DSC08230

Mister Hockey

Gordie Howe
March 31, 1928 – June 10, 2016

If you are from Michigan, and have been involved in hockey in any way, chances are you have a Gordie Howe story.  Learning of his passing from a friend who I was having lunch with at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, MI, rekindled memories of my brief moments with this legendary man.

The oldest memory has been with me for decades.  It hung in my parents’ basement until recently when it found a place in mine.

My aunt worked for the Ford Motor Car Company.  In June, 1972, after Gordie retired from 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and before he signed with the Houston Aeros of the WHA, Ford hosted an event where they brought Gordie in to sign autographs.  I was nine-years-old and had recently found hockey to be my favorite spectator sport.  I attended my first hockey game on January 9, 1971 – a 3-2 Detroit victory over the Buffalo Sabres at the Olympia.  My parents talked up Gordie, while I, being a youngster in the 70’s, was drawn to Gary Unger, and his flowing long hair (The Wings’ traded Unger less than a month after my first hockey game).

At the Ford event, Gordie was situated at a table.  My mom took some photos of me standing near him or with me in the background.

DSC08236
Can you imagine a kid being allowed to get this close to a sports superstar today?

We then stood in line and waited to have him sign my autograph book.  When my turn came, I nervously and silently placed my autograph book before him.  He didn’t open it.  Instead, he noticed the shirt I was wearing.  He took the shirt at my waist and pulled it toward him.  Then he pressed the ballpoint pen against the material, signing his name.  I was stunned.  A few days later, a Ford photographer at the event talked to my aunt at her office, saying he had photos of Gordie autographing my shirt.  He gave them to her, and my parents framed the shirt and photos.  Touched my greatness, I was inspired.  That fall, I signed up for the only season of sports I ever played – a house-hockey league at the Plymouth Cultural Center.

GH05DSC08239GH04DSC08232 DSC08230

Hanging on the wall in my parents’ house, it always reminded me about how attentive and kind this man was.  As the years went by, and I became more involved as a fan, spectator, booster club president, photographer, and columnist in the sport, it was also a reminder of the contrast between him and the next generation of superstars.  He did not think his superstar status made him superior to us.  He was one of us, appreciative of our adoration.

I remember watching the 1979-80 NHL All Star game.  No.  Scratch that.  I remember nothing about the game.  It was played at the brand new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and the only thing that mattered was the pre-game player introductions, saving the Hartford Whalers’ right winger for last.

Still gives me chills.  Man’s example of humility.

Though the 1979-80 season was his final year of hockey, he was not done.  There was one record yet to break.

I started photographing and writing for Great Lakes Hockey Alliance – a free monthly newsprint hockey publication covering all the Michigan hockey teams in the NHL, IHL, UHL, OHL, & CCHA – in 1997.  I photographed Detroit Vipers’ games at The Palace of Auburn Hills.  It was magical timing.  After so many photos from the stands, having a press pass and seeing my photos published was thrilling.  To cap it off, the Detroit Vipers won the 1997 Turner Cup, allowing me to go on the ice, capture team and player shots with the Cup, and the celebration in the locker room afterward with players’ friends and family.  Life was good.  Then, it got better.

For the home opener of the 1997-98 season, not only would the Vipers raise the Turner Cup Champion banner, they would start the season with #9, Mister Hockey, in the line-up.  It was an opportunity for Gordie Howe to be the only athlete to play a professional sport in six decades, breaking Minnie Minoso’s record of playing in Major League Baseball in five decades.   Minoso was present at the event.

Things were definitely different that evening.  The press box was overflowing with reporters from across the globe, as I went to pick up my media notes.

scan0018

When I descended from the heights of the stadium to my usual spot at ice level – the box between the players’ benches – three photographers had climbed in to get photos.  They did not like shooting through the glass, so one-by-one they climbed out.  I reclaimed my place.

The Palace, packed with 20,182 fans, provided another standing ovation for #9.

GH02 GH03 scan0009

He skated the first shift; forty-seven seconds of historic ice time.  Vipers defenseman, Bobby Jay, moved the puck into the Kansas City Blades’ zone, then passed it to Howe, who redirected the puck on net.  Another shot on goal to his professional career statistics.

