How I fell in love with Ice Hockey

image

I never normally write about sport, this blog is predominantly about movies or political things that piss me off. Not a normal mix of topics to be sure, so that makes me a little bit more at ease with throwing sport into the fray.

At the moment it’s the playoffs in the NHL, I love the playoffs, many people do, but given that it’s only day 3, not enough hockey has happened to sate my appetite. Particularly seeing as my favourite team, the Boston Bruins, has only played one game so far, and they lost it. So I’m writing this largely so I can stay immersed in hockey. If other people enjoy it, bonus.

I had a few ideas about what specifically this post might be about; The Bruins’ path to the Playoffs, why I love Ice Hockey, my feelings on losing game one, fan reactions to the game, and what I think about Milan Lucic (Bruins) whacking an unsuspecting Danny Dekeyser (Detroit Red Wings) in the nuts away from play. I finally decided that it would make the most sense to start with how an Irish guy with no previous passion for sport fell in love with ice hockey in the first place.

image

Can't deny, this was a dick move

It’s not exactly normal for someone like me to fall in love with Ice Hockey. There isn’t a culture of Ice Sports in Ireland. Ireland did send a team to this year’s winter olympics (an olympic team, not an actual Ice Hockey team), but nobody cared, Irish media didn’t cover the games, and none of the Irish athletes actually live in Ireland, they were all emigrants. I myself have been on an ice rink about five times in my life, and have never spent any amount of time in a very hockey obsessed location (I did spend a fortnight in Toronto once, but that was during the hockey off season, and I was at a music conference, which didn’t actually include any Canadians).

So how did it start? Well, with a hat. My Dad has friends who live in Boston and one year when I was about 8, he went to visit them. They sent him home with 3 baseball caps, one each for myself and each of my siblings. They represented the three major Boston Sports franchises (not counting the New England Patriots, ‘cos they’re not the Boston Patriots anymore). The only logo we recognised was the Red Sox, they are after all, probably the most famous team out of the caps we were sent. America has been putting baseball into its cultural exports for years, and the Sox are a big franchise. The cap, naturally enough, was red, and my sister liked it, so she took that one.

There was also a bright green Celtics cap. We recognised this one simply because it actually said “Boston Celtics” on it, and the logo includes a basketball. Without these clues we would have had absolutely no idea what the cap was, we had never even heard of the Celtics. The Celtics logo is a leprechaun spinning a basketball. To many Americans with dubious Irish heritage, which of course includes Boston Irish, the leprechaun is a symbol of pride in their roots. In Ireland the view of leprechauns is much less positive, they are a source of many a facepalm at a woefully misguided take on Irish culture. Leprechauns are a symbol of the magical faerie land of “faith and begorrah” and farmers riding their carts past thatched cottages greeting pedestrians with a “top o’ the morning”. They are a symbol of a backwards Ireland that never actually existed, but apparently many Americans believe the land is currently like. My friends and I used to spend summers messing with American tourists who believed in this ridiculous image. They’d ask where they can find leprechauns, and we’d tell them to start digging holes cos they live underground, or go for a pointless trek in the woods. We even managed to convince some of them that a ginger friend was himself a leprechaun. There were also the more enterprising guys who would charge American tourists money to take them on a wild goose chase in the wilderness. These Americans were generally the ones who, back home, took the most pride in their Irish heritage, and forced their children into Irish dancing and céilís, and drank shite Guinness in “traditional” Irish pubs which no self respecting actual Irish person would ever set foot in. They invariably engaged in these “Irish” activities way more than any Irish person I’ve ever known, and generally these interpretations of Irish activities were highly warped from reality. And the symbol of all the kitsch shite is the fucking leprechaun. So when three Irish kids with zero interest in sport, nevermind American sport, were presented with three American sports caps, one of which featured a leprechaun, it was unanimously agreed that this was the shittiest cap and therefore that one was awarded to my brother, who was the youngest and couldn’t protest.

image

Celtics' godawful logo

And that left the third cap. It was plain black and featered a spoked wheel with a B on it. Even though the other two caps were for sports teams, we didn’t automatically assume that this one was. However, I thought it was a cool cap and was only delighted when it turned out to be the one I got. I had literally no idea what that spoked B represented.

Fast forward a few years, to when I was about 12. I was over at a friends house to play PlayStation games. He had just gotten one of EAs NHL games, not even the latest one, it was a loaner from another friend who had had it a few years. It was probably NHL ’96. Sports games weren’t usually my thing, I tended to get my ass kicked by people who were actually into sports and therefore played these kind of games more often, but we decided to throw it on, primarily because our selection of 2 player games was quite bad, and we had already played WWF SmackDown to death. We figured since both of us were fairly unfamiliar with Ice Hockey (the extent of our familiarity was pretty much limited to having seen The Mighty Ducks) neither of us would be at a disadvantage. So we fired it up and arbitrarily started to scroll through the team selection. We were just looking for ones that had the most rating stars beside their names, since we didn’t actually expect to recognise any of the names. But then, lo and behold, up cropped a spoked B, the same B from that baseball cap I still loved and still wore. It was the logo of the Boston Bruins. Naturally I chose to play as the Bruins, with the hope that the team would be as awesome as my favourite hat. I have absolutely no recollection of how well I played, but now I knew who the Boston Bruins were.

