My apologies that this is so long-winded, but I can't help that I'm a story-teller. Hockey runs deep in my veins, and I couldn't prevent this post from getting a little personal - which is something of a departure from my typically more reserved nature around here at PPP. Hope you enjoy.
5. Hereditary Fandom / Family Tradition
My paternal grandfather was a Ukrainian-Canadian from the prairies who grew up on a farm and worked at a Chrysler plant in Windsor his entire life, and never had more than a grade six education. I myself am an artist, and am now on my way to becoming an Art and French teacher at the secondary level. Needless to say, my grandfather and I had very little in common.
He did pass along one thing, though. Religion: that of cursing and yelling at the TV every Saturday night. Although he died when I was six, he had started my worship at the ripe age of two, and later allowed me to stay up just a little later each Saturday so I could catch every extra second I could.
Indirectly, he also helped my love of hockey by making a pretty good hockey player out of my dad. My dad was never fantastic, but he passed on thousands of tips and stories that mythologized the game for a young, inquisitive mind.
My dad played Varsity hockey for the University of Windsor (as well as some other men's leagues where he played alongside then-future-Leaf Pat Boutette), and they would often practice just before the Windsor Spitfires did. One night, Dick Duff, who was fresh off an NHL career and was then coaching the Spitfires, came into their dressing room and asked a few of the Varsity boys to practice with the Spits - turns out they were short a few skaters. During a scrimmage, Duff turned to my dad and said: "Why don't you skate on my line to start?" Being a modest guy, my dad said something to the effect of "nah, I'll just jump on for a few minutes to give some of your regulars a rest". Duff insisted, and told him just to go to the net. Sure enough, Duff TEARS through his team, once, twice, three times, and each rush, the puck lands on my dad's stick right in the slot and he picks up a few easy goals. After practice, Duff skates over to my dad and offers him a spot on the team; apparently, he was looking for a big guy, and had room for an over-ager (my dad was 20 at the time). My dad knew that he wanted to keep up his Pure Math degree and politely declined the offer. But here's the best part: it was only when Duff got breathing a little harder in the scrimmage that my dad noticed that his breath REEKED of whisky. Duff was half in the bag, and was making his Junior ‘A' team look like a bunch of fools even after retiring. That's a good hockey player.
4. The Montréal/Toronto Rivalry:
I went to an elementary school where French was the first language of the majority of the students and teachers. It was difficult at first, but I quickly adapted, and ever since the age of about 4, I've spoken French like a Québécois. Obviously, it's influenced the way I look at a lot of things in life, including hockey, but not always in the way that you'd think.
You see, thanks to hereditary fandom, by the time I'd started school, I was already a "pure laine" Leaf fan. The fact that school presented a constant threat and challenge to my choice of religion (er, team) only reinforced the trenches I dug to defend it. In other words, every single time Patrick Roy backstopped the Habs to another win, it made me a bigger Leafs fan.
Naturally, this put a lot of pressure on the Leafs to win, because when they didn't, the entire school became a battlefield. I can't even recall the number of times that I had to defend the Leafs' honour in a scuffle with a Habs, Nordiques, or later on, Avalanche fan. That book called "The Hockey Sweater" was more like my life than I cared to read about as a kid.
Although my mother knows almost nothing about hockey, she can still remember Game 7 in '93 when Gretzky scored his famous goal; half of my memory of the evening actually comes from her descriptions of holding a sobbing, inconsolable child, who was terrified to go school the next day.
To this day, people's jaws hit the floor when I tell them straight-faced (in French) that I am a Leafs fan. Filthy Habs.
3. The first live NHL game
The first time you see your idols flying around on the ice in front of you, it's such a surreal experience, no matter how inconsequential the game is in the larger context of the season. It is as if you, by your presence and observation, give real, breathing life to these people that were once just one-or-two-second blips of your attention on a screen. All of a sudden, you can identify the cause of every tap of every stick, every clatter against the boards, and every grinding push of skates. The game makes so much more sense.
I had a pretty awesome first game to boot, despite us losing to Arturs Irbe the Sharks 2 - 1.
My dad (who else?) brought me for my 10th birthday. We sat in the 10th row, right over centre ice, behind the Leaf bench, at the Grand ol' Lady of Carlton Street. The tickets were $50 - a FORTUNE.
In my program (which I can still remember had Sylvain Levebvre on the cover), I noticed that someone had scribbled in blue ink. I obviously had not learned cursive writing, because I didn't recognize right away that it was the signature of God himself Wendel Clark, who had randomly signed two lucky programs that night. Those with the programs got to go down on centre ice during the second intermission and shoot for a pot of cash and a jeep. Perhaps the best part was that I got to watch the end of the second period from the glass, and stood awestruck, as at the end of the period, Gilmour, Andreychuk, Gartner (it was his first game as a Leaf) & company walked right past me. Naturally, when it came time to shoot, I was too nervous and missed the 20 cm hole in the plywood, but at least I was closer than the other guy, who missed the net entirely. As a consolation prize, I received a jacket, one of Gilmour's sticks (not game-used), and a sticker.
2. Minor Hockey
I don't think there is a single more important activity in my childhood than minor league hockey. I made some of my best friends, formed a relationship with my dad that could withstand the fire of Mount Doom, and learned the joy to be found in the greatest game time has ever witnessed.
The stench of un-aired equipment on the road. The extra weight and clammy feeling of your equipment before the third game in the tournament. Searching for rubber mats so that your skates don't dull on the concrete floor of the arena. Getting lost looking for the endless one-stoplight towns. The cold, shivering mornings before a 6 a.m. practice. Join the school team? Now you play eight times a week. Second-hand equipment. The change room smack talk, tape balls, and spitting on the floor. The friendly smokers who stood outside the front doors of every game in every arena you ever played in. Your first real slapshot.
I wouldn't do any of it differently.
1. Scoring a goal in overtime
This is the single greatest feeling there is in the world.