by Chris Ballard || AHL On The Beat Archive
Every kid who has ever laced up a pair of skates has had the dream.
Pulling that first NHL jersey over your shoulder pads for your inaugural game in the big leagues, with fans from the ice to the rafters screaming in unison as you capture their attention with a jaw-dropping move and your first NHL goal.
Few NHL stories have that event as their opening stanza. While Mario Lemieux famously dazzled on the first shift of his opening contest, it takes most players some time to adjust to their first strides in the NHL.
This was not the case for St. John’s IceCaps forward John Albert.
Albert was called up from the IceCaps to the parent Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 1 while the team was traveling from Binghamton to Toronto. He was yanked off the bus by head coach Keith McCambridge, informed of his good fortune then sent to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in Toronto to catch his flight.
The Winnipeg Jets were set to take on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden later that evening. Albert, unsure he was going to be in the lineup that night, was just happy to be along for the ride to get a taste of the NHL dream he had envisioned since he was a young boy growing up 30 miles east of Cleveland, Ohio.
“When I was three, my parents had never played hockey,” Albert said. “I think my mom may have skated once or twice. That’s what she says anyway. I don’t know if she’s lying or not. I think she’s trying to take some credit. My dad was honestly just flicking through channels on TV and there was a professional hockey game. At three years old, I told my parents, ‘I want to play. I want to skate.’”
Albert arrived in New York City late that day and missed the team’s practice, so he took the time to wander the big city. He even managed to squeeze in a haircut to “trim the mullet” before learning he would be playing. After years of hard work, he was set to make his NHL debut.
Of all the arenas in professional sports in which to make a debut, Albert was well aware that his first game was to take place at one of hockey’s true palaces, Madison Square Garden.
“It was (surreal),” he said of the famous stadium. “When I heard it was NYC and the Rangers, thinking about the history of that team and building is crazy. To get my first game there was exciting. Just think about everything that has gone through there throughout the years, from boxing to concerts to anything you could possibly think of. Madison Square Garden, everybody knows where it is. It was an honor to get my first game there.”
Halfway through the second period, Albert’s dream call-up reached its pinnacle. With the game deadlocked 1-1, he caught a Dustin Byfuglien pass on the tape just outside the offensive zone, beat the defender wide and snapped a perfect shot high on the blocker side behind Rangers goaltender Cam Talbot.
Three-year-old Albert would never have thought the result could be so perfect.
He had just scored his first goal on his first shot in the National Hockey League in front of 18,006 fans in one of America’s premier venues in one of the world’s best sporting cities.
Albert admits that the full impact of what he had accomplished didn’t hit him right away. His smile grew even larger when he saw who was waiting for him after the game.
“To be honest, it [sunk in] when I saw my parents and my best buddy,” Albert remembers. “They were in the stands. My parents have been huge supporters of me for my entire life. They have had to drive across the country and back for me. They barely miss any games now, even in the AHL. They drive to most of the road games. It doesn’t matter how far it is. Eight, nine or ten hours, they will be there.”
His parents made the eight-hour drive from Cleveland with John’s best friend in the back seat. The glitz and glamor of the big city and the most exciting moment of his hockey career just wouldn’t have been as special if they weren’t shared with the most important people in his life.
“My best buddy, I’ve known him since I was four years old,” Albert said. “We played hockey growing up. He’s a big part of my life. We talked about [this moment] for a while. I told him, ‘No matter where it is, it doesn’t matter how much it costs, I’ll fly you there. I’ll take care of you. You have to be there.’ It happened to work out perfectly.”
Albert admits the moment is still fresh and he may not fully appreciate what he has done until his hockey career is in the rear-view mirror. Even if he never manages to score another goal in the National Hockey League, Albert is proof that dreams do come true and has already inspired others to dream big.
“My oldest nephew is 11 years old,” he said. “He told my sister that he was all excited because I got called up. He loves watching NHL hockey. They have the full NHL cable package. He said, ‘I’m going to play in the NHL like my Uncle John.’ My sister said, ‘You have to work toward it. It’s not as easy as you think. Keep working. Keep dreaming about it.’ Just thinking about me back at that age and seeing a little of me in him, it’s pretty surreal.”