I took the long route to my fandom. I crisscrossed the continent, and my allegiance for the first, oh 17 years, wandered like hitchhiker in the 60's, complete with regrettable acts in my past.
I grew up surrounded by hockey fans. My Mother was a Bruins fan, my dad’s brother was a hardcore Leafs fan, my mother had 3 brothers, 2 Leafs fans, and a Blackhawks fan, and her father was a Red Wings fan.
How I never got into hockey is beyond me.
(This picture was taken before my first - and last - hockey practice. It was not worth missing cartoons to me on Saturdays)
I went about blissfully ignorant of what I was missing. Saturdays at my mom's parents meant Hockey Night in Canada. I knew the Leafs were bad — or good, or rebuilding, depending on who you asked — never to ask about the Blackhawks, and that my mom would pine for Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.
I turned 10 in the winter of '93, and it seemed like everyone was more excited about what was going on in hockey. My city is in a constant 3-way of Atlantic Division teams. The Leafs and Canadiens are dominant, but there's also a loyal Sabres following since we're minutes from the border.
More and more Habs and Leafs shirts were popping up at school and like any impressionable 10 year old, I hopped on board the bandwagon of whatever shirt I liked better and what the kids I hung out with were wearing. So yes, here is my secret shame, now available for all the internet to know:
The first NHL shirt I picked out myself, I ASKED for, and wore proudly, was a Montreal Canadiens shirt.
Hooh, there, I feel better after getting that off my chest (I also wore it in my grade 2 class picture, but that photo seems to have gone missing)
Sadly, I wasn't just a bandwagoner. I knew players’ names, i knew the team’s weakness (not having Roy in net). I remember passionately explaining to my mom that the Habs "would be screwed" without Roy. I wanted a Roy poster for my room. I tried to argue how great they were, but I didn't really know enough about other teams to do so. I started collecting hockey cards; I though The Hockey Sweater was true Canadian art, and I would get up early to watch the cartoon of it when the CBC would start its broadcast day (it rotated with Log Driver Waltz and The Cat Came Back). It's a dark time in my life.
A couple of years passed, I outgrew the shirt and moved on (I think it was around the time Patrick Roy moved on as well, so that may not be a coincidence).
Later, a friend of mine got NHL 90 something for the SNES and we decided to pick a team to play a full season as. We chose the Sharks because, hey, sharks are pretty cool. They played the Jaws theme on the organ and the goalie had a funny name. Artus Irbe.
This is me in my sharks fan period, my glasses are smaller now, but I'm still a dork.
So I got a sharks shirt and was a fan for maybe a season, probably until our time with the SNES ended. Then I got into the Buffalo Sabres a bit because of their closeness, and my first ever NHL game was Sabres VS Panthers Plus, I was a teenager and had to be opposed to what everyone else liked. The Sabres were my rebellion. I watched all of the '99 playoff run and experienced my first case of gut punching disappointment via a triple OT game won by a traitor.
I wasn't all that into hockey anyway, and it was always losing the interest war with the WWF. I then got a job at a take out pizza place in the evenings. The staff was usually me and one driver, and since I was using this job to escape and avoid spending any time at home, I ended up working there full time after school.
At work I got into reading the paper front to back. We offered customers the Star, the local paper, and the Sun to read while waiting, so I was saturated with Leafs coverage. And this was in the early 2000's, when they made the playoffs and were an overall good team. So I read about the Leafs, we listened to every Leafs game on the radio at work, and I started to watch when I was at home too.
My mom wasn't much of a hockey fan by this point, but didn't complain when I put it on, and insisted on watching every Cup finals each year, even if she hadn't watched a single game during the season. 2002 was probably the year it was solidified I was a hockey/Leafs fan. I watched/listened to every playoff game that year, we even brought a TV into work to pick up the CBC over the air feed.
During these playoffs my girlfriend was teasing me about all of a sudden liking hockey just because she did. I was looking forward to the conference final, since the Leafs has eliminated Ottawa (yet again), and I figured it'd be easy for the Habs to beat Carolina since Carolina was not a hockey market and the Habs had Doug Gilmour, who was a legend to the Leafs fans I grew up with. Easy as pie for Montreal, I thought, and I started to pre-gloat about the Leafs’ victory over the Habs in the ECF and the return to the Stanley Cup Finals after 35 years for the Leafs.
Then Carolina pretty much destroyed Montreal in games 5 & 6 like Dougie destroying the glass of the penalty box door, dashing my hopes of a Leafs/Habs ECF. (Which was probably a good thing since my future wife was moving away to go to McGill, and it would have been bad to say goodbye as a gloaty jackass).
Whatever, the Leafs can beat Carolina, I said. We had Sundin, Mogilny, Roberts, McCabe, CuJo, and my first favourite Leaf: Dimitri Yushkevich.
Then my old friend Arturs Irbe ruined it all.
My passion for the game and for the team didn't waiver, but increased the next winter when I lived on my own in Toronto as I went to school. I didn't know anyone in the city, hockey was there for me; it's all I had until Lady left school, moved to Toronto, and we shacked up.
It's not a magical tale, no awe inspiring moment, but it built up over time, wormed its way into my life, and now it's here to stay, and growing every year. I moved back to Niagara the same time the OHL's IceDogs moved from Mississauga and they've crept up to an even split with the Leafs for control of my fandom. I even put in 4-5 hours a week of work with the team a few seasons ago, and I was there for what was a very successful season and a run to the Championship.
So that's my long, rambling tale of how I became obsessed with the game of hockey and afflicted with a love for the Maple Leafs. I'm passing the love of the game onto my kids. They have sweaters for the Leafs, Habs, Flyers, Sabres, Nordiques, Team Canada, and a sweet Mighty Ducks third (no not Wild Wing, sadly). They're free to make their own choices, free to cheer for whatever team they want. But so help them if it's the Senators.
Hopefully I got to him early enough.
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