A Word about Hockey

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I am a passionate hockey fan. Now that our season has ended in the most glorious fashion possible

buncha sweaty guys in a hog pile.

buncha sweaty guys in a hog pile.

I’d like to take a moment to examine my hockey history. It’s a good one. I hope you’ll stay with me.

I grew up in a basketball family. My three older brothers played all kinds of sports, but my mother wouldn’t allow football (too dangerous) and despite our proximity to a pond and a neighborhood full of hockey talent, none of The Boys were really interested in playing hockey. *I* wanted to play hockey with the neighborhood boys, but they wouldn’t allow it. We didn’t really even watch the Blackhawks, except for the occasional winter evening after the Super Bowl and before March Madness. It was all basketball, all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I wasn’t a good basketball player, despite my height, but I loved the speed and teamwork of basketball, and with two DePaul graduates in the family, basketball was a big thing for us during the Ray Meyer era.

But in high school, I dated this guy

oh, the hair.
oh, the hair.

who was, at the time, a starting defenseman on the varsity hockey team that went to the state championship game. I say “went to” because the team lost in the final, but hey–it’s pretty danged good to get THAT far in the Chicago suburbs.

So in my junior year of high school, I saw a slew of really good hockey games, and Tim’s mother sat beside me and dutifully explained all the arcane rules I’d never even heard of before. She explained icing, and offside, and why those awful boys on the other team wanted to slam my boyfriend into the boards, and why that was legal. As I fell in teenaged love with Tim, I fell in love with this game. You’ll hear a lot about speed, but what amazed me was the combination of speed and skill and power and finesse and teamwork and strategy and intellect required to execute a *good* hockey game. The players have to be alert constantly, even when they’re off the ice (unlike almost all other sports), and the physical endurance required just to make it through 60 minutes of hockey is outer limits. By that time in my life, by dint of having three older brothers, I’d watched a LOT of sports, and by a wide margin, hockey impressed me the most. When you factor in the wholesome boyishness of hockey players, and their…um…athleticism, there’s no way I could resist. I was hooked.

When I went away to university, I searched for but never found hockey coverage on TV. I tried to follow stats in the paper, but it’s just not the same as watching games. I became a dormant fan.

When Tim came back into my life, he brought hockey back with him. At first, I was the jilted hockey-widow, losing him for hours in the summer–yes, August–while he would pore over prospects and drool over acquisitions made by teams all over the league. Always loyal to his home team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tim had long since dismissed the Blackhawks because of Evil Bill Wirtz, whose storied greed rendered the Hawks nearly extinct. The day “Dollar Bill” died, Tim actually danced a jig, hopeful it signaled a change in the Blackhawks’ fortunes.

A change indeed.

After Bill’s son Rocky Wirtz took over and hired John McDonough, previously of the Chicago Cubs organization, to run things, Tim started to pay closer attention to the Blackhawks. We attended prospect camp every summer, and saw some hopeful young guys who have since become part of the Blackhawks family. As Tim became more involved in active hockey-fan “work”–and if you know Tim, you know it’s really work, with all the research he does into stats and records and player profiles–I had a decision to make; I could either resign myself to losing him to hockey from August to (hopefully) June, and piss and moan about how we never “do anything fun”, or I could join him. So join him I did.

And boy, have we had fun.

Since the Blackhawks’ transformation, Tim’s gone through stages of involvement, from writing his own Blackhawks blog, to being picked up by a more robust existing Blackhawks site, to creating a Blackhawks site of his own with a fellow blogger (Cheer The Anthem), to finally resigning his position when he made the move to Portland. Our trips to prospect camp became “work” related, as did every televised game.

If Tim had expected hockey to become his “Man Cave”, he must have been sorely disappointed. I became a student of the game myself, cribbing from his blog, doing my own research and forming my own beliefs about hockey, and my own favorite players. Tim and I have distinctly different views of the sport now, and I’m confident that he respects my opinion as much as he does other hockey writers he knows.

I could rhapsodize for hours about this sport, and my team the Chicago Blackhawks. I could tell you about the beauty and synergy of a successful team on the ice, the constantly flowing power from skate to puck to stick to player to coach, the energy required to take a hit and to make one, the ebb and flow of that energy through each player on the ice. The Blackhawks truly were a wonder of teamwork this year, a factor that most of the national hockey critics failed to recognize until the Cup was hoisted.

Hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart, and not just because of the potential for blood. The speed is difficult for some viewers to adapt to, especially if they’re used to watching football (run a few feet, stop and scratch your butt) or baseball (lovely time for a nap) or (heaven forbid) golf all year long. This season in particular with the Blackhawks was Heart Attack Hockey, every game a margin of seconds and one or two points that kept fans tensed and ready to throw the remote at the TV. But, as Hitchcock said, true suspense is when that ticking bomb under the table never goes off, and the Blackhawks kept us in suspense the entire year. They were ever close to losing their number-one-in-the-NHL position, but never quite lost it.

Yes, my team was #1 in the NHL all year, and yet it was a season rife with suspense. It felt like they teetered on the edge of failure every single game. There were times when I was disgusted with their play (Carcillo), baffled at coaching decisions (Leddy), and, briefly, convinced they would fall victim to believing their own myth (Detroit.) But there were moments of pure beauty as well; when battle-worn Ray Emery stood in the goal mouth and matched Crawford’s strength and dazzling speed; when Patrick Kane became a real boy and started playing like the monster everyone knew he could someday become; when Seabrook so obviously took charge in Detroit and won the game “for” Jonathan Toews, the fearless but aggravated leader; when Handzus played with a broken wrist and a torn MCL in his first Stanley Cup Final series, and held that magnificent trophy over his head after almost two decades slogging away in a league that exacts a murderous toll on the bodies of the men who give it their lives.

But for my last year in Chicago, I am thrilled and gratified that this team kept me in full thrall from January 19 to June 25. From the moment of Hossa’s tragic fall to the ice last April to Handzus’ addition as the Blackhawks’ transformational (and long-needed) second-line center, I’ve marked every shot and hit and face-off with the dedication of a proud parent. Just as critical when they screwed up, I have been overjoyed at their success.

In this year of change, of huge losses and disappointment, of difficulty and anguish, the Chicago Blackhawks have given me something into which I could pour all my emotion, the excess energy from fighting uncertainty, a distraction in a very trying time in my life. This season of spectacular hockey from the Blackhawks and all around the league has brought Tim and me even closer; at the end of every day since the lockout ended, we would get on the phone and talk about the day’s action. Hockey has been my constant companion, a stand-in for Tim, a reminder of our history, and the Cup a fitting end to our time in Chicago.

So for all of my Twitter followers who have certainly lost patience with my endless Blackhawks updates, for people on Facebook who can’t quite reconcile the gardening/piano teacher/empty nest/grammar Nazi with the hockey devotee, this is my way of explaining–but not apologizing. I won’t apologize for enjoying this sport that has come to mean so much to me. It’s far more than simply a way to pass the time while Tim’s gone; it’s provided the emotional energy and momentum to carry me through some dark nights into a rather bright morning.

On Friday, the Blackhawks will hold a celebratory gathering of some kind in the city of Chicago. I didn’t get to go last time, but this time, my daughter and I will be there, screaming and hollering and hoping for a chance to see one of our heroes take the stage and absorb their well-earned adulation. Look for me in the crowd; I’ll be the one in the Hossa jersey.

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