February 27, 1994. My fiance at the time was running late getting ready for church. Not a huge surprise as she’ll probably be late for her own funeral. While waiting, I was sitting in my recliner watching TV. The Winter Olympics were on. Specifically the gold medal game between Sweden and Canada. Instead of laying back in plush comfort, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat watching every pass, shot and hip check. Thoroughly enthralled, we missed church that day…a fan was born.
I vaguely remember going to a Birmingham Bulls hockey game in the early 80’s so I wasn’t a total newcomer to the game, but let’s be honest…this is Alabama. Football country. Specifically college football. Even when watching baseball in the summer, people are talking about college football. “Remember when XYZ happened last season?”; “Yeah, we sure put a whipping on ya’ll in the Iron Bowl!”; “Have you heard about the latest recruiting prospects for this fall?”. There are a lot of people into other sports as well, but few, VERY few, could even name 5 NHL teams.
That Sunday morning was a turning point in my fandom. I’ve always been an Alabama Football fan, and no doubt always will be. But that morning, a new and glorious sport took hold in my heart. Once the Olympics were over, I followed the NHL season as best as I could. Keep in mind, this was before the Internet as we know it and the local news never ran any hockey stories. I was able to follow from a distance via AOL and that would have to suffice until the playoffs for Lord Stanley’s Cup started. Maybe it was because it was the first time I watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but I’ve never seen anything like it since. Those 7 games were the most exciting of any sport that I’ve ever seen, especially game seven. Mark Messier called it and I believed. The excitement on his face as he raised the cup literally brought tears to my eyes.
Our wedding was that summer and our honeymoon was a cruise to Alaska that departed Vancouver. While I wasn’t a Canucks fan, we did stay an extra few days in the city so I could absorb as much as possible before returning to the hockey desert of Alabama. Lord Stanley Park is absolutely beautiful. One of the prettiest places I’ve ever been to. And Hockey News! Who knew they had a newspaper devoted to hockey? I was in heaven. That fall, I became a season ticket holder to the Birmingham Bulls hockey games and the proud owner of a Mark Messier #11 Rangers jersey.
Over the next several years, we faithfully attended Bulls games until they were dispatched just after the turn of the century. My love for the sport never waned, but did become difficult to maintain as keeping up with teams and watching games resorted to what information I could find online. Things are better now that there are entire cable stations devoted to the NHL and games are more prevalent, but it’s still not everyday cooler-talk in Alabama, even though the University of Alabama has a great hockey team, the Frozen Tide. Over the years, I’ve tried to make it to an NHL game several times but for one reason or another, it’s never happened. Until now.
It’s been a LONG time coming but after 23 years & 19 days, I have finally attended my very first NHL game. On March 18, 2017, I watched the Carolina Hurricanes and the Nashville Predators stand off at PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. While it wasn’t my beloved Rangers, it was still an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. Even with the stands only half-full, the energy was electric. Watching the action from only a few rows off the glass, seeing plays develop and listening to the chants of the hometown fans, every single minute was incredible. I sat there, wide-eyed and grinning like a kid that was up to no good for the entire 2 hours. Words simply can’t express my excitement.
While seeing an NHL game has been on my bucket list for a long time, I still have two more hockey related items on the list: Seeing the Stanley Cup in person; and getting to watch the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. Now if I could check both of those off at the same time, that would be a dream come true. I have my Messier jersey ready to go!