by SENShobo on 02/03/09 at 02:24 PM ET
It’s been a week now since the All-Star Game was played, the heroes returned to their teams, and Montreal returned to a slightly less exuberant heartland of hockey.
There were cheers and jeers all around, at the rink and hundreds of miles away, for the event, what it stands for, and all that it cannot hold a torch to.
I was fortunate enough to be welcomed into the event by the League, with all the access and privileges of the mainstream media.
Without a doubt — and not just because it was the first time I donned media credentials — the weekend will forever rank amongst my most cherished hockey memories, and always it will remind me why there is a need for an event such as this.
It was far from the most glamorous of entrances. Traveling by Greyhound bus from Kitchener to Montreal, I required three separate bus trips, and the ‘shortened’ return trip’s 10.5h length still ranked me ahead of layover delayed media following the Sharks’ trio into town. Trying to sleep on those buses probably also contributed to a cough I’ve been nursing for a week.
But Friday morning, as I trundled along Montreal’s streets towards the bus station, I was greeted with the snow, the cold, and the 30 foot tall likenesses of the NHL’s greats, Patrick Kane describing a sighting of himself on those buildings as one of the most striking moments of the weekend for him to NHL.com.
“I don’t know what the dimensions are, but it’s really big,” Kane said. “I drove by it one day in a cab and it really made me think of how hard I have worked to get to this point. I mean, being in Montreal for your first All-Star Game, you couldn’t really ask for a better situation.”
Rather than staying at the media hotel, I’d originally opted to save myself half the cost of a room by looking to a hostel for accommodations, before a relative I’d not seen in a decade most graciously offered to host me for my stay. Staying with her, getting a chance to spend some time with other relatives, riding the rubber-tired subway into the Montreal core for the events, it all gave me a far greater appreciation for my opportunity, as well as for how much this event meant to the city and its hockey-driven citizens. Every trip I’d take, I’d run into another Hab jersey, another hockey discussion that my rusty french could still pick out, another special moment between parent and child as some tale of hockey heroics unfolded itself in between stops on a hockey weekend journey.
That Friday morning, for the first time, I found myself in a room twice filled with the talents of the League as the Western and Eastern Conferences brought out their All-Stars for the media to see, to question, and to bring home for the fans in whatever medium they were masters of. But rather than questions about untimely giveaways, of hard-fought and hard-to-stomach losses, the questions invariably and pleasantly drifted to far less stressful topics.
Even as Montreal’s media attempted to swallow Lecavalier whole, still the questions came out about players’ favourite video games, about what the weekend meant to them, about hockey and its pressure, minus the pressure. The world-weary postgame faces gave way to Joe Thornton being as approachable as any high school kid in his first encounter with a voice recorder, a great introduction for someone as green as I. Keith Tkachuck, even without the throngs Ovechkin would delight in, never met a mic he didn’t like, or Shane Doan a funny story he didn’t want to share. Those with experience or previous All-Star nods on their side seemed to relish the chance to have the media in a more conciliatory setting; those with youth seemed at once brimming with exuberance at the experience, and in awe of the talents around them.
Sure enough, it was not everyone’s cup of tea. Some media would converse amongst themselves, describing the event almost as punishment to be assigned to cover it, quietly voicing their disdain for any softball questions tossed in the air, such as any question to Lecavalier that didn’t force him to dispell the Montreal trade rumours. Other times, every event of the weekend could be overheard in a heated discussion as to what joke best described and derided it. No surprise, though, that I never once heard any complaints over the free food, drinks, and entertainment provided by the League and THN at parties throughout the weekend for both the players who use gloves and sticks as well as those who use pens and BlackBerrys.
No, in case you wondered, I was not an attendee at those larger events myself; for as much as some MSMers might not like the thought of those like me who do aspects of their job for free, they can at least take comfort that there are still comfortable separations and distinctions between us. Even as I didn’t agree with everything I saw, I know as well as any that discussion and debate are at the heart of the job, being exposed to those differing views and successfully filtering, categorizing, and changing (or not) because of them a key component of doing that job well. It was a treat for me not only to see the NHL All-Stars, but to rub elbows with the MSM’s expansive roster, byline photos, smooth radio elocutors, and television darlings all whirling around, perhaps wondering what I was looking at, or on the 300-strong press box seating chart who was behind the “Kukla’s Korner” reservation.
What I saw in Montreal that truly sold me on the event, though, greeted me at every turn, faces smiling, immune to the cold: the fans. They filled le Centre Bell for the most casual of open practices, drowning the cavernous arena with a chorus of cheers for every dipsy-doodle attempted, every face that appeared on the video screen, every player and coach with an ounce of familiarity. They hung around outside the parking garage hoping for autographs, photos, or even mere glimpses unfettered by electronic broadcasts.
