It's pretty cool to be a hockey fan.
We get to watch one of the most action-packed sports on the planet. Our championship trophy has a legacy that cannot be replicated. The fans are some of the most dedicated around, and their commitment goes past the United States and Canada into Russia, Finland, Sweden and even Germany and Switzerland.
With so much to be proud of, why wouldn't you want to see as much of the hockey world as possible?
The 2011-12 season is a little under two months away, and a new season is always a great time to have a new experience with our favorite teams.
Here are some experiences every NHL fan should have. These are listed in no particular order, so just get ready to go with the unexpected and head into uncharted territory.
If you want to mention something I left out or weigh in with your own experiences, drop me a line in the comments.
In any sports venue, the front row seats are among the best seats you can have. Even when they go for thousands of dollars, fans will pay to see their favorite players up close.
But no sport provides a front row seating experience quite like hockey.
When you sit up against the glass, yes, the players will be right in front of you. But there's more to it. You'll see and feel the bone-crushing hits, the pucks traveling at 90 miles an hour and you may even get first view of a game-winning goal.
Other sports stadiums have the front row seats close but not close enough that you really get a feel for the game.
Hockey does have that, and you should take advantage of it at least one time.
I once was friends with someone who only wanted to sit in the lower level when she went to hockey games. As a veteran of many trips to the upper level at arenas big and small, I was disappointed about this.
My friend, I felt, was missing out on a great experience. The fans in the upper levels are generally there because they can't afford the prime seats in the lower level. They are some of the most dedicated fans in the building, and they are not afraid to chant loudly and mock opposing players and fans.
The seats may also be closer together, providing a more intimate game experience.
Don't worry, you will still get a good view of the game. Some of the fans who like sitting in the upper level say they can better see developing plays, and depending on what arena you're in, it can even feel louder the higher you sit.
Those who choose these seats still enjoy hockey games, and some even prefer it over the more comfortable lower level.
Do you think luxury boxes are reserved for the swanky corporate types looking to close business deals or team owners?
Yes, it is possible for us average hockey fans to enjoy a game from a luxury suite. It may take connections or just pure luck, but it can be done.
I had the opportunity to sit in a luxury suite during a Pittsburgh Penguins/Philadelphia Flyers game in 2010. The amenities we enjoyed included waitress service at our seats, larger and padded seats with more leg room and even private restrooms in the suites. There were also concessions on the suite level only available to those with tickets in that area.
And I am by no means loaded with money or have a ton of connections. A local tour company was running a bus trip and had secured the suite for the game at a reasonable price.
If you can luck into getting a ticket for a luxury box, take advantage of it. Enjoy the seat-side service and the comfortable seating. Sit in the seats outside the box or go inside for a bite to eat. Live the high life. Everyone should at least once.
While it's nice to just put on your favorite hockey jersey and comfortable jeans, head to a game and go home after it's over, a sporting event is about having a great time. People do wacky things to get on the Jumbotron for five seconds or to even propel them to overnight fame.
I can't guarantee you'll be as famous as the Vancouver Canucks green men, but I feel everyone should try to be a little silly at a game at least once.
Go ahead. Paint your face and wear that crazy wig. Dress up like a superhero. When the YMCA comes on, get out of your seat and start jumping around. For a playoff game, make the most outrageous Stanley Cup replica you can dream up. Make a sign that is guaranteed to get the attention of the television cameras.
I do ask that you do this tastefully and don't disturb other fans in your quest. But if you feel you can make people laugh and feel like showing off your wild side, then get crazy!
Although we love our sport all year around, there's something that gets everyone wound up when the Stanley Cup Playoffs start in April of every year.
If your team was the No. 1 seed in their conference, they are still capable of being upset by the No. 8 seed. Unlikely heroes emerge from the woodwork to get their team through to the next round. Players fight through serious injuries to be able to reach their dream of lifting the Stanley Cup.
It is fun watching all of this unfold on your high-definition television, but if you can, get there in person.
There is nothing like being in an NHL arena at playoff time. Every game is high stakes, and the fans can feel it. They step up their in-game antics to throw off their opponents as much as possible. They are louder than ever before. The sight of rally towels waving through the air and the crowd all dressed in one color is intimidating.
Going to a Stanley Cup game can be a once in a lifetime experience. Getting your hands on playoff tickets in some NHL cities can be like winning the lottery. Hopefully, you will be one of the lucky ones.
The Stanley Cup can't talk to you, and it won't give you an autograph.
But the opportunity to meet Lord Stanley doesn't come around often. When it does, you should take advantage of it.
When the Cup came to my hometown two years ago, people were lined up outside the arena for their chance to get in. The staff from our AHL team had to turn people away because they had too little time with the Cup and there was no way everyone would see it.
