Friday, June 27, 2014

My Journey Into Hockey Fandom

A hockey fan is born
By Chad Smart
@chadsmart & @my123cents on Twitter

Growing up near St. Louis, my only interaction with hockey was when I’d turn the channel to KPLR-11 at 6:30 to watch the nightly syndicated original programming. Occasionally there would be a St. Louis Blues game on instead. I would watch just long enough to realize Charles in Charge, or Out of This World wasn’t going to be on and then change the channel. In the ‘90s, I became a “fan” of the Pittsburgh Penguins not because I actually liked hockey, but because Alyssa Milano was dating Rob Brown. I figured if I liked the Penguins that would give us something to talk about when I eventually met Alyssa. Twenty years later I’m still waiting to meet her.  Seeing a University of Arizona vs. Arizona State University hockey game in college was my only other hockey interaction until six years ago.

After living in Los Angeles for a year, my friend Mike and I decided to become roommates. Mike is a hockey super fan. In fact, I’d say during hockey season his television viewing is 85% hockey games, 14% hockey highlights and 1% The Colbert Report.  This meant if I watching TV with him during hockey season, I would be watching hockey games.  I would usually watch maybe one period at most before retreating to my room where I could watch anything besides hockey.  After a year of living together, Mike and I went our separate ways and I was free to avoid hockey for the most part. The only time I’d remember hockey existed was when Mike and I hung out. Life was good.

Hockey Map

In the summer of 2013, Mike told me he was starting a hockey blog and one of his goals was to attend a game in all 30 hockey arenas. The first trip being planned was a weekend to Denver to see the Avalanche on Saturday then watch Peyton Manning and the Broncos play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. Mike asked if I would be interested in tagging along to the Mile High city. Since I enjoy traveling and felt this would be a chance to use my Peyton Manning voodoo doll, I agreed to go without realizing my life was about to change.

After the weekend in Denver, plans started being made for a weekend jaunt to the Great White North. My Australian friend Jackie was working at a ski resort in Banff, Alberta. I wanted to go visit her and it just happened the weekend I was thinking of traveling both the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers were playing home games. Unfortunately the trip never materialized due to work commitments. As a back up plan, Mike and I made the five-hour drive up to San Jose to see the Sharks in action. 

The Sharks!

San Jose was the proverbial religious experience that started my conversion into full-blown hockey fandom. First off, S.J. Sharkie is one of the greatest mascots ever. Second, when the Sharks take the ice, they skate out of a giant shark head. How can you not think that is awesome?  I’ll admit that I have a bad memory when it comes to what actually happened during the games I’ve seen. I seem to recall this being a fun game between the Sharks and the Minnesota Wild. Maybe it was or maybe I was getting my hockey baptism and thus have an altered memory of the game.

A week or two before the San Jose trip, Mike started piecing together a weekend trip to New York in March. The initial plan was to see The New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.  The weekend for the trip fit nicely into my schedule as I was set to finish up work on (the now last season of) Kitchen Nightmares the week prior and needed a good getaway to decompress from a hectic season.  Before we got to New York, I joined Mike on the second half of his two games in one-day experience by watching the Dallas Stars win on the road against the Anaheim Ducks. A week later a couple other friends accompanied me to the Staples Center to see the Los Angeles Kings battle the Montreal Canadians.

After the Anaheim game, I decided I needed to buy a jersey to wear to games. If I was going to embrace hockey, I felt it was only fitting to look like I actually knew something about the sport. The problem was I wasn’t a fan of a specific team. Sure, I had liked the Penguins twenty years ago but I couldn’t tell you anything about the team now. The more I thought about it, the more I decided I didn’t want an NHL jersey as I would be wearing it to multiple arenas and didn’t want to risk humiliation or jeers for wearing an opposing team’s colors.

A quick web search yielded the discovery of Geeky Jerseys.  This was the perfect solution. Pop culture inspired jerseys. Unfortunately, they only sell two styles at a time and the ones I wanted weren’t available. More searching of the web ensued and finally I decided to get a jersey of a minor league team. Since I am first and foremost a wrestling fan, there really was only one option, a Calgary Hitmen jersey.  The team takes its name from former co-owner, former WWF World Champion, Bret “Hitman” Hart.

The Devils in action
Now that I could pass as a hockey fan at games, it was time to finalize plans for New York.  As mentioned earlier, the plan originally was for a quick weekend trip to take in two games. Digging further into the NHL schedule resulted in the finding the New York Rangers were playing at home on Monday. Since we were already going to be there, why not add a day to the trip and make it three games in three days?  Shortly before the trip my friend Sean surprised me with an Evansville Icemen jersey as an early birthday present. I added a Saginaw Spirit jersey as well so now I had three jerseys for the trip.

Henrik Lundqvist tending goal
First game of the weekend featured a matchup of the two closest teams in the NHL. The New York Rangers hopped on the subway and took the nine-mile trip into Newark to battle the New Jersey Devils. Having two teams as close to each other as these meant the crowd was almost a 50/50 split in terms of who fans were cheering for during the game. The Rangers skated away with 2-0 victory resulting in Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist setting the New York Rangers record for most victories by a goalie and most shut outs.

Lundqvist ceremony
For the New York Islanders game, our friend Matt made the drive up from Baltimore.  This was a good thing as Matt drove to the arena instead of us trying to figure out how to get there using subways and buses. There are only two positives things I can say about the Islanders game. From a wrestling fan perspective, we were in the venue that hosted the New York portion of Wrestlemania 2. That and the fact the Islanders mascot is Sparky the Dragon who may or may not be related to Dragon Dragon makes him one of the best mascots in the league.  Other than those two items, the Nassau Coliseum is completely outdated and probably the worst venue in the league.

