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It might have been decades ago, but I can still vividly remember my first encounter with the sport of hockey.
I was just a toddler, running around my house in rural Manitoba when I was suddenly captivated by what flashed across my parents tube television screen. Donning his bright red away uniform crested with the giant flaming “C” of the Calgary Flames, Al MacInnis started his way up ice. He navigated through his zone, surveying his path before making his move. He weaved and dodged his way through the neutral zone - red line and all- leaving a flurry of Vancouver Canucks defenders in his wake. He stepped but two feet inside the blue line painted on the oppositions’ side of the ice and unleashed a ferocious slap shot that ripped through space and time similar to a great white shark capturing its prey ten feet above sea level. The puck wasn’t tracked by the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada cameras until it was caressed by the soft twine of the net, gently erasing all of its brute velocity. MacInnis raised his arms to the sky in jubilation as it were. I had just seen my very first goal. Until this day, I still contend it to be the purest hockey play that I’ve seen in my lifetime; one of those rare opportunities to see poetry unfold in the motions of a high performance athlete as he asserts his dominance versus his peers.
From there, I was hooked.
Growing up in rural Manitoba meant that television was scare, let alone hockey broadcasts. Outside of the odd local coverage of the Winnipeg Jets, we were mostly reliant on the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada coverage. Dad always made it a priority to use these Saturday night doubleheader spectacles as bonding time so that we could grow closer over hockey. Credit to him, he’d always entertain my analysis of the game, even if it didn’t relate at all to what was unfolding on our screen.
It also helped that my local friends too loved playing the game as much as they did watching it. If we weren’t glued to the television, we could be found outside playing ball hockey or skating endlessly at the local rink. Additionally, hockey cards were all the rage in the early 90’s and the artistic design of the cards gave me what I felt was a personal connection to the players captured on the card. “Hey, that’s Joé Juneau on TV! I have his Boston Bruins 1993-94 Upper Deck rookie card where he’s going through the motion of taking a slap shot. How cool is that!? Well, guess he’s my favorite player now! Yep, I love Joé Juneau!”
Then there was the video games. From Sega’s NHLPA Hockey ‘93 until NHL 10, I was dedicated to EA Sports hockey series. I’ve written before of my fondness for these games and how we used to pass our time playing them. These titles most assuredly appreciated my love for the game and also my knowledge of the players and teams.
It’s well documented that, in 1996, the Jets left to start their new life as the now Arizona Coyotes. As a pre-teen, I adopted the Washington Capitals as my favorite team due to - surprise - Joé Juneau’s place on their roster. But given my geographic constraints, hockey viewing remained confined to HNIC or the airing of Stanley Cup Playoff games. Mostly, I enjoyed the idea being a rural Canadian kid in a town that had a tightly-woven hockey culture embedded in its community more than watching the game itself.
As a teen, I moved to the city - a metropolis I have called home ever since. It wasn’t until the return of the Jets in 2011 that I was reminded of that tightly-woven hockey culture of my youth. It’s truly amazing what a hockey team can do to unite a community in unison. Since their return, I have seen the game through a lens similar to the that of my childhood. As my son continues to grow from a baby to a toddler, my hope is to impart my joy of hockey upon him; to share the same common bond as I did with my dad.
I may not watch every single game at this stage of my life. I may not be aware of every single move or transaction each team makes through the course of the regular season. And I may sometimes throw my arms up in disillusionment to how the NHL is marketing its product *cough* 2018 Olympics and current playoff format *cough*. But whether boisterously cheering or bemoaning in meager discontent, I’ll always be a fan of the game.
And maybe one day - when I feel my son is of appropriate age - I will purchase a vintage Sega, pop in NHLPA Hockey ‘93, and show him how to make Gretzky’s head bleed.
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