At every hockey game there is a fan somewhere in that building who is at a game for the first time. Some come from just up the street, some hop on the highway and drive, some need trains and planes. They all gather in the same place for the same moment.
Depending on where in the world you travel in to the rink from, the trip can have added gravity. The concept of "once in a lifetime experience" becomes much more literal.
On Thursday, the Toronto Maple Leafs had 30 special guests in the building for morning skate and their game against the Flyers. 25 kids — all hockey players — and five adults chaperoning them made the trip to Air Canada Centre from Fort Albany First Nation.
While the entirety of the group is part of their local hockey community, playing the game can present its challenges. There are no local indoor rinks around Fort Albany. To play games typically means traveling significant distances as well.
Community leaders and members are currently working on fundraisers to build an indoor rink. One of these is a skating relay from Attawapiskat to Moosonee — a distance of 300 kilometres.
They love hockey. To see an NHL game in Toronto is a pretty good day.
To give you an idea of the distance of this trip, most people would consider the trip from North Bay, Ont. — roughly a four hour drive from Air Canada Centre — a worthy trek. If you were to travel 700 km northwest of North Bay, you would find Fort Albany First Nation.
Roughly 1,000 people live in Fort Albany, a Cree community located on James Bay. There are three ways to get there: by air, by water or — for three months a year — by driving on an ice road, winter conditions permitting. Making your way in or out is no small task and requires considerable planning in large numbers.
When the group of 30 finally arrived at Air Canada Centre on Thursday, it was an exciting end to a long journey.
"We've been travelling for 21 hours," said trip organizer Lucianne Scott, who manages and coaches the Albany Giants peewee team. "We took the ice road to Cochrane. Some took the train and that's where we met the bus that took us here."
The trip was the first time the vast majority of the group had ever been to a major city like Toronto, let alone inside an NHL arena.
The group got to see the Leafs and Flyers' morning skates and received 30 tickets to Thursday's game courtesy of Ford Canada.
While the experience would be amazing for any hockey fan, it was a little bit more special for this group. The bright lights and big city made its impression well before puck drop. As the Leafs beat the Flyers by a 3-2 score, they departed the way they arrived — all smiles.
"Some of them didn't sleep, they were asking me questions about the game and the practice," said Scott. "Not too many of them go out this far out of town. They were asking about highways with four lanes too. They wanted to be awake to watch it. They're so happy and excited."