Denis Dotson ’15 completes five-year odyssey of love and compassion

Dotson made the journey to all 32 NHL arenas to raise money for cancer research in honor of his grandmother who passed away in 2018.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Detroit Red Wings during one of its last home games of the 2022-23 regular season, Denis Dotson ’15 was in the stands of the Scotiabank Arena, joined by his parents and a few close friends. Less concerned with what he had to spend for the tickets and the challenges of organizing travel to the game, Dotson was instead caught up in the satisfaction of having visited all 32 arenas of the National Hockey League.

Dotson outside the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

A moment he always treasured in his 32 trips was the singing of the National Anthem. Each time, he would join in and the game in Toronto was no different. At least, that’s what Dotson originally thought.

But that game would be unlike any other he’d ever experienced.

“I made it about five words into the National Anthem and started choking up. That was the moment when I said, ‘I made it, this is special.’ I got to share a special day with some of the most important people in my life. That was something that I’ll remember forever,” Dotson said. “The whole emotion of that day. I couldn’t have cared less about who won that hockey game that night. It’s unique to honor somebody that made such a big impact on my life and was one of my heroes.”

Dotson with a sign with the name of his grandmother, Leona, who inspired his journey to all 32 NHL arenas.

The reason for his five-year odyssey was to raise money for cancer research through the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. And that hero Dotson was honoring through the effort was his grandmother Leona Dotson, who passed away in 2018 after battling breast cancer twice.

With each game he attended, he committed $50 to cancer research and asked that anyone who joined him match that donation. He initially set a goal of raising $3,200. It took just a year before he met that goal, and by the time of completing the tour, he had raised $13,828. Dotson also started a fundraiser through the American Cancer Society, a partner of Hockey Fights Cancer, which has raised $1,900 through 16 donors.

Although the funding Dotson raised is a drop in the larger bucket of cancer research, it’s one of his proudest achievements. It was a journey of love as well as compassion.

“My grandmother was fortunate to beat cancer twice, and I hope that my fundraising efforts, however meager they may be, will support those in need of assistance fighting this terrible disease,” Dotson wrote in his “Tour De NHLblog documenting each of his trips.

Before his grandmother passed, the last life lesson she imparted to Dotson and the rest of their family was to always do what made them happy and to be proud of whatever that thing is.

“That was very inspiring to me,” Dotson said. “I wanted to do a hockey tour. It was the perfect marriage of this would make me happy and the fundraising piece would be a great way to honor her impact on my life.”

Dotson, far right, with Elon classmates Dillion Blake ’15 and Andrew Kennedy ’15 at a Florida Panthers game in 2021.

When Dotson made the conscious effort in 2018 to visit every North American professional arena, he had already been to eight of them. The first trip after his grandmother passed was to Columbus, Ohio, for the Blue Jackets, which he ranked as the 18th-best experience on his league-wide tour.

Seeing the New York Rangers, one of the most historic franchises in the NHL, in one of the most iconic arenas, Madison Square Garden, was by far his most memorable experience. “There’s something special about that place. New York fans are notoriously passionate about their sports and there was great energy during those games. I love the building, love the history, love the tradition, love the fan base,” Dotson said, even as a native Philadelphian and lifelong Flyers fan.

A trip to see the current Western Conference champions Vegas Golden Knights in April 2022 was a close second. “It felt like you were going to a Vegas theatrical show, and they’ve got a great team and a great building.”

While the stadium experiences are one element, it was the constant and surprising interpersonal connections that made each quest all the more rewarding.

Dotson, far right, with a group of Elon alums at a Washington Capitals game in 2019.

Moments such as running into a classmate at the Charlotte airport in 2019 and planning an impromptu trip to see the Capitals play in Washington, D.C. That classmate recruited half a dozen of Elon alums, unknown to Dotson, but together, they enjoyed a game in the nation’s capital.

“Just to see that many people willing to come to a hockey game to help support a great cause … and to meet some people from Elon I hadn’t met before was pretty cool,” he said. “Those Elon connections always pop up.”

But it was that culminating moment in Toronto that made him realize that this journey was so much more than watching hockey. It was overwhelming, but lessons learned at Elon of daring to be bold pushed him along.

“President Lambert used to say, ‘Use your degree to make the world a better place.’ Well, I don’t know that I used my degree so much, but I used the skill set that I learned at Elon to help try to make the world a little bit better,” he said.