(Image property of Frank Rekas)
Growing up I can remember playing hockey in my living room. We had a fake fireplace that I used as the net, and I would use a tennis ball, or whatever object I could find (Tinker Toy parts) to act as a puck. If I didn’t have a working hockey stick I would tape a couple yard sticks together, and that was enough to make me think I was Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita. Yes, I’m dating myself. I even figured out a way to make saves and think I was Tony Esposito! This would drive my Mom crazy at times, but it was a lot better than some other things I could have been doing. Like the time I cut my hair once, but that’s another story.
I’ve been watching hockey since I was 5 years old, and my first ever game was attended with my dad driving just the two of us to the old Chicago Stadium to see the Chicago Blackhawks. As he told me the story years later it was to see the Hawks play against the New York Rangers, and there was a snow storm barreling down on us. Despite that and the fact that my Mom was totally against going because of the bad weather, we trekked on. And from there my passion for hockey was born.
Fast forward to the summer of 1996 and a two year old toddler was spinning around the living room coffee table as the Florida Panthers were in the Stanley Cup playoffs. My daughter, Alexandrea wasn’t necessarily aware of what was going on, but as a good hockey parent, I felt it was my obligation to instill the behavior of watching and learning hockey early. She was awake believe it or not, for game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final as the Panthers ultimately lost to Colorado. As she became older, she began to appreciate what all the craziness was about. Why I loved the game with so much passion. Learning all my favorite players, as well as the one’s I despised (for various reasons). Also learning the game itself, the rules, and why certain things are the way they are.
Just as I had my moment, she had hers. There was a game in February of 2001 that I took her to in Florida as the Panthers were hosting the Buffalo Sabres that will forever be etched in my mind. On that particular night she and I had seats in the 300 level, and this was during a time when the Florida Panthers were having an awful season. They finished with a 22-38-13-9 record that year, and the building on that night was pretty empty. At some point early in the first period, a Florida Panther employee came up to us and asked if we’d like to go sit down stairs in the lower bowl. Sure, why not! We proceeded to head to the lower level and were politely directed to the second row behind the Sabres bench! Her eyes were wide open, having of course never been that close to the action. She was mesmerized by how you could hear everything, and how fast the pace of the game was, and how loud the noises were. And how the boards rattled with every check.
Then it happened.
A puck made it’s way to the Sabres bench and was caught by the backup goaltender that night, Martin Biron. Marty quickly turned, looked at me (who else, cause no one else was near us), and then pointed at my daughter indicating that the puck was for her. He tossed it. I caught it. Handed it to her. And she became a fan for life. This also prompted her to start her puck collection from any city that she visited. As well as when I would travel, my job was to bring home a puck for her if the city I was in had a hockey team. While she doesn’t yet have all 31 teams, she’s gathered herself a nice collection. But that one display of kindness by a young hockey player made her appreciate the game even more, and gave her a connection to it with me that will be carried on forever.
As she grew older, she became a fan of both the Florida Panthers, since she is a native Floridian, as well as the Chicago Blackhawks since that’s where I’m originally from. Rooting for both teams is very easy for her, and she’s also developed her favorite players as well as a few that, well, she doesn’t care for so much. Even when she went away to college she found a way to stay in touch with the games, and the players, and to try to watch as many games as she could. By the time she was 21 she had witnessed one of her favorite teams win 3 Stanley Cups. When her dad was 21 the only thing he got to witness was a lot of heartache. I’ll never forget the 2011 playoffs when the Hawks lost game 7 to the Vancouver Canucks in overtime. The millisecond the winning goal was scored, she stormed upstairs to her room and slammed her door shut.
My work was complete! I had created the fan.
When the Florida Panthers lost in triple overtime to New Jersey in 2012 she waited up for me to come home so that she could find out what the players had to say about the game and the series, and what the reaction was from then head coach Kevin Dineen. When the Panthers traded Erik Gudbranson she couldn’t understand why, and wouldn’t accept any answer I gave her. Her appreciation for the sport has grown more and more over the years, and the tradition of what my Dad had instilled in me, was passed down to her. He would be proud knowing that his granddaughter loved the game so much. Actually both of his granddaughters feel the same, as my brother has done virtually the same thing withhis pride and joy.
I’ve taught her a number of rules and traditions such as: Get in your seat before the anthem starts. With or without your food. Don’t get up during play, and don’t try to get into your seat during play. If you can, sit in your seat the entire period, but if you need to leave, only do it once. Never leave a game early. Ever. No matter how bad the score. Be respectful of visiting fans as someday you may be the one rooting for the visitor.
Sports are a diversion. A pleasant one most of the time. Yet we often get so wrapped up in the wins or the losses that we lose track of why we appreciate the game as much as we do. We are so invested in our teams that we often let our emotions take over and become irrational. We think we have all the answers. We think we know what the fix should be, and who to fire, trade, or sign as a free agent. When none of that goes our way we become incensed with the result.
I’ll end with this. I hate losing more than I like winning. I love a certain style of player, as well as coach, and dislike those that aren’t cut from that cloth. However, sometimes we take the game way too seriously, and we become emotional idiots. Take some time and reflect on why we love this game as much as we do. Pass on your tradition if you’re a father or a mother. Or even as an Aunt or Uncle, or Brother or Sister. The memories that you create will be ever lasting. And when your team is struggling, or can’t find it’s way out of a phone booth, think of those memories that were created for you, or that you created. Enjoy this game and don’t always be so wrapped up in it’s outcome. It’s just a game. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Be passionate yes! Be devoted and loyal. But take a step back in your conversations and discussions with others, as well as your reactions.
I have to credit @MarkLazerus who writes for the Athletic and covers the Chicago Blackhawks for spurring this idea. I’d also like to thank my Dad who got me started to love this game, as well as my daughter who makes sure that our tradition of seeing the Blackhawks play the Panthers every year takes place.
Thank you for reading.
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