(Aaron’s note: I didn’t intend to get dramatic and break this article into two parts, but because of length, it just made the most sense.
Part I here is my history with hockey, and why I’ve decided it’s time for me to pick a team to follow. Part II will be posted tomorrow, when I actually pick a team to root for, and explain why. Be sure to check back then.)
Considering I almost never write about hockey, I bet many of you would be surprised to know that the NHL and I go way back.
For two glorious years of my childhood, my uncle was a Hartford Whalers season ticket holder, and I spent my winters going to games with him. Truth be told, I’ve been to more NHL games in person than NBA, MLB and NFL games combined.
The memories from those two years will stay with me forever: Getting to a weekday game extra early just to see Wayne Gretzky enter the rink, and his presence seeming almost too large for the building. Watching Brett Hull come out of the tunnel for the first time, and thinking to myself, “Geez is that guy small.” Seeing Dominik Hasek and his goofy mask. Sensing the regalness of Mark Messier from 500 feet away.
Sadly though one memory stands out above all others, and that was the Whalers last game in Hartford. Unfortunately, I was in the arena that afternoon, about 15 rows off the ice with my uncle.
To fully describe that day in words is impossible, and ultimately, I could never do it justice. Let’s just say it was tough. I was too young to fully understand what was going on at the time, but when something you love, something that means so much to the people of a city just disappears one day, well, there’s no feeling quite like. I’m sure Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Seattle Sonics fans are nodding their heads right now.
Sadly, the emotion with the Whalers even went beyond that though. I know it might sound crazy, but to understand the importance of the Whalers, you’ve got to understand that it went well beyond wins and losses. They were literally the heartbeat of the city.
The Whalers used to play their games at the Hartford Civic Center, which- for those of you who’ve ever had the displeasure of attending a game there- know that the arena is the middle of the city, adjacent to a mall. At least it was a mall. You see right after the Whalers and their 41 home games left town, the mall ended up deserted and within months went under completely. Simply put, when the Whalers left Hartford, a big part of the city died with them. Hartford didn’t just lose a hockey team, but people lost their livelihoods.
So it was with that backdrop hanging over the heads of everyone that the Whalers took the ice on April 13, 1997 for their last game. They won 2-1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but- for obvious reasons- even a win was bittersweet. After the game, fans refused to leave the arena, almost like a group of high school seniors on graduation night who know their lives will never be the same again. My uncle and I must have stayed for an hour and a half extra that day, and we were hardly the last ones out of the building. To this day I still remember it being the first time I’ve ever seen a grown man cry.
Since the Whalers left town, I’ve been in a weird hockey limbo.
At first I wanted to keep following the sport, but honestly just didn’t have a team to do it with. I was born and bred to hate the Bruins so they were out of the picture. The Rangers did absolutely nothing for me and seemed a little too bandwagony for my taste. And the Islanders, well, even at a young age, I realized that being an Islanders fan is something you’re either born into or you’re not. Nobody chooses to root for the Islanders.
As for my former team, well they moved to Carolina, became the Hurricanes and adopted the NHL’s ugliest uniforms (Honestly, to this day, their uni’s still look like someone vomited square in the middle of them). And as much as I tried giving the Hurricanes a chance, it just wasn’t meant to be. As much as I loved the players on the team and never blamed them for what happened in Hartford, there was just something bizarre about seeing them in different uniforms, in a different state, playing for different fans. Almost like when you see your ex-girlfriend with her new boyfriend. Sometimes it’s better to just move on.
So that’s my hockey story. For close to 15 years now I’ve been on the NHL singles market, and truth be told, for most of the time it’s been a non-issue. As I got older I gravitated toward football and basketball, and later, unsuccessfully toward girls. Then I finished up high school, and went off to college and forgot about the sport all-together. Anybody who’s been in school lately knows that there just isn’t time to follow an 82 game season if you’re anything but a diehard. Not with all the frat parties, girls, open bars, girls, and a little bit of studying to keep you distracted.
Of course at the same time, hockey wasn't exactly going out of their way to cultivate new fans at the time. We all know the story by now, but it’s worth repeating: A lockout struck in 2004, and the resulting TV contract left games harder to find than Waldo in a crowded backdrop. By the middle of the last decade it almost seemed like more of a chore than anything to be a hockey fan.
Still, at a certain point within the last year I started getting the hockey itch again.
