I'd had December 21 marked on my calendar from the day the NHL schedule was released. The one and only day of the year that the Leafs would be playing in the city where I live. My chance to attend, not only my first Leafs game, but my first live hockey game, period. Despite the high prices and the near-guarantee of a Leafs loss, I was determined to go and have the best possible time.
And I wasn't disappointed, even though the Leafs didn't score a single goal. In fact, when I woke up the next morning, I was in such a good mood that I genuinely forgot the Leafs had lost the game. Here are some highlights and notes:
- I sat up high, perched in one of those nosebleed seats that makes you feel like you're going to fall forward and plummet through the air. I sit in these kinds of seats a lot, for concerts and plays and dance performances, because they're the only kind I can afford. Usually, I feel like I'm losing something-sure, I get to witness this great performance of The Nutcracker, but I can barely make out the dancers' faces. But I was actually positioned at the perfect angle to watch play on both ends of the ice. The only thing I couldn't really see were board battles directly below me.
- Following the example of American Hero Phil Kessel, I sang along to "O Canada" as well as "The Star-Spangled Banner." It just felt right.
- On a related note, I'd heard about "cheering the anthem", but I was in no way prepared for it. It was a wave of noise that didn't let up until a good ten seconds after the anthem itself stopped. The crowd was substantial, though there were some empty seats, and when they cheered it sounded like it was twice the size.
- It startled me when the actual hockey began because of the quiet. Not the quiet of the crowd-they were cheering-but the quiet of the game itself. When I watch hockey on TV, sometimes I'm glued to the screen, but more often than not I wander away to make dinner and rush back into the room when I hear the announcer's voice start to rise in pitch. Other than Bob Cole, I don't care for most hockey announcers, but I rely on them all the same to cue me in to what's happening in the game. In the rink, there's nothing but the whirr of skates and the thwack of pucks against sticks. You have to pay attention for yourself. In some ways, this made watching the game a more intense experience-I was afraid to look away in case I missed something. But it was also a more peaceful way to watch the game. Without preplanned narratives blaring in my ear, I got swept away in the saves and the skating. And I found I didn't need the commentators to see what was going on.
- For instance, David Clarkson is very bad at doing hockey things, and so is Korbinian Holzer. Missed passes, botched takeaway attempts, tripping and falling over... On the other hand, I was really impressed by the speed of Kessel, Kadri, Rielly, and Gardiner. JVR had some great moves. And Reimer was sharp for the majority of the game. I couldn't quite believe they were down there on the ice, these players that I spend so much time thinking and reading and debating about. As silly as it sounds, I'd almost forgotten they were real.
- It wasn't all idyllic. Turns out Chelsea Dagger is really, really annoying if it's celebrating goals scored against your team. The goal horn felt like someone yelling "HAHA, YOU LOSE" in my ear. And there was a stereotypical Sports Bro behind me, who genuinely laughed in derision when Reimer was announced as the starting goalie, called Phaneuf a "bum" at least three times, and cheered harder for the ice girls than anything else. The existence of the ice girls themselves was disappointing, too. The whole ice crew comes on together, the men in black and grey tracksuits, the women in tiny red shorts and tight shirts. The men look absurdly covered up in comparison to the women, as if they were bundled in giant overcoats. The message couldn't be clearer. Men are for doing a task that needs to be done. Women are for displaying, to entertain men. I saw tons of female fans in the arena, but no evidence that the Blackhawks organization cared about anything but their money. It's the kind of thing that TV cameras don't capture, but it's there all the same.
- There are other, lighter little things that I noticed that I wouldn't have seen on TV. Like the linesman high-fiving each other to start the game. Or the little jerky movements that goalies make when they're warming up. That was really the best part: being able to see everything for myself.
This might have been a Leafs loss, but on some level, that didn't matter as much as I thought it would. Hockey is fun to watch, especially when you're able to appreciate the smaller things about it. Maybe that's the key to surviving another year of mediocre Leafs play. And maybe when the Leafs-and I-return to the United Center next year, they'll be able to stay out of their own zone for a little longer.