Tonight, through the beneficence of my friend Allan, I will be attending a hockey game at the Staples Center, the Los Angeles Kings versus… wait for it…
“Your Toronto Maple Leafs!”
“Go Leafs Go! Go Leafs Go!”
Can you tell I’m excited?
Like my friend Paul says, “We love baseball. But hockey is in our blood.”
And Maple Leaf hockey?
Well… we do go back a ways.
Like to the 1950’s when, every Saturday night – Saturday night known then and perhaps still as “Hockey Night in Canada” – the voice of broadcaster Foster Hewitt electrified the airwaves with his signature…
“Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States…” (Adding, before they joined Confederation, “… and Newfoundland.” Though that was before my time. Something has to be, doesn’t it?)
“Hello, Canada” was not exaggeration. (Although French Canada was likely listening instead to Montreal Canadiens games, broadcast by Danny – “A cannonading shot!” – Gallivan. So I guess in reality, “Hello, Canada” meant “Hello, English-speaking Canada.” But still, that’s nine provinces, the (then) Yukon and the Northwest Territories.” That covers a lot of frozen tundra.
But I’ll tell ya. On those blustery winter nights where, going outside, your fingers immediately froze and your snot – with apologies – became icicles…
Everybody was listening.
Sending that nasal “Hello, Canada” reverberating through the cold and desolate darkness from sea to shivering sea.
That was our unifier. “Hello, Canada” helped us hang on till spring. Without it, it was…
SFX: A gusting wind howling over uninhabitable terrain. (Although my grandparents from Grodno thought it was just dandy. It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose. “Uninhabitable”; perhaps. But no pogroms. )
Hockey was Canadian mucilage. It held us together until baseball.
To be honest, I had a hard time going to hockey games in Los Angeles. And back then, so apparently, did everybody.
Hopefully this story is true, but I am telling it even if it isn’t. (Note To Journalists: Do not follow my unprofessional example in your work. There is still active support for verifiable evidence.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah.
Canadian entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke was the first owner of the Kings, when Los Angeles received its NHL-expanding franchise in 1966. Early attendance was terrible, leaving the team’s executives scratching their heads.
As an encouraging indicator, it was reported that 300,000 former Canadians lived within a three-hour radius of Los Angeles. To which Mr. Cooke, was supposed to have quipped, “I know why they left Canada. They hate hockey!”
Continuing in the mid-seventies when I began attending the games, the crowds remained sparse, unknowledgeable and eerily subdued. I recall one fan having an extended conversation with a person sitting on the opposite side of the rink. You could distinctly hear every word that they were saying, which understandably annoyed the fans who had come to see hockey. I almost expected one of the Kings to look up from the action and say,
“Hey! We’re playing a game down here!”
(Note: The Kings popularity increased when Wayne Gretzky arrived in 1988. They now regularly sell out, after winning championship Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. I wonder, however, if the team were to hit hard times, if the attendance would concomitantly drop off, the Kings management, as they were in the seventies, relegated again to offering free skating after the games. In contrast to the Leafs who consistently sell out without winning the Cup since 1967.)
Recalling my reaction attending my first Kings game, it seemed jarringly bizarre entering a hockey arena surrounded by palm trees. And then after the game, when you went to the parking lot and you could start your car on the first try?
Was that really hockey?
I have told a number of hockey stories over the years, my all-time favorite concerning the teenaged girl who, during a game she attended, tapped the player she had a mad crush on the shoulder, the player, thinking it was his coach’s signal to go into the game, jumping over the boards, causing the Leafs to be immediately penalized for having too many men on the ice.
This slender anecdote involving last year’s excursion stands particularly tall in my memory because… well, I’m… aw shucks… the hero.
(Note: These are new rules. Certainly nothing I grew up with. But what are you going to do?)
The game is tied. Five-minute “overtime” – it’s still tied. It is now time for the “Shootout” – individual players shooting at an undefended goalie, the outcome determining the winner of the game.
Alternating one team and then the other, each selected player takes his individual turn. That night, as the fans looked on anxiously, all of the participants – without exception – skated in close on the goaltender, trying to “deke the net minder” – fake the goalie out of position – and score.
And not one of them does.
The “Shootout” continues.
After about ten or so futile efforts, as the next player winds up to take his turn, drawing on my submerged but still-reliable hockey instincts, I call out loudly from my seat,
“Shoot from ‘outside!’”
The player carries the puck towards the awaiting goaltender, stops about fifteen feet away, takes a blistering shot at the net…
And he scores.
In my fantasy, the game-winning player skates over to my section, calling into the stands, “Who said, ‘Shoot from ‘outside’?’” I thrust my arm high in the air. He then gestures me down to “ice level”… and he gives me his stick.
“How did you know?” inquires the fan sitting next to me, as I return with my trophy.
To which I simply reply,
What can I tell you?
It’s in our blood.