The idea for this post was not my own. Rather, aided on a time-killing mission by my Google Reader, I stumbled onto a weekend post on the best pro hockey blog in the world, Yahoo’s Puck Daddy. It asked a simple question, and solicited a response from the everyfan: what is it about a hockey that made you a fan?
For me, there was no defining moment that announced my entry into hockey fandom. Considering that I was born into an old-fashioned French-Canadian hockey family, I suppose an argument could be made that the defining moment was my birth. But my point is that I was a hockey fan before I had the presence of mind to realize I was a hockey fan. As a toddler, I’d stand in front of the television and belt out the national anthem in step with Rene Rancourt. Like many young children, I had my share of imaginary friends, though I’d be willing to bet most kids didn’t hang out with an invisible Pete Peeters. And at parties, my parents got a kick out of calling me over and making me pronounce “Krushelnyski” in front of their friends. I was a hockey kid, through and through. But my upbringing alone did not make me the fan of the game that I am today.
1 – Family
I began playing hockey at the age of four. As the years passed, hockey was a part of my life in every way. At four, it was dad waking me up while it was still dark to drive to JFK for 5:30 games. At eight, it was visiting Rhode Island, Connecticut, or Vermont for weekend tournaments, eating at fun new restaurants and spending hours in hotel pools and game rooms. At twelve, it was the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Anchorage for the National Championships. At the time, I didn’t think much past the games themselves. But looking back, I realize now all of the quality time spent with my family. Those early intro-mite games, it was my dad nudging me awake and gearing me up in the living room. The tournaments? Those were weekends filled with games and friends, but also quality time with my parents and my sister. I can remember being a 13-year-old, playing on a Boston-area travel team, driving hours for one Saturday game. How many teenagers do you think spend entire weekend days with their parents? I did, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was damn lucky.
I’m long past those days of travel hockey and hotel video game tournaments. But a funny thing is happening in my life these days: I’m in the exact same place my dad was some 26 years ago. My son, all of three years old, is a carbon copy of the toddler I once was. His favorite toys are his hockey guys, and he plays with them every day. He can execute a between-the-legs drop pass in the living room, and knows the top shelf from the five hole. And while he’s an only child at the moment, he’s had an imaginary brother for at least a year now. His name? Michael Ryder (insert your salary cap joke here). So while my competitive playing days are over, I am eagerly awaiting the dawn of a new career. And while I hope my son succeeds in all he does, I don’t sit around and think about goals and wins and scholarships and contracts. I’m just looking forward to the car rides, post-game pizzas, and tournament weekends. And I hope that someday he too will look back and realize that while the game of hockey provides satisfaction in the moment, it also helps form tremendous familial bonds that transcend the game itself. In my 30 years on Earth, hockey has brought my family together more than anything else.
2 – Playing Outdoors
I can’t quite put my finger on its genesis, but there is an ongoing movement in North America to bring hockey back outside. It seems to have started around 2005, and in five short years, outdoor hockey has grown tremendously. The member count of the Yahoo Backyard Rink group that I belong to grows every month, and there are pond hockey tournaments taking place from December to March in just about every locale whose weather system will support it. Many participants in these events grew up on outdoor rinks. Those players see these backyard rinks and pond hockey tournaments as a way to get back to their roots and revisit their youth. They look back at their growth and development as players and have the local ponds and lakes to thank. But there is a fascinating and overlooked phenomenon that is taking place at the same time. Outdoor hockey, for many players, is serving as a re-introduction to the game. Speaking for myself and most of my friends and cousins, the outdoor game is relatively new to us. I know that for me, aside from a small handful of pond hockey games, I grew up in ice rinks and on organized teams. My parents just didn’t have a flat yard that would lend itself to a backyard rink, and I don’t recall being dropped off at the local pond for a quick game of shinny on any sort of regular basis. Outdoor hockey just wasn’t a topic of conversation, and that suited me just fine. But with this latest surge of outdoor love, I am experiencing this great game in an entirely new way. And with events like the New England Pond Hockey Classic introducing more people like me to the joys of outdoor hockey, my hope is that this growth continues. Because even though playing pond hockey doesn’t conjure up images of my youth for me, playing outside with friends and relatives certainly has an invigorating fountain-of-youth quality to it.
3 – Playing With Pros
I’m convinced that hockey players are among the most accessible professional athletes in the world. And I’m not just talking about autograph sessions or charity events either. I’m talking about how relatively common it is to end up in the same locker room as guys who make their living playing professional hockey. There’s this example (down in the reader section), where locked-out Boston Bruins’ center Adam Oates played a full season with a Worcestor-based men’s league team. Or this story in the Gazette about how NHLers PJ Stock and Felix Potvin take part in a pond hockey tournament in Quebec. And there was Maxim Afinogenov down in Alabama earlier this year. There are dozens of stories like these. When’s the last time Albert Pujols took batting practice at your local field? Do you think LeBron James structures his off-season workouts around the local YMCA pickup game schedule?