GH01
Gordie coming back to the bench after his shift.

He stayed on the bench during the first and second period, not returning for the third.  Which was too bad.  At the end of the third period, the score was tied 4-4.  The IHL had the shootout as a way of breaking ties (the NHL did not implement the shootout until 2005, nineteen years after the IHL adopted it in 1986).  Imagine if Gordie had been on the bench for the shootout, skated onto the ice, went one-on-one with the goalie, and scored.  Would The Palace have had to rebuild its roof?

The power of Gordie Howe transcended generations.  The following season, the Vipers celebrated his 70th birthday as a promotion night.  I arrived early at the game, and was walking through the corridor by the locker rooms.  Most Vipers games started at 7:30, with the doors opening to the public at 6PM.  Before the doors opened to the public, little league hockey teams would play on the ice.  I stood in the hallway as the kids – probably the same age I was when Gordie signed my shirt – waddled by on the blades of their skates, weighed down by their equipment, on their way to the locker room.  Gordie, randomly patted one of the kids on his helmet as he walked by and said, “You played good.”  The kid looked up, then stopped.  Awestruck.  The look on his face was one of a kid empowered. Gordie Howe said I played good.

Those are my fond memories of Gordie Howe.

Rest in Peace, Mister Hockey.

DSC08245

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Hockey Card Stories by Ken Reid

DSC04039

Back in August, I was looking for a specific book.  I finally located a copy at the Barnes & Noble in Utica.  However, while perusing the shelves that day, I happened upon this striking cover.  Yes, covers do catch the eye of those of us who are browsers, and sometimes results in sales, such as on this day.  The title is self explanatory, but the cover was cool in that it has the waxy feel of an old fashioned pack of hockey cards.  Thumbing through it sold me.

Growing up, hockey was my sport.  In most all sports in gym class I was the kid chosen last…except in floor hockey.  I couldn’t skate a lick, learning while playing in a house league in Plymouth (and don’t get me started on the politics of that fiasco, with my coach a Michigan Republican Senator who…well, damn, I said don’t get me started).  Still, hockey was my sports forte.  And with that, hockey card collecting.

Reading through this book, I found it to be an interesting and fun trip down memory lane.  If you’re looking for critical or literary writing, this isn’t for you.  The author has an almost teen-age voice in each of these bits about the 59 hockey players and their cards, which is fine for reliving this hockey nostalgia.  See, back in the day, there were those of us who collected hockey cards because we enjoyed the sport and the cardboard representations of its players, not for the financial investment purpose.  It’s where my inspiration for shooting sports action photography – specifically hockey in the past, soccer today – originates, and probably author Ken Reid’s inspiration to go into sports broadcasting.  He’s a sports anchor on Sportsnet Connected.

I once amassed a nice collection of hockey cards, beginning with the first set I put together through opening packs – the 132-card 1971-72 Topps – and all the way through to the early 90’s.  In my day, there was only O-Pee-Chee and Topps, the former had the exact same cards as the Topps, but with an additional checklist of cards and sold in Canada.  I still have some of them, and thought it might be fun to take the chapter titles that Reid used and add a few of my cards and thoughts.  His book interviews the players on his cards, which is cool, especially when the player having a hockey card issued meant something to him.

Strike a Pose:

DSC03979

Yes.  It was the long hair of Garry Unger that made him one of the coolest players in the NHL.  The first NHL game I went to was at the Olympia on January 9, 1971.  The Red Wings defeated the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2.  Unger played for the Red Wings, and even though legend Gordie Howe was on the ice in his last season as a Red Wing, it was the long flowing hair of Unger that caught my attention.  About a month later, Unger was traded to St. Louis with Wayne Connelly for Red Berenson and Tim Ecclestone.  Not even a month in to following this team and they traded a favorite of mine.  Unger went on to having a great career, playing over 1,100 NHL games and setting the iron man record of 914 consecutive games (later broken by Doug Jarvis).  The 1972-73 Topps card still in my collection.

