I went to my first NHL game the day after Christmas last year. I’ve been to hockey games before — there was a minor league team in Maryland for a while named the Skipjacks — but this was my first shot at the whole multi-million dollar enchilada, and it was tremendously, satisfyingly bizarre.
I’ve been a hockey fan for about two years now. I’m not counting Skipjacks time, either, because the only thing I remember about the games I went to was screwing around in a practice room before my middle school band played between periods. It was kind of a challenge to see how pissed off we could make the teacher in those precious, tension-filled moments before our performances.
(Cruelty is what middle school teaches us best.)
I got into hockey because my finals week junior year was astoundingly boring. I ended up one night sitting in the room of some guys who I knew mostly by way of a friend. They were watching a Stanley Cup playoff game between the Sabres and the Bruins. I saw the puck flying across the television screen and, mostly out of curiosity, I tried to make sense of what was going on.
That’s the funny thing about history. Stories tell us that it takes three backpacks’ worth of careful groundwork for our lives to change course. But it’s accidents that rule our lives almost all the time.
You find the five dollars you lost three years ago in your couch just in time for a midnight hunger. You discover your favorite book because of a book report you had to do in fifth grade; it’s the only one on the teacher’s list with any copies left in the library, of course. And the woman who steals your seat because she misread her ticket stub becomes your wife.
It’s almost like magic if you think about it long enough.
A night’s diversion becomes something to look forward to at the close of the day, and in turn becomes summertime get-togethers to watch the Cup finals. The get-togethers become lazy nights spread over the couch (sometimes by myself, sometimes not) watching an inky-black puck move across the television screen. Lazy nights become a thought from my father that’s as random and certain as the history I’ve just told you: “Why don’t we go watch a Capitals game over winter break?”
It wasn’t all happenstance, of course. There’s a lot I like about hockey. Most of all, I like it because it has the least celebrities of any professional sport I know of. There are Great Gretzkies and Mario Lemieux’s, but beyond that, the hockey world is unknown. The best goaltender in the league (certainly the most stylish) has a name that I bet over 75 percent of Americans couldn’t guess.
Instead of being superstars, they’re hockey players. I like that.
All of this was what I was considering as we took our seats half an hour before the game, thanks to the Washington metro system. Our tickets were for what I thought were the cheap seats — you know, upper deck, seats upholstered with special beer-resistant synthetic fabric that are just narrow enough to feel uncomfortable.
Turns out that cheap is just as much a relative term for hockey games as it is for baseball and football games. Our hockey adventure cost us $150 right off the bat, which perhaps isn’t too bad compared to everything else. But compare it to a stack of books worth $150, and the question has to be asked: is it really worth $50 a pop, plus overpriced food and souvenirs, to see things with your own eyes instead of watching professionals assemble camera shots for your entertainment? (Let us also not neglect the virtually-unlimited pantry factor.)
The answer turned out to be yes. It was worth the trip — but not for the reasons that the NHL would necessarily tell you about. There are a lot of things that you don’t get from watching hockey televised, and what’s even more interesting is that you could never guess what you’re missing.
The first thing I noticed was the miniature blimp advertising some health insurance company that flitted around the arena. I guess I’m just easily amused, but I spent the rest of the game hoping that it would zoom up to our section. The blimp moved so smoothly around the arena that I kept checking above it for hidden wires, but instead it seemed to be rigged up with a fantastic fan motor and rudder system.
It never came up to visit, so I didn’t get a chance to take a flying leap onto it and take a ride around MCI Arena airspace.
The other thing that you never see on television were the teams warming up. Sure, you can close your eyes and imagine a hockey team flicking pucks at its goalie. But can you really picture somewhere around fifty grown men taking turns crawling like frogs with broken legs across center ice?
They were stretching, allegedly, and it was the second-best sight of the game.
The icing on the pre-game cake was the movie shown on the Jumbotron before the Caps officially took the ice. It was like a dream made of leftover tuna fish sandwiches. It started off with someone who looks like Lara Croft logging into the computer from WarGames so that she could genetically engineer up some Caps players, who emerged from their cryogenic sleep chambers and promptly entered the Matrix.
Somehow, things got screwed up and they ended up in Washington, D.C. and everybody’s tickets didn’t have to be refunded.
(The sad thing was considering how many stacks of books could’ve been bought for the amount of money spent on this little movie.)
But what about the game, you ask? That thing we paid money to see? It too was odd. Right away, its relative silence was startling. What you forget after watching sports mostly through a television screen is that in real life, there isn’t a man’s voice narrating what’s going on.
Instead you get to use your eyes and your mind. The color commentators are the two college kids sitting behind you, the quiet guy drinking a beer beside your sister who thinks that Jagr sucks, and the guy who painted his face in Flyers orange and black and periodically chants, “Let’s go Fly-urrrs!”
