It seems as though the end of the season always brings a time of reflection to hockey fans. Many teams have been out since the end of April, yet those that love the game, have watched until the very end. It has been a year of ups and downs. Beginning with the NHL lockout, hockey fans had to find other ways to see their favorite sport. Whether it be to Knoxville for the Ice Bears, college hockey, Canadian juniors or even a Central Hockey League game in Fort Worth, TX, we found hockey. In a way, I’m thankful that I was given that opportunity.
Had it not been for the lockout, I would probably have missed out on some amazing experiences. College hockey is alive and well in the south and it will continue to grow. The University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) is proudly part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) which will help with recruiting, and hopefully bringing a national championship to Huntsville. Going to Huntsville was a great fix for a hockey need, especially in the fall. Fans were able to chant and cheer, participate in “chuck-a-pucks” and best all, show those boys that people support the program. In the opponents that came to Huntsville, we were able to see some of the best and brightest that the United States has to offer, as the USA Hockey National Team Development Program came to town. Some of the players on that team will most likely be drafted this weekend at the NHL Entry Draft. Fall cannot come soon enough in Huntsville, as I’m sure the city, the university and especially the players, are excited to embark on a new journey in the WCHA. And yet, there was more to experience.
Closer to home, in Nashville, Vanderbilt Hockey presented itself as a late night, weekend-only fix for hockey. It may only be “club level” hockey, but you can tell that they play with passion on the ice. Such is the life of a hockey player. We witnessed come back after come back, because you see, Vandy is not a first period team. Most of these boys are not local to the Nashville area, and just by having people there to watch them (including the Gibby fan club), one could see how excited they were to play hard for their fans. All of this leading up to the I-65 Face Off. An exciting event at Bridgestone Arena that had Vanderbilt forcing overtime against Alabama in the late minutes of the game. Although Vanderbilt would go on to lose in overtime, it showed that hockey was alive and well in the south.
In December of 2012, the entire crew was on a mission to experience junior hockey up north, so we ventured to Michigan and Canada where we were able to experience home games for the Saginaw Spirit, Sarnia Sting, Plymouth Whalers and Windsor Spitfires. All four teams presented something different that I will always remember. Each team’s hospitality will not be forgotten, nor will our experiences speaking with players that could be the next big thing in the NHL. We learned that many of these fans weren’t even bothered by the lockout because this was their team. The passion and excitement shown by these fans was a pleasant surprise to all of us.
January came and the NHL lockout ended, but I had a new-found appreciation for the sport. The lockout truly showed me how much of a fan I was of the game itself. As the shortened season wore on, I swore to myself that I would not forget about my past experiences. What I learned was that the sport itself isn’t just played on the ice; it’s the people you meet and the connections you make with those people. We all have our own versions of “hockey family” that show how no other sport is like it and that’s how we stay strong. Our “hockey family” isn’t just there for the sport, but they really do become our family. We celebrate weddings, births of a child, birthdays and more together and are always there to support during a time of need. We see how communities can come together to support one another like Nashville has with Calgary. The grit and determination that is seen on the ice, is present in the community within organizations that do everything they can to help those in need and to help children experience the sport they love.
We see these acts every day in hockey. Players giving up their bodies for a chance to win. A bloodied cheek, teeth lost, shoulders separated, bruised ribs, a broken leg and yet they play on. I challenge you next season to experience hockey in a different way. Venture out and explore new ways to see the sport you love. Watch it for the love of the game. Watch it thinking that you might just be watching the next Shea Weber. Watch and admire what fandom truly is all about. This is what helps to bring people together. Every single game, no matter the level you experience it at, brings passion. From the players on the ice, the coaches behind the bench, people in the organization, to the fans and community, it brings people together. Why?
Because hockey isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life.