The assignment: Attend and cover two outdoor NHL games that begin less than 24 hours apart in two different countries.
The experience: Unique.
The result: Success -- at least that's what I'm going with, but I might be biased.
When the boss gives you the opportunity to cover the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic in Toronto on Sunday and the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in St. Louis on Monday you don't say no. You appreciate the chance to do something so few people get to do.
So I did it, and I kept a diary along the way, from the time I arrived at Exhibition Stadium through the time I left Busch Stadium.
SUNDAY (all times p.m. ET)
Noon: The NHL announces the start of the Centennial Classic is pushed back 30 minutes due to sun reflecting off the ice. It's time to head to Exhibition Stadium to start the journey, but before getting on the bus I spot a special guest in the lobby of the Delta Toronto hotel: Wayne Gretzky.
12:45: A highlight of festivities at The Pregame, the fan tailgate party, is the Q&A with Sportsnet's Christine Simpson and Gretzky on the main stage. In front of a big crowd, Gretzky talks about his love for outdoor games, reminisces about Maple Leaf Gardens, and gives his take on the slashing and shoving incident in the 2017 Rogers NHL Centennial Classic Alumni Game on Saturday between Detroit alum Kris Draper and Toronto alum Gary Roberts. "I wonder how [Chris] Chelios wasn't in the middle of all that," Gretzky says.
1:10: Unbeknownst to the fans touring the NHL Centennial Fan Arena, the mobile museum featuring artifacts covering the history of the League and virtual interactive fan experiences, Gretzky walks in for his own tour from the NHL staff. "Oh my God," a fan inside screams when she sees Gretzky, who marvels at everything, taking his glasses out to closely examine the old sticks, goalie equipment, gloves and helmets.
2:00: Gretzky and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hold a joint press conference at Exhibition Stadium. To Gretzky's surprise, the NHL brings in the five living legends who were in attendance Sunday from the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian: Johnny Bower, Johnny Bucyk, Dave Keon, Red Kelly and Glenn Hall. Gretzky gets up, shakes all their hands and takes a picture with them. When it's time for the older legends to have their portion of the press conference, Gretzky takes a seat amongst the media and watches. Upon exiting, Gretzky says to me that he wanted to ask a question but couldn't do it. Well, he never raised his hand. That's protocol, Great One. He'll learn for next time.
3:00: The Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice for warmups.
3:25: Sportsnet's Ron MacLean gets on stage to start the pregame ceremony and begins introducing the first 33 members of the 100 Greatest NHL Players. I'm trying to watch the ceremony while I write my story about Commissioner Bettman's press conference.
3:52: Gretzky is back, this time to drop the ceremonial puck between Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak and Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg.
3:54: The game starts with a faceoff between Toronto rookie Auston Matthews and Zetterberg underneath a perfect backdrop on an ideal day. It's 3 degrees Celsius at puck drop, which is approximately 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
6:00: Things turn nasty in the third period when Maple Leafs forward Nikita Soshnikov hits Drew Miller hard into the boards, face-planting him into a stanchion seconds before Red Wings forward Steve Ott goes after Toronto forward Matt Martin. They fight and yell at each other all the way into the penalty boxes. Ott blows Martin a kiss at one point. How sweet of him.
6:19: Now I'm wondering if the fight got the Maple Leafs fired up because they are dominating. I typically never think a fight can fire up a team, but in this case I'm considering making an exception. Matthews scores Toronto's third goal in a span of 3:42 to give them a 4-1 lead with 7:55 left. I know my assignment is to go into the Red Wings dressing room for a story following the game. I'm starting to formulate a plan while also thinking that in 71 minutes I'm scheduled to be on a bus heading to Toronto Pearson International Airport for a flight to St. Louis.
6:32: The Red Wings prove they're not done. Dylan Larkin scores with the extra attacker to make it 4-3 with 1:46 remaining. Now I'm rethinking the angle I want to take with my postgame story. At first I was going to focus on how the Red Wings are still struggling to score, but they have two goals in a span 4:40. Only 58 minutes until the bus leaves.
6:39: The frantic finish to the game gets even crazier when Anthony Mantha scores on a rebound with 1.1 seconds remaining. My plan for the Red Wings story is completely shot. Bus in 51 minutes.
6:50: Matthews wins it with 1:20 left in overtime to finish off what is in my estimation the best outdoor game in NHL history. I know my angle for the Red Wings story. Bus in 40 minutes.
