An avid fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning and hockey in general, Steve Williamson is doing something that has never been done before: traveling to all 30 NHL arenas to see 30 NHL hockey games…in 30 days.
"It's really the best thing I've ever done," he said from his Pittsburgh hotel room before Game 13 against the Philadelphia Flyers. "It's living up to all of my expectations. I'm just having the time of my life."
Williamson, 49, has been a Lightning season ticket holder since Day 1, with the exception of the three years he lived in Japan, and this season, when he knew he would be taking this trip.
"I wasn't sure when I came back if I would ever want to see another hockey game," he said, and laughed.
The whirlwind trip started on Oct. 26 in Detroit and will end at (where else?) the St. Pete Times Forum on Nov. 24. After planning and researching for more than 48 hours, Williamson had his entire itinerary planned out before a friend pointed out he had only one Lightning game on his entire schedule. It took a few more hours of tweaking, but he then rearranged to make it possible to see as many Lightning away games as he could. Williamson said he would be cheering for the home teams throughout the trip, unless, of course, they were playing the Lightning.
When the NHL released the 2007-08 schedule in July, Williamson started his research. He narrowed his options down to the beginning of the season or the very end, the times least likely to be affected by weather. He started looking at nights with the fewest number of games, and worked his way from there.
"I managed to make it so, geographically, it made a little bit of sense," he said. "I do LA and Anaheim together, and I was able to catch the Lightning when they played their three games up in New York, with a quick trip to Montreal on the off day."
It's not always that simple. There are a few cross-country red-eye flights booked throughout the trip as well, but Williamson said it's important to him to get into the cities no later than lunchtime, to ensure he has enough time to get where he needs to be.
Williamson has put some faith into this trip, booking only airline flights before getting started. He said he's been able to get tickets simply by purchasing them, through some of the teams, and especially through fans who have heard about his adventure.
"Especially in some of the markets like Toronto, Edmonton and here tonight in Pittsburgh, fans that have heard about this, they're telling their wife, 'Honey, you stay home tonight. I'm taking Steve to the game with me!'"
The fans, he said, have been the best part of the whole experience so far.
"It's meeting people with the same passion for hockey that I have," he said. "When you go to a market where they've been watching hockey for 40 or 50 years, it's a completely different experience."
An experience for Williamson that was originally thought to cost somewhere around $10,000. After going through almost half of the arenas, Williamson said he thinks it's going come in quite a bit under that figure.
"I've managed to save," he said. "I've put together some good deals on flights and hotels."
He's also managed to use frequent flier miles for about one quarter of his flights and stay with friends and family when he can. In most cities he would need to rent a car, but he's been able to hitch rides with those going to the game with him, which saves him money. Little things like that, he said, can save him about $50 in each city.
"This is not something that's sponsored," he said. "I'm just a fan doing it because I love the game. This is not intended to be a profitable venture; this is simply fulfillment of a dream."
It's a dream that his girlfriend, Heather, had a hard time grasping when Williamson first told her about it.
"She was a little surprised at first," Williamson said. "But once she got over the initial shock, she's been nothing but supportive."
Heather will be joining Williamson for two games on the trip, in Chicago and Washington.
"That was the deal: She got to come visit me for a weekend, and I got to go on the trip," he said, and laughed. "She understands that this is something I've dreamt about for a long time, so she's supportive of it."
So far, Williamson said his favorite arena up to this point has been the Bell Centre in Montreal.
"It's the only arena I've gone to and sat down 10 minutes before the game started, and all of the fans are already in their seats," he said. "There's that much anticipation before the game. And this was a Tuesday night game against a last-place team. If there was that much energy in the building for that, I can only imagine what it would be like on a Saturday night against someone like the Maple Leafs."
Besides making sure he gets to the cities as early as possible, Williamson said he likes to make sure he has his cell phone in his left pocket, his camera in his right pocket, and his glasses on his collar before very game.
"Those are the three things that I need for every game," he said.
Williamson is also attempting to try a hot dog in each arena, and beers that are unique to the arenas, as well. The winners so far? The "knife-and-fork-dog" in Dallas and the beer in Montreal.
"Molson Export was the beer," he said. "It's the only beer they sell in the entire arena, whereas every other arena has a variety."
Despite the non-stop schedule, Williamson said he actually isn't as worn down as he thought he was going to be.
"I don't have time to be tired," he said. "Literally, I'm up early in the morning, off to the airport to the next city, check in to the hotel and usually by the time I get there, it's time to go."
Though not even halfway through yet, Williamson said a lot of people have already been asking him what he plans to do once the trip is over.
"I don't know, I haven't gotten that far yet," he said, and laughed. "Let me get through the 30 games without being snowed in or delayed anywhere and then I'll worry about it."
Williamson is making sure to document his trip as best he can. He has a laptop with him to update his Web site, www.30gamesin30nights.com, and uses his iPhone to write blog entries about his trip. He is also trying to take a least one picture in every arena, many of which show him in his uniquely adapted #30 Lightning jersey. The nameplate reads "30 Games in" with the jersey number supplying the second 30, and finally the word "Nights" at the bottom.
"To me, obviously it's about seeing hockey games, but it's a lot more than that," he said. "This is something no one has done before, and I think any time you're the first to do something, it makes it extra special in a number of ways."