Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

Home Is Where the Hockey Is

My birthday wasn't supposed to be January 26 (Australia Day and Wayne Gretzky's birthday); it was supposed to be Valentine's Day. But I decided it was go time a few weeks early et voila! My fate was sealed. It only seemed right to plot a vacation to Australia on my birthday. That is, until I discovered that there is hockey Down Under and it's played during our off-season, which is their fall/winter. If all goes well and my employer gives me the time off, I'm off to Melbourne and Sydney for the start of the Australian Ice Hockey League regular season in April. The Melbourne Mustangs have already made me feel welcome and I haven't even touched down in their city yet. It all made me realize that after a lifetime of living in different cities from San Diego to Tucson to Portland to New York and back again, there's really only one place that feels like home and you can find it almost anywhere. 

Dude, seriously? Hello my name is Samantha and I'm a hockey fan who grew up in Arizona.  And yes, I voted for John Scott; it was a moral imperative. If Arizona-born Auston Matthews really does go first in the 2016 Entry Draft as expected, never again will people look at me, back away and start calling the local authorities on their phone to report a madwoman on the loose. Being a fan or player from Arizona will no longer be a bad joke at dinner parties. So what's it like growing up in a place where you're the odd girl out because everyone else is out playing tennis, golf or baseball? I spent 17 years growing up in Southern California and Arizona before I moved to Oregon with my family. Back then, if you wanted to watch hockey, you watched the annual showing of the Stanley Cup on network television. The rest of the time you pretended to actually like golf and baseball. Today, hockey is everywhere: Phoenix, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Florida, New Zealand, Jamaica, Jakarta and Australia. And Down Under, they are way ahead of the game:

You go girl: Reason number one to be an instant Melbourne Mustangs fan: their world membership for fans abroad. Reason number two: their strength and conditioning coach is a woman. I'm all in.  

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere: Speaking of all things Australian, Blindspot star Sullivan Stapleton recently posted a picture of Times Square on his Instagram account, with the note “tonight’s office!” While the rest of us were gearing up for All-Star weekend on Friday night, NBC’s new hit was filming back in the place where the show’s story begins. I was suddenly jealous: we should all be so lucky to have a job we love and a lovely place in which to do it. I was that lucky once: I used to live in New York City and I worked briefly at an office in the heart of Times Square. But I wasn’t a famous actress and I didn’t live in a fabulous apartment in some swanky uptown neighborhood. I was a bridge and tunnel working girl who left Portland to chase the dream. I drove from Portland to New York with $3000 in the bank and a dream; everything I owned fit in the trunk and back seat of my 1988 Toyota Corolla. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t know anyone there: I just did it.  Sounds romantic and exciting, right? Think again. I made it there, but at a price. I was more like the gritty, hard-working journeyman player who spends most of his career in the minor leagues. But I would do it all again; because one of the perks of my first real New York City job was discounted season tickets to the Rangers. In the time I lived there, I ping-ponged from apartments on the Upper West Side to Astoria to Hoboken. But I never really “lived” in those shoeboxes with a view of a brick wall, car alarms going off at all hours and heat that didn’t get turned on until January. I lived at the rink; the one place hockey fans can feel at home no matter where we are. Every time I went to a game, that’s when I really knew I’d made it in New York City.  But after 10 years, not even hockey was enough to keep me there. I was surviving, not thriving; fans who have watched their team go from heroes to zero in one season know what I’m talking about. I finally realized it was time to chase a new dream and headed back to a place I never really called home: Portland. The place my father had dragged us in my senior year in high school. I went kicking and screaming, until he reminded me that Portland had something Tucson didn’t: ice hockey.

No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn: Portland Winterhawks Skating Center houses a wall of championships that include those earned between 2011 and 2014:  three U.S. Division titles, four Western Conference championships, the Scotty Munro Trophy, the WHL award for Scholastic Achievement, the WHL title and the team’s first return to the Memorial Cup in 15 years. Every August, 300-some odd fans, family members and scouts pile into a small, freezing rink in a west side suburb for the Neely Cup, the training camp tournament named for our most famous alumnus, Cam Neely. Until this season, reporting for training camp felt like returning home after 10 years in a big city. This season, however, it’s a whole different hockey game. The Winterhawks are currently third in the U.S. Division and seventh in the Western Conference, with 25 wins in 50 games and 52 points; they are 10 points behind first place Everett Silvertips, the defending U.S. Division champions. It's not bad, but it's not great either. As the team gears up for the stretch run, all eyes are on whether this year’s squad is capable of a deep playoff run. Local fans have begun to openly question whether this team has what it takes. It’s justified; the Winterhawks just returned from another lost weekend in the B.C. Division, where they were outplayed by the Kelowna Rockets and the Kamloops Blazers. Suddenly, the rink doesn’t feel like home anymore. It feels more like the rundown gas station you have to stop at when you get lost on a two lane highway in the middle of a desert. Still lying ahead of the boys is the Central Swing road trip, but the gas has already started to run out of the tank. The place we call home is fading from sight, disappearing even further into the rearview mirror with every lost weekend. I will always back my hometown team: I don’t care what the scoreboard says. But is it any wonder I’m off to parts unknown to see how the game is played in another country?

Home is where the hockey is: When I told friends that I was planning a trip to Australia first and foremost for the hockey, they thought I’d officially gone to the dark side. To get to Melbourne from Portland it takes one cab ride to Portland International, a two hour flight to LA, a layover in Los Angeles, one 15-hour overnight flight in coach to Melbourne and one cab ride to my hotel. It will take 24 hours and I will have traveled 8,107 miles when I touch down at Tullamarine Airport. After five days in Melbourne, I’m traveling onward to Cairns to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef and then it’s off to Sydney for another weekend of hockey. Why am I doing it? Because no distance is too far to travel for hockey. I traveled about as far to live in New York and for better or worse, it changed my life. I’ll know for sure this week if this epic adventure is a go, but there’s one thing I already know for sure: home is where the hockey is. In this case, home for two weeks is going to be Australia. And one other thing I already know for sure: it’s going to change my life. Do I need a better reason? I think not.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com