He was not exactly a lone voice, though. We discovered that our section happened to be what could be charitably called the Capitals’ loyal opposition, and more accurately called Philly expatriates who couldn’t care less about the Caps. It was one part street theater and three parts public trial of the Capitals.
After the first couple chants from our Flyers fanatic, Caps fans scattered around the upper deck would reply in a matching rhythm: “Flyers suck!”
But our fanatic had greater stamina than the Caps fans. His cheer went up again and again, outlasting even the lower decks folks who came in toward the middle.
What was telling was that he had no Capitals counterpart. Nobody painted themselves in Caps colors (whatever they are — the best guess I can make is dark purple and possibly black or ghostwhite). And maybe it was just Washington’s temperate climate, but there were only a few chants of “Let’s go Caps!”
I think the Flyers are a team with history that people want to take part in. The Caps aren’t. Though they’ve been around since 1974, they’ve never won a Stanley Cup. They seem like the equivalent of the New England Patriots: sometimes sort of good, sometimes sort of bad, but never memorable. The only reason I was rooting for them that night was because they were the home team, and I’m not a very big Flyers fan myself. And I have a feeling that I wasn’t alone in my feelings.
Anyway, the Caps settled the question in the first period by giving up two goals and scoring none. Hockey games aren’t known for high scores; it turns out to be awfully hard to steer a puck past at least two defenders and a goalie equipped specially for the task into a goal six feet wide. To win, the Caps would have to score three goals in the remaining two periods. Not an insurmountable task for a good team, but for the Caps, who seemed to be still working out what their offensive strategy was, the game was already looking grim.
The first intermission restored my spirits, though. We were honored with the presence of the Mites on Ice, a kids’ rec hockey organization that practiced with the Caps once in a while. They played a miniature game for us, with Slapshot the Eagle, the Capitals’ mascot, as the referee.
They plodded up and down the ice with a determination you only can possess when you don’t know how to spell the word. We cheered when one side got close enough to take a shot, and we cheered even more when the goalie made the save.
There was a beautiful sense of innocent fervor that made the second period, where the grown-up Capitals gave up another two goals, not too terrible. The only highlight of the period was when Stephen Peat, a rookie defenseman for the Caps, picked a fight with Donald Brashear.
On television, they always cut away from fights (the NHL brass wants to reform hockey’s image) and you’re left with the sense that you’re missing out on something amazing and gruesome. There wasn’t much to miss in this fight; Peat waved a couple punches in Brashear’s direction that missed, and Brashear dropped him with one punch.
The strange thing is that these particular five seconds ended up being dissected in two pages’ worth of discussion by hockey fight fans online. It makes me wonder if there’s something I’m not noticing when they throw down the gloves.
At the beginning of the third period, I said to my dad, “Well, all they have to do to tie the game is score a goal every five minutes.”
That pretty much summed it up. The Caps did score one goal after the period was three-quarters done — it was Peat’s first goal ever in the NHL, which we applauded in a way that felt a little like the way we did the Mites on Ice.
We stayed till the end, even as people began to file out of the arena in the last few minutes. Even the goofy old man wearing a teal Capitals sweatshirt who had shouted earnestly (and almost primly compared to the painted Flyers man), “Let’s go, Capitals! Make something happen!” left after the one-minute warning.
I wanted to stay not because there was any chance of the Capitals winning, nor because I wanted to get the most from my fifty dollars. I stayed because I wanted to remember everything.
Watching things from a couch forty-seven miles away doesn’t create memories. You don’t even get something as small as the disinterested look the souvenir stand worker gives you when you ask how much the tiny stuffed mascot costs.
We were still spectators, of course, to the hockey game. But there’s a whole world to be observed — not downward from the eagle’s-eye perch to a game played by 12 men at a time, to the rink the advertisers would like your eyes to remain on, that your fiduciary sense tells you to see as much as you can — but by simply turning your head sideways instead.
There are people who are just like you. There are people who aren’t like you. And there are so many people who you’ll never get the chance to speak with in your life who disappear in a subway car forever.
The man whose wife I felt badly for at first, who seemed bored beyond words. (But by the third period, she too was cheering as loudly as we were.) The two Flyers fans who were thrown out for a reason we couldn’t fathom, whose girlfriends seemed bemused as they were ushered out. The security guard who took a bow afterward even as the guys behind us told him to go eat another Krispy Kreme. The old couple, captured by the Caps Kiss Cam on a break from the action, who smooched briefly to our cheers, and the young Arab man who went straight for the kill on his date, to even greater approval from us. The little kid in the section beside us who led chants of “Let’s go, Caps!” The hundreds of people I passed as I stretched my legs on the second intermission whose faces my mind has hidden away inside itself.
It was this view that I treasured.