In front of the arena a large tent was set up to host the Lays NHL All-Star Jamboree, its profits going to a trio of local Hockey Fights Cancer Charities (Leucan, Saku Koivu Foundation, The Jason Fund). The whole weekend, it was a throng of fans of all stripes. You expected les Glorieux to be there on every jersey, but you were greeted with 29 others as well, saw US dollars being pulled out, and ran into those who might not be aware of what the lockout was as well as those who can remember the last time a neighbouring province hosted a certain well attended parade.
They stared in awe at funny relics of digital hockey pucks meant to glow on television screens, took off their shoes to stand in the foot imprints and grip a stick in the hand imprints of NHL All-Stars. They lined up in a dazzling maze of bodies, all to get an autograph from local stars O’Byrne and D’Agostini, who together barely average an appearance in every other game this season, but drew so well that the line had to be cut off nearly an hour in advance of their appearance. The fans mingled about, taking in free samples from sponsors as they admired the craftsmanship and history of the League trophies, and completely mobbing activities designed to put them in the shoes of their heroes, mimicking not just hockey, but the events of the SuperSkills competition, faces lit up as bright as any scoreboard in the League.
One member of the media never once pulled out a voice recorder during the players’ media availabilities, didn’t have the highest praise for the event, and yet I could smile as he carried one of the biggest reasons for its success on his arm. That Friday, he had his son with him, taking him around to collect a truly mind-boggling assortment of autographs, helping him to flip through his book to find the most striking of photos to offer up to each player along with a sharpie. When he made his way to Shane Doan, Shane remarked that he had a son about the boy’s age, shared a few words with both father and child, and had no qualms about lighting up the boy’s face with his own personal little piece of hockey history.
Indeed, within that boy lay the hopes of thousands, if not millions of others; to see something great, awe-inspiring, to come so close as to touch it with something as small as a glimpse, an autograph, a few words, and to take from that the hope, desire, and passion to fuel a lifelong love of the sport. One of the most common questions asked of the players that day was what their family meant to them, how they’d helped to bring the players to this point; the answer never changed or surprised, as it never should.
Too often, though, we forget that it is not only the families who brought those players to these heights, to these opportunities and successes; the fans helped to bring them here too. Those cheers don’t just pump you up on the ice, but have pumped up this sport so that it could be 30 teams strong, no matter how you rank those 30 individual strengths. This weekend is about more than living up to the responsibilities of being there and being spectacular for the sponsors; in a great many ways it is about paying tribute to the fans, those who helped join with the players’ families to carry them the rest of the way.
It’s about acknowledging those fans. Reaching back to the older generation, the ones who were floored when they saw Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, and others, emerging into the crowd Sunday night, those original generation diehards that remember a time when NHL hockey wasn’t what paid the bills, when players delivered beer for Molson’s in the summer to make ends meet, and were never too sore to answer the doorbell when fans came calling, who’d be at the same local pond on Sunday, letting you play a little shinny with the guys who took your breath away on Hockey Night In Canada. Reaching forward as well, setting a new generation of children and youth on fire with passion for the sport, the ones who may not directly get this League through this recession, but who will be responsible someday for continuing to make it a success, continue to allow the 82 game season, 30 team League have the hardest trophy in all of sport to win, and create some of the most enduring battles. You don’t have the points or the Cup on the line, you can’t afford in this weekend to see players carried off on stretchers, but in the dazzling plays and saves the All-Star Game does offer up in droves, you can indeed find the spark that ignites the great love of our game, a fire worth igniting over and over again, any way it can be lit.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that this past weekend at my relative’s home, she brought out and showed to me a book from 1985 about the history of hockey. Someone had the great fortune of collecting many sparks of passion for the game within that book, and when she passed it on to her grandson and encouraged him to write a letter, sending the book along with it, a new generation began collecting sparks all over again. Let the passion for the game we love never, ever die.
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Native of Northern California. Hockey fan since 1998... sort of... there's a hiatus in there that I still can't explain.
I want to know about anything and everything related to the sport and the spectacle. I watch, I react, I write it down.
My interest in the Sharks was initially a matter of geographic convenience and regional loyalty because that seemed to be how it worked. I had no prior interest (at all-- AT ALL) in professional sports of any kind. When I met hockey, it might have set off a chain reaction of general sports fandom. It hasn't, I don't think it will. At all.
Since then, that interest developed into full blown (mostly sort of usually almost completely) exclusive loyalty to the Sharks.
I started blogging a couple years ago on wordpress. I still occasionally put things there that I don't think fit here because they are not about the Sharks. Wherever my words wander, here on Kuklas Korner, they will (usually) hang on to a teal thread.
I can be found in cyberspace on Twitter @petshark47, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org