Thursday, October 25, 2012

Breaking the Habit

We are creatures of habit.

There is a rhythm to life as a hockey fan. Ever since I discovered hockey back in the spring of 1994, my very existence has been measured, and at times, governed by this rhythm. Starting from that time, following the awarding of the Stanley Cup (and the breaking of my young hockey heart, when my team didn't win), I then spent the summer collecting hockey cards and learning about the game in any way possible. There was a lot of catching up to do, but I did what I could with the tiny bookstore across the street and no internet. But, for a small bookstore in a state where NHL hockey was still 6 years away, it wasn't so bad. I bought the place out of hockey cards and memorized players and stats- found every magazine I could get my hands on that had season reviews (and a little later in the summer, PREviews) and basically taught myself about the game.

It was a glorious time and by September I was fully ready to put this newfound knowledge to use. I had all the preview magazines, I had an NHL pocket schedule, I had my first hockey jersey- and was learning how to ice skate. I was READY.

Then the '94 lockout happened. I was only 13 at the time, and remember, there was no internet, much less social media, so I didn't fully understand what was happening, only that there wasn't hockey when there should be and it was distressing. But they eventually settled on a deal and we had hockey by January.

Touching again on the idea of rhythm and habits, every morning in 1st period (which was algebra), I'd chat with 4 friends- Doug, Jon, Nate and Garrett, about hockey- someone would bring in a newspaper, and we'd pore over scores and game recaps and guess (and occasionally bet) on the outcome of future games. It was great fun and camaraderie and made algebra much more interesting!

So eventually, over the past 18 years, I've settled into a pattern. October means hockey is starting. I used to wear my jersey on the first day of the season, no matter what the weather was like. It was a sign of the times. I would watch any and all games I could. They used to publish the tv schedule in The Hockey News's guidebook and I'd note the particular games I wanted to watch, but would often just turn on a game to have it on. Many a highschool notebook had hockey stats and info in the margins. January meant the All-Star game (which was the first hockey game I ever watched). I loved All-Star games- they were super fun and they used to do cool player features and whatnot. (Anyone remember the MTV/NHL All-Star Faceoff they did for a few years? Good stuff.) Of course my boy Pavel Bure was a perennial participant, and any chance to see him shine was worth it in my world.

Then it was late March and every game suddenly mattered- and soon April and the playoffs and HOCKEY.EVERY.NIGHT which was glorious. Thus began the grind of the playoffs, and usually (if you're me) seeing your fav team flame out early but picking a backup that made it quite far and sometimes won it all (Wings, Devils). April and May meant even more late night hockey binges and bleary-eyed days. But it was worth it because it was the playoffs and hockey mattered. In June, school was ending and everyone was worrying about exams but I was always more concerned about who was playing for Stanley and what time the games were on. Always.

Then it would be over and The Cup would find a new summer home/traveling companions and hockey would sleep for the long months of summer. I'd do other things, travel and relax, but hockey was never far from my mind. There's the draft in June, which I have often watched closely, and the awards show- always entertaining, then Free Agency on July 1. Hockey still has a presence and a pattern in the summer, it's just different.

During the summer of 2002, I spent half my time in Columbus, following the prospects in the CBJ system, many of whom I knew/would come to know from their time spend in Dayton of the ECHL. That was a glorious summer, filled with hockey.

And I always knew, at the end of the summer, that I could go buy my The Hockey News Yearbook and start studying up for the coming season.. come September, players would start trickling back to their teams for training camps, and we'd start it all over again. Late summer has always been great for me as a hockey fan because it brings optimism. Maybe THIS will be the year, maybe THIS TIME our team can make it. Everyone starts from the same place, and maybe for once my guys would go all the way. Hope springs eternal (or perhaps for a hockey fan, it should be hope FALLs eternal?)

But something is wrong this year. The end of summer brought me my The Hockey News yearbook, just like always. And, just like always, I diligently read it- this summer it gave me something to do on my breaks at work- and studied up on the next big thing, heck, I even went through team-by-team. I was SO ready!

But then September came.. but the training camps didn't. Instead the LOCKOUT came. The players and the owners can't seem to agree and so it's nearly the end of October and we haven't played a game yet. The arenas sit empty and dark. The game-day employees are out of work. Arena district bars and restaurants are suffering. And every long-time hockey fan's internal rhythm is completely out of whack.

We are creatures of habit, and habits can be hard to break. Sometimes they're broken for you, and you can't relapse even if you wanted to.

I want to.