Elsewhere, there could be a several hours wait to see the most historic trophy in sports.
You are up close with some of the greatest names in sports. You get to think about everything the players whose names are engraved on the Cup have given up to win the trophy. And if you're lucky, you get to touch it or kiss it.
Every hockey fan should see the Stanley Cup up close and personal at least once. Don't forget to have your camera to capture this rare meeting.
Use caution here. You might not want to do this if the team in the parade beat your favorite team for the Cup.
However, if your team is the one being celebrated, or if you weren't a fan of either team in the Stanley Cup Finals but just want to say "I was there!" you should definitely attend a Cup parade.
You will get an opportunity to make hundreds of thousands of close friends as you stand in a tightly enclosed area. You will see the Cup in person and be able to take pictures of excited players as they hoist the Cup or wave to the crowd.
Then, you get to cheer on the players one more time when they make speeches to the crowd. You'll meet the team and get to take photographs with them.
This is one of the opportunities where there is no hostility among the fans, just good old-fashioned fun. Forget about statistics and the controversial hits for a day. The Stanley Cup has been won, and we should all be celebrating.
In the past, I have expressed that I'm not too fond of the NHL All-Star Game. The high scoring reminds me more of a lacrosse game than a hockey game.
I find it silly to take a random weekend off for a game that doesn't count for anything. I tend to be annoyed by the fan voting that puts in undeserving players over those who should be going.
But you know what? Deep down, I would actually like to attend an All-Star Game, just because I think it would be more enjoyable in person.
Think about it. You get to travel to a new city and experience their culture and meet their citizens. The host city is really excited for the event and puts their own personal touch on it. There is a fan festival with interactive games and maybe even autograph opportunities.
The actual event itself can be fun, too. The skills competition is a chance to see the players do tricks they would never pull out in actual games. Everyone supports each other and has fun with the event, even if it means the use of unusual props (think Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin with the water bottle and cowboy hats at the 2009 event).
During the actual All-Star game, players on the same individual team become rivals. Guys who despise each other the rest of the year work together in harmony. Everyone shakes hands at the end, and the fans don't care who wins. It's a good chance to check out the talent you hear about but don't get to see in person.
Now that I'm writing this, I think I am getting the warm fuzzies for the All-Star game. I want to go, and hopefully, you want to as well.
The annual Winter Classic became a hit during the first game in 2008, which was between the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres.
The players enjoyed going back to their roots and playing outdoors. For the fans, it was a chance to see hockey in a non-traditional venue and see the players handle the challenges of playing in the elements.
The Winter Classic has become a big cash grab for the league. Tickets go fast, and vintage jerseys can win over even the pickiest of fans. They will buy almost anything associated with the event, and teams are lining up to have a chance to play in one.
If you don't mind bundling up to sit outside for a few hours, you should definitely go to this celebration of hockey history. You may also get to enjoy a fan festival and public ice skating. The experience of sitting among 40,000 other hockey fans will not come along often, and the atmosphere can be just as intense as a playoff game.
The Classic is also good for people who could care less who wins whatever college football bowl game happens to be on that day.
Passionate NHL fanbases exist in many U.S. cities, even in the most unlikely of places such as San Jose and Tampa Bay.
But there is nothing like the intensity and passion of Canadian hockey fans.
Canadians take their hockey very seriously and expect the best from players on their teams. Playing pond hockey in the winter is a popular activity, and almost every young boy dreams of hearing his name called in the NHL draft. Canadians will attend any hockey game whether it is a junior league or an NHL matchup.
If you have your passport and don't already live in Canada, you should put the country on your must visit for a hockey game list. You can see up close how the Toronto Maple Leafs continually sell out even though they are in a lengthy playoff drought.
Check out the 20,000-plus seat Bell Centre, where Montreal Canadiens fans will chant and scream from the time the game starts to the final horn. Soak in the fact that you are surrounded by people who eat, breathe and sleep hockey, just as you do.
And while you're in Canada for a game, there's something else you should do.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is the mecca for hockey fans.
You can see the Stanley Cup, as well as some other historic trophies. There are exhibits featuring game worn jerseys from superstars such as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. You can admire vintage equipment from some of the game's earliest days.
There are also interactive game areas such as the 2K Sports NHL2K Zone, where you can play NHL 2K11 on the Nintendo Wii.
One of the best things about hockey is its rich history, and you can take it all in and learn some new things by visiting the Hall of Fame.
If you want to learn more about what you can see at the Hockey Hall of Fame or plan a visit, check out their website.
While fans are ridiculously loyal to their home team's city and the arena they play in, what's the fun in staying home all the time?
