It seems like only yesterday that I was telling you about myself, but as Marcel Proust might point out, time is actually elastic and has marched on since then.
Pardon me if any bitterness is evident this time around (and there is plenty of bitterness – Plen. Tee.) but I’m very disillusioned by this pesky lockout. It’s almost as if I’ve just learned that there’s no Santa Claus. (Note to children under ten reading this gay hockey blog – Santa DOES exist. As does the Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy however is merely hetero propaganda). But let’s dip our madeleines in some tea while we ponder: Where are the skaters of yesteryear?
Astute readers of my last (well, first really) column could be forgiven for thinking “This purports to be about the Tampa Bay Lightning yet he won’t shut his yap about the Wings.” Since this little slice of heaven in the hockey blog universe is a site of inclusiveness, I feel I can open up to you, gentle reader. I’m ‘Bi’. That’s right, I root for two teams.
Now, before you get all preachy and judgmental, you should know they are in separate conferences. It’s not like they’re in the same division for heaven’s sake, that would be immoral. (I really, really dread the upcoming realignment).
They don’t meet up often, so I’ve think I’ve managed to keep them from finding out, but they are probably stalking my Twitter feed and already know. But those ‘mono-rooters’ are always playing spoil sport, claiming you can’t have it both ways and you have to be closer to one side or other on the scale (Curse you, Kinsey!). So here’s where it gets sticky, said the actress to the Bishop. (‘said the actress to the Bishop’ is the 19th century equivalent of ‘That’s what she said’).
My formative years in Red Wings hockey coincided with the period known as “The Darkness With Harkness” (AKA The ‘Dead’ Wings). If my parents speak of those days, my mother will merely say, “They were just God awful” while my father would most likely spout tirades I couldn’t print here. When we went to games in the late 70’s and early 80’s it was most likely because Gretzky was in town and we figured we could at least watch him notch a few more milestone points in his race to the top.
And quite frankly by my teen years, I was no longer a sports fan. First, even though I’m coordinated enough to be a dancer, I’m a horrible athlete. (I was taunted with wedgies in so many locker rooms).
Secondly, I began to resent the insane attention given to sporting events over the artistic ones. I still have some of this bitter aftertaste during college football season when I must scroll through endless “Let’s Go Team!” posts on Facebook. (Note to friends – and you know who you are – I remember in college how you said you hated the place and couldn’t wait to leave. Now you send cutesy memes featuring team mascots. You sicken me).
Even my parents chide me to this day for not having ‘loyalty’ to institutions they themselves NEVER EVEN ATTENDED!!! (I do at least care about the Michigan State Hockey program) Oddly enough it took my move to Florida (Motto – The Wrinkle State) for me to rediscover hockey and for the Red Wings to finally start making the playoffs.
Remember when ESPN broadcast College Hockey games? No? Well, you can be forgiven as it was during the last millennium. But it was during one such telecast of Michigan State and Notre Dame that I recalled why I loved watching the game. Then I got to see some Wings games, and I was shocked by how much better they finally were (although admittedly that’s not saying much) and how that young Yzerman kid seemed to be doing fairly well. So I became a fan and followed the ups and downs, the Russian Five, and Scotty Bowman’s headgames. And then eventually four Stanley Cups which isn’t bad for the twenty years I’d followed them.
Once I met my long-suffering partner (LSP) we would visit Tampa occasionally to watch games (okay, to watch the Wings) and eventually other gay fan (OGF) who is a Pittsburgh fan (don’t judge him – he was born there) joined us. At first we were going to just to watch our teams, but a smooth talking salesperson convinced us it made sense to get a “Ten Pack” of games.
Our first season with this plan coincided with the reign of The Clown Show where there existed this fantasy world wherein Barry Melrose was qualified to be an NHL coach. Since Melrose’s coaching methods apparently consisted of hoary platitudes about ‘grit’, ‘hustle’ and ‘playing with heart’ borrowed from “Hoosiers” (or worse, some TNT rip-off of ‘Hoosiers”) instead of a credible offense and defense consisting of X’s and O’s, wiser heads prevailed and dumped him (After only 16 games! And he’s still considered a hockey expert) in favor of Assistant Coach Rick Tocchet.
Melrose was going to send Steven Stamkos down to the minors claiming he wasn’t ready for the NHL, but Tocchet shrewdly paired Stammer with Lightning stalwart Marty St. Louis and they showed amazing chemistry on the ice. Hopefully Rick will be remembered for that instead of that gambling thing.
Now while I was rooting for the Lightning, I still considered myself a Red Wing. But I wasn’t about to be that lone guy you see wearing a Wings jersey at a game where they aren’t playing (and there’s always one) so I decided that I could at least wear a Lightning hat to show my support. Surprisingly, it did not burn my head when I put it on. But you notice, there’s that slippery slope they warn you about.
Once I had the hat, then I purchased a t-shirt. And then finally the jersey. Yes, even though it felt like cheating on my team, I wore my Marty St. Louis #26 jersey proudly. Because by that time, the team had a huge turnaround. Not only was there a new owner, but there was a GM that I already knew and loved: Steve Yzerman. And he hired a new coach, Guy Boucher who with his death stare, menacing scar, and a degree in Sports Psychology could give Scotty Bowman a run for his money in the headgames department. And that very first season, despite everyone’s dire predictions, they were one goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. But this was a hungry team. It was incredibly gratifying to see them actually fight for pucks along the boards and then come away with them. Yes, the much maligned 1-3-1 defense allows for a lot more turnovers and odd man rushes than one would like, but still it’s thrilling hockey to watch. And I can easily say that Game 6 of the Lightning/Bruins Conference Final was the most electric atmosphere I have experienced in an arena (well, concerts excluded – nothing beats a Prince concert).
And this leads me to my point, I never experienced a live Red Wings playoff game. No such animal existed in my time in Michigan. But I was there in the ‘Whatever We’re Calling It Now’ Forum breathing in the crazed crowd screaming and carrying on for all eight amazing games the Lightning had in their playoff run. And we got to meet players (they signed my old school logo lightning cap– even Coach Boucher!) at some Fan Fests where I tried (oh, how I tried) to string three words together while staring into Ryan Malone’s dreamy eyes.
On nights when both Detroit and Tampa Bay had games, it became difficult to decide which team we wanted to watch first. You see, here at the OperaHockeyGuy Manse, hockey games are not always watched live. Usually they are painstakingly DVR’d in order to fast forward through commercials, in between period commentary, and anything Pierre McGuire might say. (Fun Fact: LSP has prevented me – on numerous occasions – from taunting Pierre while he waits to interview players during warm-ups…. oh and yes, I refuse to even bother to provide a link for that egotistical windbag).
At one point, I realized I was calling the Lightning ‘my team.’ Normally I hate that, because, duh, I don’t ACTUALLY own the team. But the sentiment is there. When we went to games, we hit warm-ups as well as OGF likes to take photos. His specialty is getting Ryan Malone while he stretches at the bench.
But we also appreciate the gritty players who have shown new life with the Bolts after kind of bouncing around the league like Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson. (Oh Nate with the flowing hockey hair in what I assume is a tribute to Guy LaFleur). And even though last year was less than stellar for the team, Stammer still got 60 goals and Teddy had a career season.
But still, the Wings and I have been through so much together. So many years. Yet, the Bolts have become such a part of my life with my LSP and our road trips with OGF. Honestly, right now I feel as though both have them have jilted me. I do have another hockey prospect right here in town. They are actually going to play in October. I’ll tell you about them next time.