Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Fan

Welcome to my hockey blog! My first entry will be MUCH longer than the normal 419 entry, but I want to give those curious an idea of where all this began. Below is my essay about how I became a hardcore, crazy Washington Capitals fan. I hope you enjoy and I would love to hear any comments you might have:

The Fan

When I came into this world, the powers that be were conspiring against me becoming a sports fan. I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city without a hometown team. The local high school football teams were absolutely atrocious during my childhood and the private high school I attended didn’t even have a football team. My parents weren’t originally from New Mexico, but if you were thinking that they might have passed on some of their love for their home teams to me, think again. They’re from Detroit. So, you can forget about me becoming a football fan. Even my dad gave up on the Lions long ago. I think we did have a Lions trashcan in our house growing up. It was always underneath my father’s weathered dark-wood desk, hidden from view. Based on this year’s losing season, a trashcan seems like a more than appropriate souvenir from the team.

Then there were the Tigers. As a child, I always pretended to be a fan – because of family loyalty, I suppose. So when my best friend’s father, a tall and lanky band teacher who we all called uncle Richard, was cheering for the Cubs on his own couch, I would obnoxiously espouse my love for the Tigers. Looking back, I am sure he appreciated a loud bespectacled 7-year-old bouncing up and down rooting for the Tigers during a game that probably didn’t even include the Tigers. Later, when I lived in Chicago, I found that I really enjoyed games at Wrigley Field, but it was more about the experience, the peanuts, the excited crowd, than it was about the sport, which was a little too slow to hold my attention. So far, not so good with the whole sports fan thing.

The Detroit Pistons did have a moment or two of glory in the 90’s and we watched from our adobe house in Santa Fe. I remember my dad shouting at the television and wondering what would make someone do that. “They can’t hear you,” I wanted to say, but I bit my tongue. For a year or two after the Pistons’ rise, I tried to be an NBA fan, but then I was cut from the no-cut basketball team in middle school and I swore off that big orange ball for life.

In addition to lacking a home team to route for, I had other obstacles in my path to sports fandom. I am a girly girl. As soon as I was old enough to select colors for my room, I picked pink and purple. I took ballet lessons for close to a decade, I was on the synchronized swimming team. When the Olympics are on, I watch figure skating and ice dancing.

Of course, there has also always been a bit of a bad-ass in me. I was raised climbing mountains and skiing down them. My proudest athletic accomplishment was out-skiing most of the boys I hung out with and if I could not beat them, I could at least keep up. In high school, I played soccer and lacrosse and I did, on occasion, stick around to route for the boy’s soccer team. But none of my enthusiasm for my friends’ playing carried over when I didn’t know the people on the field.

When I went to college at Northwestern, right after their 1996 Rose Bowl turn, the Wildcats were hot and I had season tickets. However, I only remember attending two or three games all season and I only tuned in for the halftime show when my friend was playing drums in the band. Sure, I stood up and cheered like the rest of them. Sure, I enjoyed the pre-game tailgate parties. But I had no clue what was going on on the field. Once the weather turned cold, as it tends to do in the Windy City, I skipped the rest of the games in favor of watching movies with my film school friends.

Five years after graduating from college, my husband and I moved to Washington, DC, in the fall of 2005. I took a trip to the District before our move in order to scout out apartments and ultimately, I picked the one we live in partly because it was two blocks from a movie theater (for me) and the Verizon Center (for my husband). It seemed perfect that I could be watching the latest romantic comedy while my husband attended a hockey or basketball game.

That first winter in DC, we attended a few hockey games. My husband persuaded me to go to the first one by telling me about some rookie player that everyone was raving about named Alexander Ovechkin. Supposedly, he was really good, maybe even Wayne Gretzky good and he was young, not quite 21. I knew who Wayne Gretzky was because I had made my husband leave his most prized possession, an autographed photo of Gretzky, in storage when we moved – we were downsizing and there just wasn’t a suitable place to hang something like that in our one-bedroom apartment.

I had attended hockey games before, and always enjoyed them. Most, however were in the minor minor leagues. When we lived in El Paso, Texas, we went to some Buzzards games, but fighting was more common than skating and the obnoxious fans, who all seemed to get the same memo about bringing your own bucket of fried chicken to the game, were a bit of a turn off. The Albuquerque Scorpions weren’t much of an improvement. But in DC, I began to get into the games. Little by little, I caught on. First it was as basic as understanding icing and off sides. Then I was learning the players’ names. By our second winter here, I was consenting to attending more than one or two games a season. It began to make sense that going to multiple games could be fun.