If you can afford it and have the free time to do so, you should go to see your team in at least one road game a season.
The benefits are obvious. You get to see a new NHL arena and check out the surrounding city. You may even make new friends. In my road trip journeys, I have found many opposing fans to be friendly and willing to have a good hockey conversation as long as you are respectful.
Of course, there are a few etiquette rules to keep in mind when you are not in your home arena. Don't get overly excited badmouthing the home team. Be polite to the arena staff and the people sitting around you. If your neighbors are less than cordial to you, as in doing more than just some good-natured ribbing, don't respond.
And please, don't go on the road if you don't think you can take being heckled. There's nothing worse than someone who goes on a road trip and comes home complaining about the banter thrown their way.
I'm not saying you should be happy about having food or drink thrown at you, but if someone is just ribbing you, that's part of being a visiting fan.
You spend 82 games a year wearing your favorite team's jersey and either sitting in the stands or watching on TV as they try to improve their record or march towards the playoffs. You waste many hours pacing nervously, biting your nails and praying for the best.
The best way to chill out and enjoy a hockey game at the same time is to attend a game that you have no stake in.
Are you on a business trip in an NHL city your favorite team isn't currently visiting? If there's a home game, check it out. Unwind from a long day and have a good time just enjoying hockey and seeing talented players you otherwise wouldn't get to watch.
If you live in a minor league city where your NHL team does not have an affiliate, get tickets. Minor league games still have the fast pace of NHL hockey with the added bonus of seeing players get ready for the big leagues.
There may also be fun promotions and the chance to see the home team play in an ugly jersey they normally wouldn't be caught dead wearing.
Of course, if you're at a game as a neutral fan, you can still show your support for your team by wearing your favorite jersey and hat. The good part is that you won't be upset no matter who wins or loses and you can enjoy a fun night out with friends or family.
Now, about those minor leagues...
Yes, the Kalamazoo Wings players in the picture above are dressed in Ronald McDonald themed uniforms. And yes, the ice is painted yellow.
This picture represents some of the fun you'll get to witness if you go to a minor league hockey game.
Ugly jerseys aside, minor league hockey is a lot of fun. Some of the best prospects in hockey make their homes on minor league teams before they make it big. You will still see high energy hockey, but at a more affordable price, another bonus. Tickets to minor league games can be as cheap as $5 or $10.
The in-game experience is more intimate. The arenas are smaller and may be 30 or 40 years old, unlike the many modern arenas that populate the NHL. While there are some modern arenas in the minor leagues, they usually don't seat more than 10,000 fans.
The fans are passionate about their teams. There are Booster Clubs that organize trips to see the team play on the road and provide hospitality to the players, many of who are away from home for the first time. Minor league teams often play in small to medium sized towns, which brings in a lot of community support.
But back to those McDonald's jerseys for a minute.
The best part about the minor league hockey is the promotions. From unique giveaways to way out there promotional nights, it is hard to be bored at one of these games.
Chances are, if you don't live in an NHL city, you may be near a minor league team. There is no shortage of minor leagues, from the well-known AHL and ECHL to the SPHL (Southern Professional Hockey League) and the CHL (Central Hockey League).
If you want to save a few bucks but still get entertaining hockey, check out a minor league game this season. You will not be disappointed.
Season tickets can be a pricy investment, and in some cities, there is a long waiting list to get them.
However, if you can sign up for them with no problem, you should consider becoming a season ticket holder, whether for your favorite NHL team or a hometown minor league team.
Being a season ticket holder has many benefits. You pay one price to have tickets to every home game or a select amount of games. If you choose a partial season ticket package, you can pick which games you want to attend.
Whether you can only attend weekend games or want to be at the games with giveaways at the gate, you have the freedom to make that choice.
In addition, many teams give their season ticket holders access to player meet and greets, discounts on team merchandise or even the ability to get discounts at local businesses that sponsor the team. They also get to pick their seats for the playoffs before the general public can buy tickets.
You will most likely have a personal account representative who can handle your questions and concerns at the time you sign up and throughout the season.
I have been a partial season ticket holder to my hometown team for three seasons, going on a fourth, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. From the time I got into hockey in 2002, getting season tickets was my dream, and I'm glad it has come true for me.
You may not be a little kid anymore, but that doesn't mean you're too old to learn to play hockey or skate like the pros.
While many learn to play hockey programs are for children, there are also some for adults. Yes, you have to purchase or rent equipment for a fee, but you can still get in on the action, no experience required.
After workshops with certified instructors, you get to try out your skills in an open hockey or skate. If you get enough confidence, you can join a league at your local ice rink.
