01/16/2008 1:29 PM
THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND:
A Trip Down Hockey Memory Lane
By Chad Huebner
One of the reasons you’re probably reading this is to see what I actually know about hockey, and maybe you enjoy what I have to write about. I wish I knew, and as always I remind you to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any feedback, good or bad.
But one of the other reasons that you’re here, and well, that I’m here, is that we all love hockey, and thru certain personal experiences, have come to discover such a fine sport.
If you’ll allow me for the rest of this column, I’d like to share some of my personal experiences with hockey that made me love the game and do this on a regular basis, not only because I want the exposure and notoriety (ego inflation in progress. . .), but because I love writing about hockey. Write what you know, they say, and what I know is that I love hockey.
I mentioned a little while back that I started to watch the NHL on a regular basis back in 1985, but that wasn’t the first time I watched a hockey game on TV. That was a weekend morning in February 1980, when the U.S.A. National Team played for the gold medal against the Finns. Since I was only seven, I didn’t get to see “The Miracle on Ice” played the night before, because it was past my bedtime, but I knew that something big happened the previous night. Now I got to watch the U.S. clinch the gold, and for a seven-year-old, I thought that was pretty cool. That’s right, one of the biggest sports moments in history, and I thought it was pretty cool.
The first time I watched a hockey game, it was far removed from the NHL, far removed from the ice palaces that teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, etc play in.
It was the mid 90s, and I was dating a girl that went to Marquette University in Milwaukee. She and her friends had tickets to MU’s club team, and I got to tag along. I found out later from research that a club team wasn’t officially sanctioned with the NCAA, but still played regular games against other schools, be they sanctioned or not. Most of the time, club teams would play against the junior varsity squads of more popular schools, like Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Well, MU was certainly no Wisconsin club in the game I saw them play (forgot who they played against). Still, they drew 50-60 people in a small barn of a rink, something that was to be proud of for a club team. I remember two things very well from the first-ever hockey game I saw live. First, there were so few people in the stands, that when a couple of hecklers started getting on MU’s case, the head coach turned around and chewed them out and we could all pretty much hear his “colorful phrasing.” And second, metal benches are not good to sit on in a cold ice rink.
My first pro game in person wasn’t an NHL contest, but an IHL one. I was living in Milwaukee with the girl from MU, and she won a pair of tickets to a game between the Milwaukee Admirals and the Cleveland Lumberjacks. This was before the IHL had any working agreement with the NHL, and just before the IHL tried challenging the older league for its fan base by expanding from L.A. to Orlando. That really doesn’t pertain to the game I saw, but I barely remember what happened, only that a good pro game in person beats a bad day at work anytime.
I remember the first NHL game I saw, which as you probably guessed, was a ‘Hawks game. They lost in dispiriting fashion to the Edmonton Oilers 2-1. That was five years ago at the United Center, and I still regret never seeing a game at the old Stadium. But it wasn’t the best seat I ever had. Thanks to a friend of a friend, who had excellent connections with the ‘Hawks, I got to sit ice level, right behind one of the nets. Granted, it was hard to follow the action at the far end of the rink, but I still felt like I was right on the ice. And I did my fair share of pane pounding whenever the players bashed up against the boards in front of my seat.
I have met only one hockey star in person, but it was a beaut. My dad’s boss in the framing business back in the late 90s knew a guy who was opening a sports memorabilia shop, and I got invited to the grand opening. We were there for awhile, munching on free food and gawking at all the cool sports collectibles stuff ($6000 for a signed painting of Ted Williams?!) when he walked in.
It was Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet.
One of my first impressions of the guy was “Gee, he’s not much taller than me, and I’m just under six feet.” But he was so stocky, I’m pretty sure he could knock my block off despite being in his sixties. I didn’t get to talk to him directly, but I got to listen to a lot of stories in that gruff voice of his. One of the people there asked him what ring he was wearing. Now, it looked like something to do with the NHL, so you might assume it was a 1961 Stanley Cup ring. At the very least, it could’ve been a championship ring when the Winnipeg Jets won the AVCO Cup, in the WHA days. But no, it was none of those things. I was for when the ‘Hawks finished with the best record in the NHL during the 1966-67 season, the final year of the “Original Six”. It was a curious thing, since the ‘Hawks were ousted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semifinals, who went on to win their last Cup to date. But I never got to ask Hull why he wore that particular ring, mostly because I was too scared to say anything in the presence of greatness I unfortunately never got to see, and won’t be able to see unless I get some highlight reels.
It could probably be said that “Those who don’t play hockey write about it”, and that describes me to a T. I did try once, and only once, to ice skate. It was in 1989, and being part of a church group, the group decided to go ice skating at the local rink. I thought I might struggle slightly, but I roller skated in junior high, so I figured I might be able to do all right. But roller-skates on four wheels have better balance than the thin razor-sharp blade of an ice skate. Also, I had weak ankles. Add it all up and let’s just say I wasn’t so much skating as I was pulling myself around the edge of the rink. To add insult to injury, there was a small group of girls, probably six or five or even four years old, doing spins and twirls and dips and dives in the middle of the rink, and here’s Mr. Cool Seventeen-Year-Old clinging to the boards like he was on the Titanic. This was before rollerblading, and l always wondered if I could do okay on those, could I do okay on ice skates? Ummm, still haven’t gotten around to answering that question, I’ve been, ummm, busy.
My dream job was to work for the Blackhawks in some sort of capacity (and admittedly still is), but I did get to work one season for one team. Yes, it was the Rockford IceHogs, and during the 2003-04 season, I was known as an Off-Ice Official. It was strictly a non-paying gig, but that was offset by the free spread in the press box, and free parking at a nearby parking structure (I loved wearing the laminated ID as I entered the MetroCentre, it was like being Wayne in Wayne’s World). I couldn’t work every home game, since the distance between Rockford and the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago was too great to cover during the working week. But on the weekend games, I was there, doing whatever was asked, be it keeping track of line changes or grading the officials on their performance (kinda hard to not be a heated spectator when rating those guys).
And now here I am, back again with the IceHogs, along with a few British hockey clubs, getting a chance to write about hockey and my memories with the game. I hope you enjoyed the trip, and that you share me some of your memories soon.
Remember; e-mail me at email@example.com for anything on your mind, hopefully hockey related. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.