Wrestlemania display at MSG

Being in the venue of Wrestlemania 2 may have been a disappointment but the next stop would be a different experience.  Two days after seeing Henrik Lundqvist’s record setting performance, Mike and I went to see what he could do at home. Walking around the concourse of Madison Square Garden, I marked out big time when I found a display commemorating Wrestlemania 1. Who needed a hockey game? I was looking at Roddy Piper’s boots and Hulk Hogan’s tights. Wait, that sounds weird.  Onto the game.  Before the game, Henrik was presented with a few gifts to honor his accomplishments. During the first period, the pre-game celebration seemed a bit of a jinx. The Phoenix Coyotes went up 2-0 after one period. The Rangers would eventually come back and win 4-3 in overtime.

Even though we were watching one of the best goalies in the league, and saw the Coyotes goalie get carried off the ice after injuring his ankle, the highlight of the game for me was my introduction to Brian Boyle. Since this was my first season of watching hockey, I wasn’t familiar with too many players. I don’t know the reasoning but for some reason whenever Boyle got the puck the Rangers faithful would boo him out of the building. Even though he was on their team, the fans simply didn’t like him.  This led me to making the decision that Brian Boyle is the greatest player in the NHL.  I was rooting for him to be the MVP in the Stanley Cup Finals. Sadly it wasn’t to be for this year. I’ll be curious to see where Boyle ends up next season.

Louie as Darth Vader
The trip to New York came to a close and it was time to move on to the next phase of my cross-country three-week trip. I headed to Illinois to visit family before driving up to Banff, Alberta.  While I was back home, the St. Louis Blues had one home game I could fit into my schedule. For the geek in me this game was perfect as it was Star Wars night. The game also allowed me to hang out with friends who were getting ready to move back to Boston. The highlight of the game, besides seeing Louie the mascot dressed as Darth Vader, was seeing TJ Oshie record his first hat trick. 

After four games in one week, it was time for a hockey break. The next two weeks consisted of driving to Banff to pick up Jackie then driving back to Illinois to pick up Kevin (the creator of this blog for you new readers) and on to New Orleans for Wrestlemania 30.

Once the wrestling weekend was over it was time to head back to Los Angeles. But not before a quick stop in Phoenix. Met back up with Mike and a friend of his from Junior High to take in the final Phoenix Coyotes home game of the season. Normally we would sit in the upper deck of the arenas to get a good view of the ice and because those are the cheap seats. 

Fourth row in Phoenix
For the Coyotes we managed to get fourth row seats for less than what the cheap seats at MSG cost. Being that close to the ice was an interesting vantage point. However, I have to say, I prefer the higher seats. The view from the rafters reminds me of the classic EA Sports hockey games for the Sega Genesis. During first intermission of the game, I was standing outside of the team store just minding my own business. An older gentleman noticed my Calgary Hitmen jersey and felt I would be a good person to discuss Western Hockey League.  He started talking about this player and that player. I wanted to respond with, “I just like the logo of this team. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Thankfully Mike was nearby and since he knows hockey, he was able to converse with the guy who happened to be from Alberta.

The next day we took in an Arizona Diamondbacks game. After seeing five hockey games in three weeks, baseball was like watching life move in slow motion. We flew back to LA that night as the NHL season came to an end. That should have been the end attending games, but I was fortunate to live within thirty miles of two teams who were in the playoffs.

First up on the playoff circuit was a rematch from an earlier game. The Dallas Stars faced the Anaheim Ducks in the opening round.  Because I don’t own a calendar and rarely know the date, I ended up initially buying tickets for the wrong Friday. Luckily by the time I realized the mistake, I could still get tickets for the right date for the same price. Ended up going to Games 2 and 5 in Anaheim. While the Stars had won the regular season game 2-0, during the playoffs the Ducks avenged the loss with 3-2 and 6-2 victories.

Minnesota playoffs
During the second round, I was stuck in Rochester, Minnesota while my dad underwent some tests at the Mayo clinic. Rochester is a nice town. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot to do there when it came to avoiding cabin fever from being in a hotel room for a week. I kept checking Ticketmaster and was fortunate enough to find a few unsold tickets had been released the day before game three of the series. I got to add another arena to my list and saw the Minnesota Wild defeat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0.

Having gotten addicted to not just hockey but playoff hockey, while sitting in the St. Louis airport awaiting to fly back to LA, I broke down and bought tickets to Game 4 of the Ducks/Kings series. While I ended up paying more than I would have liked, I was hoping the Kings would have been going for the sweep. The Ducks had other plans and won Game 3 a few hours after I bought tickets. The Ducks went on to win Game 4 by a score of 2-0. The outcome seemed fitting for the final game I would see this season. Visiting teams winning 2-0 had become a running joke throughout the travels.

Common sense almost went out the window as I debated buying a ticket for game 5 of the Rangers vs. Kings Finals. As much as I tried to justify it, I couldn’t pull the plug since I was unemployed and didn’t have a solid lead for a job. Watching the game on TV, I have never felt more disappointed in listening to reason and not doing something crazy. Oh well, there’s always next season.

During a seven month journey the NHL cultivated a new fan. I still don’t know a lot of the players and can’t give you stats or even tell you the outcome of games I saw without taking time to think about them. Yet, for the first time ever, I was eager for the NHL schedule to be released this past weekend. There are already plans in place for trips during the season. If all goes according to plan, I will get to add Chicago, Miami, Tampa, Boston and possibly Dallas to the list of venues visited. The only issue remaining is do I pick a team to root for during the season or do I simply enjoy the sport for what it is and cheer the home teams?  We’ll save that discussion for another day.


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