If you've ever been curious about what it's like to be on the same ice your favorite players practice on, hockey or ice skating lessons are a great place to start. You'll meet new people and get a great workout and maybe even make it your newest hobby.
Since going to a hockey game should be fun, another way you can enjoy yourself is to forget that you are now in the real world.
Feel free to go back to your younger days and do less than adult like things such as hold up a sign asking for a puck or get your face painted with a cute logo or mascot picture.
Of course, you should try and find your team's mascot and pose for a picture with him (or her).
Much like other activities in previous slides, proceed carefully. If a child is going for the same puck as you, let them have it. Don't cut children in line for any activity. Let them get their autographs before you jump in.
Remember what your mother always told you about the Golden Rule?
It is always fun to meet your favorite players in person. You get to see what their personalities are like outside of the rink. You can see what they look like when the jersey and all of the padding is removed.
But of course, the best part is getting autographs and pictures with the guys you pay so much money to watch every night.
Many teams sponsor community meet and greets or season ticket holder events where all of the players, from the superstar to the rookie who plays five minutes a night, are available to meet their fans.
It's a great time to ask them something you've always wanted to know and personally wish them luck in an upcoming game. Some of these events are free; others may ask for a small donation.
At some arenas, fans may also get to meet players before and after the game. You can stand in a designated area, where some players will hang around for awhile to sign.
Regardless of which time and place works best for you, there is no shortage on things you can bring to get signed. I've heard of players signing everything from the usual jerseys and baseball caps to shoes and old cell phones or even napkins.
You also get another opportunity to act like a child (see previous slide) and go around telling all your friends, "I met (player from my favorite team)!" You're sure to have some who are envious of you, and who doesn't like feeling like the envy of their social circle?
Let's go back for a minute to all of that stuff you wanted to get autographed. Now that you have it signed, what should you do with it?
Throwing it in a box or a drawer is not the answer, at least not in my opinion. You can use the autographed items to start a memorabilia collection.
My personal favorite thing to collect is hockey jerseys (and no, this is not my collection in the above picture). I have 35 and counting.
Don't want to spend the money building a jersey collection (believe me; it can come with a hefty price tag)? There's no limit on what you can collect. You can acquire bobbleheads, posters, ticket stubs, game programs, hockey pucks, trading cards, pennants and probably many more things that I am leaving out.
If you are just getting started, Ebay is the place to go for all of your collecting needs. Of course, there is also Google, where typing in what you want to collect will bring you the websites of dealers or message boards where you can ask questions and make deals to add items to your collection.
Your team has been eliminated from the playoffs, or you're new to the sport and don't know who to cheer for. How should you solve this problem?
Easy. You jump on a bandwagon and temporarily cheer for a team remaining in the playoffs. Or for you hockey newbies, you find a team you can see yourself cheering for and educate yourself on becoming a super fan.
The best way to join a bandwagon is to know who the top players on your chosen team are. From there, you should learn a little bit about the franchise's history, and if you can really see yourself cheering this team on for life, you can start buying merchandise.
If you think about it, many, if not all, fans were bandwagoners at some point. If someone gets interested in a team during a period of success but stays a fan through the bad times, then they have become a true fan.
Although we tend to look down on bandwagon fans, blending in with the rest of the fanbase, and knowing your stuff is a good way to win others over and shed that pesky bandwagon fan label.
So you really wanted to be at your team's biggest game of the year, but you couldn't afford tickets or buy them before the game sold out. Now what?
Don't sit at home twiddling your thumbs. Yes, you may love high definition and your comfortable couch, but if there is a viewing party for the game, get out of the house.
Viewing parties are usually held in a popular sports bar. The game is on almost every TV in the bar, and fans pack in like sardines before the game even starts. The energy inside is just as intense as it is in an arena.
The attendees are glued to the television and cheer every goal and good play, while moaning at every bad break or opponent goal.
Some parties may have raffle prizes or discounted food and drinks. They are a benefit to the fans, who have an affordable yet fun place to watch a game and the businesses who can make extra money.
If you do go to a viewing party, get there early. It's likely that one may be so crowded that there are no available tables, which can make eating and drinking really tough.
Some of you may want to be the next great writer for The Hockey News, while some (OK most) of you need this thing called a day job and can't afford to write for peanuts. Whatever your goal, you can write for a hockey blog.
Writing about hockey is a great way to get your opinions about the game on the World Wide Web. You can also show off your unique writing style and, depending on the kind of project you want to tackle, your graphic design skills. You can start your own blog or join the staff of an existing website.
There is no shortage of places where you can write. While Bleacher Report is a good place to start, you can also see if your favorite hockey blog will take a guest writer.
If neither option fits your desires, publishing platforms like Blogger or WordPress are open to anyone who creates an account.