It really began around the start of the Olympics, when everyone (myself included), who’d been turned off by hockey the previous few years remembered what a wonderful game it really is. The ambiance is incredible: The speed, skill, strategy. And there really is nothing more exciting in sports than a goal in hockey.
And like many Americans that got swept up in Olympic fever, when the Winter Games came to an end last February, I vowed I’d get back into the sport. I was done with school, had more time on my hands, was still unsuccessful with girls, and was starting to take shape as a sportswriter. The timing just seemed right.
Unfortunately, it was right around the playoffs last year that I had a sad realization: To follow hockey you’ve really got to have your own team. It’s essentially an impossible sport to follow casually.
Think about it for a second. Say you’re an NBA fan, but don’t have a team. You can still flip on any Lakers game, and chances are pretty good that Kobe Bryant will be on the floor. Same with the Heat and LeBron James, the Thunder and Kevin Durant and Chris Anderson’s weird hair in Denver. Most of the NBA's best players are on the court at least 40 minutes a night. In football, Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis are on the field roughly half the time.
Well in hockey, you can’t just flip on a game to see Sidney Crosby. The guy is only on the ice a third of the time, and doesn’t play significantly more than the obscure guy from Slovakia on third line. Again, you just can’t find a casual hockey fan, someone who will flip on games without an allegiance. It’s rarer than a sober night at Charlie Sheen’s house.
It’s also why I realized that if I wanted to get back into hockey, I’d have to pick a team.
Still, I wanted it to happen organically. Picking a team is a lot like getting married, ultimately you’re stuck with them for better or worse, until death do you part. So within the last few months, I’ve jumped in, tried to follow the sport a little more closely, and gather as much information as possible.
As I started to break down the teams, I really only had a few requirements. First - and maybe most important- are the fans. Essentially, I want to feel like I’m part of a community. That I have people to overanalyze every trade, signing and draft pick with. Not everyone needs to be a die-hard, but it would be cool to have a few people around who cared a little too much, like I tend to do with my teams. Basically, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t signing up for the hockey equivalent of the Miami Heat.
The first team that eliminated the Phoenix Coyotes. I’ve been to Phoenix during hockey season and the apathy for the team smells worse than my sister's cooking. Nobody cares. Nobody pretends to care. Then again, that’s assuming people actually know the city has a team.
The fan apathy angle takes out a handful of other teams too. Gone are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets, who I honestly feel like are a figment of my imagination. The Blue Jackets have been in the league what, 10 years now? How have I never seen one of their games on TV? Fan apathy eliminated the Florida Panthers are too. Although in their fans defense, if I lived in Miami and could drink mojitos by the water in January, I don’t think I’d go watch a lousy NHL team either.
Teams were also eliminated from contention because of geographical reasons. Simply put, if I’m going to follow a team, there’s a reasonable chance that I’d actually like to get to your city, and get to some home games.
With that in mind, see ya later New Jersey. Your state may have given us Ronnie and Sammi, Pauly D, and GTL, but at the end of the day, I’ve been to Newark, and once was enough for me. The idea of going there on any type of basis to watch my team, ranks right behind my spring break plans to visit Azerbaijan this March.
Same with Buffalo. I used to date a girl whose family was from upstate New York, and I can’t imagine a more miserable place on Earth from October to April, except maybe Guantanamo Bay. Same story with Edmonton and Calgary. They look nice enough on TV and in the movies. I’m just not going to be the one to verify that in person. And Minnesota? Well I’ve never met a group of nicer people than Minnesotans. But you’ll catch me following Justin Bieber on a city-to-city international tour before I go to Minneapolis in the winter.
I had to trim the fat with a few other teams too. I already explained my stance on the Bruins, Rangers and Islanders, and 15 years later my feelings haven’t changed. Something about Philadelphia terrifies me, eliminating the Flyers from contention. If Philadelphians will boo Santa Claus, they’ll eat me alive. The Anaheim Ducks are a little too Disney-ish for my taste. And as much nice as I’ve heard about St. Louis, I haven’t heard anyone mention the Blues in probably a decade (Although they were on the wrong end of one of my favorite hockey highlights ever)
So with that, I’ve got 12 viable options left. Here they are alphabetical order:
The Chicago Blackhawks; Colorado Avalanche; Dallas Stars; Detroit Red Wings; Los Angeles Kings; Montreal Canadiens; Ottawa Senators; Pittsburgh Penguins; San Jose Sharks; Toronto Maple Leafs; Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals.
Which team will I pick? Come back Tuesday to find out!
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