In 1995, five years into my stay out in Oregon, I became homesick for the opposite coast, the one I grew up on. The feeling started as confusion and frustration, which grew into a acute sense of not belonging, culminating in a crystalline realization.
I missed hockey.
My New York Rangers had won the Stanley Cup a year earlier for the first time since my father was two years old. The only way I could celebrate 6/14/94 was to wear my battered shield-logo t-shirt, and to drunk-dial the few friends I had left in the City -- the ones who had sat with me at games up in the "blue seats" when they really were blue, back when 10 dollars could buy you an obstructed view ticket in the 400 level. There was always a giant beam between the seat and the ice, but that didn't obstruct the view of the massive haymaker brawls amongst the dockworkers a few sections over. In an age of Strangers, Smurfs, Ooh-La-La Sassoon commercials and countless descrotumizations by the New York Islanders, those fights were sometimes all we had to look forward to.
But in Eugene, where winter was six months of grey sky and rain, there was no hockey. There was a semi-pro team called the Ice Cats, primarily made up of Western Hockey League rejects, that played out at the fairgrounds for a while. But that club folded quickly due to a substantial lack of local interest.
After my breakthrough realization, I did what I could to bring a little bit of home to the Northwest. I bought a DirecTV dish and ordered the NHL Center Ice package, and watched every Rangers game from start to finish. I built an archive website for a popular NYR listserv (kids, ask your parents what one of those is). During playoff drives, I wore my Mike Richter jersey every day and put my plastic Rangerman keychain in front of the TV -- this was lucky. But alas, not lucky enough.
It was difficult being a misunderstood outsider. Rangerman keychain was the only one who would ever want to watch the games with me. I would go out to my patio and thump a street hockey ball off the side of my fence to relieve stress, until the neighbors filed noise complaints, claiming that I was loudly playing "golf" outside their building, disturbing their peace.
In 1997, I got my wish and moved back east, to Philadelphia. One of the first things I did was buy Rangers tickets, hooking up with an online friend who split their season plan four ways. Renovations to the Garden had made the 400 level bright, clean and relatively family-friendly. Eleven times a year, I would drive the 100 miles up to New York, park in Hoboken and take the PATH to 33rd. Then, after the game, I'd drive back down the New Jersey Turnpike, usually mulling a hard loss.
There were a lot of losses -- this was an era of seven years' worth of not even making the 16-team NHL playoffs, and even the precious thrill of seeing Mark Messier (1994 Cup hero and eternal Captain) and Wayne Gretzky (the greatest ever) on the same ice wore thin. But not for me -- I rarely missed a game, and then only for work or sickness. I had hockey back, and I wasn't about to let it go.
It didn't stop with the Rangers, either. Like I would do years later, I combined my love for sports with my adoration for paved asphalt. I collected hockey arenas two, three, four at a time -- a Toronto/Montreal/Ottawa swing, or a trip down south to pick off Carolina and Nashville. Then there was my expansion weekend through Columbus and Minnesota in 2000 -- the Wild's arena is my favorite indoor arena second only to the Palestra, there's so much wood there that it's like a toasty ski lodge. There have been a lot of new buildings since, but there are only seven NHL teams I haven't seen home games for.
And then the lockout hit.
Most diehards didn't know what to do with themselves that winter of 2004-05. Some, I think, ended up just hibernating like bears. But me, it gave me the opportunity to engage full effort and resources into a ridiculous quest I'd been considering for a while.
And so this is all a very, very long way of saying that all of this -- The Mid-Majority, The 100 Games Project
, working with ESPN, everything -- would likely never have happened if not for the National Hockey League's lost year. If not for the massive levels of viral stupidity perpetrated and perpetuated by Gary Bettman and union leaders that led to the wiping out of an entire season, I would still be just another anonymous fan with an anonymous job. If I ever have the opportunity to talk to Mr. Bettman, I'm not sure how I'd articulate my thanks.
When the NHL came back, it was too late -- I was gone, long gone. Not even a black-and-silver 3-D logo, or a half-hour trimmed off game times, or the elimination of ties and the red line would or ever could bring me back. The lure of chronicling the fascinating ineptitude of the Versus network, surely a dedicated blogger's job unto itself, was not enough to reverse my mid-major destiny.
That's not to say it hasn't hurt, that cherished traditions haven't been lost. For example, this is the first season since 1996-97 I haven't had the NHL Center Ice package at home. It was a tough decision -- Saturday nights off the road won't be the same, watching Hockey Night in Canada while The Official Wifeâ„¢ rooted on her adopted Maple Leafs. We eat burritos and watch "Sabado Gigante" now.
Hockey still comes into my life on occasion, mostly via XM channel 204, "Home Ice," which I listen to sometimes during my 700-mile drives between basketball games. When the Rangers are on the play-by-play channels, I'll listen to that for a while before I realize how detached I am from it all, how much the game has lost me. I used to be able to recite the four forward lines and the three defensive pairings at any time, on cue, and to fashion articulate arguments why Coach Campbell or Muckler or Low or Trottier should or shouldn't change them... but just three seasons later, I don't know who 80 percent of the players are.
With my limited exposure, the one thing I've really been aware of is how long, drawn out and ultimately insignificant the undulations of the regular season are. Consistency is nearly impossible, and I realize now it's always been this way. I tune into XM and the Rangers are on a roll, winners of four straight... three weeks later, they've in the midst of a 0-4-1 stretch and it's panic time on Broadway. In March, they're the hottest team in the conference, a lock for a three-seed. Shoehorning an NHL season into narrative structure is to describe six months in the life of someone with severe bipolar disorder.
It's made me appreciate our calendar all the more, the college basketball calendar. It's a year within a year with gentle transitions between four true and distinct seasons. The chaos of November and December eventually gives way to the comfortable order of conference season. We play for seeds there, but only for two months... the chase never becomes tiresome. The third phase is a quick rush as conference championships are decided, and then everything explodes into a bouquet of blooming brackets. There's strangeness and wonder and joy in our year, and every part means something.
And we don't organize our standings with a point system. I could never figure that out.