DSC03975

1972.  The year I strapped on skates for the only season of little league hockey for me.  That same season, the Red Wings dressed rookie Henry Boucha.  His Topps 1973-74 rookie card shows a poised, clean-shaven, thick-haired young man.  However he became a fan favorite sporting a headband instead of a helmet.  He even made an appearance at the Plymouth Cultural Center, where I played, to sign autographs.  I remember owning a headband, but not allowed to wear it in lieu of a helmet.  A wise thing for a ten year old learning to play the game while at the same time learning to skate.  This 1974-75 Topps card remains in my collection, depicting him more accurately than his rookie card had.  He played two seasons for the Red Wings, in 143 games, with 33 goals and 26 assists, before being traded to the Minnesota North Stars for Danny Grant.

Making it look Mean:

DSC04026

I agree with Reid that the 1973-74 Phil Roberto card is a classic of all cards when it comes to the game’s aggressive nature.  And if I remember correctly, the Billy Smith card from that season looks as if it was taken just after this fight, as he is putting him and his equipment back together.

I always thought this Cam Connor card from the O-Pee-Chee 1976-77 WHA set had an intimidating look.  Connor, a career pugilist, racked up 904 penalty minutes in 274 games in the WHA, and additional 256 penalty minutes in 89 NHL games.

DSC03985

Keith Magnuson played his entire 589 NHL game career with the Chicago Blackhawks.  And the defenseman was one of the feistiest players of his day.  The look of his 1972-73 Topps card, with Magnuson in the penalty box, and photographed with a fisheye lens, was a clear guide of where to direct your gaze if you wanted to see Keith Magnuson at a hockey game.

The WHA:

DSC04024 DSC04023

 

 

 

 

 

 

I loved the WHA.  Though having not seen a game until the late 90’s when I found a DVD of the final Avco Cup trophy game, I still loved reading about the WHA in its section of The Hockey News.  My dad subscribed to the hockey weekly, which had articles on every team in the NHL, a section for the WHA, and sections for the other minor-pro leagues and Canadian Juniors.  The box score for every NHL and WHA game was published in them,  Being from Metro Detroit, you’d think I would have been a fan of the Houston Aeros and the New England Whalers, for that is where Gordie Howe and his two sons, Marty and Mark, played together.  And Bobby Hull being a former Blackhawk, I shouldn’t be rooting for the Winnipeg Jets.  However, the duo who kept Hull in the limelight – Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg – were favorites of mine.  At the time, the great debate was which right winger was better – Hedberg or Guy Lafleur.  Both were of the same age, and both were in the prime of their careers.  From 1974-1978, Hedberg scored 236 goals, 222 assists, for 458 points in 286 games.  Lafleur had 225 goals, 287 assists, for 512 points in 308 games during the same years.  However, when Hedberg joined the New York Rangers after the WHA folded and the NHL absorbed four of its teams, Lafleur racked up more points than Hedberg in the three seasons from 1978-1981.  But Lafleur was a part of the legendary Canadiens dynasty of the late 1970’s.  Would he have had the same production on a team of lesser talent than the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA, or New York Rangers?  It always made for a fun argument.

I had every one of the O-Pee-Chee WHA sets complete at one time.  I’ve sold all but the 1976-77 set from which these two cards come from.

A good book about the WHA is Ed Willes’ The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association (McClelland and Stewart, 2005)

The Goalies:

There was something about Rogie Vachon that drew me to putting him among my favorite goalies growing up.  I had liked the LA Kings uniforms back then, and he became an all-star goalie on an average team.  Where the Drydens and Cheevers and Parents and Espositos got all the accolades, Vachon stood on his head for the Kings back in the day.  I like this 1974-75 Topps card which features Vachon in the Kings garb and the old-style goaltender equipment from the 1970’s.

DSC03982

Then, there were awesome goaltenders on horrible teams.  Gilles Meloche was that guy.  I, too, liked the Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals uniforms – each variation from season to season.  And though the team was pretty much a given two points for any team they faced, Meloche made it a hard-earned two points.  The 1973-74 Topps Card again shows the goaltender equipment of the 70’s in the Seals uniform, and the 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee card has him decked out in the Cleveland Barons red, where the Seals migrated to in 1976 before being merged with the Minnesota North Stars two years later.

