Some say that one must embrace hockey from birth to fully appreciate it. Oh, one can become a fan of this great sport no matter your upbringing — it’s a pretty compelling spectacle — but if you didn’t grow up with it, then it’s something you learn to like, not something you breathe.
I breathe hockey. And I owe that to my dad.
We’d play hockey in the basement, later with my brothers when they were old enough to stand. We’d play hockey in the street. We’d hit South Mountain Arena to watch the Devils practice. The neighborhood would flood the basketball courts (which for some reason had curbs around the sides) and skate over rock-strewn ice. We’d go to NHL games every chance we got — not often, as we didn’t have the money — most likely snagging a seat from the our friends who had Devils season tickets when we could; every game was AN EVENT in my mind.
My dad really liked hockey, but he wasn’t a fanatic for a particular team. As a kid I was so excited when New Jersey got its own team (thank you, Colorado) and my home state would finally have a franchise that called itself New Jersey—I root against the NFL’s Giants and Jets to this day for playing in New Jersey yet calling themselves The New York Whatevers. (Yes, I know we had the Nets, but I was a short kid and didn’t care a whit about basketball.)
Anyway, not long after the Devils sprung to life (thank you, Colorado), my dad brought little me to Madison Square Garden for a Rangers-Devils game. We were up in the blue seats (those who know, know), and I wanted to wear my new Devils t-shirt. My dad tried to explain to me what a bad idea that would be, but I insisted — and of course, the blue-seaters took no mercy on a kid in enemy uniform. That drove home to me the fervent loyalty one can embrace, for better and worse, in the hockey world. And I loved it.
Fourteen years ago I became a Washington Capitals season ticketholder. I’ve lived in Jersey, Philly, and lots of other places, but I identified with the Capitals in a way like no other team. It didn’t hurt that, at the time, tickets were cheap and plentiful; attending games is the best way to really get to know a team. Just watching on TV doesn’t have the same impact: “Hey, did you see (minor leaguer x) got called up? How about that hit in the second period?” Sitting in those seats, particularly during the Caps’ lean years, got me deeply into all things Caps.
But more than anything, I was drawn the Capitals’ workmanlike identity– a group who, despite or perhaps because of their talent, never quit.
When I started On Frozen Blog with my friends John, Gary, and Todd, we’d been the four most strident voices on a listserv (yes, we are old). We decided to start a website to spout off in a public forum. We sure haven’t been doing this for the money, as there’s been none — it’s for, with apologies to Kevin Costner, the love of the game, and of the Capitals.
A few years ago, I brought my dad to his first Capitals game. He and my mom had come down to DC for a visit, and the hockey-scheduling gods were in our favor. Sitting there watching hockey with my father again, after far too many years, was a great moment. Together we cursed the refs’ ineptitude (as is our wont), drank beer, and high-fived for each Capitals goal.
Recently my dad succumbed to cancer at age 64. It was blessedly quick at the end—but undoubtedly awful, and far too soon. One of my last memories of him was him sitting in the hospital after a night of extensive treatment, reading the paper and complaining about the Devils’ playoff performance, and asking me how the Capitals were doing (not well, at the time).
The next day he was gone.
My dad’s passing has distanced me from the game of hockey — because that’s what it is: a game, played by well-compensated athletes to entertain fans. After my father’s death, I could no longer rally with those who wailed and gnashed teeth over the Capitals’ performance as if it were a matter of life and death.
Here’s the thing: his death shook me in many ways, but it gave me a perspective I was lacking. It’s all well and good to love hockey, and in particular to love the heartbreaker Washington Capitals. I certainly do. And the day this franchise finally wins The Cup, I’ll be screaming for joy as loudly as Goat does. And I’ll probably get a ridiculous tattoo (don’t tell my wife).
But passion without perspective is a fool’s game. Anyone who spouts hatred at another human being because of this game, or who puts hockey ahead of the people in your life — well that person needs to extract their head from their ass. Passion for one’s hobbies and entertainment is all well and good… the highs are higher, and the lows are muuuuch lower, if you’re invested in a team than if you’re a casual fan. But passion and perspective are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they’re important companions.
That said, my moods still rise and fall with the Capitals’ fortunes, particularly in the post-season. Ted Leonsis has talked about his fond memories of attending football games with his father. He says that now he’s in the business, as the owner of sports franchises, of “making grown men cry.” And I can see that: sometimes we are not well-equipped to share, emotionally, with our parents, and sports can be the common element that helps us connect with family and friends.
I’m regaining my passion for hockey, gradually, because I see in it echoes of moments with my father that I’ll never forget. It’s still fun to curse the refs, jump for joy after victories, and even slump after defeats… and yes, to pen passionate, opinionated, and sometimes overzealous prose about the game. And when I get the urge to call him, the fond memories are starting to outweigh the feeling of loss.
Basically it’s a great escape to lose oneself in the game for a few hours. But I’ll never be quite the fanatic I was in earlier years. And that’s good, because professional sports is entertainment. Damned good entertainment, mind you, but nothing more.
Sports can be a touchpoint with family, friends, and fellow fans — a way to connect with others via a shared passion. Of course there are other, deeper ways to connect with those who are important in your life… but any opportunity to do so is one worth considering, and if sports can be that conduit, well hell, embrace it.
Case in point: My six-year-old nephew (the son of my footie-pajama-wearing brother above) loves to call his Uncle Mike and talk hockey. It’s so great chatting with him and bonding over our love of hockey… he reads the sports section every morning, and is sure to tell me his hometown Hartford Whale “are the best!” My birthday cards are now festooned with stick-figure crayoned hockey players. How cool is that, right?
And thus my dad’s hockey love moves on to the next generation.
So yeah, hockey’s a blast, and screaming for the Caps is rollicking fun. Just don’t let real hatred bubble up in you about the game; okay, sports hate, perhaps, the kind of thing you yell about over (many) beers, but nothing that festers, nothing that eclipses reality, nothing that lasts.
If you’re able to use your passion for hockey to craft great, lasting moments with even one other person… well then you’ve achieved a success greater than anything that can be accomplished on the ice.