A note from an overflowing heart

From time to time, you come across a story about a company that does something above and beyond, and creates a loyal, lifetime customer as a result (in fact, if you want to read stories like that, Scott Stratten's fantastic book "UnMarketing" is a great place to start). But what do you do when you're a brand that already has a massive, loyal following? How do you take a fan and turn them into a fanatic — an evangelist? This is that story.

Well, actually, this is a story about friendship and community. It's a story about how technology can bring people together and create bonds that can affect your life in ways you wouldn't have ever imagined. It's about putting the "social" in social media. This is that story.

Okay, it's both those stories. And buckle up, because this will be a bit of a read. But I'm not sure I've ever written anything more important.

On May 4, 2009, my then-girlfriend Erin and I got engaged. We weren't in a rush to get married, but we figured if we stuck together for 10 years, it was probably going to work. So we set the wedding date for September 26, 2015, ten years and one day after we started dating (so it would fall on a Saturday).

Earlier that year, I had started going to the odd Toronto Marlies' game. Erin and I both came out of the womb Toronto Maple Leafs' fans, and I've been on the Leafs' season ticket waiting list practically since I moved to Toronto 27 years ago (still deep down that list, by the way). When I started to see events pop up on Twitter and Facebook that made it easy to dip a toe into the Marlies water, I jumped on them. They were fun, full of great people and really good hockey. Then we won some tickets, so I brought Erin along. Soon, we were hooked, and in the spring of 2011, we signed up for season's tickets.

The price point for Marlies' games is ridiculously good value for the money. Our seats for these last three years have been in the front row of the north end zone, where we can see them score on the visiting team's goalie two periods out of three. We pay about $16 per ticket per game for that (the cheapest seats in the house), which also gets us discounts on merchandise, a couple of events each year where you can meet the players (including one night with full run of the Hockey Hall of Fame), and the free use of an 18-person suite once a year. The team has won their division each year we've been going and gone to at least the second round of the playoffs (and still counting this year). It's been an amazing investment of both time and money.

Unfortunately, we weren't going to be renewing for next season. See, back in February, Erin and I decided to move the wedding up a bit because of some health problems in our family. The most important thing for us was to be surrounded by the people we love, so we set May 24th of this year as our new date, and plunged headlong into planning. Pulling that off in three months, even on a small scale, meant that any spare cash we had would be going toward making the wedding. There was no room for Marlies' tickets for next year — in fact, there wasn't even room for playoff tickets this year.

Now, we'd already been touched by generosity. The folks in the seats beside us are a great father and son named Charlie and James Craib. Season ticket holders get an extra pair of seats for each home game during the first round of the playoffs, and knowing what was going on in our lives, James reached out to me and offered us their extras for game 3 of the first round, where we got to see the Marlies sweep Milwaukee out of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, good friend, Movember partner-in-crime, and groomsman Joshua Murray had a plan in mind. Josh had been out at some games with me over the last while, and had become a bit of a Marlies' fan (as a Habs' fan, I'm not sure he'd admit it, but it's true). Knowing that we weren't renewing the Marlies' tickets next year, he decided that just wouldn't do. So he started beating the drums amongst our friends, and rounded up a gaggle of them — fully 25 people who bought in wholeheartedly to the proposition that we were going to be keeping our seats come hell or high water.

Next came the question of how to make that happen. Sports industry vet Shannon Kelly pointed out that many in the group were connected to Jon Sinden, who runs the digital and social efforts at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. So, Josh reached out to Jon, relayed the whole story to him, and asked if there was something that could be done.

A couple of weeks ago, Josh heard back from the folks at MLSE. Not only the was the season ticket renewal arranged, but it was all being done courtesy of the team. The Marlies were giving us our tickets for next year. Giving them to us. Giving them. To us. Giving.

The whole thing was kept secret until Saturday night, when at the end of the speeches at our wedding reception, Josh pulled out this gorgeous leather box bound up in a blue ribbon. As we undid the ribbon and opened the box, Josh was relaying the story to our guests, at which point we saw the two Marlies' season ticket holder scarves, and a note from the team that said…

Dear Sean and Erin,

Congratulations on your big day! On behalf of the entire Toronto Marlies organization, we want to wish you much happiness and all the best in your life together.

We also wanted to take the time to say thank you for your constant support of the team over the last few years. The Marlies have been fortunate enough to enjoy a lot of success on the ice over the years, and that is in no small part due to the enthusiasm and support from great fans such as yourself. When we heard about your wedding, we thought for sure we needed to give you guys a gift to mark the special occasion.