DSC04012

By the mid-Seventies, I had lost my interest in the Red Wings.  They never won games, were never in the playoffs, and they kept trading away my favorite players.  When one of them – Marcel Dionne – was traded to the LA Kings, I started to claim them as my favorite team.  However, there was no Internet or ESPN back then, and seeing a Kings game on Hockey Night in Canada was rare.  With the expansion in 1974 adding the Kansas City Scouts (and Washington Capitals) to the league, the Scouts had me peeking in their direction.  Former Red Wing legend, Sid Abel, was the general manager of the team, and brought over one of my favorite Wings, Guy Charron, and others.  After two seasons, the team left Kansas City for Colorado, but not before drafting a young defenseman from the Toronto Marlboros.  More on that later, however that move to Colorado and the players that were emerging there drew me.  I was becoming a Colorado Rockies fan.

Doug Favell’s mask is the reason for this card’s presence.  Favell had a career playing for the Flyers and the Maple Leafs before coming to Colorado in 1976 to finish his career.

DSC04018

And one cannot talk about goaltenders, the Colorado Rockies, and the 1970’s without mentioning Hardy Astrom.  This 1980-81 O-Pee-Chee card is the only one of the goalie that Don Cherry gained a lot of his material from.  Cherry coached the Rockies in the 1979-80 season where he had Astrom between the pipes in 49 of them.  But it wasn’t all bad for the Swedish goalie.

On Saturday, February 25, 1978, the Rangers were to play the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada.  The Habs were on a record streak of 28 games without a loss.  And the Rangers started the rookie Swede in goal against the league powerhouse.  Astrom went on to stop 29 shots and the Rangers won 6-3, snapping the Candiens streak.

Cool:

DSC04017 DSC04014

There were a lot of cool cards during the years, but I chose these because they represented the Colorado Rockies, the team I was becoming a fan of, and because they were all action photos.  It was shots like these that inspired me to shoot sports action photography.  Posed photos are nice, but to capture humans practicing their humanity, whether it be skating on the ice and scoring a goal, making a save, kicking a ball downfield on a soccer pitch, fans creating plumes of smoke, or humans performing compassion in action, I find a sense of creativity and beauty of capturing those moments as they happen.

DSC03989

And, well, this is the ultimate cool.  This was the guy who was drafted by the Kansas City Scouts, and began his career with the Colorado Rockies.  I rooted for my namesake for the obvious reason – if he was on a Stanley Cup winning team, our name would be engraved on the Stanley Cup!  It took almost 40 years, but as the Assistant Coach of the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks, (and again in 2015), the dream has been realized.  Now I have to see the Stanley Cup with our names etched on it.

I got to see him play live, once, at Joe Louis Arena for the New Jersey Devils on October 8, 1983 in the Red Wings home opener.  The Devils won, 6-3.

KitchenDevils

Airbrush:

DSC03981

I no longer have what I considered the classic airbrush card, but this one will do.  My first favorite player, Marcel Dionne, was traded from the Detroit Red Wings to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1975.  This 1975-76 Topps card shows him in the Kings purple jersey, however wearing number 12 – the number he wore as the Red Wings’ captain during the 1974-75 season.  In LA, he took the #16 jersey.

But the airbrush I remember was from the 1974-75 Topps Jacques Lemaire card.  Lemaire played his entire twelve-year career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.  But for some reason the O-Pee-Chee/Topps  company airbrushed him into a Buffalo Sabres uniform and displayed him as a player on the Buffalo Sabres.

The 80’s:

DSC04605DSC04610

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 1980’s hockey to me meant the Quebec Nordiques and the New Jersey Devils.  I became a fan of the Devils after having followed the Rockies and their move to New Jersey.  They developed young talent due to high draft picks from finishing low in the league.  It was the Nordiques I found myself rooting for most often in the playoffs.  I thought Peter Stastny was an amazing player, and human being, defecting from Czechoslovakia with his brother, Anton, in 1980.  He played the decade with the Nordiques, then was traded and played four seasons with the Devils, ending his career with a season in St. Louis.

Error Cards:

I liked the Steve Larmer/Steve Ludzik rookie errors from the 1984-85 Topps/O-Pee-Chee sets, like Reid.  So I think I’ll take this moment to point out the only error I uncovered in Reid’s book.

