Sunday, November 13, 2011
I went to my first hockey game in probably 15 years this weekend. I was surprised at the rush of memories that came with the event! Since I have a "Can-Am Fam" (Canadian-American family), hockey has made some great plays in the game of our life.
Surprisingly, hockey for me is in my genes, starting before I was born...even though I didn't know it for many years. My grandpa on my dad's side played for the farm team of the Detroit Red Wings and before that in Winnipeg where he met my Canadian grandmother. He died when my dad was just 14, so I never knew him or his stories. I found out about his hockey skills at my own dad's funeral when my grandma showed me my grandpa's obituary and told me a bit about him. I was glad to learn that tidbit later in life because I had a much greater appreciation for it, living at the time in Canada surrounded by hockey lovers in my in-laws, family, friends, co-workers, city and nation in general! At that moment, I felt I was finally a true Canadian!
When I was a little girl living in Indiana, we had a neighbor who played hockey. He was a Canadian from Ontario who had moved to the States to play. I don't even remember the name of the team or the division he played, but I do remember my first live hockey game. I remember distinctly my mom dressing my sister and I in identical white sailor pants that buttoned up on each side of the hips. She did our hair in pigtails and gave us clear instructions as to what our behavior was to be at the game, as she wasn't accompanying us. It was a cold, snowy winter night in the Great Lakes region, classic hockey weather! I remember climbing the stairs of the cavernous coliseum and how that in itself was awesome. Then we took our seats. My sister and I marveled at how they folded up with us inside them and quickly learned to sit on the edge of our seat to keep them down because we were so little and light. Then the music started! The old organ cranked out rah-rah chants that we learned and participated in within seconds...Da-da da-da da-daaahhhh....CHARGE! The scrape of skates against the ice and slam of bodies against the boards, the big zamboni, the rowdy crowd and the fights! Wow! I was overwhelmed in the best way and decided I loved hockey.
Then we moved to Oregon and to a new hockey scene...the Portland Winterhawks. Not the NHL but not bad hockey either. The sport wasn't popular in my town; it was the Portland Trailblazers who stole the show, but I remember two girls in my school who lived and breathed the Winterhawks, wearing red and black striped scarves, sketching hawk wings on their binders, and going to all the games. Whenever they talked about hockey I was always reminded of the games and gifts I received from our hockey-player friend in Indiana and how much fun it had been.
In college I became friends with a Canadian student. He was an avid hockey fan. I remember one day at the lunch table in the cafeteria him talking enthusiastically about the Edmonton Oilers with another fellow Edmontonian. I asked innocently, "Who are the Oilers?" thinking football in Texas, not hockey in Alberta. They both looked at me, dumbstruck. "You've never heard of the Oilers?" Jeff asked incredulously. "No," I replied. "What about Wayne Gretzky? You've heard of him, haven't you?" I knew my answer was supposed to be yes, but I had to be honest. "No." Now they looked at each other, dumstruck. And so Jeff began to educate me about hockey in a very passionate way, and I've been learning ever since! As our friendship developed into something more, Jeff decided to ask me out. Where was our first date? Yep, a hockey game! He wanted to be sure I liked it before he liked me! So off we went to the Winterhawks game. I remember three things about that game: 1) What I wore (gray cords, a black sweatshirt with my name custom printed on it with some cute design, and gray flats), 2) How Jeff put his hand on the small of my back to guide me through the crowded coliseum (I thought it was romantic), and 3) All the fights.
So we dated and went to the Winterhawks games, and then we got engaged and traveled up to Edmonton to go to an Oilers game. This was the real deal. By now I totally knew who the Oilers were and who Wayne Gretzky was, and I was excited to experience NHL hockey at its best. And the NHL did not disappoint me...Gretzky skated out on the ice and within seconds scored. The crowd went wild and Jeff looked at me knowingly, with a huge grin plastered to his face, as if to say, "See, what did I tell you?" I loved it!
We got married and moved to Edmonton in the Oilers heyday. I entered my first hockey pool at work (with Jeff coaching me from the sidelines). We went to games and wore the colors. I often scored free tickets from work, which was a blessing to a newlywed couple without a lot of expendable cash. Then our son was born...and Jeff was quick to indoctrinate him by watching games on TV with his newborn son in his arms so his little ears would hear the sounds of skates and sticks and Don Cherry's commentary and work it into his infant psyche. Then we (Jeff) purchased a "Little Tykes" hockey set when Justin was a toddler. One of my favorite memories of Justin at the age of 2 is playing hockey with Jeff in the basement, and every time Justin would make a goal he would throw both arms up in the air and shout, "EEE DOOOOOOO!!!" (which in baby language translates "He scooooores!", the way Rod Philips always announced it).
Because Justin loved hockey so much, he took my place at games. I had three other little ones to take care of by then, so I was happy to let Jeff and Justin have their night of male bonding. But the Oilers traded Gretzky and slid into their slump, and hockey wasn't much of an interest to me for many years, until the wonderful season of 2006 when they pulled up their socks and pushed their way back into the play-offs. The reason I really remember those Stanley Cup play-off games is because it was the first time in my married life that I turned on our complicated Sony TV all by myself. Jeff and the boys had a conference to attend and couldn't watch the game and I was alone. You may think it's odd that I had never turned the TV on, but I really dislike TV and never watch it. Never. Really. So, the play-off game was on and I picked up the remote and began pressing buttons, guessing at the correct combination until, voila! The TV came on, and I watched that play-off game all by myself, getting just as excited as the guys would have!
Then we moved back to the States, and I didn't watch hockey again until the Olympic Gold game between Canada and the US. I am a dual citizen, but that day I was all Canadian. Canada should win its own game. Americans win everything...they don't need hockey. (Or soccer! Give that to the little nations!). So I decorated in red and white, we dressed in red and white, I served Canadian food (Timbits and Hawkins Cheezies among other more gourmet offerings) and we proudly waved the Canadian flag. We sang the Canadian anthem and cheered and went crazy (yes, crazy) when we won. So much fun!
Now my boys (all of them...my own sons as well as my Canadian boys who spend every weekend with us) play in a ball hockey league. They are known as "The Canadians," even though that is not their team name. They made it to the play-offs this fall, so we went to the play-off games to cheer them on. They only had two subs that day, so playing 5 games in one day was pretty exhausting. But we watched them win again and again, until the very last game for the cup. We girls painted a red maple leaf on our cheeks and sang the Canadian anthem and cheered until our throats were raw. I think I was more excited for that game than for a real hockey game...probably because it was MY boys playing! But those guys, the youngest in the league, whupped the big boys and won the championship. They lifted the cup high in the air, kissed it and pretended to drink the beer because none of them could actually drink it as some were under age and the rest were all in Bible college. With their sweat-soaked jerseys, shaggy "No-Shave November" beards, and wide grins, they were quite a site to behold. I decorated for our Sunday dinner the next day with hockey gloves, maple-leaf napkins and their championship cup filled with red and white flowers and the Canadian flag. It couldn't have been sweeter if it was the NHL!
So the Winterhawks game this weekend was really not about the Winterhawks game. I'm truly not that big a fan, and I'm not into stats or seasons or stars. The enjoyment was all about this little part of me I don't pay attention to very often but every once in awhile comes alive. By genetics, by marriage and by nationality, hockey has a small but firm hold of my heart.