1. I love hockey because Wendel Clark is a real life superhero.
This most recent fall, with the Leafs in a deep funk, I had the good fortune to take in a game at Wendel Clark's Classic Grill and Sports Lounge on a night the man himself was there. The hostess, spotting my vintage Clark jersey, turned me over to one of Wendel's handlers, who in turn arranged for Wendel to come over to meet my friend and I, and sign my jersey after he finished his dinner.
"Starstruck" is not a word that has often been used to describe me. My day job is in the entertainment business, and though encountering celebrity is not part of my day-to-day routine, it's not nearly uncommon enough to be exciting. That went out the window when I met Wendel Clark. As I stood in awe, looking the man whose amazing career first piqued my interest in a game that would go on to become one of the most significant components of my life, I turned into a fifteen-year-old girl. I said nothing, mouth agape, for what felt like minutes, but wasn't. A lot of people with enough fame to get regular autograph requests tire of it, and become frustrated with fan giddiness, but Wendel Clark just laughed and signed my jersey. I eventually stammered out a "thank you" as I shook his hand.
A decade out of hockey, face to face with a fan who had long since outgrown the concept of superheroes, Wendel Clark made me relive the best parts about being a kid, all with a greeting and a handshake.
2. I love hockey because my best friend growing up had a big driveway.
Playing hockey on honest-to-goodness ice is a hell of a thing, but despite my frequent hyperbolic complaints to the contrary, winter weather doesn't last all year in southern Ontario. In the school-free days of Summer, playing hockey in the driveway was always the choice activity, whether there were two of us out there, or enough to make teams. The many afternoons-turned-evenings we spent taking turns getting to "be" Wendel Clark remain some of the happiest memories of my childhood.
3. I love hockey because my family is largely dysfunctional.
I'll spare you the gory details, but there is a great deal of unnecessary drama in my family. Entire branches of it refuse to even speak to other entire branches of it. Individuals within it devote ridiculously large segments of their lives to dwelling on how much other relatives make them insane. Large gatherings are always "eventful," to use a media-friendly term, and would be dreaded, if not for the fact that there has always been a hockey game to watch.
Growing up, every time relatives began to lock horns, those of us who didn't want to be in the middle of it found refuge around the TV. Hockey was always the excuse. When I might have instead been listening to family members keep the "funk" in "dysfunctional," I was learning to appreciate what Peter Zezel brought to the table. For stretches of childhood that could have been quite difficult, hockey was my constant salvation.
4. I love hockey because of the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.
The PPP Podcast recently featured the hosts reminiscing about childhood hockey games, and a common thread was awe at the hockey shrine that was Maple Leaf Gardens. I could only relate partially. As much as I loved and revered the Gardens, I only managed to go there a few times. I did most of my growing up around the Niagara Region, so my family's easiest option for live hockey was always Buffalo, and its Memorial Auditorium.
The Aud, for those who never had the good fortune to go there, had only one "bowl" of seating. For those of us who always sat in the uppermost level, this made a bonus event out of trying to spot people leaving their seats in the lower levels during the third period of every game, so we might score a free upgrade. There was nothing quite like sitting in some shmoe's abandoned good seats, eating a beef on weck sandwich (purchased cheaply on Canadian-at-par night), and taking in the viewing experience that only live hockey offers.
The Sabres moved out of the Aud in 1996, and I'm still not completely over it.
5. I love hockey because the words "Ass Train" are engraved on the Stanley Cup.
The 1944-45 Toronto Maple Leafs employed an assistant trainer named Arc Campbell. When that team won the Cup, he was entitled to have his name engraved on the trophy along with those of the players, management, and rest of the coaching staff. To fit his name among the rest, the engraver abbreviated his title to "Ass Train."
Every professional athlete who has ever given an interview has coughed up some platitude about teamwork, but no other sport genuinely commemorates all the members of the team – right on down to the assistant trainers – like hockey does (the Grey Cup is also engraved with winners' names, but its winners are hardly the top achievers in their sport). The Stanley Cup isn't just a symbol of victory, it's a monument to everyone who achieved that victory, on display for everyone who ever sees the Cup again. Hockey heroism may not literally be remembered forever, but silver lasts a hell of a long time.