Monday, June 20, 2011

Claim Jumping: A Hockey Orphan's Guilt and Absolution

Whew, life keeps getting in the way of me putting things up in this space. After returning from a whirlwind of family stuff, I had time to fire off one piece on LeBron, and then I was gone again. I spent the past week at Great North Sound Studio in Nowhere-ville, Maine, cutting a record with my buddy Pat's band. That's not the actual name of the town, obviously, but that's where it felt like. No cell reception, no TV, no internet, nothing. We were in complete isolation in this beautiful old New England farmhouse; just us and the instruments and our intrepid and long-suffering (one non-stop week with us probably qualifies as "long-suffering") producer/engineer Dan. Really, that's the environment you want for making a record. No distractions, no outside forces, just immersion in the music and the camaraderie that comes of living and working, eating and drinking together in tight quarters for a week.

Anyway, the majority of our members being New England born-and-bread, our keyboardist managed to find one tiny, magical spot in the living room where his iPhone could pick up reception, and kept us updated on the progress of game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. When the final score flashed up, we knocked off work for the night. Bottles were cracked, toasts were raised and drunk. The Bruins had broken a 40 championship drought, and Boston teams have now hit for the cycle in terms of championships over the past decade. During our little celebration, someone asked me why I seemed so happy.

"Well, I'm a Bruins fan."

They looked at me quizzically.

The funny thing about making a record is how you adapt to the situation. Things that seem to work in rehearsal when you're all jamming together sometimes sound totally out of place when you're listening to the playback. Change it, scrap it, but you have to do something. Or suddenly you hear room for a part to slither in that you didn't think of until just that moment, and the texture of the song is altered as a result. Those little moments can make or break a tune. The point is, you have to make the music work, but you can't force it, either. It has to evolve organically or it'll end up sounding contrived. Even people who know nothing about composition can hear when something on a record is disingenuous.

Herein lies the tale of my organically evolved (and hopefully not disingenuous) courtship and eventual marriage to Bruins fandom, a team separated from my birthplace by a vast swath of geography, and which I theoretically have no right to root for.

As you've no doubt gathered if you visit this space with any regularity, I'm a die-hard fan of Atlanta sports. Born and raised in Georgia's capital, I've rooted our teams on through times of prosperity, failure, and in some cases humiliation. The Braves, Hawks, and Falcons have played perhaps inordinately large parts in my life. Every win a small comfort and source of happiness, every loss a small cloud that slightly dimmed the light of the day. It's foolish to place so much emotional stock in what ultimately amounts to grown men playing boys' games, but that's the nature of the thing. I don't even participate in fantasy sports, because I could never bring myself to hope another team's player had a good day if they were facing one of the ATL's franchises. If I draft Drew Brees because he's the best QB left on the board, I still want the Falcons forcing him to eat turf and breaking up his passes all livelong day when they play the Saints, and that philosophy would make me a poor fantasy owner. So I avoid the whole mess, tantalizing and fun as it looks. The teams mean too much to brook any possible contradiction. Hawks, Braves, Falcons ... but what about hockey?

When I was born, the old Flames franchise was two years gone, and Atlanta was devoid of a hockey team or any fans who cared to root for one. I learned to love the game, and a team, over the all-too-brief period from '92-'96, when we had the IHL Atlanta Knights, a farm team for Tampa Bay. Dad and I took in a good chunk of those games live, and watched even more when they were on local TV. I even listened to a bunch on the radio in the first two seasons, turned down so my parents wouldn't hear it after they sent me to bed. (I was 10 in 1992). I was crestfallen when they left for Canada, but what's a kid to do? Besides, they were IHL. They weren't playing with the big boys at the game's highest level, and I didn't want to root for Tampa Bay, even if we were in their system. So I got over it. By the time the Thrashers came into existence in the 1999-2000 season, I was already a senior in high school, and bound for the frozen wasteland of Minnesota to attend Carleton College.

(Don't get me wrong, college was great. I had a blast and made a bunch of dear, dear lifelong friends, but in retrospect, uttering the phrase "I want to go somewhere it snows; snow is awesome!" is still one of the stupidest things a southern boy ever said. Take heed, kids. South or west. Go south or west if you have any way of doing so.)

Even if I had stayed close to home, I'm not sure I could have been a Thrashers fan. I tried, I really did, but it just seemed wrong somehow. I suspect many people whose home towns have acquired teams after their formative years have passed feel the same. Like some unfortunate young lad or lass in medieval Europe whose parents have arranged a marriage with a spouse you've never met, you try to do your duty and love the betrothed, but there's no basis to it, no affection born of long years together. It just doesn't work.