On Page 94, Reid begins Chapter Five: Cool Cards with the 1977-78 Pat Hickey card.  The content of the chapter talks about Hickey being traded from the Rangers before Hickey was to appear on the “Hockey Sock Rock” video, sung by a number of the Rangers’ players.  On Page 95, Reid writes, “But Hickey wasn’t in the video.  It turns out he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings before Espo, JD, Dave Maloney and Ron Duguay made the famous video.”  At the bottom of the page, he quotes Hickey.  “We did this film for an ad and then we got on a plane and went to Los Angeles and that’s when I was traded for [Barry] Beck.”

The Colorado Rockies fan in me cringed.  No.  Hickey was traded to Colorado for Barry Beck.  Beck was the first round draft choice (#2 overall) of the Rockies in 1977.  In his third season with the Rockies, Beck went to the Rangers for Hickey, Lucien Deblois, and Dean Turner.  Hickey never played for the Kings.

The other reason I remember that trade is because of the third wheel in the deal.  Dean Turner was a player trying to break into the NHL.  From Dearborn, Michigan, he was the son of a local news personality – Marilyn Turner.

Rookies:

DSC04633

The first year I started buying cards at the store, tearing open the packs to get at the cards to complete the 132 card set was the year of the Ken Dryden rookie card.  The cerebral Dryden came out of Cornell University, played six games at the end of the 1970-71 season, then surprised the Boston Bruins in the first round in seven games.  He then led the Habs past the Minnesota North Stars in six games in Round Two; then another seven game battle against the Blackhawks to win the Conn Smythe Award for being the MVP of the playoffs.  Dryden went on to be the #1 goaltender for the Habs throughout the 1970’s, with the exception of the 1973-74 season where he went to work as a law clerk for a Toronto law firm while in a contract dispute with the Canadiens.

His books, The Game: A Reflective and Thought Provoking Look at a Life in Hockey (Macmillan Company of Canada, 1983) and Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada (McClelland and Stewart, 1990) are classics and good reads for the hockey aficionado.

Hall of Famers:

Reid writes about the 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee (and Topps) card of Phil Esposito wearing slacks.  When I read that, I recalled the card, and that his teammate, Ken Hodge was also immortalized on a hockey card in slacks.

DSC03974DSC03973

O-Pee-Chee/Topps must have liked the look, because they repeated it in the 1972-73 set.

DSC03986

Reid’s chapter on Espo is a reminder of the character he was.  Individual characters seem to be lost in today’s team sports, unfortunately.  This 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee card shows him in the New York Rangers look of the late 70’s, a jersey I thought was cool.  It also happens to be an uncorrected error card, as its stats incorrectly show Espo scoring 78 goals in 1972-73 (he scored 55 that season).

DSC03983

When it comes to Hall of Famers, though, my favorite all-time player is Patrick Roy.  He emerged much like Ken Dryden did, winning the Conn Smythe in his first season as the Habs won the 1986 Stanley Cup.  His idiosyncrasies and confidence made him a character as well as the NHL’s greatest goalie.

In 2001-02, Topps issued a parallel set, which I tried to collect because they were formatted like the 1971-72 set – the set that began it for me.  I haven’t completed that set.

DSC04028Reid’s book obviously took me down memory lane, and into the boxes and 9-pockets of cards I still have.  If you collected hockey cards and followed the sport back in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll find enjoyment in this book.

I stopped collecting hockey cards shortly after the market flooded with companies like Upper Deck, Score, Pro Set and Fleer entering the fray.  I also left hockey behind as well.  The game has changed too much, not necessarily for the better.  Instead, I’ve rediscovered my appreciation for “the beautiful game.”  These are the only cards I collect now – Major League Soccer cards.  It’s very simple, a single set each year, first released by Upper Deck, then within the last couple seasons, by Topps.  It’s just like back when only O-Pee-Chee/Topps existed in the hockey card world.

DSC04659

 

Understanding your sports fanatic friend.

