By Neil Becker

To this day, I still get excited when I recall the thrill of going with my dad as an awestruck child to Maple Leaf Gardens for a hockey game.

As a 53-year-old man, I can still recall the excitement of my first time as a seven or eight-year-old embarking on what would be, over the years, an unbelievable winter tradition full of cherished lifelong memories of watching hockey at the Gardens.

These incredible outings would always start with our annual Fran burger and milkshake meals at Frans Restaurant, which is located just a couple of blocks from Maple Leaf Gardens.

During the entire meal, our conversations would be about what the Leafs needed to do in order to get better and how we believed they would do that night.

To this day, my dad still reminds me how every single year he stressed about how the Leafs needed defence and how that still stands to this day.

One of my favourite moments as a kid was the strong anticipation of walking from Frans along College Street to Maple Leaf Gardens. Walking on the snowy sidewalks through the crowd and hearing those magic words of people yelling, "Tickets. Who's looking for Leafs tickets?" And other voices yelling, "Tickets, who's selling tickets?"

During that walk to the historical Gardens, another phrase which gave me goosebumps was random fans chanting, "Go Leafs go. Go Leafs Go."

A historical sight that always gave me goosebumps was that famous trademark Maple Leaf Gardens marque proclaiming who the Leafs were playing that night.

Once inside, the electricity and anticipation could be felt, whether it was hearing the hockey-mad crowd talking about the upcoming game or the magical black-and-white pictures celebrating the past of old Leaf legends hanging on the wall.

Prior to warm-up, I remember gazing at pictures of long-ago Leaf Hall of Famers such as goalies Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk and Turk Broda, along with others such as Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Frank Mahovlich, Bill Barilko and George Armstrong to name a few.

My dad told me stories about these players, and I was most fascinated with this picture of a smiling Barilko celebrating after the Leafs won the 1951 Stanley Cup. I would stare at the picture in disbelief that Barilko, who scored the Stanley Cup Game 5 overtime winner against the Montreal Canadiens, would be dead from a plane accident only a few months later.

Shortly before warm-ups, we would walk down to the gold seats, where it was extremely bright, and take in the excitement of the organ, along with watching pre-game warm-ups.

As an awestruck child, I was always amazed at their overall speed and skill, along, of course, with how big they were in person.

I also loved the magic of the organ and watching my heroes, such as Darryl Sittler, Mike Palmateer and the late Borje Salming.

Once we got to our seats, which were in the reds, my dad and I would look at the out-of-town scoreboard and try to predict the scores.

During intermission, a huge thrill would be buying a team logo puck as a souvenir along with a program.

To this day, those memories of attending games at Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad are my favourite moments of childhood. I remember if it were a weekday game, I would bring my souvenir the next day to school.

Venturing to Maple Leaf Gardens definitely played a huge part in my becoming extremely passionate about hockey and desperately wanting to see a game at every NHL arena.

Over the years, I've been lucky enough to see some games at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Chicago Stadium, Montreal Forum, FLA Live Arena and the Honda Center.

This past year, thanks to the generosity of CARHA Hockey executive director Lori Lopez, I was lucky enough to add another NHL arena to my bucket list.

Back in February, I got to experience the ultimate thrill of seeing a game in Ottawa at the Canadian Tire Centre.

As an added bonus, I was privileged enough to see not just any Senators game but one on Saturday, February 11, 2023, when the league's best player, Connor McDavid, and the Edmonton Oilers came to town.

Last September, when training camps opened up, the Canadian Tire Centre was on top of the list of arenas I wanted to see.

Despite not being a Senators fan, I had a burning desire to check out the home of a team who, in my opinion, drastically improved with key off-season additions such as forwards Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat and Derick Brassard, and goalie Cam Talbot.

Driving from the Holiday Inn Hotel Kanata to the arena, my adrenaline increased as I got closer and closer and saw the beautiful building with the magical red letters spelling Canadian Tire Centre.

The excitement grew when I saw several fans of all ages wearing Oilers jerseys with names such as McDavid, Zach Hyman, Leon Draisaitl, and Hall of Famers such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr to name a few.

Naturally, quite a few were also entering the arena wearing Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Claude Giroux, Tim Stutzle, Thomas Chabot and Daniel Alfredsson jerseys.

Sitting down for warm-ups, the anticipation of a magical Saturday night game grew as the rock music pulsed at full volume and the welcoming sounds of pucks hit the glass and boards and echoed throughout the arena.

Another magical sight was a close up look of center ice where the big Senators logo was situated.

Whipping out my cell phone, I wanted to make the most of this moment so I took several pictures of the warm-ups and of Ottawa's scoreboard along with the Senators logo at center ice.

During warm-ups, another unbelievable sight which I got to see was the Senators banners proudly hanging from the arena ceiling. In honouring the past, banners recognized the Senators 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1920, 1921, 1923 and 1927 Stanley Cup winning teams.

It wasn't a full house, but there was still strong electricity moments before puck-drop when the national anthem was sung.

I have to admit that I am an Oilers fan, but still, I got another huge thrill in hearing the Senators goal horn in person.

I can't explain why, but there are a few goal horns around the league which get my adrenaline pumping. The list includes the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Senators goal horns.

Though I got my wish in seeing an Oilers 6-3 victory, I was pretty excited to hear that Sens goal horn sound three times.

The highlight was soaking up the atmosphere as the Oilers fans cheered and high-fived during a three-point performance by Connor McDavid, which included an absolute highlight reel individual goal where he turned  Senators' defenceman Thomas Chabot inside out.

I even saw a first-period penalty shot from former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman, who scored on the Senators' goalie Anton Forsberg.

Following the game, I made my way to a crowded Senators gift store, where I purchased a souvenir mug, pennant and Senators' shirt.

This whole experience of seeing a game at Canadian Tire Centre was definitely an unbelievably thrilling event that was the highlight of my winter.

Thank you again to CARHA hockey executive director Lori Lopez.