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I wasn’t much of a sports fan during or just after college.  In fact, I had cultivated the geeky bookworm's well-practiced disdain for any and all team sports, though I would watch figure skating in the winter and follow swimming and track and field events (and sometimes gymnastics) during Summer Olympics years.  The most I could muster was token enthusiasm for Syracuse college basketball and “watching the Super Bowl for the ads.”

I think that started to change when, for the first time, I brought a significant other to a family Christmas celebration. ravenshrinkery, after meeting my Grandma Josie, quickly discovered she was a Buffalo Sabres fan – and they sat down in the living room and talked hockey.  The simple fact that this young man I had brought home was willing to sit down with a little old lady and extensively talk about sports with her, and listen to what she had to say about them, led to her immediate and enthusiastic approval of our engagement.

At the time, we lived in Rochester, within slightly long walking distance or an easy bus ride of the Blue Cross Arena, home to the Sabres’ primary minor league affiliate, the AHL Rochester Americans.  And the hockey season after we got married, there was a contract dispute between the NHL and its players, leading to a season-long lockout.  This meant that a lot of good players who normally would be in the NHL were back in the AHL, and tickets were cheap and it was something fun to do.  The rivalry games with the Syracuse Crunch were particularly fun to watch – always intense and physical, sometimes erupting into fights or into memorable moments of poor sportsmanship.  (We mocked that guy who got ejected for smashing his stick against the penalty box for years after!)

Then, the lockout ended, and the next year was the year of the Scary Good Sabres.  If you lived anywhere near Buffalo in the spring of 2006, you could not entirely escape Rick Jeanneret’s “NOW DO YOU BELIEVE?!” call or the many parodies it inspired.  As we moved from Rochester to Albany, keeping up with the Sabres was one of the things that helped keep the homesickness at bay, and I think that’s when “pizza and hockey night” became a regular thing in our family.

Hockey was one of the things that just didn’t feel right in our new city.  Eventually, we went to Albany Devils games, looking for that connection, that tie to the community.  And it just – wasn’t there for us, somehow.  Meanwhile, the Rochester Americans experimented with a different NHL alliance (I think it was the Florida Panthers).  And the NHL had another lockout, which led me to start paying more attention to the AHL.

This was the year I was doing a social work internship with a disaster recovery organization.    While I was helping pull together community resources to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy approached.  We were fortunate enough that Sandy did not quite extend to the area I was working in, but I followed the related news, as you do when you work in the field.  And one of the things that caught my eye was an AHL hockey team in the Sandy-affected area – the Bridgeport Sound Tigers – announcing that their arena was functioning normally, even though some of the players had lost their housing, and they would like to offer free admission to the next two games so people in the area could have a place to go and maybe take their mind off things for a little while.

For some reason, maybe because of the internship I was doing, that gesture moved me enough that I started following the team online.  And then the Sound Tigers did two more things that made me love them more.  After the Sandy Hook shooting, they played a game where they wore the child victims’ names rather than their own on their jerseys, in tribute – and also gave the jerseys to family members of the children.  They also made a team You Can Play video to speak out against homophobia in professional sports – and followed that up by being the first professional team to host an official “You Can Play night” game.

The lockout ended midway through what would have been the regular season, which meant the Sabres were back, but they were calling for a “rebuild” and had started trading away pretty much all of the players I had come to love over the years.  I tried to keep up the family loyalty, but it just wasn’t the same.  I didn’t know much yet about the Sound Tigers’ parent club, the New York Islanders, but I started keeping track, a little bit.  Even though it felt a little like cheating, a little like disappointing my family and turning my back on my western New York roots.

The next season, sometime after the Olympics, I started more regularly following Islanders games on Ice Tracker, which is how I finally went from a very basic “skaters try to score against the other team, while the goalie tries to stop them” understanding of how hockey worked to learning positions and strategies and game mechanics.  Forward lines, defense pairings, special teams.  The differences, other than time on the clock, between minor, double-minor, and major penalties.  Small details that came together and started making sense.