7:25: I'm on the bus for the airport, five minutes early actually. Gretzky and Chelios are on the bus too because they're flying with us on the NHL charter flight to St. Louis.
8:55: Takeoff time. Gretzky and Chelios are sitting behind me. I've already started writing my postgame story on the Red Wings and how they didn't quite know how to feel after the game and how their next five games will be huge. I've eaten some shrimp cocktail, which was waiting for us on trays as we got on the plane. This isn't going to be a normal flight.
10:49 (9:49 CT): We land in St. Louis at the Downtown Airport. My story has already been filed. I've eaten beef tenderloin with potatoes and carrots and dessert. There are buses waiting for us on the tarmac to take us to the Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark, which is across the street from Busch Stadium. So, yeah, charter travel rules.
MONDAY (all times CT)
7:02 a.m.: The email comes through on my phone saying that the NHL has decided not to move the noon start time for the Winter Classic. A look outside of my hotel window shows overcast skies, puddles in the parking lots, but it's not raining.
8:00: Breakfast with my brother Michael. He's working here in St. Louis for the time being and I only included this part so I could get his dog, Bo, in my story because he is awesome and was so excited to see me. As I'm walking back to the hotel following breakfast I see a police escort taking the St. Louis Blues bus to the ballpark. It's not raining and fans are streaming toward the stadium to get in line for The Pregame tailgate party. I've seen almost as many Chicago Blackhawks sweaters as I have Blues sweaters so far.
10:00: I arrive at the ballpark, which is about 100 yards from the hotel, and on my way around to the media entrance at Gate 2, completely on the other side of the stadium, I stop into The Pregame, which is now teaming with people and there are way more Blues sweaters than Blackhawks sweaters. It's raining and it picks up as I walk around to the media entrance. My hope for an on-time start to the game is fading.
10:45: Nelly takes the stage at The Pregame. It's packed. But in full disclosure, I'm watching from the press box because a steady rain is falling and I just want to stay dry. I'm lame.
11:38: Warmups are underway with rain intermittently coming down. It was raining harder about five minutes before warmups began, but I'm outside now and it's only a light mist. Divine intervention? Hockey gods?
12:26 p.m.: Bobby and Brett Hull, "The Golden Jet" and "The Golden Brett,", each Hall of Famers, walk the red carpet out to center ice to drop the ceremonial first puck between Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.
12:28: It's raining but we've got hockey. The puck is dropped on the Winter Classic.
12:29: Blackhawks defenseman Michal Kempny opens the scoring 1:02 into the game with a bouncing slap shot that ricocheted off of Jake Allen's glove and went into the top right corner of the net. And away we go.
2:28: Vladimir Tarasenko gets loose on a breakaway and I can hear the collective and audible gasp in the press box as he does. Reporters do that too, I swear. It's a 1-1 game and it stays that way as Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford makes the save with 17:10 remaining in the third period. Tarasenko hits the post with a shot during a Blues' power play three minutes later.
2:42: Tarasenko scores to give the Blues a 2-1 lead with 7:55 remaining in the third period. He was trying to pass the puck to Jori Lehtera, but his pass instead hit off of Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson's skate and slid by Crawford.
2:44: Tarasenko finishes by scoring with a quick shot from the left circle into the far side to give St. Louis a 3-1 lead with 6:02 remaining. That Crawford save on Tarasenko's breakaway is a distant memory now and it happened only 16 minutes ago in real time. The press box is buzzing as reporters are finalizing their story angles and preparing to go down to the dressing rooms. Will the Blackhawks have something to say about that the way the Red Wings did Sunday?
2:59: There will be no comeback. The Blues finish off a 4-1 win.
3:43: In his postgame press conference, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock brilliantly explains the origin of the fedora he wore during the game.
"I didn't choose it, the boys over at Levine [Hat Co.] chose it for me," he said. "I was told that that was the best place to go and get one so I went there. The guy suggested a sombrero. I told the guy I'm round enough as it is. We settled on a navy fedora. It's a Stetson style."
5:00: The rain is coming down, leaving its mark on the glass window in front of me. It held off for two hours and 31 minutes, just long enough to get the Winter Classic game in without incident. Crews are working to clean up the equipment on the field. The ice isn't going anywhere, at least not for now, but the glass is covered in fog. The Gateway Arch, typically a backdrop to baseball games at Busch Stadium, remains invisible in a cloud of fog, which is now starting to cover the buildings too. I can barely see my hotel, but that's where I'm heading. It's time to close the computer and close the book on an adventure of a lifetime.