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Hockey -- not just a job, its an adventure

As hockey playoff season speeds to a close, I've noticed that a lot of people here from around the country seem to be ignoring the games. In fact, a lot of you appear downright apathetic. I thought perhaps a bit of explanation might help make the love many of us have for the game a bit more understandable to those of you from places where the water doesn't freeze over in winter. I don't mean to explain the beauty of the sport, or the intricacies of play, or the long history, either. Those would be columns in themselves. I just want to answer those people who say, "How can you love that sport?"

I'm from just outside Springfield, a nice little city on the other end of Massachusetts. Springfield is best known as the city where James Naismith invented basketball and as the current home of the sport's Hall of Fame. Springfield has never been able to support its own minor league basketball team (although it's been tried). It has, however, had a minor league hockey team for over 50 years. The Indians were the minor league affiliate (equivalent to AAA league in baseball) to the Minnesota North Stars and later the New York Islanders. Hell, Naismith only invented basketball because the Springfield YMCA couldn't afford a hockey rink. We can't understand why the rest of you want to play it instead of hockey.

Hockey as a sport is still where the other major league sports were many years ago. Salaries are not nearly as high as in the other sports. The romantic ideal of the young kid working himself up from a small Canadian town still exists. The players are "touchable"; you can talk to them, and they seem happy to be there. They aren't as wrapped up in contracts or agents, and a strike or walkout is unthinkable. In short, hockey is a sport without spoiled brats or beefed up contracts with free cars for breaking records or guarantees of a private seat on the team's jet plane.

But where does a love for hockey come from?

It all starts on a crisp, gray overcast day in December or January when your father hikes you out to a pond in the woods or in a park. You're cold, and your mother has made you put on the thickest mittens you own, and one of those big wool hats with the pom-pom attachment on top. You sit on the dock and pull off your sneakers (without untying them, of course) when Dad tells you to. He laces on your tiny but brand new skates, and you look at the strange new appendages with wonder.

Then Dad pulls out his skates, old and musty and worn, and he laces them up without thinking, as if they're a part of him, and immediately glides out onto the ice. Suddenly you see your father flying about the ice faster than you've ever seen him move, and he doesn't seem to be putting any effort into it. So you decide to try, and you hop onto the ice, take a step, and land on your butt. You will land on your butt many times as you try to learn to skate.

A few years go by, and it's not cool to skate with Dad anymore, so you go with your friends, with two boots standing for goals and a tennis-ball puck when you can't find a real one or catch one at a game.

At first you go to the games to catch a puck, or because it's just another place to go with your friends where you don't have to sit with a parent. Pretty soon, however, you find yourself paying more and more attention to the game. You start to fall in love with the sport.

Soon you're watching it on TV in between trips to see games. Growing up in the 70s in New England means loving Bobby Orr, the greatest defenseman of all time and the catalyst for the Bruins' last two Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. (I only saw Orr's later years, but I remember his 1975 season, when he led the league in scoring.) It also means Peter Puck, the cartoon character NBC showed in between periods of hockey games, a talking rubber disk which explained the rules of the sport to an entire generation.

You start to hold your breath during the games. When the referee calls a penalty on the Indians, he's an enemy, but when he calls it on the opposition, he's doing a hell of a job. When you think the Indians are about to score you involuntarily jump out of your seat, waiting for the sweet sight of the puck bulging in the back of the net. When you see an opponent about to shoot at the Indians' goalie, your heart leaps, as if you're watching someone you love teeter on the edge of a cliff.

Now you're watching the game as often as you can, and you're beginning to recognize players and names. Each player works and sweats each night to be noticed by the NHL, to get his chance in the big time. You start to root with them. You watch them work on the ice each weekend, giving everything they've got for the Indians, and you feel yourself cheering for them to make it. You want them to be called up to the bigs, and then when they do there's a death in the family, a loss. You see them on TV, making plays in the majors, but they're not really part of your heart anymore.

Then you start to notice your fellow fans at the games. At one end of the ice sits Civic Center Charlie. Nobody knows his full name or anything else about him, for that matter. He's there though, sitting at the same seat every game. Everyone who walks by says hello, and he greets them all like a king holding court in his palace. Soon after the opening face-off, he goes for beer. He returns with one in each hand. He repeats this several times, and by the third period he's feeling fine.

If you're lucky, it's a close game and the Indians score. Charlie then takes off his sportcoat and whips it around his head to incite the fans. If the game stays exciting, off comes Charlie's shirt, and he waves that over his head, now down to a tank-top T-shirt and a red tie still slung around his neck. On the truly rare night, an Indian scores a hat trick (3 goals in one game) and Charlie throws his round grey hat onto the ice.

Each night Jim Dandy, the local fast-food chicken chain, runs a promotion called "If the Indians get brave, you get chicken!" If the Indians score five or more goals and win the game, you could go to a Jim Dandy with your program and receive two pieces of chicken and a roll. A few fans once thought this was funny and started yelling back "and a roll?" It became a tradition, and now the entire Civic Center waits for the announcer to say ". . . and a roll," and almost all the fans yell back "and a roll?"

And suddenly you're hooked on hockey for life. At least, that's how it happened to me. . . .

The old skates don't fit anymore. I almost wanted to buy a new pair and play on a C- or B-league team this year, but that shiny new rink at Johnson Athletic Center just doesn't hold a candle to our good ol' pond, you know?

I got to meet Bobby Orr and talk to him a couple of years ago. I told him about games I remembered from when I was younger, and he looked at me and asked me not to tell him how young I was back then. I told him how he went from being just a nuisance who was on in between Peter Puck cartoons to my favorite player of all time. He just laughed and gave me an autographed picture and walked off on what used to be the fastest legs on skates.

I still go to Indians games whenever I can. Civic Center Charlie started bringing a girl to the games a few seasons ago, and soon after, he stopped coming altogether. We all hope it was love.

Jim Dandy changed its promotion this year because the Indians weren't winning enough in the past seasons to give away chicken more than a few times a year. Now you get free chicken (with roll) if you bring a ticket stub from any game and buy one dinner at regular price. However, the fans still yell back "and a roll?" -- even louder than I remember.

And a little while ago, I started going to games with my Dad. And we sit and talk hockey or school or work or whatever else comes up. Funny how things come around like that.

Finally, this year the funniest thing happened. The loveable losers we call the Springfield Indians started winning. They won enough games to finish in third place and make the playoffs. Then they beat the Cape Breton Oilers to make it to the semifinals. And last Tuesday night, as I was somewhere far away tooling Organic Chem, the once-woeful Springfield Indians came back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to beat the mighty Sherbrooke Canadiens 5-4 in overtime at the Springfield Civic Center. An entire city is alive and excited, standing behind a bunch of hardworking guys who are suddenly hometown heroes.

The Springfield Indians, my Springfield Indians, are going to the finals to try to win the Calder Cup. They play next Friday night at home. I'll save you all a seat.

If this recalled your childhood or brought back memories, I'm glad. If the world I described here is foreign to you, all I can ask is that you understand and be tolerant of those of us who love the sport. It's in our blood.


Wanted: Ride to Springfield, MA, on the afternoon of Friday, May 11. Contact Tech columnist Bill Jackson '93. No weirdos, please.