Over the years I became gradually more familiar with Ice Hockey. I started to recognise more team names, like the New York Rangers and the Red Wings. I was shocked to discover that that Mighty Ducks movie got turned into an actual team (now the Anaheim Ducks, based next to fucking Disneyland). I was even more shocked years later to discover that the Disneyland team was actually respected. I’m now aware that they are a good team worthy of respect, but I still think their origin story is a a bit of a joke. Speaking of origin stories, I also discovered the origin of Ice Hockey in the first place, or one of the theories anyway. Apparently it was started by a bunch of Irish emigrants in Canada who tried to play hurling on frozen lake. That is just balls to the wall awesome.

Also through this time my school football team was doing really well, so I started to pay more attention and offer some support. Some of the guys in my school were involved in the Laois county team, so I supported them a bit too. Paying more attention to Gaelic Football had the knock on effect of making me pay a bit more attention to hurling, and I really admired the sport. Hurling is really fucking fast and very highly skilled. It is officially the fastest field sport in the world. That triggers a nice sense of national pride there.

Then I found the related fact that Ice Hockey is the fastest Team sport in the world. And it’s also crazy highly skilled, not just with the puck control with the sticks, but also the ability to skate. Ice Hockey I had decided, was cool. My fandom didn’t amount to much at this stage, every now and then I would check out some highlight reel. I was particularly interested if this highlight reel featured the Bruins, because I had decided they were my favourite team, largely due to the influence of that hat. But they were my favourite team of a sport I was only marginally interested in. By this stage I could probably bullshit my way through an Ice Hockey conversation, but I wouldn’t get membership to any fan clubs. Then I met a girl.

In 2007 I met a girl from the US who really loved her hockey, and I really liked her, so I started to bullshit my way through some hockey conversations with her. But I really needed to up my game. So I started paying a lot more attention. There was no TV coverage, and my internet connections were lousy, so I started listening to Bruins games on online radio. Given the time difference between here and the US, and the fact that most hockey games are evening affairs, I generally stayed up ’til about 1am for a game to start, and listened to the radio coverage until the game ended at about 3 or 4. This is the most radio I have ever listened to in my life.

Now radio coverage isn’t exactly the best way to get into a sport that you only have a passing familiarity with, so I supplanted my listening with frequent trips to wikipedia, to get definitions for all these hockey terms I had up to now missed. Even the basic ones like “icing” was new to me, and for the record, icing is a way trickier rule to wrap your head around than offsides in soccer, even if once you do get it, it’s ridiculously simple.

So during all this research to impress a girl, something interesting happened, I fell completely in love with Ice Hockey. On paper that whole “fastest team sport” and “highly skilled” stuff led me to approve of this sport when I couldn’t care less about any others (even hurling, which while I still respect, doesn’t hold my interest very well in practice), but actually paying attention to the game brought it to a whole new level. It’s freaking amazing. And there’s also the level of how freakin’ brutal it is. It’s not all high speed skill and pirouettes, people get demolished by hits on the ice, it’s a standard part of play, that doesn’t slow things down. I remember an old youtube clip of a Rangers (I think) player, who gets hit with a wayward skate which slits his damn throat, so he skates back to the bench and asks for the medic. I’m used to hearing about soccer players, which while I do think they get too much flak for going down easy, still get sidelined for a month and a half for a stubbed toe. Meanwhile, just last year in Boston for the playoffs, Gregory Campbell dove in front of a 3 inch disc of hardened rubber travelling at about 100 miles an hour to block a shot with his leg which broke and he just kept playing, and not just mulling through staying upright on the ice. The Bruins were already under pressure at this point, they were outnumbered with a guy in the penalty box. It was 5 on 4, a situation which has roughly a 20% chance of conceding a goal, and now one of those 4 had a broken leg. But Campbell still managed to effectively shutdown his section of the ice as the opposition kept up a sustained attack until the penalty ended, Bruins got their man back from the penalty box, and Campbell could finally get off the ice.

At the end of the playoffs it was revealed that Patrice Bergeron, one of the top players who was key to the Bruins’ performance, was playing with a broken rib and punctured lung. This is not only a game where it’s possible to get hit so hard that your own chest stabs you, but that injury, and the 100% probability of getting hit that hard again, several times, is not a disincentive  enough for the players to stop playing it. Bad. Ass.

The girl who I was trying to impress I have moved well past, but my love of Ice Hockey remains. In fact, when that girl moved back to the US, she left a trail of Ice Hockey fans in her wake. Though brilliantly, no Rangers fans, who are her team of choice, which I find a little hilarious.

So a hat, a video game, and a girl led to a passion for a great sport. It’s not exactly the usual route for a fan, but I actually quite like it. As a kid I was a Manchester United fan because most of the kids I knew growing up did, so I suffered less bullying than if I picked another team, or admitted that I didn’t give a flying fuck about soccer. With Ice Hockey I didn’t have any kind of peer pressure, just a gradual increase in awareness and love for a great sport. I was lucky as well, 2007 was a good time to start getting into the Bruins. Back then they were very middle of the league. Some years they made the playoffs, some years they didn’t. There was no sense of jumping on the bandwagon of a dominant team, nor were they so shite that following them was a constant heartache, but over the years I’ve followed them, the Bruins have gotten stronger and stronger, winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 (causing riots in Vancouver, dem Canadians love dem sum hockey) and this year they won the league. It’s been nice to follow the rise. It’s nice to have a passion for a sport. It’s nice to have a good hat.

image

An awesome hat