The grand game of hockey

This is a great time of the year, when baseball is deciding its champion in the playoffs, the college and NFL football seasons are in full swing, and the hockey season is beginning. Tonight, I turn my full attention to hockey, the great Canadian sport that has evolved at the pro level into the most international of sports second only to soccer.

My sole hockey cap

My sole hockey cap

It’s a challenge to be a hockey fan in California, where ice is largely a novelty. I’ve encountered gonzo hockey fans here, but they are rare, usually transplants from the Northeast or upper Midwest.

Just as the soul of baseball is in the DNA of the kids who played stickball on the streets or Whiffle ball in backyards across America, the soul of hockey springs from the fathers who flood their backyards so their sons and daughters can play all day during the dark months of winter.

My hockey evolution is quirky, to say the least. My first exposure to the sport was two-fold: attending American Hockey League games of the Cleveland Barons on tickets that my Uncle Joe provided, and reading the Stan Fischler “Hockey Stars” books each year as a kid in grade school. Rocket Richard, Stan Mikita, Bobby Orr — they were remote gods of a sport I didn’t fully understand. The Cleveland Crusaders flourished briefly in the ill-fated World Hockey Association.

In college, there was a stretch when I skated every day on the new rink on campus. In grad school in Milwaukee, I bought a Stan Mikita stick and a K-mart puck, only to have a cop toss me off the pond in the park near my apartment.

In the early 80s, hockey was the Milwaukee Admirals minor league team and Chris Chelios and the Wisconsin Badgers. Our daughter would stand up in her crib and taunt imaginary opposing goalies: “Sieve, sieve, sieve!”

In the intervening years, I watched the Omaha Lancers and the San Francisco Spiders. My first NHL game was in Vancouver, Canucks hosting the Sabres. Hockey fever really set in when we moved to New Jersey and I began to follow the Devils, who took the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003.

I had figured I’d follow the New York Rangers, one of the “Original Six” in the NHL. But the Devils were — and remain — my team. The Montreal Canadiens are a sentimental favorite, and I’m proud to say I got to see Les Habs play the Colorado Avalanche in Montreal a few years ago at what was then Centre Molson.

As important as hockey is to me, I have only one cap: the New York Rangers model shown above, a hand-me-down from my brother. It’s a nice one, and it needs some company in the rotation.

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