Still, those Knights years had taught me to love and care for the game. Hockey is an entity unlike anything else we have in sport. At its highest level, the best elements of other games are inherent in it. The deft grace and fluidity of basketball are there. Both games reward the subtle pass, and the vision to see a play before it happens. The deke is hockey's crossover dribble, the one-timer slapshot its three-point bomb. The ferocity of the NFL is there, too. A good, clean open-ice hit or ramrod into the boards is as compelling and awesome to behold as any QB sack or shot on a running back at the line of scrimmage. You get the elegance and the violence in perfect confluence, feeding and fueling eachother.

And hockey has its own distinguished charm as well. I'm not sure there's anything quite so impressive in all of athletics as guys that big moving like ballet dancers on a wholly unnatural surface. In every other game, the players run on grass or track or turf or wood, running being an easy and inherent movement for bipedal lifeforms. In hockey, they move ungodly fast and expertly change direction with thin metal blades strapped to their feet, on a surface you'd never even walk on normally if you could avoid it. Furthermore, hockey is the sole game where players get to settle their beefs on their own. These days, looking at somebody the wrong way will get you T'd up in the NBA. Football conflicts are broken up before anything real can happen. And baseball's favored tactic of "hit one of ours, we'll hit one of yours," takes all the agency of the principles out of the equation, unless someone charges the mound, which is a rare occurrence at best. In the NHL, if someone messes with someone else, they drop the gloves and throw down. Things are settled in the moment and on the ice, not with penalty flags or retaliation against guys who had nothing to do with the original slight. It's glorious.

Anyway, I didn't want to abandon the sport entirely. I wanted a team to root for, but the Thrashers weren't mine, never had been or would be, and given the outcomes of Atlanta's past hockey endeavors, I figured they wouldn't be around that long anyway. Turns out they lasted a good while longer than I expected, but that's beside the point. I wrote them off from jump. A hockey team in Atlanta is a fruitless thing. It carries no meaning. Hockey is for the lands of cold and ice, not places like my home state, a bastion of SEC football and the Braves. The long and the short was that I didn't want to be a hockey orphan, but I wasn't comfortable with Atlanta's new franchise. If I was going to root, it would be for a team and a city where hockey counted for something. Most fans need context and relativism, heroes and villains to make a sport sing for them, and coming to hockey late as I had initially compared to other sports, I wanted ... no, I needed a certifiable entity, not a team who had only recently appeared and was likely to disappear again just as quickly. But neither would I pick a random team for inane reasons, nor would I become a frontrunner for whomever was hot at the moment. I didn't have a favorite player in the league whose team I could peripherally latch on to. Maybe my knowledge of the sport's history and lineage was too scant, my foundation not sound enough, to make an informed decision. Nonetheless, my respect for its sanctity was intact. No one likes a bandwagoner, and I wasn't going to be one if I could help it. I decided that the Hockey Gods would tell me who to root for, and I would listen.

As it happened, I thought my prayers were answered even as I spent that final summer in Atlanta working at the OK Cafe and scraping those last few months of familiar company out of life's basin before we all went our separate ways. Carleton was located in Northfield, MN, less than an hour's drive from the Twin Cities, where Minnesota had finally gotten a new team to replace the departed North Stars. The newly-christened Wild were scheduled to begin NHL play a mere few months after my arrival in Minnesota, and to my naive, overly-dramatic, sports-addicted, 18-year-old self, it felt like destiny. I would find my new NHL team in my new home. Fresh beginnings and such. (I was a stupid, sappy kid with an overdeveloped connection to things that felt preordained or significant, especially when it came to sports. I admit it freely.) Two things happened to derail this supposed synchronicity:

1. College doesn't leave much time for stuff like finding a suitable replacement of hockey rooting interest. You're a tad occupied with figuring out who you are and what you want out of life ... and partying your brains out the way only kids that age can. Oh yeah, and writing papers and going to class and such, too. There's a lot on your plate. Keeping up with the teams I already loved became a daily battle of sustained effort and time allotment, never mind diligently seeking out a hockey team to which I could pledge my loyalties with a clean conscience.

2. My hoped-for adoption of the Wild was not accompanied by the buoyant and uplifting tide of local enthusiasm I had anticipated. Of all the adjectives one might think would describe Minnesotans' sentiments upon the acquisition of a new professional hockey team after going a half-decade without, ecstatic, jubilant, and their ilk were not among the actual list. If I had to pick one word, it would be grateful. I can't imagine what Minnesota fans must have gone through when the North Stars left for Dallas, of all places. Plucking a professional hockey franchise from the bosom of the American north country to send it to a place of sunshine and blistering heat made no sense at the time and even less in retrospect, no matter the dubious "reasons" of owner Norman Green. The general impression I got was that the act had sapped much of the luster from hockey in the minds of Minnesotans. They were happy to have a team again, but wary and much-diminished in vigor. I had hoped, foolishly, to join in some sort of sweeping hoisting of new banners, but such was not the case. Maybe it means I'm a gutless jerk for failing to embrace the new team. Maybe if I thought I wanted to become a Wild fan and failed, it was a fault of my fortitude or conviction. Whatever the reason, it didn't happen.