Then in the 07-08 season, when we were attending more and more games, the team ditched their ugly gear and brought back the old team color. Suddenly, just as I was taking my first steps into fandom, everything Caps was more appealing and I needed to own some gear. Even though I used to think all hockey jerseys were incredibly hideous, I rushed to the team store and purchased my own Caps jersey. And then, with their brand new coach from the minor leagues, the Capitals started to win. Suddenly, my husband and I were checking the point totals of other hockey teams and making charts with calculations determining who needed to win and who needed to lose in order for our Capitals to make it to the playoffs.

And playoff they did. The crowds, which were growing increasingly large during the end of the season, swelled to capacity and we scrambled to get tickets. We attended three of the home playoff games and when we didn’t have tickets, we donned our red jerseys and watched from sports bars. (Previously, I could count the number of times I willingly went into a sports bar on one hand.) The energy in the Verizon Center was electrifying. People were getting their hair cut in Mohawks and died red at the games, faces were painted, and the cheering was shaking the stands. When the Caps lost the final game in overtime, I was actually heartbroken and perhaps it was that moment when I knew this new level of emotion I had, (was this fandom?), was not going away.

This year I attended more than 40 hockey games during regular season when the Washington Capitals made it to the playoffs, I made sure we had tickets to every game. I am a crazy, red-wearing, jersey-owning Capitals fan who takes pictures at hockey games and posts them on Facebook. I wear a jersey or a Caps sweatshirt to every game and top the look off with red sneakers. I attend Caps practice for fun. I encouraged my husband to hang a hockey stick autographed by Alexander Ovechkin on my living room wall. For my 30th birthday, the only thing I wanted were season tickets to the Caps. (Don’t worry, I got them.)

My friends aren’t quite sure what has happened to me. My husband isn’t sure either. My newfound love of hockey is so deep that I took the Gretzky photo out of storage, had it archivally framed and it’s now hanging in our bedroom on what was once sacred sports-paraphernalia-free wall space. My love for the Capitals has caused me to spend a little too much time YouTubing highlights from games I’ve already seen – an activity I could have never imagined myself doing a couple of years ago. And to top it all off, I could not stop myself from spending nearly $200 on a limited edition necklace in the shape of Alex Ovechkin’s #8 logo from his fashion line. It’s official. I have lost my mind.

National Public Radio’s Neil Conan described sports fans as a, “deeply unreasonable and gloriously obsessed breed.” In the past, I would have heard that and agreed with a self-important scoff – I was so above the whole fandom thing. Now, I ponder that statement and I agree with a little chuckle because I am gloriously obsessed and I am deeply unreasonable and it’s awesome!

I have done a lot of thinking about why I have fallen head over heels into Capitals fandom. Part of it is the fun. It’s definitely enjoyable to spend evenings at hockey games with my husband. It’s also fun to admire the attractive (and talented) male players knowing that my husband can actually understand the admiration. We both think Ovechkin and Mike Green are awesome. And when goalie Jose Theodore makes an amazing stop, we both cheer just as hard.

But I think that at the root of my Capitals-mania is something a little more profound. The Capitals inspire me. When they’re at their best making perfect passes as they glide down the ice, it’s a beautiful example of what people can do when they’re working together. When Ovechkin makes up his mind that he’s going to score, drives down the ice, skating in between defensemen like they’re stationary orange cones and beats the goalie sending the puck into the back of the net, it makes me remember that anything is possible. And when Ovie jumps up and down to celebrate a goal, hugging teammates and grinning his wide missing-toothed grin, I can feel the exuberance all the way up in my 400-level seats.

The Caps love what they do so much that their joy is infectious. And maybe that’s why tickets and merchandise sold at a record pace this season. I don’t think it’s just because they’re winning, I think it’s because they’re winning people over.

1 comment:

britten said...

I'm not sure what happened to you, either. But I'm glad that my dad, somewhere, way back there, had something to do with your tragectory from bespectacled, Cub-hating kid to grown-up, Caps-loving adult.