the rink. Where I signed in for another Friday night Rock N' Skate.... ugh... although this night wasn't too bad. Eventually at home at about 1:30a after a shower I finally when to sleep for longer than a 4 hour rest...
In the days since I've thought about how much hype I had given to this event in my head and how amazingly it stacked up and delivered. If I find something negative to say about this trip than I'm digging cause it was solid. I love travel and I don't do it often, so having a work related trip that could be both affective for business and also so fun was pretty damn awesome. Hoping to be in the mix next year in Buffalo!
For other sights and sounds from the week check out my Facebook feed or Instagram... so many great parts still left untold if you can believe it after this long an entry.
Thanks to everyone who made me going to this possible. Thanks to Marissa, Pete, EJ, and Jake for making up the usual squad and being a part of team New England! So many new friendships forged. So many memories that will stay on ice forever!