Since moving back to Columbus from Myrtle Beach, S.C., about two months ago, whenever I meet someone new the question is often the same:
"Why would you ever do that? Myrtle Beach is so nice!"
And they're right. South Carolina is so nice. But after 11 years of doing EVERYTHING the beach had to offer, it was ultimately the potential of having nights like last night at the Columbus Blue Jackets game that brought me back to the city where I grew up.
As a die-hard hockey fan and player for more than 25 years, simply being back in a town where the nearest sheet of ice isn't 100 miles away was amazing enough. Add the opportunity to start playing "beer league" hockey again this fall at 37 years old (13 goals in 7 games so far ... not too shabby) and I was ecstatic.
But then to top that off with the chance to be a first-time CBJ season ticket holder this season, so that I can show my young sons the excitement that I fell in love with since day one — "I was there " Oct. 7, 2000 vs. Chicago Blackhawks — and I thought I couldn't possibly ask for any more.
Which brings us to last night.
Game 9 of the 2017 NHL season for the Jackets. A rare 8 p.m. start at Nationwide Arena for a nationally-televised game vs. the Buffalo Sabres.
Since we're splitting a full-season plan with family, my wife, Heidi, and I had each been to a few games this season, but this was the first night since preseason when all four of us, including my sons Miles and Mason, could attend.
We headed down early about 4:30 p.m. to beat traffic, which allowed us a quick trip over to Goodale Park to play on the playground and an awesome pre-game meal at Barley's with my mom. After a quick stop through the R Bar to greet some friends on the walk to the arena, we headed in early so the boys could get their fill of floor hockey — a gameday must.
Though it started a bit rough, with our 6-year-old pouting a bit that "the big kids wouldn't let him hit the ball", things turned around quickly.
As I was trying to convince him to go back and give it another try, we were greeted by a pair of smiling faces from the Papa John's "Goal Squad" which asked if any of the four of us knew anything about playing hockey.
"Well, I'm actually playing in a league right now," I said.
A quick conversation later, I learned that I'd be participating in that night's TomCat Triple Shot on the ice during the second intermission — a prospect which was simultaneously very exciting and super nerve-wracking.
So as the family continued to enjoy all the great fan activities, including making signs, getting stickers and taking photos with player cutouts, my mind began to race.
What kind of stick will I use? What should I say if the interview me? Should I have worn different shoes so I don't fall down on the ice?
It was these sort of thoughts that dominated my mind as the first period went by — save for the minute of dancing, yelling and celebrating when Oliver Bjorkstrand scored our first goal.
Then came the second period.
It was during this time that I was going to need to be at guest services to meet up and get ready to go on the ice. The Jackets were playing hard and getting plenty of chances, but I was simply clock watching, waiting to head downstairs and hopefully not make too much of a fool of myself.
About the 10 minute mark we headed down and watched a few minutes of play near the cannon (always a great view) before once again being greeted by the same smiling ice girls, who escorted all four of us down to ice level.
Soaking up every minute of the experience, my 9-year-old, Miles, was talking the ear off of any member of the staff who would listen, while Mason continued to tell everyone he asked that he WASN'T having fun, while his smile told the REAL story.
As we reached the tunnel where the zambonis and ice crew wait, we met in-house announcer Mike Todd and chatted for a few moments. As I strapped on the impossible-to-look-cool-in-this helmet they provided and grabbed a right-handed stick, the Jackets scored their second goal.
The arena erupted and the sights and sounds of a celebrating crowd were amplified from our vantage point. It was exciting.
The the Jackets scored again. And again.
By the time our few minutes of waiting were up, the score was now 4-0 Jackets, prompting several staff members at ice level to call our boys "good luck charms" for the team.
Suddenly, it was time to hit the ice.
As I trotted out to the blue line and tested how slippery the ice was going to be under my Adidas', I tried to soak in the moment.
The bright lights. The huge scoreboard overhead. The crowd.
It was truly an amazing feeling to be at center ice at Nationwide – surely the closest I'd probably get to living out my childhood dreams of playing in the NHL.
And before I knew it, it was time to play.
The object of the game was to shoot from the blue line into a hole in three different boards, which sat along the goal line on the home side of the ice. There were 10 pucks at each station and the hole in the board got smaller at each station. In order to win, I had to sink one puck in each hole within 30 seconds.
Though the first hole was nearly the size of an open net, nerves and lack of warm-up meant that it took me a few shots to hit it. So far so good.
As I hurried to the second station and skidded to a less-than-graceful stop, I did my best to keep my composure. Once again, it took a few shots, but I made it no problem.
However, I knew as I hit the third station, time was running short. After I missed first shot, there was just a few seconds to go. At this point I panicked a bit and as I tried to grab a puck from the pile, two came instead. So I shot them both at once. And then two again.
As the clock hit zero, I watched one of those final frantic pucks travel through the net as the crowd cheered.
Though the intermission crowd was probably only a few thousand folks waiting for the lines to get shorter at the restrooms, at that moment it felt like a full house of 18,500.
In the end, I won $75 in pro shop gift cards and, of course, some overwhelmingly minty trash bags and mouse traps from our sponsor, TomCat.
So that was it, right?
What should have been the highlight of the night — or my year — was soon eclipsed by an even greater moment.
After meeting up with some fellow season-ticket holder friends, they invited us to come watch the 3rd period in some empty seats near them.
Always a great experience to be down in the lower bowl, the third period whisked by as we all chatted, cheered and enjoyed the awesome view.
"I can see their faces down here!," exclaimed my 6-year-old.
As the game wrapped up with a final goal from Josh Anderson to cap a convincing 5-1 victory, everyone was in high spirits.
My good friend and fellow hockey player, Jason, and his wife, Tara, being seasoned lower bowl fans, knew that as many fans headed out toward their cars, the real opportunity lies in heading down to the glass instead.
With one boy on their shoulders and the other next to them banging on the glass, we waited for the three stars to be announced.
As Nick Foligno and Seth Jones trotted out with their celebratory waves and stick tosses, the boys were excited, but began to lose hope as each of them chose opposite sides of the arena to visit.
Then came Bob. THE guy. The two-time Vezina winner and #1 star of the night.
Smiling all the way he glided our way, caught the eye of Miles, our 9-year-old, and pointed him out.
Though the stick toss of his huge goalie paddle landed beyond our reaches into the second row of fans, an awesome group of gentlemen made sure the signed stick reached its intended target.
Miles was beside himself. Absolutely thrilled at what had just happened.
And to top it all off he was the life of the party as we walked through the Arena District back to our car. Soaking up the attention and replaying the story over and over for anyone who asked about the twice-as-big-as-him stick he was carrying.
What. A. night.
It was a truly one-of-a-kind evening that we'll all remember forever, and I have to imagine this is exactly the sort of thing the team dreams up when they are creating all the amazing little details that make up a Columbus Bluejackets game day experience.
Whether you're a die-hard family of fans like us or just a casual observer looking for a fun family night out, I 100% suggest you head down to Nationwide Arena for a Jackets game or hit up your town's closest NHL franchise and check out a game soon.