So we want to see you back next year. Please accept this letter as an indication that your season seats have been fully renewed for the 2014-15 Marlies regular season. Your commemorative season ticket book will be mailed to you following the release of the AHL regular season schedule.

Congratulations again!

All the best,

The Toronto Marlies (And Duke the Dog)

As you can see in that photo above, it was a massive surprise. It's a moment that we're both going to remember for the rest of our lives. It still doesn't feel entirely real.

I'll say thank you in various and sundry other ways, but for right now I have to say this:

- to Shannon Kelly, Jason Carlin, Rannie Turingan, Seth Wilson, Veronica Thor, Jason Chan, Jason Rolland, My Anh Tran, Shannon Hunter, Rayanne Langdon, Matt Cohen, Terri-Leigh Holbeche, Wendy Koslow, Katie Boland, Dan Levy, Andy Arias, J Campbell, Michel Neray, Sean Sydney, Allegra Sheppard, Trish Cassling, Christopher, Jerwin, and Rochelle Latinsky — almost all of you are connected to us through either karaoke or sports, and those connections either started or were strengthened through social media. People often dismiss social as being superficial and impersonal, but these are some of the strongest connections I've ever developed as an adult. You have have touched our hearts in ways that I can't even begin to explain. Our gratitude is boundless.

- to Josh — I'm so pleased you agreed to stand with Kiel and me on Saturday. We have done some amazing things together over these last years, and the best is yet to come for us. I've said it before; I'll say it again — you're a freaking rock star, and an awfully decent chap for a Habs' fan. But you really outdid yourself on this one, and we will owe you for a long, long time to come.

- to Sherry Jean and Marc Lira at the Marlies, and to Jon Sinden at MLSE — it's not possible for me to imagine being a bigger fan of either the Leafs or the Marlies, but we're going to have to figure out a way, or we're going to have to count on reincarnation being real so we can be fans for several more lifetimes. We now bleed bluer than ever before.

It was the cherry on what was already a perfect day.

The 2014 NHL Playoffs

Earlier today, good buddy (and groomsman at next month's nuptials) Joshua Murray reached out to say he was putting together a playoff preview for his blog, and wondered whether I'd be interested in making some picks.

Seemed like a fun exercise, and so was his resulting post. Have a look, won't you?

NHL Playoffs 2014 - The Quest For The Cup!

Hey, AHL - enforce your gall-darned rules!

So, today I was sitting in our usual seats at the Toronto Marlies' game. It was still pre-game — players were tooling around on the ice and getting ready along the blue lines for the anthem, fawn-legged children were unsteadily making their way down the ice to join them, goal judges flicking the lights to make sure they're working. As I looked to my right down at the tunnel where the Zamboni™ comes out, I saw that Chicago Wolves goalie Matt Climie had taken up a seat by the entrance.

This vexes me. It's not the first time this season I've seen this happen. St. John's does this every time when they come to town — I've stared a lot at Eddie Pasquale and Jussi Olkinuora's backs. I seem to recall Abbotsford's backup doing it last year, too.

But it's very annoying. First of all, it's just inconsiderate. The goalie sitting beside the boards at that spot means that the aisle where fans are coming through is narrowed — they have to squeeze past him. It slows down the flow of people, creating lineups. Second, a player sitting out in the open like that is autograph bait for kids coming through there. See hockey player, ask hockey player to sign something — it's perfectly logical. But the security staff end up having to move the kids along, because you can't approach a player while the game's going on.

But mostly, it ticks me off because it's unfair. Hockey teams have a finite amount of space on their benches. Players have gotten larger over the years. Equipment has multiplied and grown bulkier. It's a tight fit, especially when guys are trying to hop over the boards on the fly to change lines. It seems to me that not having to leave room for the backup goalie — the bulkiest equipped position on the team — means that a team would have a lot more room in which to manoeuvre.

Every time I see this, I do exactly the same thing — I tweet the American Hockey League:

I have never — not even one time — received an answer.

Tonight, I turned to the internet. I mean, there has to be a rule about this sort of thing, right? Surely the AHL has rules about how many players have to be dressed for each game, and what they have to wear, AND WHERE THEY HAVE TO SIT? Right?

Introducing Rule 5.3 of the AHL Official Rules 2013-14, entitled "Goalkeeper", which reads in part (emphasis mine)…

…Each team shall have on its bench, or on a chair immediately beside the bench, a substitute goalkeeper who shall, at all times, be fully dressed and equipped ready to play…

On its bench, or on a chair immediately beside the bench.

So, AHL, what about it? Think you might be interested in having your referees enforce the rule book?