PRAGUE - If you're an NHL fan in Central Europe, keeping up with your favorite team is no small task. The games often don't start until 2 a.m. - not to mention the West Coast 4 or 5 a.m. sunrise puck drops - and even then, are rarely televised, resorting to online subscriptions, following along on Twitter or a constant refresh of the online box score. A simple trek to the UC or to the nearest city where Chicago plays one of its annual 41 road games simply isn't an option - at least not without some serious expenditures traveling to another hemisphere half a world away.
For as much has been made about the Global Series trip for the players themselves, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the furthest reaches of the Blackhawks fan base.
Throughout the trip, Blackhawks.com has caught up with just a few of those getting to see their favorite team live for the very first time after years of watching and following from abroad.
Seated in the second row, beaming with excitement as Chicago took the ice for Thursday's open practice in Prague, Lukas (pictured right) has been waiting for this moment for some 27 years.
Born and raised just outside of Prague, it was the legendary red Blackhawks sweater that caught his eye and sparked his fandom back in 1992.
"I was trading cards of NHL players and I really liked Chicago's jersey, so I became a big fan," he said with the translating help of a fellow fan seated next to him, while tugging on his own red sweater with Marian Hossa's name across the back.
Back then, it wasn't as easy to keep up with your favorite team halfway around the world, but in the digital age, Lukas is one of the most dedicated - watching or following along online with every single game for the last several years.
His one response that needed no interpretation? His favorite players: "Kane. Toews. Duo."
For Kris CallardWilliams (right), Sunday's game in Berlin was decades in the making. As a young boy growing up in the United Kingdom, he fell in love with the game of hockey and the Blackhawks in a peculiar way.
"I was 6 or 7 … my grandparents bought me the NHL game instead of FIFA," CallardWilliams said, wearing a Hossa jersey in the upper deck of Mercedes-Benz Arena. "I went in (the game) and I fell in love with Eric Daze, I was like 'I love this guy, he's my favorite player' and I started watched them (when they were on the local TV station) and it kind of carried on from there."
Hockey and the Blackhawks soon became a family affair for CallardWilliams.
"It's surreal, really surreal (to see them live). I shed a tear earlier. I used to watch the games with my brother late at night," he said. "So being here without him is a bit surreal."
When tickets went on sale for the Global Challenge game against Eisbaren Berlin, he and his wife Olivia (pictured left) bought two immediately. The couple would find out in the following weeks that they were expecting their first child. Luckily Kris' mom took in now-five-week-old daughter Peyton for a few nights so the lifelong Blackhawks fan could fly to watch his team in-person for the very first time.
Kamil Chmelik is one of the few who have been able to make it to the United Center, coming to Chicago just last year for a pair of games, but it's even more special to see his favorite team in his home country.
For some 15 or 20 years - he can't quite remember - the Czech native has been a Blackhawks fan, watching almost every game on NHL.TV since the league has made a point of emphasis to grow the game abroad, the very reason Chicago is now in Chmelik's homeland.
"It's unbelievable," he said. "It's a great chance to watch the Blackhawks in Prague."
While most fans we spoke with raved about Patrick Kane's flashy game that compliments the style of the European game, Chmelik had a greater appreciation for the demeanor and work ethic of the fearless Blackhawks leader, himself wearing the classic No. 19 jersey.
"Jonathan Toews, he's the best player. Captain Serious. He's a great offensive player, but his defense skills are also good."
The Blackhawks were love at first sight for MelAnie Wilkens (left), even if it was a romance sparked by the devilish good looks of a three-time Cup champion.
"I have a good friend of mine and she showed me some pictures of Patrick Sharp, and I said 'Oh wow, what a nice(-looking) guy,'" Wilkens said on Sunday in Berlin. "(My friend) said 'You have to watch a game' and I did it and it was love at first sight."
Donning, of course, a No. 10 Sharp jersey, Wilkens' new favorite is Duncan Keith and the longest-tenured Hawks as a whole - Brent Seabrook, Toews and Kane.
"It's a dream come true," the Hamburg, Germany, native said emotionally of seeing her team live for the very first time. "I don't really have the chance to go to Chicago, I'm a single mom and I don't have enough money (to travel to the U.S.). I can only watch them on TV.
It's fulfilling a dream, one of my biggest dreams ever. I can't breathe."
Wilkens is now paying her fandom forward, bringing two other friends to Berlin for their first hockey experiences. Both admitted the Blackhawks were now their team as well.
Friends don't let friends down. That rings especially true for James Chapman (right).
A Blackhawks fan since his university days in the UK some nine years ago, Chapman has been living in Prague for nearly four now, while following any way he can.
"I keep up with them mostly online, I watch highlights and friends in the States also keep me updated," he said while watching Thursday's open practice. "That's how I found out they were coming to Prague, actually. My friends from the States told me they were playing their opening game here."
Chapman is no stranger to the very O2 Arena the Blackhawks are playing in, frequenting games in support of HC Sparta Praha, admitting "They're not doing too well at the moment." His dad often makes the trip from the UK to see games with him, but Friday's regular season opener will take the cake.
"This is my first Blackhawks game … it's amazing to see them in person for the first time," Chapman said. "In Czech Republic, we get a good quality of hockey over here, but to have the NHL here is fantastic."