The National Hockey League season kicks off tonight*. For most people, that â€œnewsâ€ elicits something between a shrug of the shoulders and a furrowed brow. Hockey in the second week of October? Isnâ€™t football still on? At least people arenâ€™t asking whether hockey players are still on strike.
Iâ€™ve been a hockey fan as long as I can remember. I joke with friends that growing up white and lower class in Michigan requires that you be a Detroit Red Wings fan, but Iâ€™m only half-joking. My childhood years coincided with the worst stretch in Red Wings history. In the first 16 years of my life, they only made the playoffs twice. And this was in a league where 16 out of 21 teams made the playoffs. Yeah, not good. Yet, still I rooted and hoped, believing as all true believers do that success was just around the corner, that my team would eventually shed the â€œDead Thingsâ€ nickname.
Eventually, they did, in large part because of two people: Mike Illitch, the owner who bought the team in 1982 and has run the organization with dignity ever since; and Steve Yzerman, who was drafted in 1983 and quickly became The Captain. I wonâ€™t bore you with my man-crush for Yzerman (and I am not alone, let me assure you). But Iâ€™m not embarrassed to say that I cried the day two years ago I heard Yzerman was retiring.
Nowadays, rooting for the Red Wings is like rooting for the New York Yankees. But like many hockey fans, my love of the game goes beyond just a connection with my boyhood team. I even enjoy cheering for my adopted hometown Blackhawks, though not when theyâ€™re playing Detroit, obviously.
I think I can trace my love of hockey to watching Hockey Night in Canada with my family. You havenâ€™t heard a crowd roar till youâ€™ve heard Montreal score a goal at the old Forum. A staple of Saturday nights at my dadâ€™s house was watching those games on CBC. I can still remember Guy Lafleur rushing down the wing. That was enough to send a chill down my spine when the Canadiens were playing the Wings.
In between hockey periods, my dad, brother, and I would play whatever weird game weâ€™d just invented. Except when Don Cherry came on. You didnâ€™t want to miss the â€œSharp-Dressed Manâ€ rant about fighting and European players (Cherry has always been pro on the former, con on the latter). By the way, almost all true hockey lovers are fans of fighting on the rink. One day, Iâ€™ll write a long post on the subject, railing against all the milquetoasts who think it should be curtailed, but for now Iâ€™ll just mention the old saw that nobody sits down when a hockey fight breaks out.
Whenever I talk to people about what a great sport hockey is, their inevitable first response is that they donâ€™t understand the game, that itâ€™s hard to follow the puck. And thatâ€™s true to a point. My response, though, is that itâ€™s hard to follow a football, too, but once youâ€™ve watched several football games you learn how to follow the action based on how the players are moving. Itâ€™s the same in hockey. To follow the puck, you just have to watch the players, and soon youâ€™ll be jumping out of your seat as you watch the puck clank off the post (one of the greatest sounds in sport). And hockey combines the toughness of football with the fluid grace of basketball and the speed of racing.
Not that Iâ€™m expecting to convert any Plastic readers, but donâ€™t be surprised if I throw out an occasional hockey post or bore you with the triumphs of my fantasy hockey team (this year, the Severed Heads are going for our third straight Milhouse van Houten trophy). And if you feel like sharing any of your favorite hockey stories, well the comments section is your friend. Iâ€™d love to hear â€˜em.
The puck drops tonight! Woo hoo!