But hockey players are different. From the kids at the learn-to-skate programs around the world to the world class players taking part in the Olympics, each one of them shares a similar love for the game. So when it comes time to hang them up, be it for a union lockout or a career, it’s difficult for these players to stay away. And when the fans and contracts and stadiums disappear, what’s left are the blue collar lunchpail leagues, the charity tournaments, and the outdoor events.
I’ve been fortunate to play with several current and past professionals, and it never ceases to amaze me at the tremendous skill levels that these individuals possess, even decades after their last paid game. I’m just a 30-something-washed-up-ex-college player, but in the last year alone, I have: played in a charity tournament with a current LA Kings prospect; played all winter in a men’s league with a former Hobey Baker Award winner and his brother, who played 13 years in Europe; been a defensive partner of an ex-NHLer who played over 530 games for the Devils, Blues, Coyotes, Stars, and Bruins; and taken part in a pond hockey tournament with ex-NHLers who still reside in the Northeast. This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in other sports, and it’s us lucky blue-collar men’s league guys who benefit from watching these guys on the ice with us week after week. Seeing their tremendous talents on display right in front of your eyes can only make you a better player, and the fact that they are willing to play where there are no contracts or cameras shows the passion and love they have for the game. And both the skills and affinity for this great game are very easy to feed off of.
4 – NHL Playoffs
I understand that hockey is not for everyone. It struggles to compete with the WNBA for TV time, has to fight ice dancing for prime coverage during the Olympics, and is generally regarded by mainstream America as something that slots in between couples badminton and competitive laundry-folding on the importance scale. But to the folks that don’t quite get it, I beg you: watch, nay, ATTEND an NHL playoff game. I’m not sure I would have included this item a year ago. But last spring, I was lucky enough to go to every Bruins home playoff game in what we thought might be a magical season. I had seen enough playoff hockey on TV in my lifetime to make me think that I knew what to expect. But the ambiance, not only in the Garden, but in the subway, the streets, and the restaurants around the Garden, was so ignited that you could feel the energy around you. As game time approached, the hoards of people outside the arena shuffled towards it, heckling those crazy enough to wear opposition sweaters. We funneled into the building’s escalators, as nervous and excited and anxious as the players themselves. Spilling out onto the concourse, the impending explosion of intensity and fury enveloping us. Then walking through the opening to our seats, the sonic boom of excitement and apprehension forming a deafening roar that doesn’t let up for three hours. That is playoff hockey. And that is why I wish there was a way to bottle it and release it to everyone. Because I have yet to meet a single person who has watched a playoff hockey game and not come away wondering why they didn’t watch hockey more often.
5 – The Ice
It’s funny how you can play 20-something years of competitive hockey, and yet look back and still remember something as seemingly mundane as pre-practice ice. But I remember it so vividly that I can smell the cold rink air as I type this. When I was in high school, our school day ended at 2:33 on the button. Practice started at 3:15, but our slot at West Side Arena opened up at 3:00. The rink was relatively close to school, leaving us plenty of time to get ready for our daily skate. For some, this half hour was time to relax, to joke, to unwind from the school day with their buddies in the locker room. But not me. Because nobody rented the time slots in the few hours leading up to our practice time, the ice hadn’t been touched in hours. The hot water laid down by the Zamboni had long frozen, leaving our cold home rink ice a silky smooth white sheet, with not so much a single skate mark in it. Until I made them. There’s something about taking something so innocent and pure and perfect and dancing around on it. After jumping onto the ice I’d glide to the bench and drop off my backup stick, looking back to see the parallel tracks I’d made, with tiny flecks of ice next to them. Then I’d test my edges, making giant C’s in the ice. I’d grab a puck and slide it across the rink, letting it bounce off the boards before scooping it up and racing down the ice with it, chips of ice exploding off my skates with each stride. Within five minutes my teammates would join me, practice would start, and the perfect ice I’d enjoyed would be relegated to a mishmash of cross-overs and hockey stops. And I’d have to look forward to the next afternoon. I made my last pre-practice cuts 12 years ago, but the feeling of the ice under my blades and the echoing of my Sher-Wood in the empty arena have been programmed into my soul.
For a while after college, I was done with hockey. I was tired of playing competitively, I was angry with the Bruins for their miserly ways, and I was willing to walk way from the sport when the lockout begged us to do so. But I’m back in a major way. First it was my hockey-loving son, born in 2006. Then it was the Bruins-Habs Game Six in 2008. Then it was my backyard rink and my introduction to the world according to Jack Falla. Then it was this blog, and the realization that my hockey life had done an incredible job in preparing me for my real life. And as I sit here now, a few short years away from becoming a true hockey dad, I’m realizing how much I owe to this game, how much I love this game, and how much I want to share this game with the world.
Images courtesy of D’Arcy Norman, borevagen, and laverrue