Today is Sunday May 27th, and I woke up this morning realizing that for the first time in recent memory, there would be no playoff games to plop down on the couch and enjoy…which is to say that waking up this morning sucked.
As we wait for the puck to drop in the Stanley Cup Final series between the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, I’ve found that it is time to reflect – not so much on how we got here (the round-by-round blow-by-blow), but more how I got “here” – to a place in my life in which, as a born and bred Southern Californian, I’m counting down the minutes until the first game in a championship series between two teams I don’t have a rooting interest for, and in a sport that is, to put it kindly, non-traditional in a warm weather market. My parents didn’t know the first thing about hockey before I got into it, so it isn’t like they forced it on me. So, how in the hell did I get “here?”
Well, I got to thinking, and I realized that so much of what goes into eventually making a casual hockey fan a lifer, are the traditions we’re taught and/or develop for ourselves – or, specifically, the hockey-watching traditions that are instrumental in shaping how we learn about, experience, and grow to love the game. Read about one of mine after the jump…
Hockey may be a sport historically played and watched in colder climates, but that doesn’t mean that locales above the 40th parallel have an exclusive on being crazy for it. I grew up in Orange County, but any poor soul foolish enough to try, would not have had very much success in convincing 10-year-old me – who lived, ate, breathed, and dreamed of hockey – that I was not a real hockey fan just because I happend to live in an environment that, even in the winter, was more often than not, sunny and beautiful. Southern Californian hockey fans may not have grown up with “traditional hockey things,” like the institution that is Hockey Night in Canada, but where we lacked in tradition, we simply made up our own. (My young retinas likely wouldn’t have been able to handle Don Cherry anyway.)
No, instead of cozying up next to the fire and dressing in layers to combat the arctic chill of the Canadian winter, whenever I was fortunate enough to find hockey on television (back when ESPN actually broadcasted games – I know, I know!), I would prepare accordingly by lacing up my old Mission roller skates, grabbing my gloves and my “outdoor” stick (usually all wood, or with an aluminum shaft with a wooden blade), and proceed to take my pre-game “warm-up,” which more or less consisted of me skating around our non-grassy backyard, stickhandling through patio furniture (it mattered not whether or not there were people sitting in said patio furniture), firing ball after ball at the plastic goal my Dad had bought me, and just generally driving my parents up the walls. (I thought it was a particularly well-manufactured net because it had a real top shelf, such that if you placed a water bottle on top the net and were able to pick the corner on the vinyl shooter tutor, you could actually “pop the water bottle” – which, to me, was pretty much the coolest thing ever.)
After my “warm-up” period, I would skate into the house, onto the carpet (I’m sure my Mom loved that), and set up shop in front of the television, gloves and stick still in hand, ready to worship at the altar of my NHL heroes. It really didn’t matter who was playing (it was rarely the Ducks – I learned about East Coast bias very early on), because I was watching hockey, falling in love. In-between periods (or, if I was really feeling it that day, during commercial breaks) I’d hurry back out to my makeshift rink and get in a few more toe-drags, a few more twisted wristers right up where mama hides the peanut butter, and then hurry back into the living room to continue watching my heroes wage their on-ice battles – Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov, Eric Lindros – these are the players I grew up idolizing, and to me, they were larger than life and the best hockey players on the planet. It seemed there was nothing they couldn’t do, and I wanted to be just like them – and in my backyard “rink,” I could. And so, back and forth, I’d go, probably close to ten or fifteen times over the course of the game. My parents must have thought I was insane.
I may not have been skating on a frozen pond out back behind the barn, freezing my toes to popsicle temperatures, but I was playing hockey – I was taking part in and contributing to the communal experience of growing up hockey. Just like my peers in Canada and the Mid-Western and North-East United States, in my mind, I had Fedorov’s speed and agility, Jagr’s hands, and Sakic’s snap shot, and perhaps one day, just maybe, I too could play in the NHL. It didn’t matter that I was playing roller hockey. To me, hockey was hockey, and I had fallen head over heels in love.
That’s right. Love. Whether or not you realize it, you’ve just read a love story. I was 10-years-old (or younger), and I fell completely, irrevocably in love with hockey – like, til death do us part. Beautiful, no? Well, this “love” story of mine would not have had such a happy ending were it not for the tradition that I took it upon myself to institute. I fell in love with hockey because I felt like I could participate in and dictate my own “creation” myth while watching my heroes on television, hoping that one day, if I worked hard enough, I too could play hockey on television, on that huge stage. I know that I wasn’t the first young hockey fan to lace up the skates before, during, and after a hockey broadcast – it’s long been a tradition in the aforementioned colder climates (although, I can’t help but to feel that, in fact, I had it easier than my Northern counterparts, as I could step outside in shorts and a t-shirt and skate directly onto my little rink). It is the mere fact that I felt compelled to do so, however, that makes grown-up me feel like part of a tight-knit community – a community not divided by latitudes and longitudes or borders, but rather bound together by common love for a sport. A love born from tradition. And it’s a strong, all-consuming love, isn’t it?
What are some of the traditions that made you fall in love with our wonderful sport? Leave comments below.