DSC02971According to the countdown clock on the Columbus Crew website, there are 35 days and change until the league’s opening match to the 2013 season.  And closer to home, Detroit City FC’s season is to begin a couple months later.  The excitement of the coming season has risen to a fever pitch with me.  Last year, I attended more live soccer matches than in previous years.  Even taking out DCFC’s full eight match season, and the handful of games I saw the Michigan Bucks play, my trips to Columbus tripled to see the Crew in action.

This entry is for friends, family and loved ones of the person known as a sports fanatic.  The person you know who schedules their life around games; who bleeds the colors of their team and goes to extremes to follow their team; who seems to care little about the mundane things in life, or even the important things.  I hope that by the end of this writing, you will understand your friend, family member, or loved one better.

I recently finished reading Nick Hornby’s classic, Fever Pitch.  It is a no-apologies memoir of sports fanaticism.  Hornby is a rabid Arsenal fan, and his journal of matches and how they relate to his life reveals the mindset of a team loyalist, while also addressing issues within the sport of soccer, (racism, stadium tragedies, etc).  His life is marked and connected to the Arsenal.

There is one passage in Hornby’s book that really sinks in.  He described his greatest moment ever.

On May 26, 1989, Arsenal’s last match of the season was at Liverpool.  In order for Arsenal to win the championship, they would have to beat Liverpool by two goals.  The Gunners scored early in the second half, but Hornby had resigned to defeat as the game went into stoppage time.  Then Michael Thomas burst through the Liverpool defense and scored, giving Arsenal the league championship and Hornby a moment of delirium.

In seeking a metaphor to describe the feeling, Hornby declined the orgasm analogy, and stated why:

 Even though there is no question that sex is a nicer activity than watching football (no nil-nil draws, no offsidetrap, no cup upsets, and you’re warm), in the normal run of things, the feelings it engenders are simply not as intense as those brought about by a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute Championship winner.

None of the moments that people describe as the best in their lives seem analogous to me.  Childbirth must be extraordinarily moving, but it doesn’t really have the crucial surprise element, and in any case lasts too long; the fulfillment of personal ambition – promotions, awards, what have you – doesn’t have the last-minute time factor, nor the element of powerlessness that I felt that night.  And what else is there that can possibly provide suddenness?  A huge pools win, maybe, but the gaining of large sums of money affects a different part of the psyche altogether, and has none of the communal ecstasy of football.

There is then, literally, nothing to describe it.  I have exhausted all the available   options.  I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades (what else is there that can reasonably be coveted for that long?), nor can I recall anything else that I have desired as both man and boy.  So please, be tolerant of those who    describe a sporting moment as their best ever.  We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.  (Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, [Riverhead Books, 1998], 222-23).

Hornby reminded me a lot of myself back in my hockey fan days.  It became an obsession applied when I was the president of the Ontario Hockey League team, Detroit Jr. Red Wings (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons.  Then, the Detroit Vipers claimed the Palace of Auburn Hills home, and my passion settled in a permanent location.

In 1997, I was fortunate to be photographing Detroit Vipers games for my friend’s hockey publication.  The Vipers ended the season with the best record, and marched through the Turner Cup playoffs.  Where games were proximately close (like Kalamazoo and Cleveland) I would make the trip for at least one of the road games.  Their opponent in the Turner Cup Finals was the equally tough Long Beach Ice Dogs who had an ungodly undefeated streak at home.

The format was two games at the Palace, three in Long Beach, then back home for two games, if necessary, in Detroit.  The teams split the games at the Palace, and it seemed unlikely that the series would end in Long Beach.  But the Vipers pulled the surprise, winning the next two games in California, taking a 3-1 lead in the series and the potential of winning the Cup in Long Beach on a Friday night.

So damn close to being with the winners, I decided I had to make the flight to LAX and get to that game.  However, the Ice Dogs would not go down at home, and I had to get back to Detroit for the Father’s Day, Sunday evening Game Six of the series.  The Vipers won, 2-0, the on-ice festivities and locker room partying will never be forgotten.

Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup. Photo by Michael Kitchen

It was one of those moments that Hornby described.  Following hockey for so long, this was unlike anything I ever experienced.  Not being an athlete myself, I never thought I’d ever come this close to this sensation.  It remains the greatest moment in my life.  Even though I wasn’t on the ice, delivering a check or setting up a goal that made a difference in the game, I was a part of it.  All I was doing was shooting film.  Having been situated between the players’ benches all season, I was there in the trenches.  When I was in the Long Beach Ice Dogs’ building ninety minutes prior to Game Five, Phil von Stefenelli – one of the Vipers’ defensemen – was going through his pre-game ritual outside the locker room, and gave me the nod of recognition and camaraderie.

I get the Hudson Street Hooligans of the Columbus Crew.  I get the Northern Guard Supporters and Motor City Supporters as they cheer and chant in the filled to capacity visitor’s bleachers at Cass Tech High School for the Detroit City FC games.

Hopefully, this helps you understand your sports fanatical loved one.  He or she has developed a deep emotional connection to their team performing on its athletic stage.  I can’t speak for all fanatics, but after that once-in-a-lifetime moment comes true, it opens one up to new avenues.  But the connection never dies.  The Detroit Vipers became defunct in 2002, but it will always be my favorite hockey team.  And though Columbus Crew and Detroit City FC have arteries running into my ventricles, I don’t feel a need to have my life consumed by them.  I still will attend every DCFC home game, and will make one or more trips to Columbus, my vacation soccer home, and make sure I can see as many of their matches on the tellie.

Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012. Photo by Michael Kitchen

The 40-year relationship is over.

January 19th, the NHL season will finally get underway.  I really don’t care.

This should concern me (and anyone who really knows me).  I marveled at the sport ever since the days of my youth.  And even though I’ve never had an athletic bone in my body, in gym class I excelled at floor hockey.

I wasn’t a casual viewer.  No, I was someone who…

  1. still has the program from the first hockey game I attended live (January 9, 1971, Detroit Red Wings vs Buffalo Sabres at the Olympia in Detroit).  Larry Brown is on the cover, and the Wings won 3-2;
  2. collected hockey cards from 1970 up through the late 1990’s;
  3. shared two season tickets to the Red Wings for three seasons (1989-90, 1990-91, and 1991-92);
  4. was the booster club president for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings of the OHL (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons (1992-93 and 1993-94);
  5. photographed the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League (IHL) and wrote a column in a local hockey publication for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons (Great Lakes Hockey Alliance);
  6. traveled to places like Kalamazoo, MI; London & Niagara Falls & Owen Sound, Ontario; Montreal & Quebec City, Quebec; Long Beach, CA; Buffalo, NY; and Cincinnati, OH to watch live hockey;
  7. was the commissioner of a fantasy hockey league that spanned over a decade; and
  8. continues to wear vintage Detroit Vipers jackets appropriate for the season.

Why is this forty-year relationship coming to an end?  Perhaps the sport and I have just grown too far apart.

The first signs occurred after the IHL folded.  In 1994, the Detroit Vipers emerged at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which provided quality, entertaining and affordable hockey.  The IHL was a minor hockey league dating back to 1945.  With the NHL locking out its players during the 1994-95 season, the IHL expanded into areas to compete with NHL franchises.  Along with Detroit, the league added teams in Minnesota and Chicago.

I followed the Cincinnati Cyclones the year previous, as my sister and her family lived across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  But it didn’t take long for my blood to flow the aqua and eggplant of the Vipers.  I attended the team’s very first game (a 7-3 victory over the Cleveland Lumberjacks on September 30, 1994) and their very last game (a 3-2 victory over the Orlando Solar Bears on April 14, 2001) at the Palace.  I still have my photo passes for the June 15, 1997 game where they won the Turner Cup against the Long Beach Ice Dogs, and the October 3, 1997 game where Gordie Howe took to the ice for one shift as a Viper.  The memories are endless, and all of them fond.  The Vipers folded, and my passion for the sport waned.

Stan Drulia of the Detroit VipersPhoto by Michael Kitchen
Stan Drulia of the Detroit Vipers
Photo by Michael Kitchen

NHL ownership greed pushed me away.  Three lockouts which shortened this season and the 1994-95 campaign, and completely cancelled the 2004-05 season.  How does a tradition establish and maintain itself with this kind of off-ice instability?  Such gaps provide the opening for other interests to emerge.