And one night I went to bed after the second period of a game being played in Vancouver.  The score was 3-0 Vancouver and I didn’t see any sense in staying up for it – but then I woke up the next morning and the final score was 7-4 Islanders.  I think that may have been the game that truly cemented my loyalty to my new favorite NHL team.

ravenshrinkery followed me to them the next season, when he just couldn’t deal with the Sabres not only rebuilding but outright tanking – making their position as bad as possible to have the best chance for the first-overall draft pick in the next NHL draft.  We went to our first NHL game the last year of the Nassau Coliseum as an early Christmas present to me.  And that game is the reason that the Tampa Bay Lightning became my second-favorite team.  I watched as the team I came to see put more than 40 shots on a young and incredibly talented Russian goaltender who had just recently been called up from the AHL.  It took 42, I think, before he slipped up and let one in, followed shortly by a second, making the score 2-1.  The game ended 3-1 after an empty net goal, and Andrei Vasilevskiy was the third star.

We went back to the Coliseum twice more before it closed.  And I started making friends with a lot of hockey fans online, one of whom was awesome enough to snag me a ticket for opening night at Barclay’s the next year.  I’ve been to the new home a few times, including for the game that ended twenty-three YEARS of the Islanders not winning a playoff round.  (I WAS THERE! GAME SIX! SECTION 20 ROW 17! I WAS THERE!)

Mostly, though, when we go to live games these days we go to Connecticut to watch the Sound Tigers – I’m an Islanders fan because I’m a Sound Tigers fan, and they do such a good job at Webster Bank Arena with making it a fun experience for kids.  There’s popcorn and ice cream served in souvenir helmets, Storm the mascot is always around interacting with the crowd (I have a picture somewhere of Storm pretending to eat happinydancer’s head), and most of the time they’ll have a couple of players around to sign autographs after.  We try to get there early for warmups, and the players will sometimes throw pucks to kids who are watching.  We’ve also figured out where to sit so the girls can join the high-five line. happinydancer makes a point of also high-fiving the linesmen and referees, and one of them gave her a puck from the game.

Both my girls are pretty enthusiastic fans now, though in different ways. qween394's favorite player is Matt Martin, and after she researched his path to the NHL for a class project on favorite athletes, I watched her go from a bright kid who didn’t always focus or apply herself to her work to a serious student and dancer whose motto is now also “I will not be outworked out there.”  (Present day me kind of wants to go back and yell at 15-20 years ago me who would have sworn that athletes are, every last one of ‘em, TERRIBLE role models and kids shouldn’t look up to them, ever.  It’s hard to put into words the difference that admiration of, not just a pro athlete, but an NHL enforcer has made for my own kid.) happinydancer, on the other hand, isn’t into the fighting and other shenanigans so much, and she loves goalies.  One of the friends I’ve made online helped me out when the NHL.com store messed up and made sure that happinydancer got a Thomas Greiss jersey for Christmas.

We’ve also started going to NWHL games.  It’s a different experience – body checking is not allowed in women’s hockey, which changes the strategy a little bit – but one that is really fun to watch (especially for happinydancer, who prefers her hockey to be a little more speedy and less physical).  I’ve been to two NWHL games now, one with a group of friends and one with my family, and I am planning to go to more.  My mom hasn’t followed hockey as much since Grandma Josie’s death, but I’ve encouraged her to check out the Buffalo Beauts and she seems to like that idea.

I really wish Grandma Josie had lived to see the NWHL.  She would have cheered for the Beauts, as she does for all Buffalo sports teams.  And even though my own geographic loyalties have changed, I’m glad for the influence the “Sports Grandma” (as she was sometimes called by my dad) and the man I married had on getting me to love this sport – it’s brought a lot of fun and friendship into my life.
 

Comments

tonithegreat
Jan. 7th, 2017 03:39 am (UTC)
This was a fun read! My cousin follows the TB Lightning and if I had a team, I guess they'd be mine, but I know next to nothing about hockey. Skating just always seems difficult and magical to me. But enjoying teams with family is a good kind of magic, for sure.
cheshire23
Jan. 10th, 2017 04:42 am (UTC)
I like the Lightning quite a lot - I have a friend who is a big fan of theirs, and because they seemed so similar back in 2014-15 we started referring to the Islanders as "Bolts North" and the Lightning as "Isles South." :)

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