November 15, 2009
(Ed. Note: Our series "5 Reasons I Love Hockey" features puckheads from all walks of life revealing five things that either made them a fan or that keep them watching hockey. It will run every weekend. Have a suggestion for a "5 Reasons" guest blogger? Hit us on email. Enjoy!)
James "Tapeleg" Gralian blogs about the Colorado Avalanche and many, many other hockey topics at Jerseys and Hockey Love and co-hosts The Rink Podcast, a wonderful look at the issues of the day featuring some interesting interviews. (I appeared on the premiere episode many moons ago.) Tapeleg also does a ton of traveling around the country for his day job, and will be taking "a southern hockey road trip" in January.
Here are Five Reasons James "Tapeleg" Gralian Loves Hockey ...
1. 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche (and beyond)
I was never a sports fan. My dad loved football, and my mom loved baseball. My sister played all the sports, and I was the artsy guy. That's just how it worked.
Game 4, Stanley Cup Finals, 1996. I'm in a dive bar watching the game on a big screen TV. It's the second overtime when my cell phone rings (I had a company phone from the radio station I was working for). One of my co-workers called to tell me he was sitting at a bar in downtown Denver with a seat at the bar for me, watching the game. I told him I would be there if they went to a third overtime.
As soon as the second overtime ended I hopped in the car and pulled up to the bar, which happened to have a press parking spot out front available. I sat down at the bar, picked up a beer.... And the Avalanche scored.
The place went nuts. People took to the streets (maybe not to the degree of a first round playoff win in Montreal over the Bruins, but still). There was a parade and a rally at the courthouse (I can pick myself out from the press area in the photo book that commemorates the season). It was incredible.
After that, I was hooked. Due to an incompatible work schedule and a lack of money, I wasn't able to pay as much attention to the Avalanche as I wanted to. But I was completely in the bag for the team after that. I watched when I could, and followed the game at a distance. When I finally was able to take hockey completely into my life, the core of the Avalanche team was still there for me.
I remember skating when I was five years old. The memory is me skating on ice, rather than running on ice with blades strapped to my feet, but that's what memories are like. At Age 6, my family moved from Minnesota to Colorado (IBM does not stand for International Business Machines, it stands for I've Been Moved). Our smaller town didn't have any rinks, and skating died for me then and there.
It wasn't until I was thirty that I tried skating again. I strapped on a pair of rental hockey skates that hadn't been sharpened since the day they were bought, and stepped out onto the ice at the Mall of Memphis (that's right, Memphis, TN). It didn't bother me that I couldn't stop without falling or crashing into the boards, or that I was skating backwards by accident a few times, or even that the mall's nickname was the Mall of Murder (really). I was doing what the players were doing, and it felt damn good.
In Baltimore a few years later, I attended a hockey clinic with my girlfriend. We were the oldest ones there by twenty years. We skated hard, learned a lot, and out-worked the eleven and twelve year olds who only wanted to shoot and score. A few weeks later, I broke both my arms in a scooter accident, and unlearned everything I had achieved in hockey camp. These days, I'm still waiting for the "will versus skill" thing to kick in.
I have never wanted to improve as much as with skating and playing hockey.
3. Minor League Hockey
The minor leagues are where all the fun of hockey is for me. I like watching the NHL on TV, and I enjoy going to the games, but going to a minor league game is an experience I would choose first.
Minor league hockey creates its own culture. Every team has its chants and taunts, its rituals and celebrations. For a truly intimidating experience, check out the opening of an NAHL (American junior) Lincoln Stars game. Take a road trip to see the War Memorial in Johnstown, PA were the movie Slap Shot was based and filmed. The old barns that house teams in Port Huron, MI, Glens Falls, NY, Wichita, KS or Muskegon, MI are seething with character and hockey history.
And the battles and rivalries are intense. I saw Mike Commodore(notes), playing with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL during the lockout, drop Brent Thompson of the Providence Bruins with one punch. When the Colorado Eagles and the Laredo Bucks meet, you can always expect fireworks. And for every player whose career is on the way down, you get to see one whose career is on the way up. Players who are fighting for their roster spots without guaranteed contracts, creating new rivalries and new stories.
The minor leagues have everything you could want: cheap tickets, fans who care about hockey, and teams that care about the fans. You can rub elbows with the players, and they are happy to see you there. You can taunt the ref, and he may even hear you. The food, drink and merchandise is much cheaper. And they have the best mascots. All for about a fifth of the cost of an NHL game.
The minor leagues are where hockey really lives for me.
4. Hockey Jerseys
My hockey jersey obsession is tiny compared to other fans. Right now, I'm sitting in the sixty five range. Some people think that's a lot of jerseys, and some scoff. It's nothing compared to this guy. But the first word in the title of my blog is Jerseys for a reason. There is nothing else like them in all of sports.
When you put on a hockey jersey, you are also putting on a social object. What I mean is, when I wear a hockey jersey, people want to talk to me about hockey. I talk to more TSA agents in airports about hockey than just about anywhere. Fans from Johnstown, PA come out of the wood work when I put on my Johnstown Chiefs jersey. I have met more people from Russia because of my Moscow Dynamo jersey than I ever would have without it.
And they are vastly different from any other sports jersey. They have interesting patches, and variety of colors and designs. Every other sports jersey is bland by comparison.
5. The Community
I started my hockey blog after seeing a few other hockey blogs - that don't exist anymore - because I wanted to talk about hockey with other hockey fans. The fans I found helped me stay afloat through the offseason, and kept me writing when there was nothing going on in the NHL. They helped my find my voice as a hockey writer. All of those bloggers (Zanstorm from Nucks Misconduct, Earl Sleek from The Battle of California, Roy from Wild Puck Banter, Robert from Eyes on the Prize, Sherry from Scarlett Ice) are still writing, and they were a huge influence in my blogging.
Through hockey and hockey blogging, I've made new friends (like Greg from Post Pessimist Association, or Eric McErlain from OffWing Opinion), and met a ton of new hockey fans. I've taken in games with all kinds of fans, and kept up correspondence with them. I don't think it would be as fun to be with the fans if hockey were the number one sport. The relative obscurity of hockey in the United States creates a bond with other hockey fans.
The community of hockey fans can't be beat. They will drive hours to watch a game with you, buy you a ticket when you come to town, and even meet you for a skate, all without having met you face to face. They will hang out with you, take you out for a beer, and talk your ear off about the game you just saw. They will tell you about their childhood watching the game, and ask you about your hockey background.
Hockey fans are the best. I'm happy to be one of them.