The game itself went in another direction.  For each step forward that the league made, such as the elimination of the two-line pass, the game retreated a couple of steps because of the oppressive push to eliminate fighting from the game.  I’m not the biggest fan of fighting, but the role of the enforcer insured that players were held accountable for their brutal acts on the ice.  With that element removed, players have been able to injure each other with intent, and the league assuming punishments of suspensions and fines would provide adequate retribution.

The first game I attended back in 1971, no one wore a helmet.  In fact, the Buffalo goaltender, Joe Daley, didn’t wear a mask.  In those days, you didn’t have the concussions and injuries to superstars that you have in today’s game.  The addition of helmets and goalie masks are acceptable safety precautions.  However, it has lessened respect for each other on the ice, and the elimination of instant justice, coupled with the faster pace of the game has allowed for a more dangerous sport, especially for the marquee players.

Dissatisfied, frustrated, and watching the game grow away from me, a past lover returned in my life, which sparked what has become a renewed passion and rekindled love: soccer.

In 1978, I was introduced to professional soccer through the Detroit Express of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  It was their first year in the league and Trevor Francis made the experience magical.  Arriving after the first eleven games of the season (finishing his English season with Nottingham Forest), Francis destroyed opposing team’s defenses scoring 22 goals and 10 assists in 19 matches.  The first game I saw live was July 30, 1978 where the Express defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (and legendary keeper Gordon Banks) 4-2.  Francis scored two goals and assisted on another.  I also attended the first round playoff match – a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Fury, with Francis netting the only goal.

8-21-2010_012
Trevor Francis triple-teamed by the California Surf.
Photo by Michael Kitchen

I got to a few more games at the Silverdome in 1979 and 1980, and watched as much of the NASL that was televised.  But then I was off to college and the Express and NASL went the way of other defunct professional sports leagues.

On June 28, 2000, while vacationing and visiting friends in Washington DC, I attended a DC United match.  The LA Galaxy beat DC United 2-1 that evening, but the love of the sport that had been in hibernation for 20 years was reborn.  A couple years later I got to my first Columbus Crew game, and since then, there’s been no turning back.

Eddie Gaven of the Crew dribbles through Stoke City of the English Premiere League.Photo by Michael Kitchen
Eddie Gaven of the Crew dribbles through Stoke City of the English Premiere League.
Photo by Michael Kitchen

The hockey cards I’m slowly selling off on eBay, and in place I have almost a complete collection of every MLS card set available.  I find myself able to watch, at most, a period of hockey, but I can lose two hours in the blink of an eye if Arsenal is on the telly.  I do miss going to Detroit Viper games, however neither the Plymouth Whalers or Detroit Red Wings motivate me to purchase a ticket.  But I’ll eagerly make the four-hour drive to Columbus for a Crew match.  Given the choice, I’d take a ticket to a Detroit City FC match and sit amongst the Northern Guard, Le Rouge Supporters and Motor City Supporters than an ice level seat amongst the suits at the Joe Louis Arena.

I could conclude that the death of hockey’s influence on my life is a part of a maturing process.  Other interests such as civic duties, promoting change and protesting the elements in society that promote a destructive status quo, immersing in my profession, and just trying to make the world a little bit better place then it was when I got here was prioritized higher than being entertained by sport.

Yet soccer has moved in and occupied hockey’s place in my life.  Perhaps that, too, is evident of a maturing process.  Hockey, despite what Gary Bettman tries to promote, is a regional sport, conducive to areas where winter’s breath creates the field of dream in backyards and ponds and streets of everyday life.  Soccer is global and its fans and players are a global community.  The sun never sets on the beautiful game, for I can follow Arsenal in the English Premiere League from August to May, and attend Columbus Crew matches from March through October.  And with matches played on a weekly, rather than three or more times a week basis, a two-hour soccer match once a week leaves time open for other, more noble and mature pursuits.

After forty years, both hockey and I have grown in different directions.  It was fun and formative.  But it is time to move on.

Detroit City FC thanks you for attending.Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit City FC thanks you for attending.
Photo by Michael Kitchen