SB Nation recently rebranded all of their sites. They ran a series of pieces in which their writers explained how and why they became hockey fans to commemorate it. Although I’m not an SB Nation member, I figured I’d do my own anyway. –JSG
What is it we love most about hockey? In my case, the answer changes generationally. To me, it’s the sport I grew up watching with my dad, learning names like Selanne, Carbonneau, Sakic and Olczyk. (Yes, even Eddie Olczyk. I thought his name was pronounced “Oz-lick” at first, which made me laugh.) To me, it’s a whole host of memories — most of them faint — of Tom Mees and Gary Thorne, of mullets and Molson commercials, of turning on our Sega Genesis and pitting the Whalers against “Long Island.” It was also, of course, having my dad to share it all with.
I know it’s at least some of those things to my dad too, but it’s also the sport HIS dad, my grandpa, passed along a passion for. To my grandpa, hockey is also a whole host of memories — made faint by five decades of passing time — but his memories are different. His are memories of love. Not for a team or a player, but for my grandma, Evelyn.
See, after my grandparents were married, a lot of their dates were trips to Portland Buckaroos games. He was a World War II vet and a self-employed carpenter; she was a transplant from South Dakota working retail to build a life in Portland. They met after he returned from the war and, they both still insist, it was love at first sight. Isn’t it always?
Hockey was part of their common ground and their social life. League affiliations were tricky back then, but the Buckaroos were part of the post-WWII Western Hockey League. (And one of Portland’s only options for live sports.) They were sort of the precursor to the modern Portland Winterhawks, even though the Winterhawks are really just the relocated 1976 Edmonton Oil Kings. Still, my grandparents spent plenty of nights at Memorial Coliseum, where a $2.50 ticket let them watch guys like Don Head, Connie Madigan and Doug Messier take the ice. I have no idea if we’re a hockey family because of that or in spite of it, mind you. God knows I’ve been on dozens of dates where I was only focused on the girl I was with, not the activity. Besides, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Ours isn’t to question love, it’s to observe and appreciate.
I got to observe and appreciate that love earlier tonight. I watched as my grandma held my grandpa’s hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness, all while his doctor outlined the options for hospice care. Hospice, for those who aren’t familiar (as I wasn’t before today), essentially means a patient has no more than six months to live. It’s not a treatment plan because, well, there’s nothing to treat. The body and mind don’t last forever, and no amount of medical care can stop the inevitable. The nurse paraphrased it as “doing things for him rather than doing things to him.”
Love finds funny ways of showing up in these instances. My grandma, being told that her husband of nearly 70 years might not last another 70 days, asked only that we make sure he’s comfortable and that he knows how much he’s loved. And then she said something that stuck with me: “I want him to live, not just exist. Neither of us want to get to the point of just existing.”
I’m a pretty composed, even-keeled person, but that got to me. In literal terms she was talking about my grandpa’s mortality, but it’s hard not to think she was talking about her own as well. Truth be told, I’m sure they’ve both been facing it for a while — they’re each in their 90s and haven’t been truly independent in a long, long time. But now the end is really in sight, and all she could think about in that moment was him. In one of their very worst moments, the full depth of their love was on display.
Hockey has been, and always will be, a significant part of my life. I picked the Avalanche as my favorite team in fifth grade because my grandpa always spoke so highly of Joe Sakic, and the year the team relocated from Quebec I boldly (and baselessly) declared they’d win the Stanley Cup. My prediction spurred my interest in the team, and watching guys like Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote drew me in further. Watching my Stanley Cup prediction come true that year sealed the deal. I was ecstatic for myself and for my new favorite team. Naturally, my grandpa was happiest for Adam Deadmarsh, former Portland Winterhawk.
In a way, I owe my entire hockey fandom to my grandfather. In a way, I don’t owe him any of it. He went to Buckaroos games as dates; I didn’t see a live game until I was in my mid-20s. Hockey games were his social events, my after-school TV viewing. I don’t know that he even has a favorite NHL team. He still watches every game he can, but more with appreciation than anything else.
And hey, who can blame him? Hockey helped bring my grandparents together. It’s been almost 70 years since they married, and it’s no exaggeration to call that a “lifetime” — it’s about as literal as it gets in this context. Sports are often characterized as tribalistic, and there’s truth to that, but being part of a tribe isn’t just about the other tribes. It’s mostly about the bonds you form within your own. It’s about the love you share and the things that bring you closer together.
Hockey is the common thread tying our last three generations together. It’s the last minute of the third period of my grandpa’s life, and we’re all going to miss him terribly. But as with any loss, the hope is to take something from it. Hockey will go on without him, and so will our own lives. I’ll still be watching games whenever I can. And somewhere, so will he.