When I was about four in the late 1970s, weird circumstances brought hockey into my life. The local college built a swimming pool over the baseball field, eliminating their baseball program and creating an opening in the roster that elevated the hockey club to a varsity level team. My mom, a pianist, and my dad, a professor of Humanities, decided hockey would be a wholesome family activity. Neither one of them had been big sports fans prior.
But, there we were, attending most home games, little girl me standing on the bench shrieking out for hard hits and body checks and my parents not telling me otherwise. Before I had any other great passion in life, there was hockey, and for a while it was the center of my universe. Arizona is not hockey country, to be sure, but Flagstaff has decent skiing and occasional record snowfalls. That college hockey was ultimately a short-lived experiment there has more to do with the limited resources of the school, and the once remoteness of a mountain town where you couldn’t even buy a good recliner chair.
The NAU Ice Jacks lasted just long enough to coincide with my prime emotional development, I think for the better. I immediately dumped any other childhood idols for the tough but graceful figures zipping around the ice.
My dad had some of the players in his classes. After one of the games we went down to the rink as the team came off and Alton "Chico" Baldwin, a handsome Canadian winger whose name shimmered in cursive lettering whenever I heard it, gave me his stick, with which he had scored a goal. It was like being handed a bolt of lightning by a god. I wonder if I’ll ever be as happy as I was carrying that prize – twice my height – across the parking lot.
Five years into the program, the piping system in the rink broke, and the bad news came. There was no money to replace it. In the bright lights of the stadium the ice was mottled with patches of near slush: an ugly sign the end was coming. For the second half of the Ice Jack’s last season, we had to drive two hours down off the mountain to Phoenix to see them play. And then they stopped.
Life went on. I discovered other passions, studied art history, became a film lover. Moved to New York City. It never occurred to me to go to a Rangers game. It was too expensive, and there was something unwelcoming about the diesel-stained bowl of Madison Square Garden. When the Islanders started playing at Barclays in Brooklyn, offering tickets at more accessible prices, and a stadium a mere twenty minute ride from my house, I went on a whim.
Hockey had sort of quietly slipped away from my life, so I was startled by how swiftly it came rushing back. I fell hard, so hard, for the Islanders. In my adult life I’ve never followed any one sports team, other than occasional Mets games, so I’m new to the dopey love of fandom. I realized I was goner a few months ago when, during the final weeks of the season, I found myself reading the digital read-outs on the washing machines in the Laundromat as player jerseys. I had Lee on permanent press, and Clutterbuck on the delicates.
I got fully swept up in the fever around hot rookie Josh Ho-Sang, whose jersey hangs in my closet. For me that 66 he wears isn’t just for his hero Lemieux, it’s a connection to my hometown and the famed roadway that passes through it, which I thrill seeing flash on the kid’s back as he speeds on a breakaway. It symbolizes a legend being carried brazenly into the future, and a bold bet on an outcome that will live up to the number. I’ve been reading Dynasty, the oral history of the Islanders’ spectacular rise, and learning how fast a team can turn around with the right dynamics in place.
I’m a new fan, with a relatively untapped reserve of optimism, but I have more than a little sympathy for the original fans whose team was displaced because their stadium needed an overhaul. The grumblings about Barclays’ poor ice conditions haunts me like a repressed trauma... Come what may, I’ll follow them anywhere. It’s too late to turn this blue and orange tide back now.
Let’s go, Islanders.