I have been to a hockey game in every existing franchise arena in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. I made it to the final destination on October 27, 2018. I was in Grande Prairie to do a book signing for my newly released book ‘Racing Death.” Shameless plug for sure. This was arena sixteen of sixteen.
It all started on September 11, 2016. I caught a glimpse of the Drumheller Dragons logo while in Drumheller for the Dinosaur Half Marathon, a yearly race on my calendar. That fire-breathing Dragon, smirking and holding a hockey stick got me. I love jerseys and logos, especially sports teams. I had to get me one of these was my first thought. I searched the team and came up with their schedule and contact info. I sent off an email and found out that there was a team store opened during home games, roger that. The schedule showed that the Dragons had their home opener on Friday, September 16th. I was going to be there.
I was familiar with the AJHL. My nephew played for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons from 2002 to 2004. When they were in the Edmonton area I would take my daughters and meet family when they played in St. Albert, Fort Saskatchewan, and our hometown Sherwood Park. The girls loved the games and hanging out with their cousins watching the game and playing in the arenas. Who can forget as a hockey kid watching your brother playing games running around all over the arena with friends? And the concessions! Concession fries are the best. Watching my daughters and nieces do the same things I had done at their ages was a lot of fun and brought back memories. When Michael went on to play in Guelph, I forgot about the AJHL.
Early afternoon Friday, September 16, 2016, I hopped into the family van and drove the 268.6 kilometres from Sherwood Park to Drumheller. I was going to be their right at 7 PM when that store opened. At 7:15 PM I walked out of the store with a Jersey, Hoody, and a Hat. It was already a successful trip. I settled into a seat at the home end of the Drumheller Memorial Arena. Guess what? There were kids running around the arena having a great time. There was something different about this atmosphere though. At that moment I couldn’t put my finger on the energy, the feeling. But it would soon come to me. This was the biggest game in town. In Sherwood Park we had the Oil Kings, and Oilers; they were the big dogs in the hockey world. Here in Drumheller, the kids stood along the area where the Dragons entered and exited the ice. Waiting for a fist bump from their heroes, maybe a player would hand them a puck. This was a scene I would see play out at so many arenas around the league. I looked forward to those moments between periods and after warm-ups when this magical interaction would take place. This is a special interaction that young men chasing dreams share with kids who look up to them. That is the power of the arena, of hockey.
On the drive home I had an idea, simple in its revelation and one I never knew would have a profound impact on me. When I had looked up the Dragons Schedule it was through the AJHL website. I looked around the site and at the teams within the league. Running through my mind on the drive home was the thought; why not go to a game in every AJHL arena? When I was travelling to Drumheller earlier in the afternoon I was excited. My inner child was vibrating excitedly as I drove to this game. I was on an adventure. It started off going for that jersey, now as I made my way home, it was about that childlike feeling I experienced.
I love being a kid, every man has one inside him, I choose to honour mine. I was fifty-three when the adventure began and fifty-five when I completed the sixteen arena tour. Over those two years, I went after it. I went to a game in all sixteen AJHL arenas. I slept in hotels, Air B n B’s; once, I even slept in our van. There is a story about sleeping in the Drumheller Recreation Center parking lot after attending a game in Brooks. That is an article all in itself, chuckle. With life going on and other pursuits I would pick destinations based on time and distance. Some games I could get to in a one day adventure. Others took me two days just because of the distance to travel. Then there was a place like Canmore. Two days is not enough in Canmore, so I made a long weekend out of it. I’ve been to more Canmore Eagle games than any other teams other than the Crusaders here in the Park. I love winter and getting into the Canmore area is always a treat during winter, so when I’m in town if the Eagles are playing I’m there. The inner child I was taking to each game was thriving on the adventure.
Objectives grew with each journey. I decided to buy one item from each team as a souvenir of the whole journey. That meant buying something from two Calgary teams! That’s hardcore dedication to the goal. I’ve got favourite logos and arenas, but this is more about the entire brand of the AJHL than my favourites. That Bobcat howl in Lloydminster though! And their orange Jersey with the B swiped by a claw? I digress. I went to some small towns and bigger centres in Alberta I had never stopped in. Driven through yes, but spent time? No. Finding a coffee shop and hanging out in the town I travelled to became an objective. Some of my book Racing Death was written in some of those small coffee shops.
I witnessed some amazing hockey. This is a product so worth taking in because of the energy, pace, skill, talent, and so much more. I started to realize that I was gaining energy from watching young men chase their dreams. I’d played amateur sports and grew in life through them. I continue to compete in Ironman Triathlons, Ultra Marathons, and weeklong Cycling Tours, all stemming from that Amateur Sports background. At fifty-five I’m still pursuing dreams. There are years that separate these young men from me; however these young men, this product was inspiring me. I’ve met some amazing people here in Sherwood Park through the Crusaders organization. I’m grateful for ways this weird and wacky adventure has opened experiences and joy in my life.
Here is to the young boys and girls at the Crusaders, Bandits, and Oil Baron games waiting along the dasher boards for that fist pump. Ah Brooks, site of my first Hal Ironman in 1990. Here is to Friday and Saturday nights at the arena watching the Thunder, Wolverines, Dragons, and Grizzlys with your friends and family. Here is to the Billets of the Canucks, Mustangs, Oilers, Kodiaks, and who open your homes which allows young men to chase dreams. Here’s to the Staff, of the teams and arenas of the Pontiacs, Bobcats, and Saints. Here’s to the Volunteers weathering the Storm and soaring with Eagles. Here’s to you young men of the AJHL. Never stop chasing those dreams, there will always be dreams. And here’s to you, AJHL - your product and value are what sports are meant to be about.