Growing Up in a HockeyTown
Every Story has a beginning; it is the ending that makes it worthwhile.
There seems to have been alot of sharing of personal hockey tales this past week. Some were so brilliantly done that one is forced to almost weep the story was so moving. JennaTee, Luar, Maru the list goes on and on. As always when I read these stories I feel a certain connection with the author because of a shared passion and yet a certain amount of distance due to differing circumstances. So where does my story start? Is it really a moving tale of love lost, rejected and found again? For me it is all about growing up in a Hockey Town.
With all due respect to Detroit and it many loyal fans you cannot possibly understand the term hockey town unless you live in one. As any Canadian fan will tell you hockey has a totally different connotation in these communities. I speak not just of rabid fan love, but an all encompassing, community wide obsession. If you have never experienced it, I am sure it would seem hard to believe, but I am getting ahead of myself. We need a beginning.
In the beginning there was Pittsburgh: I was born in the little college town of Clarion Pennsylvania, the second son of a typically blue-collar working class family that western Pennsylvania is famous for. At the age of two we moved from the east coast to the Midwest because my father like many patriotic Americans at the time was in the military. So to the frozen north of North Dakota we came. Why you may ask? Well at the time (the height of the cold war) North Dakota was the front line defense for any invasion or attack that came over the pole. GFAB was at the time home to the 315th air refueling wing (don't quote me on actually squadron numbers) and the 101st bomber wing. We also had the largest arsenal of nuclear missile in the Continental US. It was often said that if North Dakota every succeeded from the US we would instant become the third largest nuclear power in the world, yet I digress. So we were station in Grand Forks but with all of my relatives still living in the Pittsburgh area my love of Pennsylvania remained. At that time it was mostly the Steelers and the Pirates because both teams were winning championships but also because I was from PA and it was a link to that past.
The hockey town up north: As I stated in the open perhaps only people who live in hockey towns, those of us in communities along the border can really appreciate what it means to live in a hockey town. Perhaps one way to explain it is to give something similar, we will take football. If you live in Western PA or Texas you have some idea of how important football is to some communities. If you have watched Friday Night Lights either the movie or the TV show or caught a few episodes of the reality show two-a-days on MTV you can begin to get a picture for how obsessive communities can be about football. Now take that enthusiasm and jack it times ten and you have a hockey town.
It starts when you are small, barely even old enough to stand let alone skate. Your parents put you in mites and from there the road is set. The youth programs are set in place to raise and train hockey players. Mites, squirts, pee-wee, bantam, junior, high school, and finally college. Everyone skates and everyone plays. Parents take time off from work to take their kids to practice; they spend time standing out in the cold below zero weather watching their child play at the park. Some have high expectations some like just seeing their kids have fun. I think that is why I had such a problem with that whole Sarah Palin deal. I have seen the hard core hockey moms and dads and I think she was doing a great disservice to them. Yet again I digress, back to the story. So in Grand Forks hockey is king and there is no greater game then watching the Sioux hockey team. In a town obsessed with the sport every weekend during the season is a Stanley Cup game. Every season is a national championship season. Hockey is everything.
Figure Skates and the I hate Hockey Years: So here I am a kid from the hills of PA who loves all things Pittsburgh living with the Neanderthals of hockey. Yes I said it this is my story so let me tell it. By the early 80's when I was almost ten my family included two brothers and a sister and my folks. My Dad had left the Air Force but we never left North Dakota. We weren't poor but we weren't rich either, supporting a family of six is no easy task even in Reagan's America. So hand-me downs were the norm and you had to be happy with anything you got. My family’s differing views on religion and by continuation sports meant that we didn't participate in organized sports or school activities. So I wasn't thrust into the hockey obsessed world that most kids in town were. The lone sojourn into the world of hockey came one year with a care package from back east. In it came more hand-me downs and a two pairs of figure skates. One white pair for my sister and a black pair for me and my older brother to share, so we immediately wanted to try them. To the park we went, anyone who lives in a hockey town will tell you there are at least four or five different park rinks within a mile of each other and Grand Forks was no exception. So with my figure skates in hand I set out to learn to skate and that would turn out to be the defining moment of my entire youth as far as hockey was concerned. It took less than twenty minutes at the park before the first young kid made fun of my skates. In that cruel way that only kids can be I was mocked and ridiculed for having black figure skates and not hockey skates and I fled the park never to return. Thus began my hatred of hockey.
