August 06, 2009
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 weekday through August. Enjoy.
If you write or read a hockey blog, then you know and owe the name Eric McErlain. His Off Wing Opinion was a trailblazing hockey blog, and his work on establishing guidelines for credential bloggers was a landmark moment. He went on to create the NHL blog on AOL's FanHouse and served as The Sporting Blog's resident hockey voice.
But he's also as passionate a hockey fan as you'll find, as was evident from his overwhelming coverage of the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field earlier this year.
The following list is drenched in puckhead nostalgia and the common bonds we share as fans -- from the rink to the living room.
Here are Five Reasons Eric McErlain Loves Hockey:
1. My Dad.
MCERLAIN: It's sometime before dawn in the Summer of 1974, and I'm in a deep sleep on a Saturday morning until my father gently shakes me by the shoulders and tells me that it's time to get up. Time for what, I wonder, still too groggy to remember that I'm supposed to be on the ice in a little more than an hour for my first ice hockey clinic.
It was only a few weeks before that Dad decided that it might be a good idea to expose me, his baseball-challenged son, to ice hockey. I can still remember him taking me to Skateland in New Hyde Park to watch a game for the first time. After only a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, "Think you might want to give this a try?"
I said yes, and before I knew it, we were in the pro shop picking out my first stick. It was a Montreal with a blade that was reinforced with fiberglass, something that was a big deal back in the day. Over the next few weeks, we collected the rest of my gear, a combination of CCM pads, a Cooper helmet and a pair of Bauer skates. Before the end of the year, I'd have the stick autographed by New York Rangers goalie Eddie Giacomin at one of those Saturday clinics.
But the question that Saturday morning was whether or not I would ever get to use them.
You see, despite my answer a few weeks before, I didn't quite realize that playing hockey would mean getting out of bed quite that early. Sensing that nothing short of a hand grenade under the bed was going to rouse me, Dad stripped off the covers, tossed my six-year old body over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and took me down to the living room to get my gear on. Mind you, he had never played the game himself, but I had said that I wanted to play and that was all he really ever needed to hear -- especially after he had laid out the cash for the equipment and two month's worth of ice time and practices.
A short car ride later, and I was in a hockey locker room for the first time. My introduction to the sport had begun, but it might not have ever happened without my father.
Ever since, whenever I've played, been at an NHL game or just enjoyed the sport at home on television, it's impossible for me not to remember that morning and say a silent thank you.
This month marks 24 years since I first moved to the Washington area, but as I mentioned above, I'm a product of the New York suburbs. And while I hit the ice before the Islanders ever made it to the playoffs, it's hard to imagine I would have become so enamored of the game if all that hockey history hadn't been taking place literally 10 minutes from my front door.
While the success of those teams is often laid at the feet of Bill Torrey, Al Arbour and enough players to fill an entire wing in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the name that's often forgotten is Roy Boe, the team's original owner who was forced to sell both the Isles and the New York Nets due to financial pressures after bringing major league professional sports to Long Island.
Had the NHL and NBA not saddled Boe with such punitive fees for "infringing" on the territories of the Rangers and Knicks -- pressures that also eventually forced the Nets to move to New Jersey -- the Lighthouse Project that current Islanders owner Charles Wang is struggling to get built may very well have happened decades ago.
In any case, back in those days, that Islanders team and its players were always out in the community pressing the flesh and doing their best to sell tickets. In the Winter of 1976, Bryan Trottier and Bobby Nystrom paid the teams in our league a post-practice visit to sign autographs and answer questions. Looking back, when you toss in Giacomin, that meant that I had met two future NHL Hall of Famers in person before I was nine years old.
The NHL ought to keep stuff like that in mind when it comes to developing fans over the long haul.
3. Lake Placid.
If you're an American hockey fan and you weren't awake and alive during the 1980 Winter Olympics, all I can really say at this point is, I'm sorry. It was the perfect storm of sports and geopolitics, and we're unlikely to see anything like it ever again. You really missed something.
4. Terry O'Reilly.
As I've written before, there comes a time in the lives of athletes who are not destined for stardom when the game starts to get away from you, and you have to strain just to keep up. And when that moment happened to me, the first thing that I thought was that if I could just work as hard as O'Reilly, maybe I might be able to keep up for a while longer.
Of course, knowing now what I didn't know as a child, I realize that O'Reilly, like anybody else who makes it to the NHL, was an incredible talent all on his own. Then again, it was his desire and energy that made me a fan of his from my earliest days.
So while I'm sure my Dad decked me out as a Boston Bruin due to the popularity of Bobby Orr at the time, whenever I took to the ice in the black and gold, I was always thinking of O'Reilly, the man who remains my favorite hockey player of all time.
5. The camaraderie.
Just last week, Greg wrote about some bad news when it comes to growing the NHL fanbase, but here in the States, I always thought that one reason why I enjoyed both playing the game and being a fan was the fact that it was something of an exclusive fraternity.
Back when I started to play recreational hockey as an adult in the early 1990s, one of the best surprises was running into so many of my teammates and opponents on the concourse of the old Capital Centre in between periods of Caps games. Even some of my most determined opponents on the ice turned into fast friends when I ever met them off the ice and away from the rink. To this day, if I ever run into any of my old teammates it's always a happy meeting.
Not everyone can play hockey and not everyone watches and enjoys hockey. And while there's always room for more fans, I guess that means it's our game, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Eric McErlain started blogging about sports in 2001. After stints with NBC Sports, FanHouse and The Sporting News, he decided he wanted to blog on his own schedule again at Off Wing Opinion. For his Twitter feed, click here.