Fast forward to 2007. Despite living an additional three years in Minneapolis after graduating, I still haven't warmed to the Wild, or found any other hockey team that I could forge a connection with. It's actually starting to legitimately irk me. I'd thought to find NHL salvation there, in the town where "The Mighty Ducks" was filmed and kids grow up learning to skate on the many frozen lakes and ponds that freckle the city every winter. It's the logical place, the right place. But that visceral connection somehow hasn't been made. The team lacks verve and life, still living in the shadow of its predecessor's departure, and I'm due to leave for Boston soon. On to a new town for more schooling, where I'll likely be once again too hampered with adjustments and studies to spend time worrying about hockey. I've been following the league as best I could, watching the games and noting what's, well, notable, but impartiality is not for me. Moving day comes, and I cram all my worldly possessions into a vehicle and trek across the country with my Dad. Again I arrive somewhere new, still without a hockey loyalty. I don't know why I care anymore. I've been searching since the Knights left town. Maybe, southerner that I am, I'm not meant to be a hockey fan. Basketball was always my favorite sport anyway. My top five priority list, if I had to rattle it off, goes like this (in no particular order, save for the Hawks, who hold the one-seed in perpetuity):

1. NBA, specifically the Hawks.
2. NFL, specifically the Falcons.
3. MLB, specifically the Braves.
4. College Football, specifically the Georgia Bulldogs and the SEC in general.
5. College Basketball. No applicable loyalties, I just love hoops.

Other than my Hawks caveat, that list isn't set in stone. But hockey doesn't make it in any case. Still, I very much did LOVE the game. As I rolled into Beantown in the fall of '07, I was still looking for the right foothold, the right team. I didn't think I'd find it in Boston. As I anticipated, when I got there, precious little time was left for choosing up sides. But I did meet someone who summarized the situation. "All of us needing a place to call home," my friend and fellow songwriter Allison Francis once wrote. True.

Fall 2008: at this point, it's been a lot of years. Maybe it's time to let it go, watch hockey when I can or when I feel like it, and resign myself to a casual relationship with the sport. But ... I can't. For a short time, hockey mattered immensely to me. I refuse to confine it to fringe status. I want to be a fan, but I want that fandom to manifest itself organically, and I want it to have a focal point. I'm still waiting for the flash of clarity. Slowly, as I forge new friendships, things slide into place.

Said place, or places to be accurate, turn out to be bar stools and living rooms. See, there's an interesting phenomenon that happens for sports fans who relocate. We love our native teams, and they will always hold top priority. We follow them implacably; it's in our blood. But wherever we are, the teams of our current location slowly come to hold an oddly prominent place in our minds. It's a kind of situational osmosis, if you will. With a barrage of local media, not to mention the locals themselves, keeping us constantly informed, we slowly and unconsciously accumulate a wealth of knowledge about the franchises of our new homes. When I was in Minneapolis, I always knew the most about the Atlanta teams, and the second-most about the area's own. It happens. The same thing happened in Boston, with one crucial difference as regards my hockey quandary.

Boston fans love their teams. Admittedly, to an annoying and obnoxious extent sometimes, but the love is genuine, intense, and in most cases, generations old. And I happened to befriend a number of devoted and passionate Bruins fans. The aforementioned knowledge comes slowly, but it comes. You learn the stars' and the coach's name, and the biggest rivals first, then the heavily played regulars, then the guys who are good but young and still developing, and finally the dudes on the bench who barely play. Eventually, the team becomes second nature.

Gradually, that familiarity turned into a sort of wary affection. I say wary because every time I cheered a goal or a save, I felt like a fraud. I was beginning to fall in love with this team, but I was wondering if I wasn't violating something fundamental about fandom in the process. Who was I to root for this proud franchise? By what right did I intrude myself into such a loyal contingent?

As time wore on, that guilt faded, little by little. By the time the puck dropped 2009-2010 season, I was certifiably hooked. I was bickering about who should be starting in goal and wondering if the team had enough offense. I knew I was in for good after Philly swept the B's out of the playoffs, and I was seriously bummed out for a few days afterwards. So when we got the news and drank to the Bruins in that farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, it felt good. Heck, it felt real for me.

No doubt the real, old-school Boston fans cringed while reading this. Bandwagon, frontrunner, convenient timing declaring "fandom" right as they win The Cup. I know, I know. But I stand by it. I'm a Bruins fan, now and forever. It happened organically, over time, and I make no apologies.

The hockey orphan found a home.

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