You must understand that in a hockey town there are two types of people. Those that are included in hockey (the socially acceptable it seems) former players, parents, even mediocre players and then there are those that hate it. Usually the social outcasts in school, the unpopular, smoker, greasers, gang affiliated ( ok so those are extremes but you get the picture) Anyone who didn't like hockey was in one group and those that did another. I fell into the former rather than the latter. I hated hockey, I hated that anyone that played it at school seemed to be treated different. I hated that they were treated as Gods and the rest of us mere mortals were treated as leper's I hated hockey and being stuck in a hockey town forced to watch the hockey obsessed on a daily basis. Ah the hate that keeps you warm during the cold winter.
Sticker Albums and the hatred dies: It was during this time the mid-80's when I was in elementary school and then junior high that my brother and I discovered sticker albums. I want to say they were produced by Topps but I am not sure. Every year a new album came out and it had each team with at least nine or ten players and some specialty stickers, shiny foils, split pictures, and so on. There was baseball, football and yes even hockey. The album its self cost two dollars and the sticker packs were twenty-five cents or four for a buck. They were better than cards because you didn’t need 150 cards or whatever to complete a set. My brother always tried to complete his albums I just cared about getting my Pittsburgh teams complete. This was the first time I was exposed to the NHL and when the Oilers and Gretzky first entered into my realm of sports. So began my hockey education. I still hated hockey in GF and all it stood for but I liked the NHL and thanks in part to those sticker albums I knew players names and cared for the professional game more than the local one.
Super Mario and EA Hockey: It was around the time of my high school career that the Penguins came to my attention. To be honest the fact that Pittsburgh had a hockey team ranked low on my scale of trivia. More important to me by far was watching the Steelers destroy teams on Sunday or Braves/Pirates games on TBS during the summer. This was around the time that Nintendo was hitting it big and Mario Brothers was all the rage. So when discussing Pittsburgh and sports one day the name Super Mario came up. I was appalled that anyone in hockey would use such a nickname especially in Pittsburgh. What was he some kind of Italian plumber turned hockey player? So I set out to investigate. I was stunned by what I found. Yes Pittsburgh did have a hockey team and Mario, Super Mario was heralded as the next Gretzky. Then came the 91 cup against the North Stars and I was hooked. The Pens were dominating and the cup was in reach(who cares that I knew next to nothing about the cup) I was working at Hardees’s a part time job back then and I jokingly bet my assistant manager paychecks on whether the Pens would win the cup. They did and had we bet a huge payday would have been mine. Ah such is life.
The next turning point for me was the entrance of the Sega genesis into the world and EA sports' NHL titles. My older brother and I played Madden a lot but we also played hockey and it was from their that I learned the early rules. I almost always played the Pens since I was now a proud Pittsburgh fan of the penguins, but although the Pens were good my skills were not and I couldn't use them to beat my brothers LA Kings (yes the same Kings of Gretzky, Kurri, Robitallie, Hrudy, McSorley and so on) it was then that I discovered the Detroit Red Wings and my skills grew. I could outplay him with the wings or the pens and he wanted only to play football after that. No one wants to get beat by their younger brother nobody.
So by the time I graduated in '92 the Pens had back to back cups and thanks in large part to EA Sports I was a Pro-hockey nut. I still had zero respect for the local hockey teams but who cared I had an NHL team to cheer for. So my younger brother and I became die-hard Pens fans. I bought him a Mario jersey and I had Jagr, he was 66 and I was 68. We both started roller bladeing and started trying roller hockey. We watched more games, lots more games. Gary Thorn and Bill Clement were our heroes. There was nothing like watching hockey night on ESPN and we lived to hear Gary shout "Oh my what a Goal"
We got ice skates as well and at the age of nineteen I returned to the park and tried my hand at ice hockey. I was not the fastest or the most stable of hockey players but like my hero Mario, I had size, reach, and an unnerving ability to find the open shooter. I no longer got teased by mean spirited kids and if one did I "accidently" put him into the boards. What I was a bad skater I can't help it. It was during this time that I had a renewed respect for the game. There was no hate just sadness that I had missed so much. I became a fan of local hockey; I took my girlfriends kids to practice. I cheered for my Pens and watched in Sadness as my hero retired as his failing body could not compete with the fire I saw in his eyes.
I cannot hope to convey the total experience of growing up in a hockey town nor the uniqueness of my tale. I am sure there are many like it out there. Like all stories there is a moral and mine is don't let hate and ignorance keep you locked in a prison of your own making. Don't let the cruelty of children keep you from your passion and let no one tell you that your hockey story is not good enough because everyone’s story is worth more than you can know. My story has yet to be completed, my journey yet to finish, my dream to sit near center ice at a Pens home game, Steelers logo tattoo on one arm and Penguin on the other and show my love and respect for the game I hated for years but thanks to a soft spoken French Canadian I learned to love.