Most December vacation destinations tend to be tropical and sunny, but for Dr. Nancy Gatto and Debbie Freece, it wasn't about the destination at all. It was about the company.
Gatto got the idea last season: she and her husband, Ken, are Day 1 Blue Jackets season ticket holders. The second that she heard about the opportunity to win a trip to travel with the team to an away game as part of the team's Early Renewal Sweepstakes, she jumped all over it.
"I saw the promo for renewing and the first prize was to travel with the team to an away game," Gatto said. "It usually took my husband a few weeks to decide if he was going to renew, but the team was doing well.
"I called him up and told him we had to renew our (seats) and win this trip, and he said sure. So, I called our ticket rep and said, 'if you can get us into that raffle, I'll re-up right now.'"
A few weeks later, while watching their beloved Jackets take on the Chicago Blackhawks, they received some great, albeit unexpected news.
"We saw the words 'Congratulations, Ken Gatto, you've won the prize!' go across the (Dispatch Media Center) screen," said Nancy. "We were so excited. He told all of his friends about it for the next six months."
Unfortunately for Ken, a scheduling conflict prevented him from making the trip. Fortunately, the Gattos immediately had the perfect replacement in mind. Nancy asked Freece, a die hard hockey fan who happens to be her childhood best friend, to accompany her on the trip to Washington, D.C.
"I told her that she had to take this one night to get away," said Nancy. "It was going to be the trip of a lifetime."
The two arrived at the airport on Dec. 10, the day before the game. Freece came prepared, donning her inaugural Columbus Chill and inaugural Blue Jackets pins. While waiting to board the plane, they noticed a familiar face.
"We saw Jody Shelley walk by and Debbie yelled out, 'The Enforcer!'" said Nancy.
The plane landed a few hours later, and upon arrival, they got to interact with Shelley's FS Ohio counterpart, Jeff Rimer. Later that night, Gatto and Freece hit the city. After a high-end steak dinner, they embarked on a two-hour sightseeing cab ride around the nation's capital, stopping at attractions like the Washington Monument and the Christmas tree at the White House.
The two arrived at the Verizon Center the next day for the Blue Jackets' morning skate, and got an up-close look at how the team functions on game days.
"I really enjoyed the morning skate," said Freece. "It really shows the beauty of the sport, how fast they have to skate and how skilled they are handling their sticks."
"They were doing a drill, standing in front of the net trying to deflect the puck. Every one of Foligno's tries went in," Gatto said. "The reaction time is just so amazing, and the hand-eye coordination is incredible. It blew me away."
After practice concluded, the two got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Verizon Center. They even had a chance encounter with Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen on one of the arena's elevators.
"I asked him if the quality of his play is directly related to the length of his hair," Gatto said, chuckling. "He got a bit of a laugh from that."
Their seats were excellent-- right behind the Blue Jackets' net. Even though they had both been to dozens of games in the past, this one just felt different, after traveling with the team.
"We had never been so anxious about a game," said Nancy. "We just got so into it."
Despite being a few hundred miles away from the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena, the two found that they weren't alone among the Capitals faithful.
"We walked around the rink and found other Blue Jackets fans," said Freece. "Every time we did something good, pockets of our fans went crazy."
The Blue Jackets went on to win 3-2 in overtime, with the game-winner coming from Nick Foligno.
"It was so surreal. I just heard the whole arena exhale and I saw the red light and I knew that we won," said Nancy. "On the flight back, the players said that we were their good luck charms."
The pilot announced that the plane would land back in Columbus in 13 minutes. They were almost home, and although they had plenty of photos and memories, they were still missing something -- autographs.
"We didn't want to stalk anybody," said Gatto. "The stewardess said that, if we wanted anything signed, we should do it now."
It didn't take much thought -- time was wasting, so they moved quickly. Freece got a personalized autograph for her daughter from Boone Jenner, and Gatto's original Blue Jackets jersey now bears autographs from her two favorite players -- Fedor Tyutin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
"The players are all such gracious gentlemen, it was an awesome experience that I'll treasure forever," said Freece. "Everyone I talked to couldn't believe it."
Gatto was also blown away by the whole experience.
"Words can't explain how enlightening it all was," she said. "And how much I appreciate all the hard work the players do -- and even the media, too -- and how talented these incredible athletes are."
A few weeks later, Freece visited the Gattos, and brought along a notebook filled with pictures from the trip.
"We'll always have that," said Nancy. "It really was the trip of a lifetime."